“Why you procrastinate girl?”: Azealia Banks’ “212″ and negative reinforcement

At some point during the winter holidays, I found myself in an airport terminal checking my Twitter feed. Sarah Jaffe tweeted that she wakes up to Azealia Banks’ “212″. By the end of my first term at Madison, I integrated it into my morning routine. It’s forward-looking pop that’s brimming with attitude. Banks’ filthy mouth rivals her pop star’s ear. No wonder you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with the song’s oft-quoted lyric. I hope Karl Lagerfeld paid for one.

Mainly, “212″ made me feel good. It made me feel 50 feet tall on my afternoon jogs. It made me feel invincible as I was wrapping up term papers and posting students’ grades. It made me feel good while drowning out crying babies or trying to wrap my head around Judith Butler’s “Contingent Foundations” on the bus. It still makes me feel like the pedestrian bridge is my runway when I’m heading over to Memorial Library from Vilas.

But I began to wonder why I felt good listening to “212″. Look, I’m not anti-pleasure. Let’s celebrate our bodies. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s play. But as a feminist, I think we have a responsibility to account for how our pleasures are constituted, what they mean, and if they harm or exclude others. So I could easily pull apart the elements that make it a great pop song. Any well-constructed pop song can withstand such deconstruction and usually does without its permission.

There’s Banks’ giddy delivery. She thrilled that she’s getting away with lines like “cock-a-licking in the water by the blue bayou.” There’s the beat, of course, coupled with passages of relentlessly inventive, unfolding, interlocking hooks. And there’s oh so much fun queer sex at play that I don’t even care or notice if I’m being dominated. Actually, I like it! The song’s deceptively simple melody and complex production design reveals itself gradually upon repeated listens. It is rich with “details and decisions that” according to Tom Ewing, “suggest a scary degree of pop talent.” And like any good piece of pop art, it’s projectable. It sounds like a dystopian rave remix to “Miss Mary Mack.” It sounds like a dance party at zero gravity. It sounds like tripping balls, making crank calls, and scissoring on the moon. It transcends all of these empty proclamations.

But as a feminist, I wondered how or if I could justify liking this song, or if that was missing the entire point. I couldn’t figure out how I felt about the song’s trash talk. Which of course made me think about all of the other female MCs I love who could teach graduate seminars on the subject. Trash talk is the foundation of battle rapping. Importantly, it’s something women in hip hop engage in with one another as well as with their male counterparts. Roxanne Shanté took on Sparky Dee and UTFO. It’s also integral to the process of star formation, uttering a self in opposition and from an elevated platform (at least seemingly) of her own making.

Does trash talk fit into feminist practice? This is a follow-up question to another issue I’ve posed on this blog: how does feminism account for feminists who don’t get along with each other? I don’t like to think of any feminist as my enemy, but I knew at least one in my early twenties who is no longer my friend. How does feminism account for that? Sisterhood is about collaboration, but collaboration is hardly utopian. Even people with the same goals will radically disagree and may even make each other angry. I try to be kind to myself and not negatively compare myself against “more successful” colleagues in my small moments. As a feminist, I feel it’s my duty to be supportive or, if I can’t be so noble, at least not petty. But I have as much “Imma ruin you, cunt” in me as I do “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”

But I’m stuck in a dead end. I wrote a term paper about anti-fan discourse around Zooey Deschanel last semester. One of my professor’s critiques was that I seemed unable to engage with my own anti-fandom. Which is true. I actively avoided engaging with it because I didn’t want to confuse my hatred of “Zooey Deschanel” (as sign, as image, as marketing tool) with my relative lack of knowledge about Zooey Deschanel, person. I know some infuriating things about her that suggest I would hate her as a person, but I’m not sure where to make the distinction. And I’m worried that the entire exercise might be misogynistic.

“212″ uses the word “bitch” constantly, almost as a preposition. It also treats the n-word like a preposition, which is a different but related issue I don’t know how to address. I’m aware that I contribute to a publication that reclaimed “bitch” for feminist purposes. So long as Bitch continues to publish work by people like s.e. smith, Aymar Jean Christian, Alyssa Rosenberg, J. Victoria Saunders, and Audra Schroeder, I’ll remain proud of that. But I’m deeply ambivalent about such appropriation.

