The B-52’s formed in Athens, Georgia in late 1977. Initially, they began playing together just for fun. This was before Athens became the music scene it is known as today -- before Pylon and REM -- and before the city had live music venues like the famous 40 Watt Club. After playing several house parties, the band started getting gigs in New York City at which point their success necessitated a move. After releasing “Rock Lobster” they became an international success and began touring in Japan, Europe, and Australia. When Ricky Wilson died of complications related to AIDS in 1985, the band took a hiatus, returning in 1989 to release Cosmic Thing.
Michael listened to The B-52’s as a teenager growing up in Aiken, South Carolina. He returned to their music as an academic, and he is now examining how literalism functions in their songs. For example, the lyrics “There’s a moon in the sky / It’s called the moon,” resist making the moon a symbol for something else. In “Butterbean,” the lyrics similarly emphasize the literal: “Pick ‘em, hull ‘em, put on the steam / That’s how we make butterbeans.”
Visually, the album cover for an early release of “Rock Lobster” reinforces the same kind of literalism, depicting a pink rock and a blue lobster next to one another.
Another song, “The Devil in My Car,” was inspired by taking the metaphorical and making it literal. After hearing a southern preacher deliver a sermon on AM radio about how the devil was everywhere, including "in your car," the band members wondered what it would be like if the devil was literally in the car with them.
One of the most famous examples of literalism occurs in “Love Shack.” This is the lyric that has given everyone so much interpretive trouble over the years: “tin roof, rusted." Several interviewers have asked band members to explain the lyric's meaning, but they can only describe how it ended up in the song. For The B-52’s, it means quite literally, “tin roof, rusted,” but listeners want it to mean more than it does. As Michael explains, this famous example demonstrates how literalism enables an object, moment, or meaning to become bigger than itself without becoming different from itself.
We consider how this idea of “literalism” helps us to understand aspects of southernness and queerness. The B-52’s are not performing some essentialized “overalls and accents” southernness. They are performing themselves. They were created out of the very elements we see in their appearance and hear in their music. Their thrift store aesthetic literally picks up the remains of capitalism and makes something new out of it.
Michael also relates literalism of the B-52's to the ways in which queerness is addressed via tacitness in the South. The B-52’s are unabashedly queer and unapologetically campy. At the same time, they seemingly created and performed themselves without "coming out" until relatively late in their careers. This juxtaposition leads us to reflect on the contours of queer life and queer acceptance in the small-town South that may deviate from larger national narratives of "out" or "closeted" culture.
We would like to thank our special guest this week, Michael Bibler. Michael is an Associate Professor at Louisiana State University. His book, Cotton’s Queer Relations: Same-Sex Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern Plantation, 1936-1968, examines the connections between same-sex relationships and social egalitarianism in literature of the southern plantation published in the mid-twentieth century. He’s currently working on a project about literalism.
Our thoughts this week are with the people of southern Louisiana who are overcoming the devastating effects of recent floods. Please visit www.lafloodrelief.org to donate to relief efforts. You can also text “LAFLOODS” to 90999 to make a $10 donation to the American Red Cross.
*NOTE: The band changed the spelling of their name in 2008 to remove the apostrophe. They are now known as “The B-52s.”