Dark Shadows

“It’s been a hard week for all of us,” Justin Timberlake admitted upon accepting his Grammy Award Sunday night. Yes, Justin, it has. In those seven days between the Super Bowl and the Grammys, we all suffered — some over the moral decay of American culture, some in solidarity with poor exposed Janet, still others over the terrible hypocrisy of the U.S. viewing audience. I, however, had a more mundane concern. I’d planned to go to the Grammys in a pale yellow, and not entirely opaque, dress. In the right light, anyone who bothered to look would notice that I, unlike Barbie, have nipples.

It didn’t seem like such a big deal the week before, when I picked up the dress from Iris Parker’s little store on Las Palmas — I routinely spot the brown shadows of women’s breasts through their white T-shirts and lacy blouses. But after Janet was booted off the Grammys for her crime, everything changed: It was as though the agreed-upon standards of women’s fashion were suddenly rewritten, as if somebody declared stiletto sandals indecent, or banned that shred of thong that regularly peeks out of women’s low-rise jeans. After three decades of numbing ourselves to nudity, we became sensitive again to the power of breasts.

“You can tack in a piece of muslin,” Iris advised me. “Or take it to this tailor,” she said, handing me a card. “James will fix it.” I told myself I didn’t have time; I’d just keep a shawl around my shoulders if I wandered under bright lights. The truth is, I loved the dress exactly the way it was. In fact, now that it had become dangerous, I liked it even more.

In 1830, Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, featuring that iconic heroine of the Revolution, Marianne, trampling barefoot over the dying aristocracy with a flag hoisted high and her right breast fully exposed. Another wardrobe malfunction, no doubt — Marianne’s right sleeve had fallen from her shoulder in the course of fighting injustice. But her bareness has a bigger meaning, too. Marianne in Delacroix’s day was a symbol of freedom and fairness, a woman warrior on the democratic front. Back then, women carried on their chests nothing less than mighty mounds of power.

Tits have since come to mean anything but. They have been trivialized and fetishized. We name bars after them and paste tassels on them. High fashion obliterates them; low fashion presents them as artificially inflated cartoons. After three inuring decades of “Top-free” clubs and Internet porn, we take breasts for granted. Or we associate them with disease: In England, Delacroix’s Liberty was appropriated to advertise a breast cancer medication.

I like to think Janet has given the breast back its magic, which is why, just a week after her stunt, there were so few provocative views to be had among the women in the Grammy audience or its stars. In the Staples Center seats, women huddled in their flimsy wraps; on stage, Sarah Jessica Parker minced out in a green frock that rose to her crotch but obscured her collarbones and Missy Elliot dared to sport worn-out jeans. But only Christina Aguilera challenged the new moral fashion standard. “Ooh,” she said, tugging at the gaping edges of the nipple-skimming gown, “I don’t want to pull a Janet Jackson!” She elicited ominous groans and nervous titters, but no laughs. The woman behind me, who had kept up a rowdy narrative most of the evening, inhaled sharply, covered her mouth and fell silent. Several people around me shook their heads.

The less puritanical among us shake our heads for other reasons — we wonder why, four days after, a glimpse of a hood-ornamented nipple warrants in-depth coverage in every section of the Los Angeles Times; why the FCC will spend tax dollars investigating so-called “indecency” and not the free-speech-chilling effects of media consolidation; why it was Janet’s breast, and not general depravity, that persuaded parents in Laguna Beach that MTV should no longer infiltrate their high schools. Rarely does it occur to any of us that this outrage might be a healthy reaction to the systematic depreciation of an enchanting aesthetic feature peculiar to human females. In 2003, we wouldn’t have cared about Aguilera pushing the edge of decent exposure, because we’d forgotten that edge was there. And I wouldn’t have thought twice about my sheer yellow dress.

No one noted my audacity, of course — even at the party at the Millennium Biltmore the throngs were so preoccupied with free fresh sushi and margaritas dribbling down ice chutes that you could get more attention by cutting in line than you could running through the room naked. But I secretly enjoyed my subversion all the same: Shock is still possible. The bar of titillation has been lowered; a see-through blouse is alluring again. Boobs are back.

