Archive for January, 2011

Nellie McKay vs. Stephen Colbert

January 30, 2011

I just don’t know what to do with Nellie McKay.  I’ve been following her radio appearances for years, but I only recently saw her live for the first time.  She glided onstage wearing a good imitation of Judy Garland’s red velvet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gown from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.  In general, it’s this knack for winking nostalgia that most delights and unsettles me about McKay.  She looks the perfect blond with her tailored vintage clothes and every hair in place, but she inhabits a mysterious space between parody and sincerity.  Like Stephen Colbert, she’s designed an uncompromisingly extreme persona:  Colbert absorbed the victim mentality of mainstream America and created a narcissistic monster.  McKay learned the lesson that women should be  charming and adopted the dress of a Stepford single gal.  But a funny thing happens when she smiles widely and her eyes start twinkling: she gets to riffing on political injustice or social inequality.  Truth be told, I have a hard time making sense of it all. I’m not sure how much of her appearance is critique and how much is a genuine attraction to classic Hollywood glamor.  (I kinda assume it’s both, but I can’t quite reconcile the opposing impulses.)

Her cheeky “Mother of Pearl” opens with the declaration that “feminists don’t have a sense of humor.”  And that’s only the first line of her straight-faced musings about women who dare to demand political power, protection and equality.  She lists the sins of self-righteous left wingers—be they feminists or vegetarians—and ably sings the part of their loudest critics.

Her political hide-and-seek makes me think that the joke’s most likely on me.  Aren’t we all implicated in the culture, no matter how much we want it reformed?  It’s probably too soon to predict what kind of lasting impact she will have, but she has the potential to be one of the great cultural critics of our time.  And she’s made a good beginning for herself even if she’s a shade too quirky for mainstream appeal.  So, America beware: hers is a wit you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.

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