DOLLY PARTON at the Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lake Shore West), Friday (September 9), 7:30 pm, all ages. $25-$175. ticketmaster.ca.
There are many reasons you should go see Dolly Parton at the Molson Amphitheatre. The iconic singer hasn't played in Toronto in over 10 years. And at 70, there's no telling how many times she will again.
Her set list is packed with four decades of country and pop music's greatest hits (Jolene, I Will Always Love You, Here You Come Again, My Tennessee Mountain Home) and her costume trunk with the most dazzling sequined outfits. Her voice, like the title of her new album of love songs, remains Pure & Simple, and with a stripped-down three-piece band you'll get to hear more of it than usual. In short: she's a legend, and she puts on a grand ole show.
But for me, the most important reason to go see Parton is to bask in the presence of one of the strongest and savviest women in all of entertainment history.
As a fan, I'm well aware that Parton would never call herself a feminist. She has too much invested in her carefully crafted image as a humble girl from the Smoky Mountains, one of 12 children born to Pentecostal farmers, dirt poor and devout, who has succeeded through hard work, positive thinking and prayer. (See 1971's autobiographical Coat Of Many Colors, which remains her favourite song and unofficial anthem.)
At a recent Toronto press conference, which fell on the day after the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, she skilfully deflected any questions that could be interpreted as specific to gay rights with her standard "We should all love one another" talking points. On Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump she quipped, "I don't know who's going to wind up being president, but we're going to have PMS either way - presidential mood swings." And when really pressed on these things, she flashed her Miss America smile and said, "You know me. I don't get political."
Sitting amongst the media watching her spin, I could get mad at her for this and focus on the problematic stances she takes, or rather doesn't take; wish she would pull a Pussy Riot (or even a Dixie Chicks) once in a while. But I choose to ignore it the same way I ignore her many songs and statements about God, which have nothing to say to me about my life. Because there are different ways to be a role model.
And the honest truth is, when I look up at Parton, masterfully poised in 5-inch designer stripper heels, her hourglass figure poured into a gold leopard-printed leather suit, wrapping a room of jaded reporters around her fake-nail-topped fingers with a Southern belle accent and some stand-up comedy, I don't see glitz or ditz. I see a CEO fiercely in control of her own brand.
I know what the masses, the non-Dolly-worshippers, think of her, this patron saint of drag queens and plastic surgeons - that her greatest musical accomplishments are for the most part decades-old and have been overshadowed by her bra size.
But what I want them, especially the women, to understand about Parton is that she's in on the joke. In fact, she wrote the joke. (Her first solo single was called Dumb Blonde; her first indie record was Backwoods Barbie.) She knows that if you make fun of yourself first, you disarm your critics. Which is why she's just as likely to bust out her classic quip "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap!" in every interview as surely as her set at the Molson Amphitheatre will include 9 To 5 - one of the most successful working-girl anthems ever, don't forget.
Much like Kim Kardashian (or Parton's own goddaughter Miley Cyrus), Dolly's business acumen is oft dismissed because she uses her sexy body parts to get attention. But she is the original #bighairdontcare. Because at the end of the day, Dolly Parton is worth a reported $500 million. She's sold more than 100 million albums and songs worldwide. She turned a run-down amusement park into Dollywood, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the southern U.S. Her production company, Dixie Pixie Productions, founded to bring her stories and songs to film and TV, was a smash last year with its first show (the Dolly Parton: Coat Of Many Colors special was the most-watched film on NBC in nearly seven years) and is poised to do it again with a Christmas sequel.
And she uses her sizable assets for good: her Imagination Library charity gives more than 750,000 preschool children across North America a new book to read every month. In fact, one of her go-to jokes is that she'd rather be remembered for books than boobs.
So next time you see Dolly Parton (and I do hope it's in the flesh at her show), may it cross your mind that this is what a feminist looks like, too.