The equinox is here and the verdict is in: The song of the summer was the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha.” While Mariah Carey’s midtempo ballad “We Belong Together” may have moved more units and Gwen Stefani’s peppy “Hollaback Girl” showed greater craft, “Don’t Cha,” with its sheer ubiquity, insidious catchiness, and pure annoyance value takes the prize. You could not avoid its slinking beats and strutting lyrics, in which a sassy young thing addresses an attached man whom she has caught coveting her. “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me,” she taunts, further declaring that, out of respect for the girlfriend who isn’t as hot as she is, she won’t be fooling around with the guy. Released to radio stations in April, the song spent the dog days perched atop Billboard’s Pop 100 chart and blaring from car stereos everywhere. This week, the Pussycat Dolls have released their first album, PCD. What’s unusual about this manufactured success is how the Pussycat Dolls have been a decade in the making … as a burlesque troupe.
Let’s recap: The so-called New Burlesque is soft-core striptease, a tongue-in-cheek take on the storied low art form that had its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. Performers have taken up the traditions of the fan-dancing Sally Rand, the canonized Gypsy Rose Lee, and the diamond-hard Lili St. Cyr, and drawn further inspiration from a line of theatrical glamour running through America’s pop past: the plumed excess of MGM musicals, the sultriness of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, and the whole atmosphere of Rat Pack ring-a-ding-ding. The New Burlesque is unmistakably about stripping but not in a bachelor-party kind of way. The audiences are typically about three-fifths female. The stars generally exit the stage wearing no less than pasties and panties. It’s flirty. Typically, a dancer will inhabit a role for the length of one or two pop songs (or show tunes or jazz standards or brassy old rave-ups) and then disappear with a wave or a wink. She jumps out of her cake and has it, too.
The New Burlesque started to take shape in 1995. In New York, Ute Hanna, the proprietor of an avant-garde strip club called the Blue Angel Cabaret, drew notice for her eclectic ensemble (disrobing torch singers, sword-swallowing belly dancers, and so forth). When Drew Barrymore spontaneously whipped off her skivvies on Hanna’s stage, further attention was paid. In Los Angeles, an art gallery worker named Michelle Carr founded the Velvet Hammer, which soon developed into a hipster institution known for producing kitschy, witty spectacles featuring women with “real bodies”—few centerfold physiques on offer, no silicone enhancements permitted. Ten years on, any American city with a pretense to sophistication is home to at least one troupe—that’s counting Baltimore, Kansas City, and Columbus, Ohio,—and the foremost practitioners of the art have begun to reap their rewards. The downtown New York burlesque superstar Julie Atlas Muz, whose repertoire includes topical satire and slapstick farce, gets discussed as a high artist and invited to perform at the Whitney Biennial; Los Angeles’ Dita Von Teese is embraced by the arbiters of high fashion and makes a splash the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Ball. (I haven’t double-checked, but I would bet that Miss Von Teese is the only person ever to earn photo spreads in both Bizarre and Vanity Fair.) The Pussycat Dolls, meanwhile, are the first burlesque act to sashay all the way into the mainstream.
The Dolls also launched in 1995. The brainchild of a music choreographer named Robin Antin, the troupe began as a house act in the Viper Room in Los Angeles. All Fosse’d up in fishnets, boots, corsets, ribbons, and extremely knowing looks, they sang and lip-synced seductive chestnuts like “Big Spender.” Mostly, they gyrated for an audience of Hollywood scenesters while exposing less skin (and less interest in postmodern cheekiness) than the arty little acts destined to be the subjects of magazine trend pieces.
Rather, Antin had her eyes fixed on the party pages, and she got there soon enough. Her show gradually evolved into a venue for Hollywood starlets to revamp—emphasis on vamp—their images by shimmying alongside the group as guest stars. A string of B-listers and professional tarts (Brittany Murphy, Christina Aguilera, Jaime Pressley) gave way to such actresses as Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron. The Pussycat Dolls became a fixture of the Industry, and the guest stars accrued cool points or added some retro glamour to their images. The relationship was symbiotic, and they all ended up in People and on Entertainment Tonight, flashing garter belts while chatting about female empowerment. “Inside of every woman,” went Antin’s favorite sound bite, “is a Pussycat Doll!”
Well, given her dancers’ conventionally attractive, Maxim-approved figures, that line seems slightly ridiculous. It’s of a piece with the cheesecake feminism of Barrymore’s Charlie’s Angels movies—the second of which marked the Dolls’ big-screen debut. That was 2003, the same year that Antin inked the deal for the record that has brought her creation into the public eye. PCD is precisely the synthetic product you’d expect from a prefab girl group. Indeed, a whole new litter of Pussycats was recruited to take to the radio waves, though only one, Nicole Scherzinger, an alumna of the made-on-TV pop act Eden’s Crush, seems to do any singing. Any bohemian burlesque dancer worth her false eyelashes would sneer at their generic dance moves.
However, it’s the girls, not the guys, who are going for it. Women are the ones calling up radio stations to request “Don’t Cha,” a song that, in its weird, preening way, envisages all women as sisters and regards male desire quite lightly—as a thing to toy with, not a defining force. It’s all rather Spice Girly, but then many of the vixens presently slithering across MTV in search of stardom make even the Spice Girls look like Simone de Beauvoir. The Pussycat Dolls project a definite toughness, and their hit combination of salaciousness and self-sufficiency recalls the sex appeal of Mae West. As West, who not for nothing is a patron saint of the New Burlesque, once said, “I never believed in givin’ them too much of me.”