Asked about feminism, Dolly Parton told a TV show host that she was the first woman to burn her bra and that it took firefighters three days to put out the blaze.
She was, of course, making a joke at her own expense – that infamous chest, which was the butt of much admiration and an equal amount of vulgar jokes. But with her savage sense of humor, she often got ahead of the gags. She reportedly said in a podcast, “When in doubt, fall back on a titmouse joke.”
Musicares’ tribute to Dolly Parton, was released on Netflix recently, shortly after a documentary about Tina Turner (HBO Max) – two music divas, both unwitting feminist icons, and both with a caring demeanor that sets them apart from celebrities of their generation, heck, any generation. The two women, a few years apart (Parton is 75, Turner 81), whose style and music are very different, have a lot in common: their longevity, mainly, in a showbiz culture that is based on youth and sex appeal.
Both came from poor backgrounds and both cut large swathes into a male-dominated world with their talent and courage. Traditional music companies were mostly run by white men who could decide whether or not to make or break a female musician. The exploitation and sexism that these two undoubtedly faced did not stop their drive to reach the top and never marred their personalities; although Turner has a lot to be sorry for.
Aptitude for music
Dolly Parton, one of 12 children from a poor family, had an innate talent for music and began to write songs and perform at small concerts since she was a child. As soon as she was 18 she picked up her guitar, took a bus to Nashville, the center of country music, and was told she didn’t have the voice for it – the singer who continued to dominate country, pop and bluegrass. for decades, winning all possible awards and accolades. Shows how often the music establishment can go wrong.
With her big blonde hair, milky skin, and Barbie doll figure, she’s had to put up with the advances of men, especially men who might support her career, but she never talks about it (there is also a documentary by 2019 on it, titled Here I Un m). According to her, she met more good men than bad men and to deal with the latter, she carried a pistol in her purse, which could, in her words, turn the stalker “from rooster to hen”. The line was used in the iconic feminist film 9 to 5, for which Parton wrote and composed the title song – which could be the hymn of a working woman and also played the role of the smart secretary who puts on her creepy boss in his place, with help from colleagues played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
A sample of Parton’s songwriting skills:
“Well I get out of bed and stumble in the kitchen
Pour me a cup of ambition
Yawn and stretch and try to come alive
Jump in the shower and the blood starts to pump
In the street the traffic starts to jump
With people like me at work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., what a way to earn a living
Barely get by, it all takes and doesn’t give
They just use your mind, and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.
Nobody is fooled
Fonda and Tomlin give her credit for being smarter than people think because she looks like a tramp; that and all the attention falling on her unbelievably petite bust and waist. She wobbles on dizzying heels and now has people holding her hand when she walks, otherwise she would probably tip over. She deliberately plays into people’s stereotype of the mute blonde, then shatters it with her rapier wit and business acumen. The musical tradition says that she refused Elvis Presley who wanted to record one of his songs, I Will Always Love You. This song, sung years later by Whitney Houston in the 1992 film The Bodyguard, made Parton much richer.
The woman, who is “the crazy person”, has built a career and a formidable entertainment empire; she talks about her politics, gives to various causes and broke the internet recently, when she donated a million dollars for Covid vaccine research and sang “Vaccine, Vaccine, Vacciiiiiine” to the tune of her great song, Jolene, while getting the jab.
Parton has kept his personal life strictly a secret. Her husband, Carl Thomas Dean, is so rarely seen in public that even his closest associates have never seen him. She married him at the age of 20 and remained married for over 55, despite her affair with her mentor Porter Wagoner (whom she dumped with the glorious number I Will Never Love You), and the alleged straying. of Dean with the woman Parton sang to, “I beg you, please don’t take my man… Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don’t take it just because you can.
If Dolly personified the white American dream girl, with her soft voice, dimpled smile and ultra-feminine delicacy – Jane Fonda remembers how she always came out of her bedroom fully made up with a wig in place – Tina Turner, in her Sheena: Queen of the jungle inspired look, sang hoarse, danced vigorously on stage, and oozed like she just got into a fight in an alleyway.
Although she tried to fight against the image of the victim, she became a poster for survivors of domestic violence. Plain Anna Mae Bullock, from a family of cotton pickers, was given a new name, a career accelerated by musician Ike Turner. He became her husband and beat her savagely, perhaps because her popularity had left him behind, or simply because he believed he owned her and that she could never survive without him.
Tina snuck in when she got the chance, hid from Ike and, in the ensuing divorce, let him have everything she had, but insisted on keeping the name, Tina Turner.
When she left Ike with nothing but his name, for years she made a living performing in Las Vegas nightclubs, but never gave up on her dream of becoming a rockstar. At 40, she reinvents herself and rose to fame, becoming the first black singer and the first female singer to earn a Rolling Stone blanket. She’s the woman who allegedly taught Mick Jagger to dance, toured with the Stones but also sold arenas on her own. If she calls herself Queen of Rock, she’s not out of place.
But much to her annoyance, she couldn’t get rid of her hair. More than her prominent music, she was constantly asked about her beating husband and how she escaped. In an attempt to put an end to it once and for all, she collaborated with Kurt Loder on a book, I, Tina, which inspired the film What’s Love Got To Do With It (Brian Gibson, 1993), named after his successful number. . She won all the major awards, starred in a few films, but questions about domestic violence never ended, even after her marriage to Erwin Bach.
In 1999, Dolly Parton was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tina Turner was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 with Ike Turner, but this year she was nominated again as a solo artist. Whether she wins this honor or not, she’s already a legend, just like Dolly Parton. The two time-defying and time-stopping supernovas … but love probably doesn’t have much to do with it.
The Writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.