Trying to take stock: ‘Popular Music Stardom and Post-war Italy’

DR. RACHEL HAWORTH, LECTURER IN ITALIAN, RESEARCHER IN ITALIAN AND FRENCH POPULAR MUSIC AND CULTURE

It’s been 12 months since the official start the project on ‘the many meanings of Mina’ and since the first phase research trip to Rome to collect resources from magazines and TV programmes about Mina’s star image in the 1960s and 1970s. Although I started researching Mina way back in 2010, I’ve been able to concentrate on her more completely over the past two years, and particularly since having the opportunity to work in Rome courtesy of the British Academy. The project has developed in very surprising directions since I first envisaged working on Mina and even since last year. The aim has always been to explore what Stephen Gundle refers to as an Italian star’s ability to ‘function as a cultural symbol and conduit for ideas about gender, values and national identity’ (‘Stars and Stardom in the Study of Italian Cinema’, p. 263) in the context of Mina as a case study. Hence the ‘many meanings’: my aim is to examine what Mina has come to signify in the post-war Italian context and what then she represents about Italian culture and how she is a vehicle for ideas about Italian identity and values pertaining to gender, yes, but also popular music and the role of celebrity in Italian society from the 1950s and 1960s right up to the present day.

Yet in undertaking research about Mina in the context of Barilla television adverts, the urlo, cinema, scandals, Italian variety television of the 1960s, the music industry, and the Sanremo Festival, the potential of the project has begun to expand. Not only am I examining how Mina functions as a cultural symbol and conduit: I am also exploring how a specifically popular music star can function in this way. This means engaging with questions about popular music stardom, which is very different to film stardom, or television stardom. Marshall explains that ‘the celebrity of popular music is constructed from elements quite different from those that make up the film celebrity. These elements are related to the technology of production and reception, the form of address that is peculiar to the singing of a song, the industrial and commodity configuration of the musical product, and the audience’s collective and individual relationship to the music and the performer’ (P. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power, p. 163). Yet whilst these are certainly some of the elements that constitute Mina’s star image, she was also a film star in the early 1960s, and then a television star throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. Her star image, then, is arguably ‘intermedial’. In their analysis of intermediality in theatre, Chapple and Kattenbelt speak of intermediality as the intersections created when ‘art forms of theatre, opera and dance meet, interact and integrate with the media of cinema, television, video and new technologies, creating profusions of texts, inter-texts, inter-media and spaces in-between’ (Intermediality in Theatre and Performance, p. 24). Intermediality is a creative space that is generated when mediums come together. My project is therefore beginning to propose that we identify Mina as a intermedial star. In doing so, we are able to identify new meanings in her star image and status that speak to the social and cultural changes taking place in Italy in the 1960s. But we can also start to more fully acknowledge the presence and interplay of different mediums in the construction of popular music stars more broadly. The case of Mina, I hope, will provide a model for reading the process of constructing a popular music star as well as the multiple meanings such a star embodies.

Yet the research I have been undertaking most recently about Mina’s popularity and success in Japan and West Germany in the early 1960s has opened up another element to the project that I had not as yet thought about. This research has shown that Mina in these two countries in this period did not represent anything specifically Italian. Rather, in Japan, she is seen to be a good example of European sophistication and chic. And in Germany, she is a Schlager singer and so part of an exotic but ultimately German phenomenon. Her italianita’ is not obviously deployed in the construction of her star image in these two countries. Rather, she becomes in these contexts a transnational popular music star, who is able to ‘to produce cultural meaning in relation to (but not dictated by) the existing power structures of nations and states, to remain mobile, flexible, and open to multiple avenues of meaning and pleasure in different contexts of politics, social relations, and cultural assumptions’ (Meeuf and Raphael, Transnational Stardom, p. 2). This realisation has subsequently encouraged me to think about Mina not as a specifically Italian star but rather as an example of a popular music star first and foremost, ie, a star from what is arguably a global industry, who then acquires specifically Italian connotations to her persona. Yet she is also an Italian popular music star and I do think that there is something specifically Italian about her and her kind of star status.

So as well as thinking about Mina, and then Italian popular music stars, and then the construction of popular music stardom, and then the transnational element in popular music success, I’m also thinking about the circulation of popular cultural forms in both national, international, and indeed transnational contexts. Plenty more to think about, then!

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