Look around, if you care to, and there is a raging debate about the changing role of female pop stars. According to some fans and commentators, the old dogmas of the music industry are being tossed aside by strong women who connect directly with their audience through social media.
It’s a matter of rebellion. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Ariana Grande is ignoring the career paths set out for previous generations of stars and refusing to adhere to the shaping and framing of their public image and the kind of music they create and perform. Already, one suspects, there are weekend conferences devoted to deconstructing the music and iconography of 17-year-old Billie Eilish.
Such debate and study is all very well, but it tends to skip over country music. No other genre has been more restrictive in its approach to female artists. Even Ken Burns’s recent history series Country Music gave way more space to men, the outlaws and rebels, than to women who created and performed country.
And then there’s Dolly Parton. She is everywhere right now. The other night, she was on Late Night with Seth Meyers promoting two highly visible projects: Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Grand Ole Opry (Tuesday, NBC, 9 p.m.) and Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings (now streaming on Netflix).
At 73, Parton’s been a star for half a century, and as a songwriter, singer, actor, producer and businesswoman, she’s phenomenally successful. But why she’s having another wave of popularity and her status is being celebrated right now is a mystery. And the mystery of Parton’s continuing appeal is simply that – she’s a mysterious figure, for all her fame and the ubiquity of her persona in music, TV and movies. She’s an enduring monument because she’s got both a shtick and a seriousness of purpose that is formidable.
The shtick is that she’s all rhinestones and glam. The big hair, the tight clothes and the outlandish acrylic nails are as out-there as it gets, but she is eternally self-deprecating about it. It’s a persona she puts on for public spectacle. What she would look like without the rhinestone glam is as much a mystery as her long-time husband.
What she’s serious about is being in charge of her career and business and refusing to let any man take credit for what she’s achieved. That feminist, take-charge persona has served her well and feels authentic. She went from a two-room shack in east Tennessee to where she is now on the strength of own skills and talent.
The TV special is a cheerful hour of Parton singing, reminiscing and polishing her own mythology, with several guest stars – Dierks Bentley, Emmylou Harris, Chris Janson, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, Margo Price, Hank Williams Jr. – carefully chosen from different areas of the country genre, to take the pressure off Parton doing all that polishing.
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is a different kettle of content. An eight-part anthology series of dramas inspired by Parton’s music, produced and introduced by the glittering singer, it’s a bit of a slog. It’s mostly as mild-mannered and predictable as a Hallmark movie.
The drama told in Jolene suggests the “red-headed hussy,” as Parton herself describes the character, is actually good friends with the insecure married woman (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) who fears Jolene’s allure to her husband. This Jolene (Julianne Hough) is all tiny denim shirts and crop-tops and is an aspiring country singer who works at a honky-tonk bar and sleeps around with married men. Because, well, that’s her choice, darn it. What’s odd, apart from the poor acting and leaden script, is that there’s a distinct erotic charge between Jolene and the insecure married woman. Hough plays the character with a ferociously carnal quality, but that only goes in a conventional direction.
The episode Two Doors Down is the most peculiar, and has already caused a stir, as some people walked out when it was screened at Parton’s Dollywood theme park recently. As the song is manifested as a drama, it’s actually about a gay couple, Tyler (Andy Mientus) and Cole (Michael J. Willett), and the fact that Tyler’s straitlaced Southern family doesn’t know he’s gay.
As drama it’s terribly hokey. One character actually stands inside a closet at one point, and it’s not meant as a joke. The upshot is that it plays out like a 1970s network sitcom. Parton was not, of course, in the least bothered by any controversy over the episode. She’s fully aware she has a huge LGBTQ fan base.
That too is part of her enduring appeal. You won’t hear Parton talk politics, but you won’t hear her say anything divisive or mean-spirited. That’s her dogma – stay nice, funny and stay feminist. She shaped and framed her own image to leave little a little bit of mystery about what’s inside what she created. Extrapolate from that as you wish.
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