Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.
Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.
The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.
Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.
Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.
What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.
I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.
Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.
This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?
The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”
Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?
It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.
Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?
Close out 2013 by checking out my Antenna post on Beyoncé.
If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.
On Wednesday, I take prelims. I read a bunch of books, select members of my dissertation committee offer prompts related to those books, I get six-and-a-half hours to answer those questions with notes in an essay format, and if all goes well, I successfully defend those essays and move on to write my dissertation proposal. I’ll be done at the end of the month. Prelims demand synthesis. There is an emphasis placed on what you, John or Jane Grad Student, will do with these concepts and theories. How will you animate them? How will you revise them? How will you produce something original out of them?
For grad students, prelims are the transition point between course work and dissertation. In your last year of course work, you put together reading lists for four subject areas relevant to your dissertation project (or, what you think will be relevant, because part of the process is to evolve with the work you read, which means you will either discard work that isn’t relevant to you or you will be changed by work you hadn’t anticipated being relevant to you; good scholars don’t have preconceptions that can’t be wrenched loose). You then spend the summer reading through your lists. My brother-in-law asked if the prelims are the hard part or if the dissertation is more of a challenge. In media and cultural studies, it’s not so simple to answer that question. Mine is a field based on ambivalence, struggle, and process. Our “milestones” reflect that. These exams are not an end unto themselves; they are both the entry point toward our dissertations and an extension of the demonstrations of knowledge we’ve done in seminar. It’s little surprise that we have to write through our ideas as evidence of comprehension at the end of a period of knowledge acquisition. It’s also little surprise that you’re not “done” once you complete the oral defense following your written exams. You are at once at the beginning of a new project and continuing a project you’ve spent several years immersed in, a point that’s true even if you changed research topics.
This summer, I’ve spent most of my time reading and gathering notes. Upon occasion, I’ve revised a few pieces of written work for future publications and conferences (including the page proofs to a short piece in a prominent journal in my field #notsohumblebrag). I think about my work this summer in terms of listening. Really, I think of my whole life in terms of listening and what comes with it–exploration, recognition, empathy, embodiment, presentness. This is how I’ve conceived of my time. I took my lists seriously. I took my readings seriously. I took my marginalia seriously. I built my summer around this process. I’d like to spend the remainder of this post talking about what I did, why it mattered to me, and how I envision making sense of my time moving forward.
As far as I can tell, there’s no shortcut to reading through a list comprised of roughly 12 books and 12 articles multiplied by four. You just commit to it every day. You put in the time. You talk it out. You put it away and pick it back up again. For me, it also requires giving myself time to process. Procrastination makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t feel as though I have enough control over my time. When it comes to reading, the urge is too great to skim. I didn’t want to skim. Granted, sometimes I skimmed. But I wanted to dwell in the literature this summer. Of course, I had the privilege to dwell. I was already a graduate student in an influential program in my field. I already finished course work. And I decided not to take on additional paid work this summer. I had set money aside from my previous life as a paraprofessional. I was able to do this because I didn’t accrue student loan debt as an undergrad. I was also able to quickly pay off the loan I took out while I was a master’s student in Austin because I paid in-state tuition and worked full-time up until the last few months of my studies. I was able to do this because I have parents and in-laws who are financially comfortable and generous. I also have a partner who was promoted to full-time employment after a lean, long period of part-time work and was willing and able to shoulder the additional expenses while I prepared. I am grateful for all of this. I hope that I will pay it all back by producing exacting, meaningful work in the next two weeks as a student, the next few years as a dissertator, and for the rest of my professional life as a feminist media scholar.
I also had the conviction of what I would write about for my dissertation, which its own privilege. My main research areas were always gender, labor, and music culture. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to write and read and wrote papers that reflected those interests. Early in the summer, I thought about taking up the subject of backup musicians as a dissertation topic. But best to save that for a later project. A dissertation becomes a book, which–icky though this may be–makes it a commercial property as well as an intellectual endeavor; it’s not The Great American Novel into which you funnel all of your thoughts and risk losing momentum.
