One of the biggest names in pop music today is Meghan Trainor, a cheeky 21-year-old pop chanteuse who operates under the auspices of bubblegum. The term “bubblegum pop” originated mid-1960s to describe a very particular breed of music that was marked by a distinct lack of sophistication, paired with a direct appeal to a younger audience. Kids chewed bubblegum, and bubblegum has no nutrients. “Bubblegum pop” is is often used as a pejorative to describe how lightweight and dismissible “kid music” is.
Bubblegum pop is, however, a ubiquitous and permanent part of the music scene. Every generation is going to have a particular magnetic attraction to young artists who produce upbeat, simple, perhaps silly, and perhaps immature brand of happy, sweet, bland music. Meghan Trainor, with her songs “All About That Bass” (a dumbass song about big asses) and “Dear Future Husband” (and anti-feminist screed if ever I’ve heard one) is currently holding the torch for the bubblegum tradition of 1962.
With bubblegum on the brain, it seems a good time for SoundTreks to delve into the ultimate bubblegum soundtrack record: that of John Waters’ 1988 classic Hairspray.
Check Out: SoundTreks Looks Back at ‘Batman Forever’
John Waters, born in 1946, has distinct memories of the heyday of bubblegum pop, during that weird sweet spot in pop music history after Elvis debuted, but before drugs and Beatles. In Hairspray, Waters fawns over, in a colorful and campy manner, every wonderfully square detail about after-school dance programs from his youth in Baltimore. His hero is a fat teen girl name Tracy who becomes an unlikely-but-celebrated dance star on local TV, and who eventually fights to get black people on the show alongside the white people (black people had been previously segregated to the show’s “negro day”).
Waters is one of those filmmakers (like Cameron Crowe, Quentin Tarantino, and The Coen Bros.) who knows how to assemble the very best soundtracks. Without further ado, let’s look at one of Waters’ best, Hairspray.
Track 1. “Hairspray” – Rachel Sweet
Rachel Sweet first started recording in the 1960s, and I have seen her lumped in with the New Wave movement. I love her voice. It’s aggressive and tiny at the same time. She sounds like she’s capable of breaking into punk at any moment, but is reigning herself back into Wanda Jackson territory. There is no doubt that John Waters, a notorious subversive and naughty filmmaker heard the same qualities and hired her to sing his film’s title song for that very reason.
Sweet, by 1988, was actually already out of the music scene, having released her final album six years earlier, and since achieved a degree in French and English literature. She would only return to music for Waters, appearing here, and on the soundtrack for his 1990 rockabilly musical Cry-Baby.
“Hairspray” is the only original song on this soundtrack, but you’d hardly know from listening to it. Only the topic and perhaps the production value give it away as a modern song. It’s so perfectly integrated with the bubblegum music of 1962 that you could have told me it was a cover and I might have believed you. It’s driving, has a great drumline, and all the hooting and croning you want from a song of this ilk. Meghan Trainor would do well to study Rachel Sweet. Sweet knows rock. Trainor knows the words, but not the music. So to speak.
Track 2. “The Madison Time” – The Ray Bryant Combo
Songs like this are now referred to as novelty songs, although I think that may be a fallacy. “The Madison Time” is an instructional dance record from 1959 which plays a jaunty, functional beat in the background while a narrator speaks the dance steps to you. I think modern audiences picture people hanging out in their living rooms, trying out dance moves, and have to suppress a giggle at the unfortunate structure and ultra-square silliness of such a practice. Who works on dance moves at home?
But I think “The Madison Time” was a totally earnest record, and can, even today, be enjoyed for both its function and its music. The Madison wasn’t exactly the edgiest of dances, only gaining a foothold in, well, Baltimore, but it was something white people could do with a minimum of effort. The instructions, cribbed from Wikipedia, are as follows:
Step left forward
Place right beside left (no weight) and clap
Step back on right
Move left foot back and across the right
Move left foot to the left
Move left foot back and across the right
Track 3. “I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)” – The Ikettes
This song is silly and fun. It’s a 1961 ditty that was written by Ike and Tina Turner, and released by their backup singers, The Ikettes. It’s also here that Waters begins to show us the difference between the ultra-square, ultra-safe white white music for white white people, and begins to show us the overwhelming influence black R&B was having on music at the time. There is a bit more grind and sensuality to “The Gong-Gong Song” than there is in some of the tracks that surround it.
I mentioned that Waters and Tarantino are both good at assembling soundtrack records. Tarantino would use a version of “I’m Blue” on the soundtrack to Kill Bill.
Track 4. “Mama Didn’t Lie” – Jan Bradley
I own a four-CD box set put out by Rhino records called One Kiss Can Lead to Another, and it’s over 100 songs from the golden age of girl groups. During this sweet spot of pop music, a time when silliness and sensuality were unwittingly blending, girl groups were everywhere. The milieu of the girl group was lovelorn, heartbroken, youthful, and could occasionally be whiny (“It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.” Uh huh.).
Jan Bradley comes from that milieu. Her song “Mama Didn’t Lie” was released in 1963 (Anachronism alert! The film takes place in ’62!) and was a big hit on the Billboard charts. It’s a soulful and upbeat lament about how, essentially, men ain’t no good, and how mama warned her all about this. It’s a good song for slow dancing, I suppose, but I think it was more designed for lone listening in teenage bedrooms. I appreciate, though, that soul is a bigger sound on this record than a lot of bland white pop. Although I do like some of the bland white pop too.
