2016-01-06

Uptown Girls


Over the weekend, the song "Common People" by Pulp came on the radio. It tells the story of a working class man who meets a rich debutante love interest who "wants to live like common people." Through the course of the song, the man takes her around town and tries to explain to her what it's like to have nothing, doomed to "drink and dance and screw because there's nothing else to do."

When analyzed in isolation, this song is really strange. It is essentially a rant against a woman who doesn't exist. The songwriter made up a character based loosely on someone he met briefly at a bar, and then subsequently invents a set of beliefs or thoughts possessed by that character. He finds those made-up, fictional beliefs deplorable, and so he writes a song about how disgusting they are. But remember: he made the whole thing up. So who is he ranting against?

Details on the song's subject matter as described at Wikipedia reveal that the song's inspiration was a woman who the principle songwriter met at a bar and attempted to sleep with, suggesting that the song is actually a revenge fantasy twice-over: Once because he disparages a woman who would not sleep with him, and twice by striking at the upper-crust people who look down their noses at commoners. But again, the song isn't actually about real people with real beliefs, it's about imaginary people with imaginary beliefs, and the anger the songwriter feels toward those imaginary things.

And what fan could actually enjoy lyrics of this kind? Only someone who hates such imaginary people equally. But, importantly, they don't exist. So what exactly is going on here?

It's too weird to ignore, so I had to think about it more carefully, and what I realized seemed remarkable. What if I told you the whole thing was a kink?

Uptown Girls And Downtown Men

In cruder language, "Common People" is about a man who meets a spoiled rich girl who wants to experience life as a regular person, so he screws her and then chews her out for never really being able to understand the plight of the poor. If you accept the premise of the story long enough to absorb its social commentary, you're still left with one loose end: Why did he have sex with her? It doesn't seem to be relevant to the social commentary at all, so it must mean something else.

In my mind, there are two possibilities.

The first one is quite unpleasant: he had sex with her as a form of symbolic rape. The working class young man can't change his station in life, and he can't show her what it's really like to be poor and miserable; but he can screw her, and in the context of the story, that event is critical to the plot. ("I want to sleep with common people like you.") This one act is the "hero's" lone means of achieving control, and so he does it. I reiterate, this is a made-up story; this sort of thing absolutely does not happen in real life. So, on one level it could be analyzed as a rape fantasy. Yechh.

I think it very well might be a rape fantasy. However, I don't think that's the only way to interpret the song, so let's consider a more charitable alternative.

As I was trying to wrap my head around this rather strange song, I started thinking of other popular songs that depict a poor male commoner having sex with a rich young debutante. The first two that came to mind were Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls" and Steely Dan's "I Got the News."

The cynicism in "I Got the News" isn't apparent until the bridge, but lyricist Donald Fagen gives us a quick glimpse in the first verse when he sings, "Daddy is a rare millionaire, I don't care. Yeah, you got the muscle, I got the news." In the bridge, he simply insults her intelligence. This song might, too, be a sort of cross-class rape fantasy; Fagen might never be a rare millionaire himself, but he can still canoodle with the daughters of industry. Still, the rest of the lyrics are unabashedly fun-loving. Fagen isn't hostile to his interlocutor, he's thrilled. The point of the song is to describe joy, not rage. Maybe his insults are just teasing in good fun. Some of the lyrics are even cutely tender.

"Beautiful Girls" is much different. David Lee Roth doesn't express any disdain for his love interest. She's rich and he "ain't no man of the world," but that's alright with him. He's just happy to be at the beach with a drink in his hand, on the prowl for beautiful girls. I'm struck by how much more pleasant and happy Roth's perspective is, compared to the others. Note also that his spoken-word during the outro implies that she turned down his advances. ("Whoa, whoa! Hey, where you goin'...?")

Billy Joel offers us a more traditionally romantic take on the idea with his 1983 classic "Uptown Girl." Joel puts the woman in control of the story. Sure, "she's been living in her white bread world," but she has "hot blood" and "now she's looking for a downtown man." Joel is more than happy to provide her with what she's looking for. As for anything long-term, Joel's not hedging his bets, but "maybe sometime when my ship comes in" he'll win her heart. In any case, poor boy meets rich girl, canoodling ensues.

