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Wednesday, Apr 16 1997
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With the trends of at least three recent decades being revived simultaneously in music, fashion, and pop culture in general, it would seem that we're fast running out of viable time periods to plunder. But if nothing else, this state of cultural tail-chasing is making the reissue kingpins at Rhino Records very, very happy. For years, Rhino has been gleefully serving up backward-looking anthologies of gooey '70s-era love songs, mid-'80s power ballads, and oddball songsmiths like Tom Lehrer. With the advent of the whole nouveau-retro Cocktail Nation movement, Rhino pounced, releasing scores of discs that fit right in at spanking-new cigar bars. Now, with the mainstream resurgence of all things cheesecake -- coffee-table books devoted to pinup girls, leopard-print lingerie on sale at the mall, Russ Meyer boobsploitation films at the rep houses -- it makes sense that Rhino's latest offering is called Take It Off! Strip Tease Classics.

Take It Off! gleans its 22 tracks of bump-and-grind naughtiness from the '60s series titled How to Strip for Your Husband, albums that originally came with instructional booklets written by an actual stripper, detailing just how an otherwise-docile housewife might go about unzipping for her man. The sounds constitute the earthy underbelly of space-age bachelor pad music, with braying trombone-heavy jazz and titles like "Stripper's Holiday," "Lonely Little G-String," and "Big Millie From Philly," along with some sassy reworkings of standards like "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." When the How to Strip for Your Husband albums were first released, this was pretty heady stuff; in reissue form, we're reminded that, since then, most of these brassy numbers have become musical signifiers. While this type of music has appeared in everything from Noxzema commercials to Bugs Bunny cartoons to indicate sexiness, the actual activity for which it was originally intended now seems almost ancillary. The winking girl on the cover whose clothing evaporates as the CD case is tilted furthers the albums' gag-gift cutesiness; it's like those water-filled pens where the woman's bikini slides off when you turn the pen upside-down.

Yet both the essential kitsch of the Take It Off! concept and the music itself are ultimately less interesting than the ardor with which the record's existence is defended. "Many people will take one look at the cover and title of this CD and dismiss it as sexist, an objectification of women that reduces them to sex toys and subordinates them to their pleasure-demanding husbands," reads the opening paragraph of the liner notes, penned by comedy writer Eddie Gorodetsky. "As you might guess by my willingness to write these notes, I disagree." The author then goes on to whine about how condoms and the public dissemination of health information have ruined the spontaneity that characterized sex in the '50s and '60s, and contends that the safe-sex climate of the past decade has caused everyone to seek solace in the carefree sounds of this disc and its lounge counterparts.

Well, whatever. While Mr. Gorodetsky isn't wrong to posit that people indulge their nostalgia when the present proves disappointing, his carping about, as he puts it, "the loss of innocence in today's whirligig world of postmodern, latex-bedecked sexuality" just makes him seem like a sore loser whose mommy took away his stash of Playboys. The fact is, this disc may attempt to capitalize on people's fascination with vintage cheesecake, but, on another level, it fits right in with today's increasingly legitimized attitude toward sex work. With essays on the sociology of stripping in scholarly journals, and Mitchell Brothers exotic dancers unionizing, it's a much more politicized vocation now than it has been at any other time in history. And of course Hollywood has taken notice; the movies Showgirls and Striptease focused on the idea of stripping as a conscious, positive career choice -- although both were so goofily overblown in their intent to shock that prudery, in comparison, seemed vastly more compelling.

But Mr. Gorodetsky isn't necessarily happy with this state of striptease. His liner notes are akin to a plea to just forget about all this politicization of taking one's clothes off, what with the safer working conditions and the better pay and all, and just recall a time when the bosomy women working the stage didn't proclaim themselves feminists, and talk about empowerment, and generally spoil the men's fun. He actually seems to enjoy the idea that we might take issue with his oh-so-roguish retro stance; he's just waiting for someone to throw a punch. But, honestly, Take It Off! is nothing worth getting any hackles up over. Rather than dismissing this CD because we think it's sexist, we'll dismiss it because we're tired of everything retro being mined for irony. Or because we're tired of media valentines to strippers; Showgirls and Striptease were more than enough. Or maybe we won't dismiss it; after all, as Mr. Gorodetsky points out, "Whatever the music makes you do is cool. You're not obligated to bump and grind or even twirl your tassels." Well, that's a relief -- the idea of actually doing a striptease to this music is almost quaint. But it could make washing the dishes a little more exciting.

By Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler

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