I get the tactical reasons behind it–steal and repurpose words that have been imposed on you. But on the one hand, I do not like and do not abide being called a “bitch,” “slut,” or “hoe” as an ironic term of endearment by girlfriends. I don’t think it’s cute. I think it’s oppressive. I feel the ground shift beneath me each time I hear it on a lunch date or at happy hour, as though the subtext beneath the sweetly delivered pejorative is “Imma ruin you, cunt.” All of the sudden an innocent meet-up is a game of chess and I lost my queen. Yet on the other hand, I can’t count how many times I’ve used those words on myself. 30 Rock fans, remember that cutaway gag where a dolled-up Liz Lemon looks in the mirror, yells at herself for sweating, and calls herself a bitch? I only laughed because I recognized an ugly side of myself in the joke.

I may (and do) mouth the words “Imma ruin you cunt” on the way to class and in the middle of the run. But the bridge to “212″ is what gets me. It’s the only sung moment, and appropriately, the only truly vulnerable moment. Banks questions her own bravado, laziness, and expendibility. It’s a heavy moment, and one she cannot dwell on because the beat carries her away. As it should. These moments of self-doubt are necessary, transformative, and recurrent, but we can’t be paralyzed by them.

In some ways, “212″ is a mirror image of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” There’s a major difference between the two songs, of course. “212″ doesn’t end with a gong or indulge in Orientalist notions of Japanese women’s sense of style. Imagine my horror when I was rocking out to it for the fifth time and realized she wasn’t singing “Your hair is sure cute, girl. Damn, you’ve got some wicked style.” Stefani’s desire to “go back and do Japan, give me lots of brand new fans” should’ve been a clue. Or the video. That’s how pop gets you.

“What You Waiting For?” is about Stefani’s fear that she’s an imposter and can’t create new music as a solo artist after years of fronting No Doubt. It’s in the verses that she calls herself a stupid hoe. The bridge is where she imagines herself past the self-loathing and back on stage. Where the comparison doesn’t work is that Banks isn’t colonizing Asian women for personal gain (on that tack, I await her M.I.A. collaboration). But where the comparison does have some salience is in how Banks spends most of the song bragging, talking shit, acquiring sexual favors, and dominating people except in one instance where she’s not sure if she’s worth it. Banks and Stefani have to confirm for themselves that they matter so they can keep on dancing. So do we. Sometimes we need a pop song to help us move forward, even if the reasons why we dance are never innocent.

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27 comments

  1. pearleyes

    This is such a beautiful piece. “Sometimes we need a pop song to help us move forward” I will cut out & keep. Thank you for asking these questions and laying your thought process out. I hear where you’re coming from, have asked myself the same questions many times. I think there’s a tension between what makes you legible – as a woman and artist – to patriarchal culture, and what you wish was legible. Into that gap all manner of creative energy surges.

  2. distance88

    Hey Alyx,

    Azealia is someone who definitely caught my ear, particularly with songs like ’212′, ‘The Chill$’, the cover of Interpol’s ‘Slow Hands’ (which shows off her singing voice a bit more), ‘Us’, and her collaboration with the Scissor Sisters. Some of her other stuff is less interesting though–I felt like ‘Liquorice’ could’ve/should’ve been more clever for a song supposedly discussing interracial relationships/hook-ups (maybe I was hoping for something more serious..like something along the lines of ‘Clear Blue Skies’ by the Juggaknots).

    But since you were discussing both trash talk and sisterhood in your post, I was wondering what your take is regarding the Azealia Banks & Kreayshawn back-and-forth on Twitter a couple months ago where Azealia says, “you think you’re funny? you’re a dumb bitch. And you can’t rap. I’ll sit on your face. … Fall back slut. Lol. This is how bitches wanna start the new year ? They want their mics ate this early ?”

    More context and other tweets here: http://www.complex.com/music/2012/01/azealia-banks-takes-shots-at-kreayshawn-on-twitter

    While I definitely feel that Kreayshawn is worthy of derision (for reasons too numerous to mention here) and the “can’t rap” statement is pretty accurate, the rest of this seems misguided and odd.

  3. AJ Christia

    Great piece, Alyx. As a music neophyte I’d been looking for a feminist lens through which to evaluate Banks, whose delivery I so respect but whose overall performance perplexes me. (It seems prudent to mention she’s bisexual, which might situate her language, though not her discourse, in a very specific subculture).

    I’m sure others have connected Banks to the likes of Tyler the Creator, Kreayshawn, and maybe some of the dubstep rappers in the UK, a generation of young artists channeling playful disregard for social norms — hence all the kuntin’ — but doing it lackadaisically, suggesting they’re aware previous generations did plenty of challenging. I’m just guessing; I don’t know these artists well. I think to older folk it sounds nihilistic and empty, wrapped in candied pop — because hip hop was pop in the 90s and 2000s — but with a dark heart. I don’t know what to make of it, really, except to guess it signals a broader disenchantment with “culture wars,” and then, following the UK riots, perhaps a unarticulated desire for politics based on economic/civil rights. But now I’m just freestyling.

