Throwing Fifty Shades of Shade at Soho House
Many New York publicists make you feel as though, when they're crossing your name off a press list at the door of an industry event, they are slapping handcuffs on your wrists. So when one actually, literally, cuffs you—with an actual, literal handcuff—as she welcomes you and directs you to the elevator, it shouldn't come as a surprise, right? Wrong. You panic. It's the panic that comes when you realize that, of your own free will, you've committed to attending a release party-slash-live author Q&A for a Fifty Shades of Grey-themed classical CD at the suffocatingly chic Soho House in the Meatpacking District.
The elevator is upholstered like a Harvard professor's armchair, or a padded cell for A-listers. Your body says, "Screw fighting—flightflightflight!!!!!!"… But you are not going to escape. Because the elevator doors just sealed off your exit and, as you step into the dimly lit parlor beyond, the cast of the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut is approaching.
I am a literate, college-educated, 23-year-old, very single, very white female living in a major metropolis. I grew up alongside Harry Potter (most of whose chronicles I purchased day-of-release with my middle-class parents' money). I have profiles on all of the social media. These qualities, according to myriad reports, make me a very important demographic for publishers of contemporary serial pop fiction. Largely because of this, I have made a concerted effort against any progression that would lead me to read Fifty Shades of Grey. (Plus, it's doing this.) But for a young (broke) writer full of hopes and dreams, cultural phenomena are cultural phenomena, and the ones that whip the masses into frenzied debate are bound to throw the most hilariously extravagant parties (read: open bars at posh clubs I'll never actually patron). So, when I received the invitation that announces Capitol Records will be hosting "An Evening with E.L. James" to celebrate "the official U.S. launch of Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album," I, of course, accepted, despite the unsettling facts that the book's protagonist (a) seems to be a 22-year-old woman (Uh…), (b) seems to have a bit of a complex about men (Uhhhhhh…), and (c) seems to be something of a journalist (ABORT, ABORT). And it turns out I didn't have to worry, because I and my plus-one, a college friend who shares my love of the ridiculous, are two of roughly 200,000 people fitting that description in attendance. Plus, wine. More on that in a minute, though.
A few liner notes about this whole clusterfuck: E.L. James, a British, 40-something mother of two, published Fifty Shades of Grey the book in June of last year, and since then it's sold over 30 million copies. The media has gone bat-shit over the series because, this summer, it overtook Harry Potter as the fastest-selling paperback book of all time. The inevitable movie adaptation is currently in (lightning-fast, probably) pre-production with the two dudes who produced The Social Network (one of them also produced American History X and Magnolia; the other produced Fanboys, so take that as you will). However, that movie, which will most definitely pop out of the Hollywomb with a double-platinum spoon in its mouth, hasn't even announced its cast, studio, or director yet, let alone its music supervisor. This album, therefore, is being billed as The Classical Album, composed of "the classical pieces that inspired [James] while [she] wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy." It is, almost literally, a glorified Spotify playlist compiled by James, then packaged and distributed for ten bucks a pop by Capitol/EMI Classic. It has nothing to do with the film soundtrack (though that will, whenever it finally comes out, probably look very similar). It is an audiobook without a narrator. I don't know who approached whom about its creation, but it's safe to say that both parties, author and label, are making a very nice profit on the record, for several reasons.
Firstly, all 15 tracks were written by composers who are long dead, which means that all of the original compositions are in the public domain (no need to fork over intellectual property royalties). Only one of the 15 tracks' sound recording copyrights (that is, the copyrights that make the label pay royalties to the musicians playing the instruments on the record) was even filed in the 21st century; most were recorded in the 1980s. They're all musty old tracks in EMI's recording catalog getting dusted off, and presumably for cheap (Chopin's "Nocturne No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 9," as recorded by Samson François, for example, appears on at least two other EMI compilations on the iTunes Store). Secondly, it's No. 41 on iTunes' Albums chart. Not as high in the ranking as the E! News reporter interviewing James would say that night before introducing the author (she claimed it was at No. 11, which might've been true on Monday, but definitely isn't now), but still pretty impressive for an instrumental album (it's beating out the 2 Chainz record). Thirdly, they don't even have to invest in radio promotion because the tracks are already playing on classical radio. But I digress. Where was I? Oh right. Handcuffs. And Wine.