As I was reading, I thought about Pauline Oliveros’ concept of deep listening. This is the idea that the music one hears in a live or recorded context is not just the notes themselves. Deep listening requires attention toward the players, the environment, the audience, and the music itself. To me, this brings to mind Richard Johnson’s circuit of culture model, a central concept in media and cultural studies that accounts for the relationships between texts (music), producers (musicians), audiences (listeners), and context (a porous yet historically bound word that accounts for the venue, the hum of the air conditioner, the city the venue is in, how you got to the concert, whether you paid for tickets, and any number of cultural influences that inform the other three elements). Deep listening is also a feminist idea, because Oliveros believes that all of these elements coexist non-hierarchically and thus can radically transform how we understand the act of listening as perspectival, relational, and communal. Listening to music is listening to each other.
I began reading on May 20, the Monday after I helped administer the final exam for the class I TAed last year, celebrated my partner’s birthday, and spent the weekend showing my best friend around Madison. I read at a steady pace from here until last Wednesday, alternating between groups of thematically organized articles and chapters (which I should have meted out more judiciously) and books. I also posted what I was reading each day on Twitter. First, I should note that graduate students should not feel required to live-tweet about prelims, as one of my committee members phrased my activities. Last spring, I sat on a panel for a joint colloquium on academic blogging. One scholar stated that young scholars need an Internet presence. Thinking on this statement in retrospect, I would counter that most young scholars already have an Internet presence. We are in departments with Web sites and most (if not all) of the people in attendance that afternoon use social media because Facebook and Twitter are ideologies. With that in mind, I think it’s always necessary to question the integration of social media usage rather than take it as a given. I care about the “why” question over the “how” question. But that’s a somewhat disingenuous response. I’m typing this recollection into a blog. I posted pictures of books and articles on Twitter, cataloged by day. Why?
The loaded response is that Twitter is part of my process. I started using Twitter when I started blogging and very much link the two together. I don’t use Twitter to crowd-source or spitball so much as I use Twitter because it requires me to be declarative and economical with my language. I’ve never met a tangent or an aside that I didn’t think was productive and I still bury my thesis statements in paragraphs of observation. In addition, internalizing years of post-structuralist writing lead me to equivocate. I actually take pride in this because any time I see an essentialism, I anticipate a counterargument. But this can lead to a lot of “should” language that, unless carefully applied, can weaken your argument. Twitter helps me to own and not waste my words.
See how I accommodated Twitter’s character limit in that last paragraph? I didn’t ask why the character limit exists, offer alternatives, or break from it. I accepted it and integrated it into my daily life. That’s how Twitter is ideological. I could get into the resources available that allow you to shorten URLs to work around the site’s character limit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I tweeted about my readings for two reasons. For one, it allowed me to make visible a process that can feel abstract and immaterial. You can’t see the thoughts you’re forming as you read. Even printing and marking up my list or endlessly stacking and restacking books didn’t make it feel tangible. I need to be careful with my words because I’ve read enough literature to trouble the immaterial-is-to-invisible analogy. But tweeting allowed me to see the prelims process for myself. And it also potentially made it visible to colleagues and friends who might wonder why I wasn’t blogging or reliably answering email, as well as current and future grad students who might have some questions. Prelims are shrouded in mystery until you’re preparing them. Honestly, they’ll probably be mysterious long after my defense too, if my friends’ recollections are any indication. You wonder: Did I read the “right” books? Am I doing this “right”? To some extent, these are unanswerable questions. When I was putting my lists together during my last semester of course work, I tried to summon information from friends who went through this. Acquiring information is an uneven process. Some folks were very forthcoming and willing to share valuable information (tip of the cap to Myles McNutt, who was especially candid in this regard). Others were less so, for any number of reasons. But at a certain point, you have to let all of the “right” questions go when you’re putting your lists together and when you’re preparing. Posting my readings was a gesture toward letting those anxieties go, an articulation of my choices as a scholar, and a commitment to those choices.