  4. laluhflux

    I think that it’s really unfortunate that this deconstruction seems to be coming from the generally white perspective on the reclamation on words, especially in rap music. I don’t see the point in trying to police Azealia Banks’ language to try to make it more “white” sounding which apparently is more appropriate?… If her music makes you uncomfortable, it’s important to think about your relationships to the words she’s using but also her relationships to those words and of course the larger context of those words. This post lacked a critical, larger lens for me.

    • Alyx Vesey

      I think I get your point. And, as a cisgender bisexual able-bodied, class-mobile white woman, I admit that I come to texts from a limited set of means (as do we all, depending on what categories we fit or don’t fit into in relation to the texts we take up). And that was where this piece was coming from–my fandom of the song, and my evaluation of what my fandom of the song–and Azealia Banks more broadly, though the piece doesn’t cover that–might mean in terms of how I organize my own feminist practice. This may speak to your comment that this post lacked a larger, critical lens for you. However, I would feel really uncomfortable speaking *for* those perspectives and thus sought to embed them within the post through links. But I wonder–and I’m interpreting here–if what’s missing for you in this piece is Banks’ interpretation of her own song. Is that correct? If so, that’s totally fair. I tried to find interviews where she talked about “212″ and couldn’t find much commentary (I did embed an interview she did with Pitchfork). Maybe she’d be willing to talk to Feminist Music Geek about this.

      Out of curiosity, how might you write a post on Azealia Banks’ “212″? What interests you about the song? What would you ask? What would you seek to find?

      However, two points of clarification. First, I don’t want to police Banks’ language. The intention of this piece was *not* to say “Banks needs to watch her mouth.” I wouldn’t impose that on another woman as a feminist, particularly as a white woman evaluating a black woman’s words. Secondly, I’m not uncomfortable by her language but leery of what that sense of comfort might imply. I am not interested in appropriateness. I actually find the inappropriateness of her lyrics fresh and empowering. I also think she’s a really fascinating wordsmith. I marvel at how she can turn “bitch” into a preposition. But what does finding empowerment through this song mean for a white woman? That’s where I can’t be innocent. A white woman singing “Imma ruin you cunt” (and avoiding the n-word) to herself is not innocent. That’s my particular position. Other people may deal with their lack of innocence differently. Though I cannot and will not speak for them, I hope this comment thread is but one safe space for those who choose to do so.

      Finally, some lingering questions. What does the larger discourse of trash talk within hip hop mean to feminist hip hop fans? And can trash talk fit into feminists’ projects and daily practice? That’s what I sought to ask through this piece and Banks’ “212″ helped me formulate that question. I also nod to hip hop’s long history of trash talk, but certainly hip hop is not the only space where women (of many different identity categories around gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and ability) talk trash. Where else can we see trash talk from women operating in the culture and what can we learn from it?

      • laluhflux

        Thanks for the thoughtful response!

        I of course didn’t want you to speak for those perspectives, but bringing them up isn’t speaking for them. When you said “I think it’s oppressive” in relation to being called the words “bitch”, “ho”, etc. it irked me because I think that’s too simple of an explanation. It is oppressive… right now? Ahistorically? Unconditionally? To you? To certain groups of people? I guess I’m hungry for more of what you talked about in your comment about what it means to be white feminist and listening to this, coming from a women of color, using the “n-word”, etc. I have thought a lot of the same thoughts that you have posted in this and in the comment you replied with. It’s hard, as a feminist, not to try to fit things into a feminist narrative that already exists. Sometimes it’s best to try to find a new narrative instead of putting it into a tired category. I tend to look to queer theory for ways of deconstructing things. Of course, queer theory and feminism overlap quite a bit, but queer theory usually has a much more complicated view of intersectionality, deviance, etc. although it isn’t always perfect of course. I think it’s best to keep things as complicated as they are while deconstructing them. Language is very complicated, and language is ever-changing. Identity politics are complicated. What does it mean to fit Azealia Banks into a feminist lens when she does not identify as a feminist? What does it mean to call oneself a “feminist”? What does it mean to categorize some things as feminist and others as not feminist, how productive is it in certain cases to create that type of ahistorical dichotomy? And who has been allowed to say what is and what isn’t feminism? What does it mean to reclaim a word or say others can’t? I have had many thoughts about 212, but I think for the most part I just want to hear more from Banks. If I were to write about Banks, I would probably write about how she voices sexuality because historically black women’s sexuality has not been voiced by black women. There has been large silence around black women’s sexuality, in a way to combat the hyper-sexualized image of the black woman (which did not start in hip hop culture, this was created by white patriarchy). It’s so incredibly important for there to be more dialogue from black women on their own sexuality. Silence was not effective because it didn’t allow for articulation, which is what Azealia is doing through her music. I do think the question about trash talk is interesting, too, and I don’t know the answer to that. In an interview with GQ, Azealia Banks said, “’212′ makes fun of everything and my reactions to it. I think that’s a lot of the reason why people relate to it so much, because everybody wants to say, “F*** you!” I think by virtue of English culture being so polite, I feel like there’s definitely a part of every English person that just wants to be like, “Aargh!” That’s why it’s picking up so much over here.” How does trash talking relate to feminism if its about speaking your mind? Is being polite something that women are more pressured to do? Femme women? Women of color? Disabled women? Who do we expect to be polite and why? What are the social narratives that these images or expectations fit into? What was the context? I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb by suggesting most of the time, identities that are associated with power (ones with privilege) are usually more allowed to speak their mind.

