When some think of the song “Lady Marmalade,” one of their first thoughts is that it is a song about a New Orleans prostitute. On the surface it may be, but the song is much more nuanced and has deeper meaning beyond that. Listening to the song, I realized how ambiguous it is.
First, the title is “Lady Marmalade” for a song supposedly about a creole prostitute. For a woman who is a sex worker to be still called a “lady” is important despite that this aspect of the song is rarely discussed. She is a lady no matter what she does; she is still respected. Another is that she is creole. Looking into Caribbean studies, there is a lot of literature on the significance of creolization (creolite)– the hybridity or syncretism of cultures (ex. Santeria’s use of Catholicism), but in connection to the song, also the fear of racial and sexual miscegenation that Lady Marmalade represents. How do men in power suppress their fear about a sexually independent or powerful women or guilt about taking advantage of her; they usually call her a “hoe” or “prostitute” (i.e. Jezebel). Additionally, the lyrics themselves do not fully suggest she is a prostitute; it at most sounds like she is a sexually powerful woman. But even it being about a prostitute, the song refutes the sentiment that a song about a woman classified as a “hoe” or “prostitute” is not about one of us; it does concern all of us (“hey sista, go sista”).
To complicate the song more, it was sung by LaBelle, a trio of black women, in the 1970s. Given the history of the hypersexualization of black women and also at times their own self-repression of women’s sexuality, this puts the song and group in a complex space. Think of the early ’60s, when girl groups, like The Shirelles and The Supremes were expected to be “classy” and “demure” in song and dress. They were expected to be submissive to men; listen to the kind of begging questioning in “Will You Still Love Me Tommorrow.” But by the late ’60s, we had songs like Arethra Franklin’s “Respect,” where she demands it. Similarly, LaBelle returned in the 70s opening with the song “Morning Much Better,” telling her man plain and simple that she likes to make love in the morning not night.
LaBelle continued to showcase their sexual power and ambiguity in lyrics (thanks partly to Nona Hendryx’s songwriting skills) in songs like “Going Down Makes Me Shiver” (a gospel-tinged song that is supposedly about oral sex), “Turn Me On,” and “Man in a Trench Coat.” And instead of wearing gowns or dresses that covered them up, LaBelle were not afraid to dress in tight, revealing space-carnival looking outfits (look at Sarah Dash’s futuristic hula girl look or Hendryx’s skin tight white jumpsuit glittered on her suggestive places and with handcuffs on the side). LaBelle, along with other acts like Betty Davis and Tina Turner, showed that black woman could be strong and sexual without being degraded. They were breaking the mold of what a woman had to be.
But in 2001 when Lady Marmalade was remade, although I liked it, the song has always felt flat to me in comparison to the original and I could never put my finger on it till now. Not only did the musical production not have the same “ummph” that the original had, the visual presentation was not the same either. Here was four singers — Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, an Lil’ Kim — and the producer – Missy Elliot — singing the song for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. What the video and it’s attachment to the film about a Parisian courtesan did was make the song about lady marmalade being a prostitute, about being sold, instead of claiming her sexual power and having her story told. Imani Perry wrote in “Comparative Readings of the Creole Prostitute,” “they were telling the story of the past in which a woman found a little subversive power, but the storytellers themselves were contemporary women, futuristic even.” The later remake lacked that ambiguity and subversiveness, instead glamorizing prostitution, as Perry states. And while the singers themselves represent different kinds of creolization; the remake in connection to the film erase or push to the background the space for black woman. LaBelle was significant because they placed themselves at the intersection of race, gender and sexual politics with a funky song.
Read Mark Anthony Neal’s Superheroines of the Soul Universe article.