I’ve been thinking a lot about Dolly Parton lately. A big part of that is no doubt because she’s been doing a promotional blitz for her album A Holly Dolly Christmas, which has run the gamut of 21st-century PR like videos for WIRED magazine and Vanity Fair, and in every interview she just kills it, seeming as effortlessly charming and genuine today as she has been for as long as I’ve been alive.
Dolly1Her being so charming and self-effacing is why she’s one of the only multi-millionaire celebrities I don’t feel weird or condescending calling by her first name has been a star for as long as I can remember, but I never appreciated how she’s a next-level human being until back in 2013, when I saw Seth Weitberg on Drunk History telling the story of Dolly (played by Casey Wilson) dedicating the song “I Will Always Love You” to Porter Waggoner (Rich Fulcher).
That’s not my favorite episode of Drunk History, but it might be the most perfect story for the show’s format, because:
- It’s a story that a lot of people probably hadn’t ever heard before, and
- It’s a story that sounds too good to be true, and
- It requires an open display of genuine sentimentality that’s difficult to do unless you’re drunk.
The main reason I’ve been waking up thinking about Dolly is because I keep wondering How the hell does she do it? It’s not uncommon for me to wake up angry, but especially over the past year, it’s been relentless. There’s the usual feeling of having to get up out of bed from under the weight of decades of embarrassing things I’ve done or said, decades of regrets over times I’ve been thoughtless or inconsiderate, and grievances against decades of injustices both petty and significant. But now on top of all of that, the gift of 2020 is that I can be angry and anxious on behalf of the rest of the world as well.
If I’m feeling this downtrodden, how does someone who’s had to put up with as much bullshit as Dolly Parton has over the course of her career, manage to keep being such a force of light?
There’s a great article about Dolly in The Ringer, by Rob Harvilla, that manages to get closer to understanding the “magic” than anything else I’ve seen. He bases his premise on an interview Dolly did with Barbara Walters in 1977, not long after starting her “crossover” from country to pop. Harvilla’s essay is great, and he’s absolutely right with his main observation: Dolly’s finally getting recognition from a broader base of people — and not just as a celebrity, but as a generous and compassionate person — but the truth is that she’s never needed anyone else’s validation.
But that interview with Barbara Walters is fascinating. It seems like there’s so much packed into it. Not just as a profile of Dolly Parton, who’s as effortlessly charming and self-effacing 43 years ago, as an ambitious business woman still a few years from “breaking in” to Hollywood, as she is today as a superstar. It’s also a mini-profile of Barbara Walters, a reminder of what feminism looked like in the late 1970s, and a hint of the tension between artifice and authenticity that would dominate the next 30-40 years, at least.
The interview reminded me of two movies that were more or less formative for me as I was growing up: Nine to Five, which Dolly Parton’s first movie, from 1980. I was nine when I saw it, and I think it was the first “grown-up” movie I ever saw. This must be what adults think is funny and interesting! The other is Broadcast News, which I saw when I was 16, and I was super-extra convinced that this was a sophisticated, adult take on the real, genuine state of media and journalism.
Something that I never, ever, would’ve expected is that of the two movies, Broadcast News would be the one that aged worse. Even more than the hair and the clothes, it’s the obsession with authenticity that marks it as a product of the late 1980s. The movie’s very pleased with itself for presenting a true behind-the-scenes look at broadcast journalism and the real people dedicating their lives to bringing you real news. The dramatic climax happens when Holly Hunter’s character discovers that William Hurt’s character has faked an emotional moment in an interview by filming his own cut-away reaction after the fact. It’s an outrageous violation of trust that breaks their relationship irreparably.
It’s nonsense, like so much of the 80s was self-important nonsense. It tried to pass off something inconsequential as if it were the kind of weighty questions of integrity that journalists were forced to deal with. And it was desperate to assert its reality by drawing your attention to the line between what was real and what was just for show. But it did at least train me to be on the lookout for jarring cut-aways and always ask where the camera is. There’s one of those in that Barbara Walters interview.
As Harvilla’s essay mentions, much of the interview has the feeling of Carrie White talking to her mom. They’re all going to laugh at you, Dolly! You know you don’t have to show them your dirty pillows! She indirectly calls Dolly a “hillbilly,” asks for her measurements, claims to be asking on someone else’s behalf when she asks if her breasts are real, and acts as if she’s the first person to tell Dolly that people make fun of her. And yes, Dolly does respond to all of it with a cheerful grace and confidence.
But there’s a moment, while Dolly is explaining exactly how and why she’s always in on the joke, that the camera cuts away to show Walters’s mood shifting. It feels to me like a rare moment when something genuine accidentally slips through the interview format that would become Walters’s trademark. After that, Walters asks, “Do you feel that we’re very different?”
Dolly doesn’t skip a beat in responding that she doesn’t; she feels that she can relate to Walters “probably more than you might relate to me,” Walters says she was thinking the same thing, and they instantly become BFFs for life. Or rather, what they actually do is drop the pretense that this is a friendly chat. They implicitly acknowledge that they’re actually two ambitious career women — during a time when, bizarrely, “career woman” was still supposed to be a passing fad or some weird novelty — who were on television for the express purpose of advancing both of their careers. I don’t think it’s an accident that after that point, the rest of the interview is Dolly stating directly that she’s a smart business woman and she intends to become a superstar.2Spoiler: She did.
