Renée K. Nicholson

Essay


And Other Delights?


To my mind, that the album cover is problematic is not in question. A woman in a whipped cream dress doesn’t just suggest sex. The dollop in her hair removes any doubt as does the dollop on her finger lifted towards her open mouth and tongue. Yet, if pressed, I’ll list Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights as a favorite album cover, which begs the question: is it okay to love a problematic thing?

I wanted to see if anyone had covered any Herb Alpert songs, and a search of “Herb Alpert covers” focuses on this one album cover, whereas if you search “Tito Puente covers” you get a list of songs. In fact, the search suggests you change the parameters to “Herb Alpert Whipped Cream.” Algorithmically, the album cover triumphs, which tells us something about this particular album cover.

Imagine 1965 when such a cover would have been considered quite racy. While it still smolders of sex, we are too many Calvin Klein underwear and Victoria’s Secret lingerie shows past finding it beyond our ideas of what’s acceptable. In fact, it’s been copied enough to have websites dedicated to cataloging the parodies. In a Billboard article, the author compares the dollop in the woman’s hair to Billie Holiday’s iconic gardenia, describing the whipped cream model as “doe-eyed,” which might be accurate while also being trite.

One of the songs on Whipped Cream and Other Delights would be co-opted for use on television’s The Dating Game. Love-meets-gameshow.

The model would go on to become an artist in the later years of her life. In the 1960s, she’d attended recording sessions for the album in Herb Albert’s garage. A mariachi-influenced garage band. The young woman who would grace its album’s cover compared to Frida Kahlo.

Imagine the straps of your bikini pushed down, so that they are hidden, then your body wrapped in batting and covered in shaving cream to get the desired look of whipped cream, which wouldn’t last the length of time needed for the photo shoot. Only the dollops on your head and your finger, the one you will lift suggestively towards your lips and tongue, would be actual whipped cream.

And then imagine washing it all off, getting the whipped cream out of your hair. Yet, the actual model characterized it as “just another job.”

Whenever I am asked if I want whipped cream on a dessert—pie, sundaes, milkshakes—my thoughts go to this woman’s image from the album cover. Most of the time, I decline the topping. Perhaps, subconsciously, I conjure up pieces of the story, worried that I’ll get shaving cream. Also, I have a rather problematic relationship with food. When I consider it, the competing feelings of guilt and pleasure, my aversion to cooking and my pride when it turns out, my preference for my grill’s flames to the stovetop, I recognize, too, a tenuous connection between the consumption of music and the consumption of food. And, of course, the connection to sex.

My favorite track on Whipped Cream and Other Delights is “Ladyfingers.” It’s perhaps the song that most invites a slow dance. The most covered song is “A Taste of Honey,” and my favorite of these is a version by the Four Tops and the Supremes (Magnificent: The Complete Studio Duets). Of course, the soundtrack of my youth was intensely Motown influenced. Growing up, the original would also be heard often in the houses I lived in as a child.

Although the stereotype suggests that most all ballet dancers have eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, I have never been diagnosed with one. As serious and prevalent as these are in dance, these were afflictions from which I was spared. I would, however, consider my overall relationship with food problematic.

I enjoy food. I feel the need to state that outright. Not always, but at this point in my life, I can anticipate the season’s first juicy tomato from my local CSA. I will also indulge in a slice of cake (for breakfast!) and take in a long decadent meal while traveling. I find food delicious, satisfying on multiple levels, one being, for lack of a better word, aesthetic.

However, I didn’t really learn to cook much past the basics until well into adulthood, only when I’d cultivated the patience to follow a recipe and the sense of adventure and taste to experiment with them. Before this, my culinary skills focused on grilling, as much a social activity as a food-preparation one. I loved people gathered in the outdoor space, flames licking the skins of meat and vegetables, the promise lurking beneath the grill’s lid. This kind of cooking was a one-off pleasure, as much about those gathered around to eat as it was eating itself, the sturdy wood table on my patio lined with people I cared about, the Sunbrella open-bloomed against the sun’s harsh rays.

This contrasts with cooking in my kitchen, a hemmed-in affair, too much like work, an activity reduced to preparing sustenance. I felt no joy in it for a long time, a means to an end and not much more. I can’t quite pinpoint when it changed, when preparing food felt more joyous and less onerous, only that I started to recognize a kind of beauty in the fresh ingredients of my CSA: deep green cucumbers with pale crisp innards, leafy greens of all sorts with subtle differences in taste and texture, the orange bursting forth when slicing butternut squash, pungent and wonderful onions I just knew would add a bit of kick to anything from scrambled eggs to salads to soups. My body responded to the bounty of the CSA’s harvests with energy, a deep sense of well-being that I never quite achieved before. For all the downsides of middle age, a burgeoning reverence for the possibilities of food made for a welcome mid-life surprise.