 

—Judith Lewis

Like You Just Don’t Care

The noise of frantic socializing inside the Hollywood Palladium Saturday wasn’t quite at jet takeoff level, but it was certainly enough to drown out the speaker on stage. And besides, the guy at the mike was talking about voting, of all things. Not the way to hold a young crowd’s attention.

Not even if you’re Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, apparently. Diddy was accepting a Patrick Lippert award from Rock the Vote with a speech about getting involved in the political system. Finally, tired of competing with the slammin’ singles scene, Puff interrupted himself to plead with the crowd, “Can y’all stop your conversation for a minute so I can finish my speech?” The hum subsided momentarily, and the paragon of hip-hop culture, strangely out of place in a three-piece suit above a sea of hoodies and halters, rushed to an abrupt finish. When Richard Foos, founder of Rhino Records, was presented with an award for decades of social activism, he might as well have founded K-tel Records for all the attention he got.

Still, Rock The Vote certainly demonstrated that it can muster considerable star power. Along with P. Diddy and Foos, the Dixie Chicks received an award, and the show featured performances by Fountains of Wayne, the Black Eyed Peas and N.E.R.D. (Nobody Ever Really Dies) in the headliner slot. What the show mostly demonstrated, however, was the difficulty of preaching political activism to the Ritalin Generation. Rock the Vote may be coming back to political prominence with candidates across the polarized country courting the youth vote, but at its own party the non-profit’s message seemed to fall on ears that instead craved apolitical pick-up lines. One mid-20s hipster summed it up as she surveyed the floor, “It’s like a UCLA formal where everyone ditches their date.”

Maybe the audience members felt that attendance was statement enough, but the question “Will my vote make a difference?” was clearly secondary to the question “Are trucker hats finally dead?” Volunteers at the voter-registration table in the lobby signed up fewer than 100 people (though Rock the Vote chalked up 1,350 voters online that day), but in the hottest vote tabulations of the night, knit caps won in a landslide over trucker hats 200 to 6, with one independent cowboy hat and a stingy-brimmed straw fedora worn by Danny Masterson of That ’70s Show.

Even the music appeared to be something of an afterthought for most of the revelers. Fountains of Wayne might have turned the heads of the Grammy Association this year with two nominations but the Rock the Vote crowd was a tougher nut to crack, especially from the unenviable opening slot. The group probably didn’t help its chances by incorporating songs from Steve Miller, Joe Walsh and The Cars in its jam session finale. The few geriatric 30-somethings in the crowd were in ecstasy, but there was little love from the majority, a group that when feeling nostalgic probably turns to Nirvana. After the set, Fountains’ front man Chris Collingwood tossed his guitar aside and stalked off stage without a word.

The Black Eyed Peas fared little better, though Fergie did show off the impressive range of both her voice and her tan. Only N.E.R.D. managed to generate any real excitement, thanks to the crowd-management skills of Pharrell Williams. “Is this L.A? Is this L.A.? In L.A. people make some noise!” For the first time a sizable percentage of the crowd turned and faced the stage.

—Rick Kennedy

Mind the Gap

There’s a woman named Farrah at the door of Le Dôme. She has the hair, teeth and bod of her namesake. She also has the guest list and a face that opens like a sunflower for Paris Hilton, Mike Tyson and “Janet Jackson’s people,” but not for the girls with thick thighs.

James Gibb is on Farrah’s good side, which means he gets to park his Di Blasi motorbike on the sidewalk. It’s knee-high, with a 49cc engine that can do 30 mph. Guys in Von Dutch caps and girls in Frankie B. jeans check out the bike on their way in, which is exactly what Gibb wants; more, he wants them to remember the bike at closing time, when they’ve maybe had too much to drink.

“What we do,” says Gibb, folding the bike down to the size of a rollaway suitcase, “is put this in the trunk of your car, and then we drive you home. This way, you will not risk a DUI, and when you wake up in the morning, your car is there.”