It’s funny to see that interview interpreted as nothing more than a case of elitist Barbara Walters underestimating the humble strength and kindness of Dolly Parton, considering that:
- We should all be able to recognize by now how American society tries to keep women in their place by putting them in situations where they’re pitted against each other instead of supporting each other.
- If anybody in America can recognize this, it’s the woman who wrote Jolene, and the first woman nightly news anchor in a notoriously sexist industry like broadcast journalism
- If anybody in America can recognize how to spin this into being able to profit from it, it’s the woman who made a fortune from Jolene.
It’s also funny to see Walters showing concern that Dolly would be the subject of jokes, since for most of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, both women were famous for all the lazy jokes at their expense. Dolly for her breasts, Walters for the way she talks. But instead of demeaning them, it helped them. It was marketing. For my entire childhood, I knew that Dolly Parton was a World Famous Superstar, and I knew that “Baba Wawa” was basically synonymous with “television journalist.”
Seeing Dolly acknowledge that she thought of show business as nothing but a big joke, “and I like telling jokes,” must’ve seemed like turning the tables on Barbara Walters, who was building her whole brand on being taken seriously. The contentiousness of the interview was no doubt part of that. The “celebrity interview” was always considered inferior to and less consequential than legitimate journalism, and I think Walters responded to that in the most 70s and 80s way possible, by going all-in on “authenticity.” Her interviews weren’t going to be the usual puff pieces just spouting back a list of trivial points provided by a celebrity’s publicist. She was going to conduct them as “real” journalism, asking the tough questions and getting honest answers, letting viewers truly get to know her subjects on a personal level impossible during a 5-minute talk show chat.
That became her “thing,” well past the point of cliche. Tying it back to Drunk History: one of my favorite moments on that series is when Kyle Kinane is scolding himself for becoming a cliche after vomiting into a bucket. He says “throwing up on Drunk History is like crying in a Barbara Walters interview.”
Which is the one thing that ties all these disparate observations together, and the one thing Dolly seemed to understand decades before anyone else: It’s all fake. Every single bit of it. No matter how hard you try to show an audience the line between what’s real and what’s fake, you’ve still got a camera and you’re still performing for an audience. Media throughout the 80s and 90s kept insisting that they were breaking down the fourth wall, but all they were actually doing was nudging the fourth wall out closer to the audience, inch by inch, patting themselves on the back the entire time for being so postmodern and groundbreaking.
But it’s crucial to understand that that’s only half of it. All of us have known — or been — someone who prides themselves on not taking anything seriously, and we know that it’s completely insufferable. That’s because it comes from defensiveness, and that’s exhausting. It often means that there’s a core of stuff they take super-seriously, and no one is allowed to come anywhere near it. Other times, it means that whatever used to make up that core has long since rotted away, and they have nothing left to do except tear everything down.
It’d be a mistake to conclude that Dolly’s strength comes from not taking anything seriously. I think it’s more accurate that she doesn’t believe in the same lines between serious and joking that the rest of the entertainment industry insists are important. Her teasing and joking aren’t defensiveness or destructiveness, but expressions of joy. She can be sincere because she doesn’t equate sincerity with vulnerability.
I don’t tend to like Stephen Colbert, because I think he’s often guilty of exactly the kind of disingenuous, self-conscious smarm that I’m complaining about. But his recent interview with Dolly led to a wonderfully genuine moment that’s a perfect illustration of why she’s awesome:
The thing that stands out to me is that there are no “breaks.” She can glide in and out of a song, in the middle of a sentence, without needing a division between conversation and performance. She can tease Colbert for crying — purely to put him at ease and remind him he doesn’t need to be embarrassed — in the same beat that she’s singing the song that makes him cry. She can describe how God speaks to her through her love for her husband in the same beat that she’s talking about a duet with Jimmy Fallon on her new album.
Instead of trying to hide all the artifice and commerce and performance inherent in an interview, Dolly embraces it. The whole thing is a performance. There’s none of the ambiguity that makes it dishonest. No pretense that some of it is more real or believable than the rest. And no sense of fiercely-guarded vulnerability: you either like it or you don’t, but either way, it’s not going to change who she is or how she presents herself.
And that, finally, is the part that feels like us mere mortals might be able to turn into a life lesson. In short: I know I still put way too much of my own happiness and sense of self-worth in the hands of other people. Instead of being angry at past betrayals, I should be glad that I don’t have to deal with those people anymore. Instead of being defensive about my insecurities, I should figure out why they’re still insecurities. I’m part of a generation who’s been convinced that strength and confidence are equivalent to coldness, guardedness, and dishonesty; real honesty requires vulnerability. But I think the truth is that strength and confidence give you the freedom to be completely honest.
Last year, while we were driving to the South Carolina coast, we kept seeing billboard after billboard for a Pirate-themed dinner show. Like Medieval Times, but years later, and way more aggressively promoted. On the way back from South Carolina, we happened to see another of the billboards, and in the daylight it was possible to read the small text “A Dolly Parton Company.” I realized that my Eat the Rich mentality, my snobbery about Branson-style family entertainment, my whole assumptions about corporate franchises, didn’t apply here. None of it seemed dishonest, deceptive, or manipulative. I just thought, “Good for her. She is super-rich and deserves every bit of it.”