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Southern-born multimedia artist Jen Ray has been ruminating on Texas, and the Texas mindset, ever since witnessing performances by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders as an adolescent. For her most recent project, an energetic collaboration with singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe, she goes deeper on this long-held fascination with The Lone Star State and, more generally, the American South.
On April 11 2018, Jen Ray and Sarah Jaffe performed “Eyes as Bright as Diamonds” as the opener to the 22-day SOLUNA International Music and Arts Festival in Dallas, Texas. For this epic collaboration, Ray reworked lyrics by Texan musicians such as Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb in an effort to question the shared American image of the South (including the image of the Southern Belle).
“Eyes As Bright as Diamonds” encompasses lyrics, stage design, costumes and even dance choreography, and Ray uses this genre-busting approach to breathe new life into tired female tropes.
Culture Trip: You are from the South originally. How would you say growing up in the South has impacted your creative output?
Jen Ray: Even though I’ve lived many other places as an adult, it’s hard to leave the South behind. I find it creeping into my life and work constantly. My recent project for the SOLUNA Festival, “Eyes As Bright As Diamonds”, explores the history, legends and myths of America, much of which I learned growing up in the South. I also spent eight years living in Berlin and almost 10 years total in New York, and that, in combination with my Southern background, informs much of what I do.
CT: Can you tell me a little bit about your interest in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders?
JR: I grew up with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. The modern incarnation of the squad was “created” around 1970. By the time I was a kid, they were hitting a kind of peak late ’70s early ’80s saturation. They were on the [TV show] The Love Boat so I’m sure that affected me in a big way. They were kind of scary, though, with their big smiles, nude pantyhose and high kicks, tiny shorts and lots of sexuality. The ultimate American symbol of female beauty. The routines they performed on TV were glossy and glamorous and perfect.
I was drawn to the spectacle but it wasn’t like I wanted to be them. When I was a kid, the ’70s were all about overt sexuality and this concept definitely filtered down to me. My neighbors had semi-nude posters of Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett, and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders on their walls side by side with posters of Star Wars and Kiss. It was all very jumbled together and I actually thought it was scary and threatening. The message seemed to be “grow up quick!” I mostly wanted to hide behind a Judy Blume book.
CT: Did those performances by the Dallas cheerleaders coincide with your beginning to identify as an artist?
JR: I was drawing pictures of women before I even knew the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders existed. But I do remember being fascinated by all the objects associated with the cheerleaders. The big blue and silver stars, the shiny pom-poms, the belt, the boots. I’ve always loved costumes and the possibility of transformation. And glamour does play a part in what I do as an artist.
CT: You play with classic Western American music tropes in your collaboration with Sarah Jaffe for “Eyes As Bright As Diamonds.” There are folk songs, Gene Autry… am I missing anything else?
JR: The three songs Sarah Jaffe interpreted were The Yellow Rose of Texas, Home on The Range, and Waltz Across Texas. I did a lot of research about the songs and each one had an incredible backstory. The phrase “Eyes As Bright As Diamonds” is a lyric from the The Yellow Rose of Texas. The original version is about a relationship between a slave and a bi-racial woman. It’s just been pounded into different variations over the years. Now it’s thought of as a fun and folksy song about Texas. It’s actually not that at all, all of the songs from the performance are quite melancholic and full of yearning.
CT: How did “Eyes as Bright as Diamonds” take its particular shape? Were you drawing on certain visual or performative elements that had their roots in cheerleader performances?
JR: I’ve always loved Busby Berkeley movies, so I watch them to get inspiration for rhythm and movement. I love his mixture of 1930s post-crash cynicism, desperate patriotism and opulence. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were created to be as glossy and glamorous as the Rockettes or professional dancers on Broadway. I think that is easy to relate to the Berkeley films. Ultimately, we are talking about groups of highly trained and tightly synchronized dancers high kicking and leaping around to generate maximum excitement. The difference is, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are emphatically not cynical.
CT: Can you describe the lyrics of you song Yellow Rose and the process behind it?
JR: When I created the performance I wanted to address two thing: our shared American experience and our easy-going flexibility with history as it pertains to race and gender. The performance is not judgmental, rather it provides a space in which to consider what it means to be an American both now and historically.
This is expressed through three traditional songs and supported by groups of color guards, tap dancers, drummers, a string quartet and ballroom dancers. At the beginning of the performance, Sarah immediately upends the romanticism of The Yellow Rose of Texas by singing it in an aggresively punk style. As she performs the last two songs, Home On The Range and Waltz Across Texas, people literally cried. The whole performance was very carefully crafted in order to create a targeted emotional feeling. However, it was the humanity of the performers and the depth of Sarah’s voice that made that a reality.
Like many artists right now I was thinking about the lessons I’ve learned from America and asking myself about the possibilities for the future. Can we ever disentangle ourselves from the mythologies we’ve created?