 

Home, James USA, co-founded by the British Gibb, has 10 drivers; they’ve worked events from Bel Air to Los Feliz — William Morris hired them for its Grammy party — and additional outfits are planned for OC and San Diego. But Home, James’ bread and butter comes from the bars around West Hollywood, where any ride within two miles costs $15; prices go up exponentially the further you go.

Chris Heltai has been driving for Home, James since it opened in December. A father, substitute teacher and actor, Heltai loves the moonlight job.

“It’s weirdly pioneering,” says Heltai, who looks like Tobey Maguire’s taller, older brother. “I find myself in places and I’m not sure why. You meet some really fun people, albeit they’re always drunk.”

Heltai’s first call of the night comes in, a woman down the street at Balboa.

“I just had one of the worst nights of my life, and I just kept drinking,” says the woman, who looks like Anna Nicole Smith in her middleweight days, and who, when asked what name she’d like to use for this article, looks at a building-size ad on the Strip.

“Call me The Gap,” she says, as Heltai loads the bike into The Gap’s Mercury Mountaineer. Then he gets into the driver’s seat, and she gets in the back.

“Got to have some music, James,” she says. Heltai turns on the CD player.

“My date did not turn out well,” The Gap says, and blows cigarette smoke out the window. “My boyfriend of a month decided to tell me over appetizers that he was gay. So I ordered three Sambucas and a Johnnie Walker Red.”

Heltai nods as he drives west on Sunset.

“I usually have excellent gaydar,” protests The Gap, a TV documentary director. “I thought he was a metrosexual, whatever that means.”

The Gap rubs her eyes as they pass the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I think I’m moving to Minnesota,” she says.

“Is that where you’re from?” asks Heltai, looking at The Gap in the rearview mirror.

“No, but I think people are normal there, and I’ll be considered slender there,” she says. “Ooh, turn this up, James!”

Heltai cranks “Tiny Dancer.”

“Louder,” says The Gap. She sings along as Heltai, at The Gap’s request, pulls into a McDonald’s drive-thru and orders her a large Diet Coke and Chicken McNuggets. The Gap also asks Heltai to stop at a liquor store on the corner, but it’s closed.

“That’s fine,” says The Gap as Heltai drives down Beverly Glen, Aerosmith’s “Dream On” blasting. “And I know your name’s not really James.”

Heltai pulls the Mountaineer into The Gap’s assigned spot at her Wilshire high-rise. She gives him a nice tip and, balancing food and purse, totters across the parking garage.

Heltai, who’s going back to Le Dôme for one more ride, puts on his helmet. He tries to kick-start the bike, but it doesn’t turn over.

“James?”

It’s The Gap, calling from the far end of the garage.

“Do you want to take my car? I trust you.”

—Nancy Rommelmann

Found Objects

 

At Rite Aid the other day, I took a shortcut through the children’s aisle on my way to the cash register. I was annoyed to find a Valentine’s Day display there and silently stewed about another fucking holiday already. For chrissakes, they just took down the Christmas decorations. There were the usual white fuzzy teddy bears with pink and red hearts. The cellophane-wrapped cheap chocolates. The neon-bright pink plastic children’s handcuffs. The candy-colored cardboard valentines. The heart-shaped red velvet pillows . . . Wait a minute. The children’s pink plastic handcuffs? Excuse me! I took a few steps back, then looked again. Handcuffs in the children’s department! This ain’t no cops-and-robbers game. These were “Love Cuffs.” “Perfect for Valentine’s Day!” read the label. “One pair of romantic novelty handcuffs. Suitable for ages 3 and up.” Obviously two is an inappropriate age for introducing bondage into children’s games. But what in God’s name would children ages 3 and up be doing with pink plastic handcuffs on Valentine’s Day? Slip them into Suzie’s valentines box at school so she can ask little Johnny if he’d like to be handcuffed and whipped during recess? Why bother with old-school playing doctor when you can go straight to S&M?

Normally, I prefer to do my adult toy shopping at the Pleasure Chest in West Hollywood, not at my local Rite Aid in Echo Park. But I picked up the handcuffs anyway and added them to my basket, hoping they would go unnoticed by the clerk and other customers. After all, according to the package, I’m a little old for handcuffs.

 

—Tulsa Kinney


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