Mae West Subverts Rock’n’Roll


“Good girls go to heaven,” Mae West once said, “And bad girls go everywhere.” She’s woman that I’m sure most readers will never forget due to her unique and unforgettable screen persona. With that famous raunchy, sassy style of performance and those spectacular costumes, throughout her long life in bawdy music hall and Hollywood studios Mae was the queen of coy suggestion and feminine sass. In her later years, the world had caught up with her. The permissive society started to swing. Among other late releases, the grand dame of the come-on revived her career with two interesting albums of covers: Way Out West for Tower in 1966 and Great Balls of Fire for MGM in 1972. Like vinyl versions the beach party features of the early 1960s – which were themselves rather like the later “Euro pudding” subgenre – such products were commercially conceived oddities willing to mix disparate elements in search of great profit: pictures like ‘How to Stuff a Wild Bikini’ slung together various selling points in quick succession for the youth market. They featured pretty girls, rock’n’roll and the odd ghost; a very young Stevie Wonder and a very old Buster Keaton. The aging stars in these movies seemed out of time and rather floundering.

Of course, before the age of digital realist camcorders, making an album was way cheaper than making a feature film. At her parties, Mae comes across as very much in charge, and ready to “queer” popular material in the name of her own concerns. Here are a couple of examples:

Great Balls of Fire – Mae takes on Jerry Lee Lewis

Day Tripper – Mae takes on the Beatles

… Both rollickin’ reinventions of rock’n’roll attitude!

My last point is more subtle. Mae’s taboo-busting approach was premised on her ability to unrestrainedly express female desire. Yet, ironically, when society caught up with her, it started by offering that very desire as a pretext for “sexual liberation” on male terms. In other words, while female desire has often been described as either a “dark continent” (Freud) or undiscussed taboo (Robin Wood), we often forget that it was also produced as a projection of male insecurities. That’s not to undercut Mae, just to give her due as a legendary performer. As she once said, “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”