Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Italiano
by James Killough
I’m not a big reality TV person. In fact, that’s Tuttle’s purview, so I won’t encroach on his turf too much other than to say that I caught a couple of episodes of Jerseylicious the other night. At one point I realized I was sitting on the edge of my seat with my mouth hanging open in awe, as if I were witnessing some spectacular natural disaster, or a dramatization of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
An apparent spin-off of Jersey Shore, this particular reality show focuses on a clutch of “glamour” cosmetologists from a hair and makeup salon called Gatsby’s in Green Brook, New Jersey. This is very much Reality TV 2.0: most of the show is set up and staged. There are too many over-the-shoulder reaction shots with no second camera behind the person being spoken to for it to be completely impromptu, and there always seems to be a camera on the other end of the phone to record the person being called in an “unexpected” emergency. However, just in terms of the styling and the lifestyle, there is little doubt that this is slice-of-life; in other words, these caricatures really do dress and talk like a version of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean set in Jersey starring Fran Drescher in all of the roles.
Even though I’m a native New Yorker, and Green Brook is near the City, I’ve had very little contact with these outlandish creatures. They must be all at least fourth generation Italo-Americans, but like almost everyone from that ethnic group they identify as Italians, as if they’re all here on extended work visas and plan to return once they’ve saved enough money to fix up the old farm in Reggio Calabria. Every so often they use some word that sounds Italianate, which is probably some mash up between southern dialect and English, but I can’t make out what it is.
The only other sociocultural group in the States I can think of that still so closely identifies with the European country of origin after so many generations is the Irish in Boston; outside of that city, they don’t seem to care as much, but there is still an iron umbilical cord connecting “Dorchestah” with Limirick.
The title of this post is adapted from the now popular song “Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano,” first dusted off for The Talented Mr. Ripley, and recently remixed as a boom-boom club song by Yolanda Be Cool. The title means “you wanna be the American,” or you want to be cool and pretend you’re something you’re not, which is what the song is about; i.e., the Italian aspiration to be cool, post-War Americans, as opposed to being Italo-Americans in Jersey aspiring to be “Italian.” The lyrics are in Neapolitan, and my understanding of that lyrical dialect isn’t great, but let me try translating with an easy, salient verse:
Tu abballe ‘o roccorol
tu giochi al basebal ‘
ma ‘e solde pe’ Camel
chi te li dà? …
La borsetta di mammà!
Tu vuò fa l’ americano
ma si nato in Italy!
You dance Rock ‘n’ Roll
You play baseball
But the money to buy Camels
Who gives it to you?
You wanna be the American
But you were born in Italy!
People who have extensive exposure to the real Italy would refer to Italo-Americans as just that, never as Italians. Even Italo-American cuisine has a taste as distinctive from its place of origin as Panda Express is from an authentic Chinese restaurant in Beijing.
At this point, they are so many generations removed from Italy, that they had might as well not even put the “Italo” in front of it, much less call themselves Italian. I don’t say I’m Scots-American, even though I’m ethnically almost pure that way, both on my mother’s and father’s side, and she is from an entirely different colony, Australia. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is an iron umbilical cord at work here, too.
In a sense the protagonists of both Jersey Shore and Jerseylicious are Italian-esque, but not in a way they would be proud of if they understood the nuances of real Italian culture. However many generations removed they are, those Jersey boys and girls would be labeled burini by all Italians, unanimously, immediately. And as much as burini might sound like a fresh-baked panini with butter, it isn’t. Burino somewhat inadequately translates to “rube” or “boor,” but like many things in Italian culture it is a state of mind and being all to itself.
Anyone can get the sense of what burino means just by looking at the Jersey kids’ style and watching them behave. Their chronic burino-ness blares at you from the tacky “glamour” of the women, from the wife-beater, musclehead-ness of the men, from the gauche behavior in which they wallow. Burino-ness is the point of both shows, something the producers presumably accentuate for the appeal of lurid characterization.
Why would anyone want to be this? It’s certainly an odd reality, but it must feel comfortable in a group. It’s like they’re all in drag all the time, which is consistent with the instinct that runs throughout real Italian culture, which is to dress up and preen, to gesticulate and over-dramatize, to treat the world like a catwalk, to talk smack about absolutely nothing, constantly. It always struck me that both silence and talking about anything salient or intellectual are considered rude in Italy, which makes me want to wear earplugs when I’m in the vicinity of real Italian tourists, and is one of the reasons I haven’t been back there in twenty years; it might sound like a beautiful song of a language, but dear God they talk such shit, endlessly.