Once we dodge the humongous foamboard poster of the album's cover art and the eager label staffer with a point-and-shoot pressing handcuffed guests to pose in front of it for press shots in the foyer, we are greeted by the
headliners audio furniture musical attraction of the evening: a very young, very good-looking, honest-to-god string quartet playing through what sounds like the entire 15-track album. (They are probably getting paid about the same as the musicians who recorded it, too.) Beyond them, the night's tableau comes into focus. The room is spilling over with distinct stereotypes. Young (white) women in cocktail dresses who work either (a) in marketing or (b) at entertainment websites, chatter excitedly in standing huddles and seem quite impressed with themselves for being present (we probably definitely fall into this category). Middle-aged (white) women with many-times-dyed blonde coiffures who have connections (or who work for the label/book publisher itself) dominate the seating arrangements and the odd hors d'oeuvre plate, palpably aflutter with anticipation of E.L. James' imminent arrival. Clusters of unamused old (white) guys in full-on suits — the obvious Capitol/EMI presence — confer with each other and do their best to make it clear that it is their professional duty to be here. And finally, the miserable, masked wait staff stands at attention, unsmiling, guarding neatly arranged glasses of wine to be downed by the cask by all of the above. To think I assumed they were having as much fun as these people!
The exposed brick walls, lit seductively by spindly chandeliers (because sex and BDSM and stuff), are crammed to the tin ceiling with bodies. The event photographer hovers around a group of three gleeful, 20-something blonde women, chatting them up and taking more shots of them than seems necessary at an overflowing party like this. I marvel, vaguely, at someone's failure (or very sneaky, subliminal success) to discourage James from including "Pachelbel's Canon in D" on this album.
Can't decide if I feel really bad for the quartet, or if this is the easiest money they've made in months. And then, an E! News reporter wearing a candy-teal cocktail dress kindly announces to the schmoozing crowd that it's time for everyone to shut up, please, because the cameras are about to roll and the Q&A is about to start. Attendees cluster feverishly around the crescent of upholstered couches framing the two spotlighted high chairs, one of which is occupied by the reporter, into the other of which a flustered-looking E.L. James is now being shepherded. I suddenly am wedged squarely behind the Label Suits, who, unsurprisingly, are very tall. My recorder out, I attempt to circumvent them, moving to an open spot to their left, but immediately, one of the Industry Mom types taps me on the elbow from her comfortable perch in an armchair behind me and bats at the air between us and, sneering, shoos me back behind the suits again. At the same time, another Industry Mom is maneuvering through the covey of entertainment reporters at my right and unceremoniously cuts through the suits brigade, elbowing one out of the way and insisting in a loud whisper, "I can't seeeeee her." The suit makes an indignant retort, but the Mom has firmly staked out her territory, and the interview in front of us has already begun.
This Monday night fête is the capstone of a press junket parade that's going down in conjunction with the album's release this week. Earlier today, James hung out with Katie Couric and played adorably coy about the non-news that she had "narrowed down" her list of hopefuls for the two lead roles. She will make appearances on classical stations and will probably do a couple more this week to promote
her Soundcloud mix the record. But most of what she'll be saying in those appearances is being trotted out before this crowd now, which by this point seems clearly split between the dutiful bored and the abashedly salivating. Arms and legs crossed around herself, James makes British jokes that get the perfectly timed laughs from the American throng (commuting on the tube is rubbish!). She hits the Rowling-esque sound bytes about "bringing women together" and getting people interested in reading again (though I wonder if middle-class adult literacy is truly a problem in the Internet era, and if it is, whether fan-fiction erotica novels are truly the gateway-drug solution). She swears vehemently that she has managed the Herculean feat of keeping her wildly successful, much-discussed erotica fiction career completely separate from the lives of her two teenaged sons, and that they are untouched by the ridicule of classmates who have discovered their mom writes soft-core BDSM fan-fiction because they are busy "getting their results" in school.
The thought crosses my mind that I may be holding unfair prejudice against James because of her striking resemblance to my ninth grade Honors English teacher who, I was convinced at 14, was an unimaginative and total hack. (Then I remember "Snowqueens Icedragon" and don't feel so bad about the sort-of-unfair parallel.) She swiftly declines to comment on the movie and on certain problematic "misconceptions" Fifty Shades of Grey has been criticized for perpetuating "about the BDSM lifestyle." She says she's very excited about people becoming interested in classical music! And when the interview is over, it's over. The room applauds with gusto. James makes her way to the door; a flock of recorder-wielding journalists scurry to follow suit, exiting at her heels. The interviewer tries to keep people huddled around the stage so that the camera crew can get some b-roll footage of the crowd, but she is largely ignored. Within minutes, the crowd has drained itself by half. The exciting illusion is dead. We can drain the last few drops of merlot from our glasses, and trade business cards, but quickly, quickly. The jig is up, everyone, goodbye. But please, have a copy of the CD and a cute button with a quote on it, and proceed directly to the elevator and into the night. Good luck wrestling your wrist out of that cuff.