Dolly Parton’s popularity has endured, in large part, because even after five decades of stardom she remains an enigma in plain sight. Call it the Parton Paradox: Hers has been one of the most scrutinised female bodies in the history of modern celebrity, and yet no one can tell you for certain what her forearms look like. “Very often someone will wow you, but as you get to know them, the mystery wears off,” Jane Fonda, Parton’s co-star in the feminist film 9 to 5, told Rolling Stone in 1980.
The magical mysteries of Dolly Parton seem to be captivating a whole new generation. The 73-year-old is riding high on a trifecta of millennial milestones: She’s the subject of a serialised podcast (WNYC’s Dolly Parton’s America), the inspiration for a Netflix anthology series (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings), and the featured vocalist on an EDM song (the Swedish duo Galantis’s “Faith”).
In some sense, though, 2019 is an odd time for a Dolly renaissance. It’s easy to see why someone like Fonda — a kind of octogenarian Greta Thunberg — is enjoying an uptick in intergenerational support from a politically aware cohort too young to remember her days of antiwar activism. Parton, on the other hand, has remained reluctant to make the slightest hint of a political statement, even in these urgent times.
At the 2017 Emmys, Parton did what she’s also done when some interviews have gotten too political or contentious: she pulled from her trusted arsenal of boob jokes. “Well, I know about support,” she quipped, gesturing toward her chest. “If it weren’t for support, Shock and Awe here would be more like Flopsy and Droopy.”
One reason Parton’s approval rating is so high, though, is that all the attributes that used to set her up for criticism — the outrageous, hyper-femme style; the unapologetic business savvy needed to pull off her late-70s pop crossover; even the so-what acknowledgment of her own cosmetic surgery — are no longer taboo.
A generation that’s grown up with Snapchat-filtered selfies and pop feminism seems to have an innate understanding that artifice doesn’t negate authenticity, or that a penchant for towering wigs and acrylic nails doesn’t prevent someone from being a songwriting genius. Perhaps that’s why her rhinestone DNA is visible in young artists as varied as Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B — to say nothing of Parton’s own goddaughter Miley Cyrus.
Both-sides-ism rarely feels as benevolent as it does when coming from Parton, but that’s nothing new. When asked, in 1997, how she was able to maintain fan bases within both the religious right and the gay community, she replied, “It’s two different worlds, and I live in both and I love them both, and I understand and accept both.”
Parton was born in January 1946, to parents so poor they paid the doctor who delivered her in cornmeal. She started making up little songs before she even knew how to write. She sang with a voice like a rainbow: clear, bright, so cartoonishly pretty it’s almost hard to believe it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon. The night she graduated from high school — the first in her family to do so — her bags were already packed. She left for Nashville the next morning.
Though Parton, at first glance, comes off as an extraterrestrially confident ray of light, much of her music is grounded by an authentic sense of insecurity that she’s worked hard to overcome. She’s not a one-dimensional paper Dolly. She has bled.
Dolly Parton in 2019 contains a unique mixture of the old-fashioned and newfangled celebrity. Like a vintage Hollywood studio head, she understands stardom as a kind of blank dream screen onto which people project their own stories and fantasies. But she has also — long before social media — known the importance of the avatar, the fun that can be had in creating an exaggerated public caricature of oneself. And what are her pithy Dollyisms — “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” — if not proto-tweets?
© 2019 The New York Times