Vargas Girls used to grace the pages of gentlemen’s magazines, like Esquire. Borrowing their name from their creator, Alberto Vargas, they represent an apex in midcentury male-gaze, exaggerated in features catering to male desire: tiny-waisted, strawberry-shaped derrieres, and buxom; pouty and ruby-lipped with full, long hair. They alternated blonde and brunette, the occasional brassy redhead. And as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, almost always lily-white. A very specific male fantasy at play, the Vargas Girls were over-the-top in most ways, not the best cultural touchpoint, but a revealing one.

You have to understand the Vargas Girl to understand the June 1979 release of the Cars album, Candy-O. The album would spawn a couple of hits and feature a Vargas Girl, harnessing her tradition of outsized sexuality, a harbinger, perhaps, for the 1980s. She’s a redhead, reclined, depicted in the throes of passion in a sheer black bodysuit and spiky black heels. The long sleeves of her bodysuit accentuate her creamy, white skin unsheathed in the suggestion of cloth, her cheeks flushed, and her long, painted fingernails also suggesting a particular sexuality, an overt, stylized sexiness, which pushes against the aloof cool of the album’s musical offerings. The musical craftsmanship—pop-dappled new wave hooks underpinned by the synthesizer, the instrument that would come to define pop music of the forthcoming decade—stood in relief from the carnality of the album’s cover art.

Thumbing through a box of old records, I find Candy-O tucked in a smattering of my ’80s vinyl, wedged between records of my granddad’s, including Perry Como and Burt Bacharach, and my father’s Sly and the Family Stone, the haphazard collection comical and perhaps inevitable, relics from past decades of listening habits. Pulling the Cars out of the box, I remember the song, “Let’s Go,” the one I’ll always associate with Candy-O, as will other listeners. It speaks to the pop sensibilities of the early ’80s. My favorite Cars song won’t come around until 1984. “Drive” became a top 10 hit, so my interest in the Cars does not appeal to the aficionado interested in the deep cuts. I’m okay with that.

Candy-O’s release happened well before my peak listening years and before I had developed musical tastes. I bought my copy well after its heyday. I struggle to remember exactly when I did purchase it and why. There had been a time, as a teenager, when I simply collected a band’s catalog, interested as much in the album-by-album trajectory as any individual song. I might have just thought it an important addition to my music collection, an eclectic mix of styles and genres, and now personal archeology of me-in-progress.

Now, looking at the cover’s carefully constructed woman-as-sex-object sensibilities, I wonder what effect this had on me as a young woman. Culture sent me weird cues, ones hard to parse then and even now. The music itself is interesting to parse as well. The title track, “Candy-O” features a synthy pleading by a man to a woman to satisfy his need for her. The cover art follows this strain and illustrates the confection-like depiction of the Vargas Girl. Syrupy, overly sweetened, something that might be gorged on, yet with the sly implication that it’s all guiltless, the Candy-O cover encapsulates the often “wink-wink” nature of ’80s sexism. As if it is all a game or joke we’re not supposed to take seriously, all a bit of fun, a sugar-coated thing meant to only as a momentary pleasure.

Remember, too much candy makes one sick.

When I overeat, I feel guilty—not in a way that I stop eating or force myself to regurgitate, but guilt from a deep, sad place where the denial of food links to an idealized sense of beauty, a place where thin and beautiful become synonymous. A ballet dancer’s sensibility, given to her by others, which is to say, men. But I no longer live in a dancer’s body. It doesn’t mean I inhabit a completely flawed body, and in accepting my current one, this changed vessel, means weaving between wanting of my old body back and recognizing the positive aspect of my new physicality.

It means looking at me, not looking at those who would be looking at me.

I believe that at the root of my past inability to enjoy food without guilt is this struggle to recognize my multiple physical selves. I wonder and worry at the constant, conflicting messages about sexuality that underpinned my development from girlhood to womanhood, complicating this process. I wonder how much I have unwittingly internalized. So, trying not to feel guilty about food blocked my actual enjoyment of it. While I’ve never stopped eating, I have portioned controlled when maybe it wasn’t necessary, and while never alarmingly restrictive, it was an imposed discipline that wasn’t completely healthy.

It also wasn’t completely mine.

In my late 20s, I remember getting a slice of lemon meringue pie from my favorite diner as a treat, and my father commenting, “You aren’t doing yourself any favors.” My whole life, my mother has been overweight, but this is never mentioned in the way my father commented to me. My mother can be overbearing and judgmental, and I’ve wondered where that comes from, if she tries to comfort herself with food and exert control in other ways. And though they never speak openly about dissatisfaction with how their lives turned out, I feel a latent anger that things didn’t unfold the way they anticipated or wanted. Extremes reinforce this—my father’s obsession with diet and exercise, my mother’s lack of exercise, chronic over-eating, and indulgence in her controlling tendencies. Their midlife conversion to evangelical Christianity, and the cruel loss of their son, my brother Nate, to cancer amplifies the sense of disappointment I feel they have in me and my choices. They’d deny it, but there are some things a child just can feel.

Ironically, my brother Nate, as a young kid, had wanted to be a chef, and his whole life was an excellent cook.

