Oh, freedom is mine: Weight Watchers and “Feeling Good”

By | January 18, 2011

Nina Simone, in France circa 1982

The past few years have seen the rise of a new sort of celebrity. I blame Kirstie Alley for this, given her particularly memorable turn as Jenny Craig spokesperson, but she is only one of the many — Valerie Bertinelli, Sara Rue, Carnie Wilson, Jason Alexander — who have been famous in recent years primarily for having been on a diet. The latest casualty collected by the diet-spokesperson bandwagon is Carrie Fisher, of all people, who was evidently driven to take the job by mean-spirited internet commenters. I’ve started to wonder if someday soon I will turn on my television to see Miss Piggy singing the glories of Jenny Craig to the tune of “The Rainbow Connection”.

The topic of today’s post is nearly as bad.

Jennifer Hudson has been shilling for Weight Watchers since the middle of 2010. Her new commercial campaign, predictably beginning with the new year, features a song known best to most folks today as a favorite of contestants on American Idol, or as something Michael Bublé sings. The song is “Feeling Good”, and it first drew popular interest when it was recorded by Nina Simone.

Nina Simone did not write “Feeling Good”, though her interpretation is probably the best-known version of it. “Feeling Good” is a song from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s musical The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd, which came to the stage in 1965. The two main characters, Sir and Cocky, represent the upper and lower classes respectively. The story is told as a Vaudevillian allegory of British society, in which Sir and Cocky continuously play a vaguely-defined “game” for success in life. The set looks something like a giant tilted game board, and Cocky plays for food, employment, and love. Sir, as the wealthy and influential, controls and changes the rules of the game at will, while Cocky, as the working class, dutifully follows them. Unsurprisingly, Sir always seems to win the game while Cocky always loses. However, it is neither of these characters who sings what may be today’s best-known number from this little-known show.

“Feeling Good” is sung by a character called simply “The Negro”. When this character appears, Sir decides to let him and Cocky play the game against each other, in a clear demonstration of how social tensions around race intersect with social tensions around class, and how racism pits poor white folks against poor Black folks to keep them from establishing common ground, which might pose a danger to the status quo. Predictably, Cocky’s kneejerk reaction is to become as imperious to The Negro, representing the sole person more oppressed then he, as Sir has been to him, and he attempts to dictate the rules to his new partner, who quickly realizes that he cannot win so long as his opponent controls the play. Sir steps in to reestablish the order of things, and while he and Cocky argue, The Negro seizes upon the opportunity and wins the game. “Feeling Good” is the song he sings afterwards:

“Feeling Good”

Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good

Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all havin’ fun, you know what I mean
Sleepin’ peace when day is done, that’s what I mean
And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Oh, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good

Nina Simone was much heralded as a genre-defying pianist and singer in her own time, and used her platform as a popular artist to express her radical politics during the civil rights era. A proponent of armed responses to racism, Nina frequently sang songs written specifically to address the horrors of institutionalized inequality, such as the fantastic show-tune-without-a-show “Mississippi Goddam”. Nina also borrowed music from other sources and recreated it to illustrate her politics; one example is her live cover of “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera, a song originally about the vengeance of a jealous woman, but which in Nina’s hands becomes a vivid and chilling vision of violent revolt against white supremacy.

Nina’s cover of “Feeling Good” was recorded in 1965 — the same year the show from which it is taken debuted — and like virtually everything she recorded around this time, her rendition was steeped in the political climate. Though the lyrics seem straightforward enough, “Feeling Good” is a song of tragic optimism, of retaining hope even in the face of insurmountable odds. With “Feeling Good”, Nina did what Nina did so well, and invested a song with meaning as much in the way she sang it as by the words themselves. It is a song both sad and victorious, expressing the frustration that this is a battle that needs fighting in the first place.

From here, we come to Weight Watchers.

Jennifer Hudson has said of the song and the campaign: “Feeling good is the perfect way to express how I feel right now… I’ve tried diet after diet, plan after plan and I’ve only gotten so far, but never this far. I feel like I have a new life, I feel like a brand new person.”

“Feeling Good” has been, since its inception, a song about an oppressed minority surviving in spite of the odds piled against them, and occasionally even managing to succeed not because anything’s been handed to them, but by sheer force of will. It is a song of marvelous depth, even with its uncomplicated lyrics.

What it is not, is a song about an individual’s assimilation — Jennifer Hudson or anyone else — into the cultural mainstream. It is not a song about overcoming the oppression of one’s stubbornly different body, as that body is not the subject of oppression but the object. The only way to force “Feeling Good” to fit this mold is to strip it of context, as the commercial above does. And you know, it’s fine to listen to a piece of music and just feel good about it; I don’t have unreasonable expectations that everyone should know all the background information to every song they ever hear. But it’s something else to take such a song and use it to sell the idea of a “new life” through Weight Watchers, when Hudson herself has said of her “new life”: “Being skinny, it’s a job. It’s not easy.” And given that nearly every assessment of the campaign has focused not on how Hudson feels, but how she looks, this hardly qualifies as the revolutionary moment the commercial is selling.

The obvious criticisms of this song choice are that dieting doesn’t, in fact, feel good, and often the good feeling that may come as the end result of dieting is short-lived: because of weight regain, or because of the shift in how people treat you when you’ve gone from fat to less fat, or because of the well-documented disappointment that many folks feel when their weight loss fails to fix all their problems — even the ones having nothing to do with their size.

…Hudson said she is still grappling with knowing herself in her thinner frame. She said she still feels like the same woman, but is aware that people now view her differently. “It’s almost like there is a new person, but there is still the question of how do I want to represent myself, how do I [want] to be perceived,” she said. (Source)

The less obvious undercurrent running through this campaign is Weight Watchers’ attempt to capitalize on the familiarity of liberation rhetoric and “diva” stereotypes to make their product more appealing to Black women. Jennifer Hudson is a once-fat Black woman who famously talked about how she enjoyed her “curves” pre-weight-loss, and who now instead exults in her newfound slenderness. The choice to use her to convince proud and ostensibly “curvy” Black women that they need Weight Watchers too, if they want to feel good, is hardly a coincidence.

Understand, the thing that bothers me about the recycling and/or co-opting of certain cultural artefacts in order to sell people things is not that their commercial use erodes their brilliance. “Feeling Good” is a marvelous song no matter where it’s used. It’s that this new environment lacks context, and context is the stuff that our collective sense of cultural history is made of. The fuller context of “Feeling Good” should make its use in this situation offensive to us. But because the politics and art of the civil rights movement are not something on which everyone is properly educated, the song becomes popularly known only as a Weight Watchers jingle. (Excluding the occasional extraordinarily clueless outrage at the “theft” of the song, as expressed by this commenter on Bossip: “Sure she sounds great but she stole that song. That song is Feeling Good by MUSE and it was on their album Origin of Symmetry. And she changed and took out some words. I hate how she published it as her own. What a cheat.”)

If Jennifer Hudson is happy with her new shape, then I’m happy for her. I am not the body police, for obvious reasons, and so I will not condemn her for her private decisions. What I will condemn is the choice to promote Weight Watchers using this particular song. Though authorial intent is of little value in the kind of criticism I do, I daresay that Nina Simone would be dubious of the notion that paying money to Weight Watchers for the privilege of restricting one’s diet in an effort to assimilate — an excellent means of keeping women distracted from larger social issues — could result in anyone’s liberation.

At any rate, that’s how I feel about it. I am dubious.



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