When asked about feminism, Dolly Parton said to a TV show host, that she was the first woman to burn her bra, and it took the fire department three days to put out the blaze.
She was, of course, cracking a joke at her own expense—that famous bosom, which was the target of much admiration and an equal amount of vulgar jokes. But with her wild sense of humour, she often pre-empted the gags. She is reported to have said in a podcast, “when in doubt, fall back on a tit joke”.
The Musicares Tribute to Dolly Parton, dropped on Netflix recently, soon after a documentary on Tina Turner (HBO Max)—both musical divas, both unwitting feminist icons, and both having a care-a-damn attitude that set them apart from celebs of their generation, heck, any generation. The two women, just a few years apart (Parton is 75, Turner 81), whose style and music could not be more different, have a lot in common—their longevity, mainly, in a showbiz culture that rests on youth and sex appeal.
Both came from impoverished backgrounds and both cut wide swathes in a male-dominated world with their talent and guts. Mainstream music companies were mostly run by white men who could decide to make or break a female musician. The exploitation and sexism that these two undoubtedly faced did not halt their drive to reach the top and never tainted their personalities with bitterness; though Turner had plenty to be angry about.
Aptitude for music
Dolly Parton, one of 12 children from a poor family, had an in-born talent for music and started writing songs and performing at small gigs since she was a child. As soon as she turned 18, she picked up her guitar, took a bus ride to Nashville, the hub of country music, and was told she did not have the voice for it—the singer who went on to dominate country, pop and bluegrass for decades, winning every award and honour possible. Just shows how wrong the music establishment can often be.
With her big blonde hair, milky skin and Barbie doll figure, she must have had to put up with men’s advances, especially men who could support her career, but she never talks about it (there’s also a 2019 documentary on her, titled Here I Am). According to her, she met more good men than bad, and to deal with the latter, she carried a pistol in her purse, which could, in her words, turn the harasser “from a rooster into a hen.” The line was used in the iconic feminist film 9 to 5, for which Parton wrote and composed the title track—which could be a working woman’s anthem and also starred as the brainy secretary who puts her creepy boss in his place, with the help of co-workers played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
A sample of Parton’s songwriting skills:
“Well, I tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
Yawn and stretch and try to come to life
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumping
Out on the street, the traffic starts jumping
With folks like me on the job from 9 to 5
Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living
Barely getting by, it's all taking and no giving
They just use your mind, and they never give you credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
Fonda and Tomlin do give her credit for being smarter than people think, because she self-confessedly looks like a tramp; that and all the attention stopping at her bust and impossibly tiny waist. She totters about on vertiginous heels and now has people holding her hand when she walks, or she would probably topple over. She deliberately plays into people’s stereotype of the dumb blonde, and then smashes it with her rapier wit and business acumen. Music lore has it that she turned down Elvis Presley who wanted to record one of her songs, I Will Always Love You. That song, when sung years later by Whitney Houston in the 1992 film The Bodyguard, made Parton much richer.
The woman, who is ‘nobody’s fool’ built a career and a formidable entertainment empire; she is vocal about her politics, gives to various causes and broke the internet recently, when she donated a million dollars for Covid vaccine research and sang “Vaccine, Vaccine, Vacciiiiiine” to the tune of her great song, Jolene, while getting the jab.
Parton kept her personal life strictly under wraps. Her husband, Carl Thomas Dean, is seen in public so rarely that even her closest associates have never set eyes on him. She married him when she was 20 and stayed married over 55 years, despite her rumoured affair with her mentor Porter Wagoner (whom she dumped with the glorious I Will Never Love You number), and Dean's alleged straying with the woman to whom Parton sang, “I'm begging of you please don't take my man..Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Please don't take him just because you can.”
If Dolly personified the white American dream girl, with her sweet voice, dimpled smile and ultra-feminine daintiness—Jane Fonda recalls how she always stepped out of her room fully made up with wig in place—Tina Turner, in her Sheena: Queen of the Jungle-inspired look, sang in a raspy voice, danced vigorously on stage and dripped sweat like she’d just been in a drop-down and drag-out fight in a back alley.
Even though she tried to fight the victim image, she became a poster girl for domestic violence survivors. Plain Anna Mae Bullock, from a family of cotton pickers, was given a new name, a career step-up by musician Ike Turner. He went on to become her husband and beat her savagely, perhaps because her popularity left him behind, or just because he thought he owned her and she could never survive without him.
Tina sneaked out when she got a chance, hid from Ike and in the ensuing divorce, let him have everything they owned, but insisted on keeping the name, Tina Turner.
When she left Ike with nothing but her name, for years she made a living performing in Las Vegas nightclubs, but never let go her dream of becoming a rockstar. At the age of 40, she reinvented herself and zoomed to stardom, became the first black singer and the first female singer to get a Rolling Stone cover. She is the woman who reportedly taught Mick Jagger how to dance, she toured with the Stones but also sold out arenas on her own. If she calls herself Queen of Rock, she is not off the mark.
But much to her annoyance, she could not shake Ike out of her hair. More than her chart-topping music, she was constantly asked about her husband battering her and how she escaped. In an attempt to put a stop to it once and for all, she collaborated with Kurt Loder on a book, I, Tina, which inspired the film What’s Love Got To Do With It (Brian Gibson, 1993), named after her hit number. She won every major award, starred in a few movies, but the questions about domestic violence never ended, even after she married Erwin Bach.
In 1999, Dolly Parton was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tina Turner was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 with Ike Turner, but this year, she has been nominated again as a solo artiste. Whether she wins the honour or not, she is a legend already, just like Dolly Parton. Both age-defying, time-stopping supernovas…but love probably had very little to do with it.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.