The Power of Persona and Why Dolly Parton Makes Me Cry
Last year I went to see Dolly Parton in concert. The lights dimmed, the huge crowd hushed, the backdrop lit up like a sunset, and there in the middle was a tiny silhouette, immediately recognisable – the nipped in waist, the curves and the really big hair. Dolly! And then.......the voice. It rang out like a clear bell, resonating around the arena. It was like a wave that hit me, a ray of sunshine that melted the heaviness in my heart. One note. And I wept.
This has been a recent phenomenon. Dolly Parton’s voice never fails to move me to tears. I watch old clips of her singing wholesome duets with Porter Wagoner and cry and cry. I watch the old Dolly, still dimple-faced, singing about the coat her Mama made for her from the rags, and I weep buckets. While I watched Dolly perform that night, and since then, I’ve been reflecting on just why it is this tiny, tacky songstress has such a power to shoehorn open my heart and let my griefs flow.
I used to sing in a country duo and loved it. When my Mum was diagnosed with cancer I knew I couldn’t sing anymore. To sing is to take a deep breath. To sing is to open the chest, expand the heart. To sing is to express vulnerability and emotion. To sing is to reach out to the audience and share something intrinsic to you - your voice. There was no way I could do all that when so much was weighing on me. My mother died, and for years after I couldn’t sing. Not in public. Not for fun. Not in private. Not even unconsciously around the house. Nor did I want to. I had no desire to sing. For me, grief is mute; a sound unutterably awful. With five kids and a partner I am hardly ever still or alone, and my tears wait in the wings for quiet moments to slip out into the light. Not often. I have no cathartic desire to talk about my grief. Or to even think about it in terms of language.
And then there’s Dolly. Tacky and upbeat and fake. In many ways I’m not a traditional fan. Which is why it’s so strange that it is her and her alone that cracks my heavy stone-like heart and lets a little sadness flow. Part of it is the songs. Those old-timey bluegrass tunes layered with lyrics about old fashioned country life. Those songs remind me of a time in my own family, when we lived in Beechworth through the 1970’s. We were a big family, seven kids, with not much money. We didn’t have a phone and our car broke down all the time. Mum worked hard in the home - cooked, cleaned and had baby after baby and made us just about everything from toys to undies. Dad was a teacher who would give anyone the shirt off his back and actually sometimes did. We loved music and singing together and Dad would buy us instruments and tell us to teach ourselves to play. My Grandma once gave him money to buy each of us a pair of new shoes and he came home with a Pianola. So my tears are in part for another time, a brief idyllic window that closed when Dad died. I was five, we had just moved towns and those golden years in Beechworth became a dim memory of a dream. Those happy hillbilly days before grief was a filter over the lens through which I would forever after view the world.
I know that Dolly is tacky. There are tassels, spangles and razzle dazzle. She “never leaves a rhinestone unturned,” she quipped at the concert as she sat down to a pink sparkle encrusted piano. In part, her look is understandable in the context of the Nashville scene through the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. But then Dolly has pushed it even further with her plastic surgery and defined aesthetic - and that’s not about culture, that’s about her.
Dolly’s persona shows her to be a control freak. I see something of her being trapped within her own image construction, something that is also the underpinning of her business empire. She has succeeded in man’s world and is known for her incredible business acumen. She sings about her sacrifices, “I said I’d be rich at any cost, said I’d win no matter what I lost” and you get a sense of her steely resolve to be famous and of her ambition. Yet she doesn’t say what she lost, or who, or what the cost was for her fame. And any time the sentiment gets sad or too close to the bone she diverts the crowd with a boob joke and a toe tapping number. She shakes those tassels and lets the rhinestones catch the light and blind us a little.
But then there is her voice. It is like a fishing hook that catches in my sea of emotion. Her voice is as natural as a bubbling brook, that flows from a trickle to a waterfall, from quiet to strong and back again. It is completely unaffected, unforced and pure. She simply opens her mouth and out it comes. No trick of the light or smoke and mirrors there. Just out it pours, ringing true. Authentic. She is an amazing singer with a pure voice containing a huge range that she employs with effortless musicality. To have that natural sound pouring forth from a body so fake, is a paradox that embodies where truth and lies collide.
What if Dolly didn’t have her persona? What if she was a little old lady with grey hair, sitting on the rocking chair, singing and playing the dulcimer? Not a wig or sequin in sight? The voice would still be graceful, soaring through the range of notes like a bird flying through her mountain home. But would she be as powerful? As compelling? Dolly at once invites us in and pushes us away. She shares her down to earth humour and self-deprecating quips aplenty. She seems to tell us everything as she talks of her upbringing and her parents, but she never really talks about herself. She seems natural and friendly, but it’s all scripted and rehearsed. She is a good actress (“Steel Magnolias” anyone?) Any person that needs that sort of mask and costume is surely more vulnerable than anyone else? There is a frailty to that tiny body weighed down with so much embellishment.
For that little sculpted silhouette of plastic and fake hair to open up, take a deep breath and share her songs in that pure voice, hits me like a force field. That she can share her voice when she needs such props and buffeting seems to me to be a huge generosity. That she is at once so fake and so true. Unnatural and natural. So protected and so vulnerable. So hidden and so exposed. She’s a walking, breathing, intriguing conundrum.
Her music is seen as a unifier. Her appeal crosses nations, sexuality and religion. The homesickness inherit in her songs appeals to the displaced. The vulnerability to the heartbroken. The empowerment to the trapped. Voicing the female perspective to the feminists. She somehow manages to be, if not everything to everyone, then something to every someone.
In Dolly Parton, fake an authenticity collide, ringing out a note that resonates in everyone who has heartstrings tuned to the key of heartbreak. She a paradox where truth and lies converge, exposing human frailty that we all feel, recognise and align with – and it is my emotional undoing. It reminds me that we all have a core that has to be heard. We all have vulnerability. We all suffer grief and joys and carry on. In looking like such a freak and singing with such truth, Dolly Parton shows us humanity and allows us to be ourselves. And cry.
This post was originally published in December 2011 on the sisteroutlaws blog.