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  6. frip

    I just wanna say I agree about the bitch word, h-word and n-word used against black people and women, being black girl myself. Why is it only white men have no words used against them. This whole ‘reclaiming’ words thing is bullshit, these words are degrading and humiliating and will never be properly reclaimed.
    I can’t think of one women who enjoys being called a bitch and the h-word, besides outside a friendly medium.

  7. Amber

    I have no problem reclaiming the word bitch and slut myself, it is empowering for me and has nothing to do with me not liking myself. I was not aware that the lyrics in that part of the song were about her doubting herself, I thought they were about that Krayshawn lady.

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  9. mzanita

    Hi, I loved your review of this song (Azealia is infectiously good, but it was escaping me why I liked her so much until I sat down and wrote about it too). Your post really helped get me started on my thought process. I hope you don’t mind I linked back to your site. I’d love to include you on my blog roll too; I’m just getting started with a feminist-leaning music criticism blog and I’d love to hear your thoughts. -anita

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  12. jennyekbergstjohn

    I’m still in the first phase (that is, loving 212), but I completely get what you write. The feminist me feels almost guilty about liking it. However, because I grew up in Sweden where almost nothing is censored, just listening to her foul-mouth lyrics feels like a fresh breath of air here in Queensland, Australia where the tiniest little “fucks” are removed from all songs played on the radio before 6 pm.

  13. jennyekbergstjohn

    …and one more thing, it feels a bit anti-gay, or? Am I getting it wrong? Are all these “male gay = lame” references just similar to her use of “bitch”? English is my second language.

      • Amy Sumner

        Yeah I really thought that too in all honesty. All the implication that ‘he’ is being trashed for ‘cock-a-licking’ or any of the other gay references does seem anti-gay to me. I dont think that she is particularly intending to offend that gay community as I think that trash talk is subjective and I think that maybe its being used because in the culture this ‘he’ is in, being gay is seen as weak. So maybe its just playing on that perception? I dont know. Do you have any thoughts Alyx? Do you think its worth pursuing? LOVE the article btw and the conversation between you and laluhflux :)

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  15. Sean

    OMG WTF are you talking about?
    Seriously. You feminists are one group who do the greatest disservice to females.
    What blathering drivel. How many glasses of Chardonnay did it require for that piece of literary pollution to spout forth from you gullet?

    • Alyx Vesey

      I’m talking about the politics of negative reinforcement and the (potentially productive) challenges it poses for feminists. To address the invocation of feminists in the plural, I’m not trying to speak for all feminists (I can’t–we’re not a monolith). And no drinking while I type. It makes the keys sticky.

  16. Bridanya

    strong article, and i just want to say i think it’s always good to re-purpose words that have been used against us. i knew a psychology professor who, when i brought that up, labeled it an adaptation. besides, feminists.. men.. we all have the same human nature, the ugliest parts and then the divine. sisterhood/brotherhood/ as marilyn monroe said “we’re all brothers and sisters,” but lets not deceive ourselves into thinking we’re closer to some people that we are. the way we treat each other and our motives, with the quality of their intentions, are what bond the closest people together i think. again good article, and i think dancing can be purely innocent! as someone who’s studied it, it’s a SPORT. but even done in private, there’s nothing harmFUl about self expression. in fact its only helpful, so i would call that innocent

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