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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

She's an Earworm: The Tubes Reconsidered

Posted By on Wed, Aug 19, 2015 at 10:12 AM

click to enlarge tubes.jpg
By now everyone knows what an earworm is, right? It's a song that gets stuck in your head, like a musical worm that's burrowed into your ear and made a home there, crooning its chosen tune just for you. Perhaps you hear the whole thing from beginning to end, like a tiny radio with a very limited playlist is playing in your brain. Or maybe you only get to hear a snippet of the chorus, endlessly on loop. Either way, it's your own personal soundtrack for as long as it lasts – like it or not. My own personal earworms tend to last weeks, giving me ample time to ponder their musical structure and lyrical content at leisure and ad nauseum.

Recently, the song “She's a Beauty” by the Tubes became lodged in my brain for no apparent reason. It was never one of my favorite songs – in fact, with its central crunchy guitar riff and its hollery vocals, it kind of irritated me and always had, ever since its debut in 1983. The song was the band's biggest hit, fueled by a carnival-esque video that received heavy play on the then up-and-coming MTV.


By the early 1980s, the Tubes were a veteran band, having played together for over a decade. Based in San Francisco, they were on their second record label and sixth album by the time “She's a Beauty” was released. The song was inspired by lead singer Fee Waybill's trip to a famous Bay Area landmark – the now-defunct North Beach peepshow The Lusty Lady. “She's a Beauty” is sung in the persona of the peep show's barker – the guy who stood on the sidewalk encouraging passers-by to take a peek inside. He's exhorting the man on the street to buy a little time with a beautiful girl behind glass. The customer can't touch her. He can't possess her. He can only talk to her, and watch.

In 1983, I was a teenaged girl caught in the eye of the adolescent hormonal hurricane of gender roles and expectations, and my furious confusion at it all. I was a baby-butch bisexual but I didn't know it yet. I hated boys as much as I hated girls. I hated performative expectations of gender doubly so. I hated a song and, worse, a video, that implied that women were basically carnival rides. Pay a dollar, get the thrill of your life – “but don't fall in love,” the chorus admonished. Because why? Because women are cold and heartless and only out for your money, without any desire or agency of their own? I resented this song for years, and that resentment had not abated one jot when it took up residence in my ear not so very long ago.

But then I discovered that a friend of mine not only loved the song, but credited it as her inspiration for becoming a Lusty Lady herself. Prince$$ Pandora spent 15 years at the Lusty, first as a dancer and then as a shop steward. When Prince$$ saw the video for “She's a Beauty,” she was entranced. It might help that she's younger than I am, and so avoided inviting adolescent angst to the party. “It had a ballerina, an aerialist, and a mermaid,” she says of the video. “It was all dress-up and fantasy, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to be a drag queen, really, but I didn't know what those were yet.” Thirty years later, she's done it all and more. “Well, I was never an aerialist,” she avers. “But I have been paid to be a mermaid.” With the closing of the Lusty Lady, Prince$$ Pandora retired from the stage, except for occasional appearances at charity events and other special occasions (such as the afterparty for Peaches Christ's presentation of “Showgirls” at the Castro Theater back in July). She still has a lot of Lusty memorabilia in storage, however, and hopes to start a fundraiser for its preservation next year.

Prince$$ Pandora helped me change my perspective on the song that until now had irritated me so much. I had felt closed out of the song – the barker is pitching his spiel to the male customer, and the women are all behind glass. But now, “don't fall in love!” sounds less like a pronouncement about womanhood in general and more a courtesy warning: This isn't a charity, boys. Get your dollars ready. Prince$$ Pandora and her colleagues are performing for you and deserve to be paid accordingly. Agency restored. I can get behind that.

Now if only I could hand off my earworm to her, we'd both be happy.
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Lori Selke

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