All that is to say that we have many examples here, many different takes on the same basic plot premise. Working class boy meets spoiled rich girl, attempts to have sex with her with varying levels of success. It's always the boy who's out of his league, even when the boy wants nothing to do with rich folks. This isn't a Jane Austen novel; the women aren't clamoring to "marry up" in order to save themselves from poverty and obscurity. Consequently, the stories aren't depressing like an Austen novel, either. They're sexy. The way the encounters play out provides an interesting look into the psychology of the specific lyricist in question, but the common strand is there, and the glue holding it all together is sex.

I'm going to call it the Uptown Girls Principle. The question is, why do people keep writing songs about this?

It's Not Just Music

Maybe it's not just pop songs. Maybe human beings have some kind of a "dumb heiress" kink. If so, we'd certainly see it more places than just a few pop songs from the second half of the 20th Century. Do we?

...too easy?
To answer this question, let's turn to literature. The publication of D.H. Lawrence's infamous Lady Chatterley's Lover takes us back to 1928. While the novel explores various themes including class conflict, mind/body, and the nature of love, it is more notorious for being scandalously sexual. Were it merely a book about class, there wouldn't be any point to including all that gratuitous sex. But that sex is integral to what Lady Chatterley's Lover is as a work of literature, and thus we find a rather poignant example of the Uptown Girl Principle.

Two years prior to the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, a German author named Arthur Schnitzler published a remarkable novella entitled Tramnovelle. Today, Tramnovelle isn't particularly well known, but film buffs know it as being the story upon which the Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut is based. (Note: I have a HUGE film analysis of Eyes Wide Shut in a draft on my blog - it is long over-due and I'm anxious to publish it, but for now...) The protagonists in Tramnovelle aren't exactly poor, but they're not as rich as the people who frequent the orgies described in the book, either. It is an incredibly cerebral story, and one whose main (and quite feminist) themes are as relevant today as they were when the book was written. But what interests us here is the fact that this highly sexualized Uptown Girl theme serves merely as a backdrop to the story's main events. Schnitzel doesn't call attention to class differences in the story, he simply takes them for granted. They don't feature prominently, they go without saying. And yet the only point at which they are relevant during the story is with respect to the orgy, i.e. the sex. So, there it is again.

Working backwards to 1844 brings us to Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, in which young commoner D'Artagnan falls in love with noblewoman Constance Bonacieux. The Three Musketeers is ostensibly a story about a young man who goes from zero to hero on the strength of his character, his will, his wits, and the tutelage of his equally heroic friends. In that sense, Madame Bonacieux serves as a sort of testament to D'Artagnan's progress as a hero, but she needn't have been an adulteress to have served her literary purpose. That she was is merely a salacious little tidbit that makes the story more engaging, more exciting, and - yes - sexier. 

I won't further belabor the point. The Uptown Girl Principle, this kink, seems to have been with us in art and literature for centuries. 

Nor Is It Just A Guy Thing

Where did that dumb airhead act come from, the one some girls use to attract guys?

I realize that hundreds of articles have been written about this, and they all say more or less the same thing. It's always some version of the following: 
They do it to fit in. People don't like to feel dumb, so they don't hang around people who make them feel dumb. Consequently, a woman who plays dumb will be less offensive to more people, including the subgroup of people called "love interests." The more love interests you consider, the more likely you are to find a good one. Thus, girls play dumb to ensure they don't scare off a good man.
That's fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn't really answer the question. Another way to be attractive to the largest number of people is to be incredibly kind. Another way to do it is to be incredibly generous. Another way to do it is to be incredibly funny. There are many ways to be attractive to men. Why is playing dumb specifically such a common thing that girls do for male attention?

You could say, "Because guys don't really like funny (or kind, or generous, or etc.) girls." That almost sounds valid, except that it's a punt. Fine, they don't - then why do they like dumb girls? And why is having a love interest a good enough reason to play dumb?

