Losing my head over Catherine

How the musical sensation, Six, uncovers more than just the stories of Henry VIII’s wives

On Pop

I bought tickets for the musical Six thinking that this was evidence of me being an outstanding mother. Sure, I’d heard good things about the show by Toby Marlow and Lucy Ross, which reinvents the wives of Henry VIII as pop princesses in a battle to establish which of them had the roughest deal (after a successful West End run, it’s about to open on Broadway). I already knew the songs from my teenage daughter playing them incessantly — especially the Anne Boleyn number, a Lily Allen-esque anthem to brattiness with the refrain, “Sorry, not sorry ’bout what I said/ Don’t lose your head” (lyrics with an understandable appeal for a 13-year-old).

I did not expect to be reduced to trembling tears by the Catherine Howard, who is basically no one’s favourite Henry wife

So I expected catchy. I expected clever. I did not expect to be reduced to trembling tears by the Catherine Howard, who is basically no one’s favourite Henry wife. She didn’t supply any heirs, she didn’t cause a religious schism, she didn’t last long enough to leave any political mark. Her tenure, her reputation has it, was nasty, sluttish and short: she was married just over a year before adultery landed her on the scaffold. She was no older than 19. Allegedly sombre historians have applied words such as “wanton”, “delinquent”, “foul”, “disgraceful” and “tart”.

That’s the version of Howard who appears on stage, at least at first. She’s childlike, vain and provocative, sniping at the other wives for not being as hot as her. “I think we can all agree I’m a ten amongst these threes,” she trills at the beginning of her song, titled “All You Wanna Do”. But then the melody kicks in, she starts to tell her story, and everything changes. First, she sings about her first sexual experience with her music teacher:

Broad, dark, sexy Manox

Taught me all about dynamics

He was twenty-three

And I was thirteen

Going on thirty.

She sounds like Britney in her pomp: the Lolita tease of “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” (from Britney’s third album in 2002 which seemed funny pre-Yewtree), the nakedly sexual come-on of “Toxic” or “If You Seek Amy” (say it out loud).

All you wanna do, baby

Is touch me, love me

Can’t get enoughsies

sings Catherine in her chorus, a vamp who knows just what she is in men’s eyes.

All you wanna do, baby

Is please me, squeeze me

Birds and the bees me.

Then we get the story of Francis Dereham, who has Catherine assist him in his role as secretary:

Spilled ink all over the parchment

My wrist was so tired

Still, I came back the next day

As he required.

Then it’s Henry VIII, and finally “this one courtier/He’s a really nice guy, just/So sincere” — this is Thomas Culpeper, whose involvement with Catherine will lead to her execution. And with each verse, Catherine becomes a little more frantic, a little more desperate: “When will/Enough be enoughsies?” she cries out as her song comes to its end, the rest of the cast laying grasping hands all over the her to represent the men who took their piece of Catherine, the bravado and the sauciness all used up.

This isn’t exactly a song about the historical Catherine (although in preparation for her West End role, actress Aimie Atkinson spoke to the historian Gareth Russell, author of Young, Fair and Dammed: The Life of Catherine Howard). The original Catherine is somewhat lost to us, as nymphets tend to be, like Lolita dying in the remote outpost of Gray Star once Humbert has finished destroying her. Instead, it’s a song about how that destruction happens, and how inimical it is to any industry that allows older men to cultivate young women and girls — whether that’s the construction of Tudor noblewomen, or of the twenty-first-century pop star.

Squint a little at the sequins and insinuations, and it’s shamefully obvious that pop music demands terrible things from the women who are its icons

Squint a little at the sequins and insinuations, and it’s shamefully obvious that pop music demands terrible things from the women who are its icons. Britney (who is specifcally namechecked in the casting notes for Six) has been under legal guardianship since her breakdown in 2007. There is a squeamish element to someone not deemed competent to manage her own affairs playing the provocative woman-child in her music; still, I went to see her when she brought her Vegas show on tour to the UK.

Other acts have even more blatant parallels with Six’s Catherine. R Kelly, who played the impresario to young female performers such as Aaliyah (he produced her album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number) is the subject of multiple allegations of sexual assault against girls. Phil Spector, who arguably invented the art of inventing girls as pop stars, abused his charges according to ex-wife Ronnie Spector; eventually, he murdered a woman.

Under the glitzy skin of pop music, there’s a familiar story of sexism: who gets to do what to whom, and who has to pretend they like it. And so, I sat beside my daughter, and I sobbed over a long-dead girl-queen who learned in the hardest way that being wanted by the powerful is not the same as having power.

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