CT: Were there certain aspects of American identity you were playing with in your interpretation of these classic songs?
JR: Certainly I wanted to tweak the notion of the hyper-masculine American manly-man. In my performance, a woman sings a song of love to a beautiful yellow ‘rose’. Two female ballroom dancers pair off to potentially lead us into a new future. I think we need to re-invent ourselves a bit in America, find new paths. We’ve actually always been very good at that. I’m as patriotic as anyone and I wanted to express that thoughtfully.
CT: What sounds and other sensorial elements do you associate with Texas and the South?
JR: Food, heat, patriotism, church. I love the rituals of the South even though I’m also critical. My mother came to this country from the UK in the ’60s and my father is from an old Southern family that’s been in American since the 1600s. I like to think that both of those sides informed this performance. I’m from the South but I can maintain a critical distance from Southern culture.
CT: You’ve touched upon your interest in the idea of transgressive behavior and transformation of the self. Could you expand on that? Are you, as the artist, involved in that transformation somehow?
JR: I’m not a transgressive person in real life or I wouldn’t get anything accomplished. But I do enjoy people who are. Behavior that is wilful and destructive is a marvel to me. Since women are not usually supposed to behave that way, I find transgression a nice tool to use when I want to say something about the expectations we have of women. Women don’t always play nice.
I create scenarios in which women can behave in a variety of ways so I am involved directly in the transformation. In the performances, I’m lucky to get to work with so many talented women (and some men), and, even though I create the scenarios, I also feel like a collaborator and a director. I want people to engage in projects that they feel good about and can be passionate about.
CT: Did these ideas and your interest in female iconography originate in the South?
JR: Have you ever read Gone With The Wind? If you’ve seen the movie and you think you know the book, think again. I’ve read it many times and I think Scarlett is one of the most wonderfully obnoxious characters ever written. In the movie she’s charming but in the book she’s a beautiful, scheming, racist semi-alcoholic who would do anything to survive. It’s a juicy story of a very complex woman who chafes against all the rules of her day. She’s as terrible and selfish and Southern as the day is long.
CT: Why play with traditional Texas tropes in 2018? Is the “Southern belle” archetype alive and well or is there something lurking there, eager to be transformed?
JR: Texas tropes are American tropes. And Texas is so varied, it can represent a multitude of ideas. Time Magazine published an article a few years ago called “Why Texas Is Our Future.” The article argues that it is a place for experimentation and risk taking. And demographically, it’s a great example of “American culture.”
Southern women need to speak up and to be more aggressive. Especially politically. I tried to live in the South for two years after living in Berlin and strong opinions are not often welcomed. They are seen as disruptive and rude. Southerners may nod to your face but later they might say “what’s her problem?”
CT: Can you speak more about how living in Berlin influenced your work?
JR: Everything really coalesced for me in Berlin. My characters came to life because Berlin was full of women like my characters. There are no restrictions (imagined or otherwise) on experimentation in Berlin. It’s actively encouraged. The reason my work involves painting, video, performance, music, and sculpture is because you try everything you can get your hands on. Artists create their own worlds there and that’s what I did.
CT: Would you say there’s a new wave of female empowerment in the American South? If so, what role can music play within that?
JR: My sister is an executive at the second largest bank in America located in a booming Southern city. She has been focused recently on making her environment better for women and she has a new, modern boss who also supports that. I think she’s always seen changes way too difficult to implement and the culture too entrenched. There seem to be glimmers of hope. How many times can you be told to go along with traditions that are detrimental to you? This is a surprising new development to say the least.
I think rap music was the biggest thing to upset “traditional Southern Culture.” It really did a number on the parents of all those white teens in the South who were supposed to be listening to classic rock, gospel, and country music.
CT: Tell us a little bit more about how your collaboration fits in with the mission of SOLUNA International Music & Arts Festival? Are there other performers you admire or are looking forward to?
JR: One of the most exciting aspects of the SOLUNA Festival was the chance to work with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. During my performance, an all-female string quartet from the DSO played a traditional waltz to accompany the SMU ballroom dancers. That’s something special, SOLUNA’s mission of collaboration between artists and the DSO.
The rest of the festival looks too good to name just a few artists but I would definitely love to check out the Mariachi Rosas Divinas, Naama Tsabar, and Kid Koala.
CT: How does the notion of branding play into your imagination of “women’s roles” and transgressive performances? How did the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders performances fit or transcend the branded environment they were performing within?
JR: Brands have been telling women how to dress, how to clean and how to behave for some time now. In my paintings of dystopian landscapes, brands have long since been destroyed. I think that some of my work is a rebellion against the suggestions I received early on about what constitutes a “proper lady.” You can’t escape branding in America but you don’t have to feel bad about yourself because of it.
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders brand is as sacred as Coca-Cola or Levi’s jeans. But they also have voices as individual women and I think you will hear more of those voices pretty soon and at a lot louder volume.