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BBC’s Queens of Heartache: A Response

I’m not a fan of music documentaries, but BBC’s Queens of Heartache caught my attention as its subjects are five of my very favourite artists; Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin. What really piqued my curiosity, however, was what a random grouping of women this is. Wildly different genres, different cultures and even different eras; what do these women have in common? The contention of this documentary is that all of these women lived sad lives and sang sad songs; they were all “Queens of Heartache.” Whilst it may be true that each of these women experienced tragedy in their lives, I found this premise made for a very unintelligent and extremely reductive examination of their careers. By painting these women as tragic heroines and grouping them together in this arbitrary way, this film did these singers a disservice. It glossed over their originality, talent and sheer hard work, while ignoring some of the more compelling themes that could have tied these women together in a far more interesting way. My own work is on male opera singers, so ‘singers’, ‘gender’ and ‘celebrity’ are themes I spend much time thinking about. While I found this documentary particularly unimpressive, an analysis of just why I found it so poor made me think about these issues in a different way.

My first issue with this documentary is that its subjects have been selected solely because they are all seen as somehow tragic. All of the women featured in Queens of Heartache died prematurely; Maria Callas lived the longest, dying at the age of 53. Perhaps it is the early death of these women that gives them a tragic reputation, but many male musicians died equally prematurely; as have very many artists, actors and writers of both genders. Is there something about female singers that makes them especially tempting to view as tragic heroines? Maybe not – but can you imagine a male equivalent of this documentary? Kings of Heartache maybe? Who would the subjects be? Instead of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier? Louis Armstrong instead of Billie Holiday? Mickey Rooney in place of Judy Garland? Giuseppe Di Stefano instead of Maria Callas and Janis Joplin swapped for Jim Morrison, perhaps? I don’t think this would ever happen. While each of these males experienced tragedy in their own way, I believe they are very unlikely to be grouped together as tragic ‘heroes of heartbreak’. While I could imagine a documentary grouping men by genre, perhaps focussing on bluesmen, or male rock stars who lived fast and died young, I don’t believe that men would be grouped together across genres in the way that Queens of Heartache chose to group women. Does this mean we are less inclined to see men as tragic heroes? Do we like seeing women in this way and, if so, why? Or does this mean that women are only considered worthy of an hour long documentary when they come in groups? Do we like categorising female artists and putting them in neatly labelled categories? Does this mean that men have more artistic freedom?

Perhaps the worst conceit of this documentary is the way that each of the five subjects are given a tacky ‘nickname’, with which their segment was introduced; Edith Piaf “Urchin Queen”, Billie Holiday “Jazz Queen”, Judy Garland “Showbiz Queen”, Maria Callas “Drama Queen” and Janis Joplin “Wild Queen”. These ridiculous epithets are incredibly reductive, and reminiscent of the Spice Girls’ nicknames (which, at least, were vaguely descriptive!) Again, these names are completely arbitrary; while Piaf’s “Urchin Queen” refers to her appearance, Billie Holiday’s “Jazz Queen” refers to her genre. The other three names are equally nonsensical, but again suggest the instinct to categorise and, therefore, confine women. This has to be ‘dumbing down’ at its worst.

Although this documentary grouped these women together because they are all seen as ‘sad’ in some way, there were many far more compelling similarities between them that were left completely unexplored. Billie Holiday and Maria Callas longed for children. Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin had significant body image issues. Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday had dysfunctional childhoods, exposed to prostitution. Judy Garland and Maria Callas were estranged from their mothers. All of these women had complicated relationships with men and, in the cases of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, with women too. At least four of the five abused drugs at some point in their lives, and each of them struggled profoundly with fame. While the documentary acknowledged the majority of these facts, there was absolutely no attempt to discuss the recurring themes and question whether there is anything about the nature of female musical celebrity that makes these similarities and issues more likely to occur. The documentary is arranged chronologically, dealing with each of the women in turn and making no attempt to connect them. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why obvious recurrent themes passed unexplored? My PhD is arranged thematically, and this documentary confirmed for me the advantages of exploring singers in this way.

Queens of Heartache suffered, like so many music documentaries do (especially on the BBC?) with singularly uninteresting ‘talking heads’, Lauren Laverne and Katherine Jenkins being prime examples. The real insight came, unsurprisingly, from those who knew and worked with the subjects. John Levy, a bassist who worked with Billie Holiday, made perhaps the most insightful comment. He explained that it was only after Holiday’s death that she became truly popular, noting that “after you’re dead and gone then you’re the greatest thing that ever happened, but at the time you’re doing it you get a lot of criticism – it’s the system.” Again, this idea went unexplored – how does the image and representation of a musical celebrity change after their death? This would have made for a compelling discussion. Was it only after these women’s premature deaths that they were painted as tragic heroines? Is it easier for the public to embrace a troubled woman after she is dead? How would these women be remembered if they had lived long and happy lives?

The real failure of this documentary, however, was the disservice it did to its subjects. Each of the women it featured are unique and interesting in their own right, and entirely worthy of their own hour-long documentary. By painting them as victims this film did not tell their true stories. Edith Piaf rose from absolute poverty through sheer grit and determination, becoming the voice of the French Resistance. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was released 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement was established, and helped its mobilisation by shining a harsh light on racial inequality in America. Maria Callas achieved her success through relentless training and became an icon because she was expertly media-savvy. Janis Joplin had the courage to sing African-American music in small-town Texas at a time when this was an outrageous prospect for a young white girl, and went on to become a pioneer in a music scene utterly dominated by men. Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, stated decisively that her mother was not a victim. She said, “What [Garland] hated was [when] people thought she was this tragic figure. She had tragedies in her life, but she wasn’t tragic. She was funny and gifted.”

While tragedy may have touched these women, it did not and should not define them. They were talented, original, hard-working and courageous women who we should not be tempted to label and talk about in a reductive way. We should recognise their achievements and individuality, instead of merely grouping them together simply because they are all women. I would love to see documentaries about each of these women that give them the attention and recognition they deserve – because they do deserve it.

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