In other words, if we accept any set of rationale for playing dumb, we're still left wondering, "Why dumb and not something else?"

The answer seems obvious to me: Because the Uptown Girl Principle, is common to men and women; and it's always Uptown Girls, not Uptown Guys. Sure, women like rich men, but they don't write songs about being poor and then "saved" by a rich guy... Unless they're Jane Austen, in which case the story changes from erotica into a tragedy. Very different.

Women will play the rich ditz when it works for them, and when it seems to work best for them is specifically in sexual situations. Think about the classic "pool boy" thing. Yeah, it's cheesy, but all of these things are cheesy; that they're cheesy doesn't mean that people don't still enjoy them. And women read Lady Chatterley's Lover, too. Women willingly participate in the Uptown Girl Principle.

Girls! Girls! Girls!

And, like any kink, the Uptown Girl Principle is well-represented in the adult content industry.

The initial set (the only culturally relevant set) of "celebrity sex tapes" were the ones featuring Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian playing the role of ditzy young heiress on tape with what were essentially B-list male celebrities in much, much lower income brackets. I don't begrudge a girl her choice in men, but these tapes weren't recorded to pay tribute to a match made in heaven. They were designed to titillate the parties involved. When they went public, they turned the women into massive celebrities and household names. It might be difficult for younger readers to understand that no one cared about the Hiltons or the Kardashians until those tapes were leaked to the public. As such things go, they weren't really any of any higher quality than something more, uh, professional, but they sold far better than any such "professional film." Why?

Sure, we all had a good laugh at their expense. You could say that these women brought society's wrath upon themselves by putting themselves in situations where they could be the brunt of our negative attention. But that's not really the point here. They put themselves in those situations voluntarily, because it was fun. And society didn't laugh for long - these women have made millions by creating brands out of their own notoriety, millions above and beyond whatever revenue they earned from the tapes themselves (if any).

This latter point highlights an additional and highly important dynamic involved in these tapes. Hilton and Kardashian seemed like airheads when society first got to know them, via their leaked tapes. Ultimately, though, they proved themselves to be highly business- and media-savvy - i.e. intelligent - women who were more than worthy of being the heiresses that they are. So the airhead thing really was a role, not their true identities.

It was an act. They were only pretending to be Uptown Girls, for personal pleasure. And society at large was just as into it as they were.

Including International Society

"India's first porn star" was a cartoon character called Savita Bhabhi. Bhabhi is a Hindi word that roughly translates to "elder sister-in-law," but it's rife with additional connotations, including that of attractiveness. You can think of it as being similar to the "bored housewife" thing here in North America. But "bored housewives" tend to be a little older than Savita Bhabhi. Indians traditionally marry young, so this would be, perhaps, a woman in her mid-to-late-twenties.

This character is famous for instigating a national dialogue in India regarding internet censorship by the state - thus being a cause celebre of libertarians. But I'm not grinding my free speech axe (today). Savita Bhabhi is an affluent woman who vacations in Goa and who studies at a good school. There are plenty of different men in her life, but generally they are young scoundrels, youth, commoners.

In short, Savita Bhabhi, like so many North American stories of this kind, is an Uptown Girl.

Conclusion?

So this Uptown Girl phenomenon is everywhere. The kink is universal. It stretches across borders and over generations. It seems to be part of the social fabric of human sexuality. I can't really explain it, and I guess I shouldn't even try. I decided to write this blog post mainly because I seem to have stumbled upon a cultural phenomenon - really, a human phenomenon - that I haven't really seen discussed elsewhere.

In fact, I tried to do some research on it in preparation for this blog post, and I couldn't find anything. Granted, I didn't really wander into the darker corners of the internet, but in a world in which even the most innocuous Google searches yield pornographic results, it seems odd that such a common and pervasive aspect of human sexuality would be comparatively difficult to track down.

I won't flatter myself to think that I'm the only person who has formally taken notice of this, but if my blog post serves as a starting point for someone else's research, I hope it proves to be helpful.

Also, it just seemed kind of interesting.