“I always wanted to sing for naked people”
Women Disrobe While Leonard Cohen Sings; Yet, Something Feels Wrong
The fact that not one but two films featuring exotic dancers removing their clothes to the beat of Leonard Cohen songs evokes significant cognitive dissonance.
I am, in fact, sadly deficient in first-hand knowledge of strip club offerings. Based, however, on glimpses of such enterprises afforded by movies and TV shows, (Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing Club and the last 20 minutes of a serendipitously discovered HBO production called “G-String Divas” come to mind), some reading on the topic, (e.g., Carl Hiaasen’s Strip Tease featuring a club with the (apparently) unforgettable name, “The Eager Beaver,” a bevy of feminist literature I’ve read in self-defense, and various journals found at your better barber shops) and data generously provided by colleagues, I would think that it would be the atypical establishment in this category that would have a Lots-O-Leonard playlist.
My sources indicate that, at least in the good old days, unclad dancers2 would writhe on poles and crawl across stages to the blaring accompaniment of songs such as
- Alice Cooper’s Poison
- AC/DC’s The Jack
- Pour Some Sugar on Me by Def Leppard
- The Motley Crüe anthem, Girls, Girls, Girls (or or any of a dozen other Motley Crüe hits)
- Any of the numerous versions of You Can Leave Your Hat On3
I’m told that currently Hip-Hop tunes are especially popular.
Conspicuously absent from the much longer complete listing of stripper tunes were Rock of Ages Cleft for Me, anything sung by Donovan, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Leonard Cohen numbers.
One notes some obvious disparities between Leonard Cohen and the notables on the standard strip show music canon. Leonard, for example, rarely leaves home wearing significant amounts of mascara or spandex britches. He has also published precious little in the heavy metal genre.4 And there is the matter of tempo. Which Leonard Cohen track does one use as background for gyrations of this sort?
Certainly, selecting songs by Leonard Cohen that are appropriately sensuous and sexual is a trivial task. But the traditional ecdysiastic5 hymns do not ordinarily strive for plaintiveness, sadness, irony, or thoughtfulness, which are among Cohen’s primary tools.
So, what gives? How is it that two movies about strippers employ Leonard Cohen songs?
The answer, I believe, lies in the specific films.
The Films, The Strippers, The Soundtracks
In Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Mia Kirshner dances to Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows at a Toronto gentleman’s club inhabited by a group of patrons, dancers, and owners who are connected by previous and ongoing relationships. The film, a prize winner at Cannes and the recipient of French and Canadian honors, is a series of mysteries solved by the revelation of more mysteries – and then presented in a chronologically jumbled manner.
It will come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with Mr. Egoyan’s work6 to find that, Exotica, as the redoubtable Wikipedia notes, “deals with issues of loss, grief and isolation.”
“Everybody Knows” from Exotica
Dancing at the Blue Iguana
In Dancing at the Blue Iguana the San Fernando Valley is home to the titular Blue Iguana, a strip club in which the dancers, played by Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly, Sandra Oh, and Charlotte Ayanna, perform to, among other songs, Dance Me to the End of Love.
Its theme, if Stephen Holden of the New York Times, is to be believed, is that the Blue Iguana represents “a microcosm of this sad, lonely world and its lost female souls who cater to male lust.”7
The story that forms the basis of Dancing at the Blue Iguana evolved from a five month improvisational workshop led by director Michael Radford in which actors worked with exotic dancers and used that research to develop their own characters.
Let’s Go To The Champagne Room
The central question, in case one has lost track, is how did two Leonard Cohen songs, Everybody Knows and Dance Me to the End of Love, that may never have been played during an actual stripper’s performance end up on the soundtrack of two movies set in strip clubs?
The disappointingly simple answer is that those songs, however wrong they might be for strip clubs, were exactly right for the soundtracks of movies set in strip clubs.
It is significant that these movies were not actually about strip clubs, which in these cases are metaphorical elements in service of ambitious cinematic themes rather than the subject of documentaries.
Both Exotica and Dancing at the Blue Iguana are especially self-conscious theatrical exercises. In this context, the songs are tools by which to intensify the mood, emphasize (a bit heavy-handedly) the inevitable losses and grief of the situation, and underline the false, disconnected sexuality being promoted.
My difficulty with the notion of Leonard Cohen’s music as an incidental component of a striptease show stems from my characterization of Cohen’s numbers, especially Dance Me to the End of Love, as extraordinarily private psalms of intimacy.
Lyrics like these from Dance Me to the End of Love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
are not well suited to be played over a substandard sound system in the raucous, pseudo-erotic environment of a gentleman’s club while a dancer earns her wages by artfully stripping, but are precisely perfect to be sung in a whisper with lips almost touching the ear of ones partner’s in the quintessentially authentic sexuality of lovers naked together.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Feb 28, 2007.
- From song improvised during April 15, 1972 Amsterdam concert [↩]
- This discussion is limited to female exotic dancers because (1) the Cohen songs accompany female stripteasers and (2) while I know little about the universe of female exotic dancers, I know even less about male strippers [↩]
- For the record, Kim Basinger was stripping to Joe Cocker’s version of You Can Leave Your Hat On in “9 ½ Weeks” while the rendition by Tom Jones was playing while the men in “The Full Monty” performed. The creator of this ditty was, however, Randy Newman. Keb Mo, Ty Henderson, Three Dog Night, Julliet, and Garou, among others, have also covered the tune. My personal favorite You Can Leave Your Hat On artist is Etta James. [↩]
- Those rumors that he subbed for the lead singer of Megadeth during that group’s Argentina tour simply cannot be verified although there is an ominous absence of any reports of Megadeth and Leonard Cohen being seen simultaneously during that time period. [↩]
- In a gallant response to a request by a striptease artist for a more dignified occupational title, H. L. Mencken devised “ecdysiast,” based on the Greek terms for “a getting out.” “Ecdysis,” as you recall from 8th grade biology is the periodic shedding of the exoskeleton by insects, such as grasshoppers, and other arthropods. [↩]
- Pictures by Atom Egoyan, who qualifies for the title of “critically acclaimed director,” include Krapp’s Last Tape, Ararat, and Next of Kin [↩]
- Hubba Hubba [↩]