The 'Cakewalk' originated as a plantation ceremony wherein the gentry would give their finest cast-off clothing to the enslaved, in order that they could parade in mimicry of the original wearers. This act, in which the role between the dominant culture and its subjects is reversed continues to be a useful ritual for the relief of tension. The minstrel show, drag pageants, Hawaiian shirt days at the office, all allow at least a temporary suspension of power, at best a transformation of domination.
In Let's Get it On (2001) Kirsten Stoltmann dons a simple white evening gown to sing Marvin Gaye's 1973 hit. It's a diptych combining two displays: on the left a group of upper-middle-class black women interact as beautiful well-dressed friends having a tastefully good time, while the artist/performer stays almost exclusively on the right. Clearly the Caucasian singer sporting the Eminem coif shares the same space with this pleasure-seeking group, but throughout the spectacle she remains completely invisible to the rest. The song is an articulation of her desire to be one within their circle, but the visual narrative mocks this plea by presenting her as an uninvited guest whose imperceptibility renders her innocuous. She has 'so much to give'; awkward self-consciousness, an anaemic voice and MTV-worthy looks not being among them, but the women are uninterested in what she feels she has to offer. From her entrance through the peopled corridor to the execution of Gaye's seductive lyrics in the crackling fireplaced living room to her exit, it's clear she's not getting it on with anybody.
Her pleas are alternately directed at the women in the room and the camera. The song becomes the vehicle for the articulation of her desire to consort culturally, sexually and artistically with and through the music she enjoys. Though utilizing a well-rehearsed operatic and music video convention whereby the singer wanders the stage singing to peopled vignettes, in this context the non-response by the black party-goers is deafening. When combined with another convention of filmic performance that mimicked live entertainment referred to as direct address, the gap between Stoltmann's desire and reality becomes an abyss.
Gaye's song is a seductive overture; orgasms for all are just around the corner. Stoltmann's version is a request for polymorphous communion encompassing concepts of race, class and gender, resulting in disappointment and embarrassment. She strives for her fantasy of acceptance as a consumer and producer of black popular music and fails, ending up drenched in a sublime melancholy similar to the sadness experienced after striving for a comprehension beyond which the imagination is capable of.
So why am I laughing? Just as the 'Cakewalk' was a contained expression of rage against the oppressor, this is a regulated, though possibly sincere, proposal for belonging in the sexy genres of popular music invented and dominated by blacks: R&B and rap. Many, Stoltmann included, lack the beauty, talent and cultural heritage recommended but not required for inclusion in this hotly consumed group. Fantasizing privately about the perceived cultural limitations of our identity is, well, okay in private. Acting out such a desire creates a complex and hilarious parody of the sublime.
Black and white culture share many things, but an amicably shared social space is not usually one of them. Though their occurrence is clearly on the increase, the visibility of such encounters is usually either staged (sitcoms or talk-shows) or experienced in arenas of consumption or production (Virgin Records, MTV, department stores, work/school). Both territories are regulated by capital and it is in these places where we can try on, interact with or discreetly view and be viewed by myriad people. That fantasy, consumption and parody contain the subversive properties sufficient for resistance is an ongoing debate, best resurrected and combated on a case-by-case basis.
In the meantime the bonding created by laughter and the recognition that we all want to be hotly consumed creates the moment of common ground necessary for at least incremental redirection.