Track 5. “Town Without Pity” – Gene Pitney
“Town Without Pity” is one that’s likely familiar to you. It’s a languid and almost-sleazy song about hitting rock bottom, but presented in the sound of dance hits. Kids listened to this, but it could easily be heard in a 1960s strip club. A really sad strip club. Where the strippers don’t smile, there are cigarette butts all over the floor, and everyone is ashamed.
I admire John Waters for finding and vaunting that sort of sound. Modern young people tend to see a version of the 1950s and 1960s that was so clean that many people are assumed to not have genitals. Waters knows that there was just as much sex and sleaze during that time as there ever was, it was just coded, hidden, or hard to get. “Town Without Pity” reminds you of the pumping, dirtiness of the early ’60s. And I don’t even think that was the song’s intention.
Track 6. “The Roach (Dance)” – Gene and Wendell
Way more interesting than the dance crazes that took off are the ones that never did. For every The Surf, there were probably hundreds of oddball gyrations like The Roach that no one ever did outside of a pop single.
In the context of the film, “The Roach” was half of a dance-off between Tracy and her rival Amber Von Tussel, played by Colleen Fitzpatrick (perhaps better known today as pop star Vitamin C). Amber dances The Roach. Tracy dances The Bug, which we’ll see below. Why the two aren’t right next to each other on the soundtrack, I’ll never know. They flow into each other well.
Also, since The Roach is supposed to the be villain’s song, you would think it would sound annoying or wicked in some way. Nope. “The Roach” is just as much fun as “The Bug.”
Track 7. “Foot Stompin’” – The Flares
Here’s what you need to know about The Flares. One of its members would go on to write “Louie Louie,” and another would go on to join The Coasters. So we have a great example of what might be called “comic soul” with “Foot Stompin’,” my second favorite track on the record. Again Waters deftly identifies the songs that can be read as both prime examples of the pop form, while still a little bit silly. “Foot Stompin’” was not, perhaps, meant to be silly, but it’s too energetic to see as something too serious.
Track 8. “Shake a Tail Feather” – The Five Du-Tones
This is my favorite track on the record. This is the original recording of the 1963 hit by The Five Du-Tones, a successful but short-lived soul group. This song was perhaps already familiar to the moviegoing public thanks to the 1980 version Ray Charles and The Blues Brothers sang in The Blues Brothers.
However heretical this statement, I prefer the original. It has so much energy and building musical phrases, you can almost picture a noisy punk band covering it. It’s about here, in fact, you begin to get a sense of how punk rock this soundtrack record really is. There is a strange, ineffable subversive streak to everything we’ve heard so far. There’s no counterpoint even. It’s just quick, fun, local pop with a bit of dirt on it. It’s the kind of music you discover in bad neighborhoods. You know: the best kind.
Scream with the lead singer. Twist it!
Track 9. “The Bug” – Jerry Dallman and the Knightcaps
See my entry on “The Roach.” These two are good counterpoints.
Track 10. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” – Barbara Lynn
Barbara Lynn was her own guitarist. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” from 1962 was her biggest hit. It’s a sexy one, but a much more soulful and positive one than something like Gene Pitney. Lynn is still performing at age 72, and I kind of want to seek out a live performance. It seems to me she’s cooler than most people.
I’ve noticed that Waters has been very good about sticking to a very particular time and place in pop history. Drawing from his own memory, he’s recalling and compiling the summer of ’62 in Baltimore, and not much further beyond.
Track 11. “I Wish I Were a Princess” – Little Peggy March
Little Peggy March is better known for “I Will Follow Him.” She was called “Little” because she was only 4’9”, and her first hits landed when she was only 14 years old. This is a track I think Waters included because it feels dated. This is exactly the kind of plaintive, weak little girl anti-feminist fantasy that people refer to when they talk about how women were often subjugated in this era. A young girl waits of her prince. She needs a man to complete herself. Not exactly popular viewpoints anymore.
And yet, it’s still a fun listen. Although it’s more fun to listen at than listen to, if that makes any sense.
Track 12. “Nothing Takes the Place of You” – Toussaint McCall
It seems that most of Waters’ soundtracks end on a slow note. This track, from 1967, is a quiet love song with more soul than you know what to do with, but in a local artist sort of way. Toussaint McCall, a New Orleans native, wasn’t able to repeat the moderate success of this track, which reached #52 on the pop charts.
Of all the artists to appear on this soundtrack album, however, Toussaint McCall is the only one to appear in the movie proper, lip-synching to this very song. I don’t know the story, but it’s clear that Waters has a deep abiding connection to this one. It’s here that the irony wears off. There is no double meaning to a song like this. It may not be perfect, but it’s wholly sincere. I think that’s what Waters – along with most of us lovers of camp – likes best. Songs and movies and pieces of kitschy pop art that are pointedly imperfect – maybe even bad – but the makers are 100% sincere.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Film?
Honestly, I think they’re equally great. Hairspray was John Waters’ first foray into “the mainstream,” being his first film that wasn’t rated R or NC-17. It’s a kid-friendly love letter to his early teenage music obsessions, and he is passionate and sincere enough in both the film and on the album to snag the casual viewer and listener. If you are John Waters’ age, and were 13 in 1962, then you’ll recognize everything he’s doing, even if the specific songs weren’t in your personal experience.
In terms of bubblegum pop, Waters nails the genre’s appeal, while still acknowledging its weaknesses. It’s nostalgia without the goggles. Pleasant, but not wistful. Playful, dirty, fun, and campy. Everything a John Waters soundtrack should be.