We don’t often consume music in album formats anymore. The single has become more powerful than a collection of songs together. Albums, then, can be seen as a relic of a bygone era, and like many relics, they have become souvenirs of my own past. I used to stare at covers, trying to glean extra meaning about the songs and artists from them, as if to penetrate their secrets. For some, the cover’s connection to the larger project of an album is a significant part of the overall experience of the record. One of my favorite examples of this is Andy Warhol’s banana cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album meant to fuse art and music into a single experience (at least, that’s my take). It’s not my favorite album to listen to, but I admire the attempt at crafting that multilayered experience.

It must be recognized that covers are meant to sell albums. They’re overtly a marketing ploy for both album and recording artist. As I flip through my own records (and those in my possession by family members) I see the clear attempts to shape image. Madonna used her image and carefully curated sex appeal to effectively launch herself into superstardom. Her lingerie as everyday wear, specifically on the Like a Virgin LP makes her in some way the antithesis of Whipped Cream and Other Delights and Candy-O. While using sex to garner interest, Madonna doesn’t relinquish it to men crafting a gaze. Instead, she owns it, performs it, and bends that gaze to her will. She once said that her goal was to rule the world, and in that, she capitalizes on male desire, which ruled the world for long enough. At the very least, we can say that Madonna was not manipulated the way images of past women were manipulated by men. On the Like a Virgin cover, she worked with a photographer who she would later use for her early ’90s book, Sex, in which she choreographs her explorations of an exhibitionist stylizing of sexuality. The book came out as her album Erotica dropped, the two inevitably linked, ensuring market saturation of Madonna’s image, her sexuality, and her domination over popular culture at the time. Over time that slipped, but as is so often the case with Madonna, sex is money, and her bank account cha-chings with saucy, libido-celebrating images that pair with infectiously pop singles.

Like a Virgin, it should be noted, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts. Interestingly,  like me, Madonna first yearned to be a dancer, studying at Joffrey Ballet School, among other places. In New York, she turned to music as a way to stardom, which is, perhaps, what she sought even more. Like a Virgin remains Madonna’s highest-grossing album, money channeled by sex, managed by her own imagination of it. One might say, November 12, 1984, the album’s release date, made her. And how many tracks on that album also fueled the dance floors of the influential clubs?

Never, ever, feeling Madonna-esque levels of moxie, the undeniable erotic charge of Like a Virgin feels like a current controlled by her. Even her come-hither stare on the cover invokes a posture that she’s in charge—you enter into her fantasy—not the other way around—and rewarded for it. Madonna was the first female artist to sell more than five million copies of an album. She took sex, gave it a glossy sheen, a sense of glamour, and then owned it in a way that couldn’t be denied. I listened to her songs growing up, always spun on the airwaves, radio then still king, and I can only wonder why her confidence never lingered in me. Why didn’t I see or feel empowerment?

Even as I’ve gained more self-confidence, hard-won over decades of adulthood, it comes as a matter of accomplishment. It’s never just been there. And I have only to look in the mirror, and I begin to critique: a not so gentle wish to make over this self. Even on the page, I come to revise, reshape, revise again.

Last fall, flush with butternut squash, I peeled and chopped and pureed my way to making soup. Bright orange, packed with fresh ingredients, it took about two hours or more to prepare. I liked to pair it with rustic breads from a local bakery. Simple foods full of effort. My favorite meals as a pandemic raged. Many people found their kitchens because of Covid, and what’s remarkable in my case is that it led to delight. It soothed a small, helpless part of me that craved comfort and acceptance. I listened to HerB Albert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights the first time I prepared the soup, and I chopped and peeled and listened without thought to the covers and their messages, lost in effort, lost in song.


Contributor Note

My brother, Nate, was the best cook in our family. When we were kids, the first “what I want to be when I grow up” job he desired was to be a chef. And while that changed over time, he never lost his love for the art of cooking. I’d never been that interested in cooking until Nate died, in mid-2019, from metastatic colon cancer. Cooking, I have found, connects me to the brother I can no longer visit, and in investing in learning the art of cooking, though still very much a novice, I appreciate his attention to the flavors and colors and textures that ignited his imagination. I appreciate the heft of a knife, the smooth strokes of peeling skin from vegetables, the intense scent of simmering food as it wafts through my home. I enjoy the physicality of cooking, the way arranging ingredients on my countertop influences how they come together and how I orchestrate this becoming. In the kitchen, more than any other place, I both understand the loss of my brother and begin to reconcile it through participating in something he truly loved. It taps my creativity, and I find working in the kitchen often leads to words on the page, a connection I truly delight in, and perhaps, too, Nate’s lingering gift.


Renée K. Nicholson is the author of Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness, as well as co-editor of Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives of Illness, Disability, and Medicine and two collections of poetry. She is associate professor and director of the Humanities Center at West Virginia University. Renée is a past Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona, and among her awards, she is the 2018 recipient of the Susan Landis Award for Service to the Arts from the State of West Virginia. Renée’s creative and critical work can be found at Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste, Poets & Writers, Bellevue Literary Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Trained in classical ballet, she holds degrees in creative writing from Butler University and West Virginia University and a Professional Certificate in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. Find her online at reneenicholson.com.


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Issue One