“Being badly dressed is social suicide,” goes the Italian saying, which is why one of the most remarkable things about Italy is how well everyone is turned out. No matter how poor you are, you will own two decent dresses rather than fifteen crappy ones. This is one of the aspects of Italy I laud. It is possibly the most aesthetically pleasing country in the world overall, and the food is almost universally delicious, even in the humblest trattoria.
In gay culture, specifically in online cruising culture, putting “Italian” in your profile is somehow deemed alluring. In my experience, real Italians are not very good lovers. As another expression of theirs goes, they are all smoke and no roast.
“But the money to buy camels, who gives it to you? Your Mamma’s purse,” is the line from the aforementioned song describing the real Italian male: he tends to be a mamma’s boy, repressed and inhibited in bed, even squeamish, never a good thing for a Ghey to be. This applies to a lesser degree to most French and Spanish guys I’ve been with, too. Germans are gruff and forceful, no grace in the sack. For my money, or lack thereof, the best lovers are North Americans (including Canucks), some Latins (Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, for example), and Antipodeans, i.e. the Aussies and the Kiwis. Why? Lack of inhibition. And practice. We have a lot of sex, we like our sex, we’re enthusiastic about it. And we’re not worried about what mamma or the Madonna might think.
The last Italo-American I dated from online, who mentioned on the first line of his profile that he was “Italian” — wait, no, it was even in his screen name, something like “PureItalianBeef” — was a great guy. He was funny, masculine, sexy in a gruff-voiced, full-lipped way, paid for dinner and drinks (it gives my ego no small amount of pleasure to have young bucks pay for me; I loves a Sugar Baby), and, true to his ethnic background, he lasted seven and a half minutes in bed. Two times seven and a half, but still. And it was all about his pleasure, I could have been a living dildo for all he cared. So I guess some things are carried down over the generations in a completely different country, after all. However, despite this combined fifteen minutes having occurred in Jersey, PureItalianBeef wasn’t anything like a puffed, frosted, steroided, blinged confections that tumble out of those shows like so many clowns.
Speaking of bottoms, it appears my evil twin Andrew Sullivan has joined The Daily Beast, which explains a lot about his more thoughtful approach to his editorials. I had hoped to link this blog to TDB at some point, but I have a long way to go before I catch up with Sullivan. If Malcolm Gladwell is right, I have to put in ten thousand hours before I become a true blogueur. Or maybe PFC will grow and flourish on its own, and I’ll buy Time Magazine in a spectacular stock swap. I can hear you singing “tu vuo’ fa’ la Tina Brown.” Hey, why not? Never say die, baby.
I grew up about 10 minutes from Green Brook. I had no idea a reality show was set there, and if you had asked me to pick a town to stage one, it wouldn’t be that generic strip of central Jersey. There’s literally nothing to distinguish its borders from the towns on either side. It’s not rich. It’s not poor. It’s just a random, blue-collarish suburban town wedged between a big highway and a little one.
Seeing those women is like being sucked back 15 years, when I spent my weekends jamming in dingy rock clubs. I can’t help but have a soft spot (or is it a hard spot… hmmm) for them. The brunette’s eye make-up is custom Jersey. Any anthropologist would agree.
I’d so take her home.
The guy in the muscle T… I rang him and his brethren up a million times when I was a teenager working in the mall. Every last one of them drove a Camaro and stood too close to me when they talked.
The town over from mine was mafia run and you HAD to be Italian to get an apartment there. It’s changed now. Multi-ethnic, like the rest of the state. I cracked up when I read the bit about the farm back home. You’re right. People who have been here for 4 generations still affect their voices to sound like recent immigrants.
As a local who often interacts with people out of state, people are almost always shocked that I speak like the educated person I am. People also think we are all white trashy characters who live in crumbling blue-collar towns and that the big houses are all populated by gangsters. I promise, I’ve never said the word, “youse,” in my life.
Thank you, popular culture.
Indeed, this post was my love letter to you. MWAH!
Thank you. I accept it platonically.
I’m working on a piece for Sunday, FYI. The high of being able to tell people I’ve done a guest post for someone hasn’t worn off yet.
You actually brought to my attention a typo in the first posting, “they BOUGHT enough money to fix up the farm.” Shoulda been “saved enough.” As long as we’re editors, we should try to edit each other when we can.
Yeah, this collaborating thing is fun, and a relief. There is always strength in numbers. All three of us have similar styles, or we can all follow a similar voice that’s emerging from PFC as we go along.