Last weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Morgan Neville’s documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom. There might be other Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature that do more to challenge the form. For example, I hear good things about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. In terms of narrative structure, 20 Feet is a fairly conventional music documentary. But I didn’t care, because it honored female back-up singers’ labor.
Back-up singers have captured my imagination for some time. As a kid, I remember latching on to British vocalist Tessa Niles’ high rasp in Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” and following it into the work she did with Berlin, Tears for Fears, and the Pet Shop Boys. A few years later, I found it unjust that disco legend Martha Wash’s collaboration with C+C Music Factory received insufficient compensation. I also found it unacceptable that her work with C+C Music Factory and Black Box was misattributed to Zelma Davis and Katrin Quinol in their music videos because the medium refused to accommodate Wash’s size.
As an adult music fan, I’ve come to respect, admire, and love the voices of women like Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Janice Pendarvis, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer. There isn’t a day now where I don’t play or think about Lennear’s version of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)” or Love’s “Fine Fine Boy” (or, for that matter, “Christmas Time for the Jews“).
Some of this has to do with reflecting upon R&B, soul, and dance music—three genres that always meant a great deal to me—as I get older. I’ve turned to these women for a few reasons. First, I listen for their voices as an extension of my relationship with my mother-in-law, aunt, and older generations of women in my extended family, who have pointed me toward girl groups and the output of influential labels like Motown and Stax. Second, I have come to identify with the rich complexity of these women’s distinct voices and the range of emotions they demonstrate with them in song. Though no less virtuosic in its harrowing empathy, Merry Clayton’s recorded performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” differs from what Lisa Fischer brings to it on stage as a member of the band’s touring ensemble. Third, I think about their historical contributions in relation to more contemporary developments, like Beyoncé’s politically significant and artistically formidable all-female backing band, the Sugar Mamas.
But as an academic who studies music as a site for labor, back-up singers as workers are important figures who frequently struggle for claims to authorship and creative agency, in large part because their contributions to songs are simultaneously audible and invisible. Back-up musicians rarely receive appropriate credit and compensation for their work. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” remains one of the most heavily sampled pieces of music, ostensibly serving as hip-hop’s pulse. But the song is credited to Brown and not the titular drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, whose work is frequently the sampled element from the recording. Such claims to authorship become increasingly fraught in the wake of the 2000 Works Made for Hire and Copyright Corrections Act, which granted recording artists the right to claim legal authorship of their own material. As Matt Stahl notes in his important book about musical labor, Unfree Masters, such a ruling was made at the expense of backing musicians, who were defined as “work-for-hire” artists and offered no legal claims to authorship for their contributions to recorded music (2013).
In addition, back-up singers impel us to listen intersectionally. Often their voices simultaneously signify race and gender. In the documentary, Pendarvis references Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” noting that while the line “and all the colored girls say” is racially problematic, it acknowledges the intersectionality of the musicians providing the pop punctuation of the song’s chorus. Yet I couldn’t find a performance clip for the song that showed Thunderthighs, the girl group on the recording, or a set of touring musicians. This illustrates what’s at stake when we hear women sing—and when the traces of their labor materialize in the grooves and code of the formats that deliver our favorite songs—but we cannot or choose not to see them.
In the introduction to his book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, Nick Couldry talks about voice in terms of value, noting that a cultural and political understanding of its significance “involves particular conditions under which voice as a process is effective, and how broader forms of organization may subtly undermine or devalue voice as a process” (2). For this reason, we should pay attention to back-up singers. In addition, the back-up singer is a figure who needs to be considered in conversations around gender, race, and music culture.
Women’s voices continue to be of interest for feminist media scholars. Often they serve as sites to explore issues of sexist objectification and postfeminist branding built into the production and reception of female vocalists’ industrial and cultural labor. These issues impact back-up singers too. A brief segment of Stardom devotes its attention toward back-up singers’ objectification by burdening them with skimpy clothing and exploitative conditions on stage and at video shoots. The film pays more attention to the expectations placed on women like Clayton, Fischer, Lennear, Love, and Táta Vega to develop solo material—because singing background vocals was perceived as industrially insignificant and creatively suspect—only to receive little support because they were deemed too unattractive for the market or because consumers didn’t “need” another female soul singer when they already had Aretha Franklin (I need Aretha, but not in isolation). These concerns still impact contemporary singers like Judith Hill.
Offering valuable contributions to this corpus, scholars like Mavis Bayton and Mary Celeste Kearney have drawn our attention toward female instrumentalists and female-only bands (1998, 2006). I am indebted to this work as a feminist media scholar who uses music culture as a lens through which to ask and address questions of identity. And I believe that we should consider women’s work as instrumentalists, as well as composers, producers, and sound engineers. But I want to be careful not to place female instrumentalists in a hierarchy over vocalists by implicitly or explicitly suggesting that female instrumentalists are more legitimate as musicians.
I was in chorus for my entire adolescence and intermittently as an adult. What I learned as one alto amid all of the voices of the ensemble was the creative and technical skill required in forming one sound from a variety of unique sources. It is intellectually challenging to simultaneously hear yourself and blend your voice with the rest of the choir. You have to learn to breathe, read music, modify pitch, and stagger rhythm holistically. There’s an ontology required of singing that helps you understand how sound as a source of power is both top-down and bottom-up. It’s easy to reduce singing to assuming a pose. It is that, but technically excellent and emotionally resonant singers remind us that it is never only that. Thus in my work, I want to honor the technical, creative, and collaborative contributions of female back-up singers.
In this regard, Stardom is especially successful. There are several moments in the film that explicitly illustrate this. The film includes a scene of Clayton listening to her incendiary vocal track for “Gimme Shelter,” and you can only imagine what it might feel like for a black woman to sing “rape, murder–it’s just a shout away” at full power. There are a few montages of Fischer in the thrall of her own voice. Her live performance at a screening during the Napa Valley Film Festival illustrates this nicely. It also complicates how we understand labor by acknowledging the self-contained pleasure behind such effort.
One way that Stardom bypasses the traditional documentary narrative of personal ruin is by acknowledging that back-up singers’ labor is different. For one, their positionality on stage and in public estimation prevents them from having to bear the weight of what fame can do to your voice. Vega claims that if she had become more successful as a solo artist, she would likely have been consumed by substance abuse in order to cope with such scrutiny.
A practical reality of their work that the film gets at implicitly is that consistently good singing requires rest. In high school, my vocal coach told me to rest before singing competitions. She instructed me to get as much sleep as possible two nights before I sang before judges, because your vocal chords need to be loose in order to be flexible. Singing is an act of athleticism that requires wholeness and self-care. This requires us to reconsider what labor means and how exhaustion and self-sacrifice—two problematic hallmarks of “hard work”—can be detrimental to your instrument. Mariah Carey was canny in the later stages of her career to emphasize rhythm over vocal range. “Emotions” is nearly impossible to sing, but “Shake It Off” is no easy undertaking at karaoke. But I do wonder what her high end would sound like now if she insisted on more sleep and if the machinery around her honored that request. This seems connected to why Clayton was at home asleep when the Stones invited her to an afterhours studio session.
On Oscar night, I hope this film receives some acknowledgement of its service to these women’s contributions and legacy. With any luck, Neville will defer his acceptance speech to them and they can pay their respects through song, thus offering the broadcast a compelling musical moment for a ceremony conspicuously absent of such possibilities. Regardless, they’ve already made history. Let’s listen and, in doing so, recognize the work they’ve shared with us.