I also tweeted because I wanted to create a context for my readings. It’s important to remember that readings already have a context. Reading lists have a context. Each book you pick up, download, and leaf or scroll through has a context. This is why the most important thing you can read in a book is the acknowledgements section: its disclosures let you know what institutions, resources, and people were responsible for the finished product in relation to your own politics of citation. But again, reading can be isolating. No matter how much you try to have a social life–and you should have a social life, one with friends and exercise and food and a few free weekends–the daily practice of getting up and reading a book all day until you’re finished can be alienating. You start to wonder if you’ll ever get the differences between discourses, assemblages, and constellations (I’m getting closer) or the political utility of “always already” (I’m fiddling with it like a Rubix cube). You start talking to yourself (I’m a textbook only child). You start worrying that you can only talk about this in social settings (talk to your friends, talk to your friends about their lives and other things in your life; call your mother and your BFF(s)). You start to worry that this thing you’re doing to yourself will make you agoraphobic (go outside; it’s summer). By tweeting my readings, I found out other people’s opinions about them. I found out who assigned them and for what purposes. If I @-tagged the authors, I sometimes entered into conversations with them about their work and other things (scholars love being @-tagged). I developed contexts for myself about what I read.
Now there is the matter of applying what I read this summer. I am preparing to prepare a dissertation on music-based intermediary labor and identity politics in the contemporary media industries. I’m still working through the “how”, but the “why” is very clear to me. I am particularly interested in the metaphors of visibility and audibility that are mobilized when we think about how the work of booking agents, promoters, licensors, and music supervisors bear traces. I am also interested in how or if they think of their work as point of contacts between different media and media creators, as a means of addressing intended audiences, and as a means of understanding their own relationships to music as fans and as workers. I anticipate I’ll also use the words “booking,” “promoting,” “licensing,” and “supervising” as metaphors to animate power dynamics between industries, producers, audiences, and texts, as the best work I’ve read this summer productively meditates and expands on words like “producer,” “franchise,” “format,” and “brand” beyond their immediate industrial definitions.
When I was a kid, I got a copy of John Gruen’s Keith Haring biography for Christmas. One anecdote that stays with me is Kenny Scharf’s recollection of Haring playing the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” on a loop while he painted. Music has always been a part of my creative process, a way to imagine when I’m deeply immersed in my work. I also tend to carry Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic” as a source of comfort when I embark on something new and uncertain. Delivered by Kathleen Hanna in stream-of-conscious monologue hovering between spoken word and song, “Stepping Up to the Mic” is about hearing women’s voices and, as a result, committing one’s life to the bottom-up, grassroots power of articulation. This is my primary concern in the weeks and years ahead. I’ll always dwell in the politics of women’s utterances. I close by sharing a collection of songs that I intend to play while I work. I’ve organized this collection of songs thematically by reading area.
My first prelim question will address critical media industries studies and production studies, two approaches that theorize how studying both industrial structures and professionals will shape our understanding of media. Issues like creativity, authorship, and struggles over power and autonomy within industrial contexts loom large.
My second prelim question concerns the historical, legal, industrial, and cultural ways in which digital media is integrated and assumed normative in practices and products. This affects matters of format and copyright, as well as how users seek to incorporate or destabilize digital media through sampling and social media integration, which in turn influences the work of intermediaries.
My third question concerns matters of intertextuality and intermediality. Music-based intermediary labor is inherently intertextual. Their work is defined by appealing simultaneously to the needs of televisuality and musical aurality, and with it the intended address of audiences for various media properties. Below are two songs that have been licensed for Girls and Orange is the New Black.
I conclude with the “intervention question,” which will address issues of gender in relation to labor. For me, the “so what” of music-based intermediary labor is mobilized by identity; the identities of the worker, the identities governing the work worlds they enter into and dwell, and the identities of the audiences hailed by the texts in which their work is featured. In particular, I am interested in the productive tensions between liberal feminism, cultural feminism, and postfeminism. Gender is my lens, but my definition of gender is intersectional. I am not interested in using “gender” as a synonym (euphemism?) for “white women.” Built into considerations of gender are intersecting appeals to and subjectivities shaped by race, class, and sexualities.
In addition, I included a few tracks that speak to the mental state I anticipate occupying while I type. Admittedly, I’ll probably loop the Knife’s “Networking” because it’s a word that applies to each reading list, because it’s an instrumental track and is thus easier to write to, and because I love the Knife’s music and politics in equal measure. These songs are articulations of community, bravado, and future-making. They are the works of imagination, and I hope they inspire me to write some words that forge a path forward and continually remind me of the work still left to do.
I had some things to say about Amy, Tina, Lena, Jodie, and
the year of women the 2013 Golden Globes.
Close out the new year with my Antenna post on RuPaul’s Drag Race and sponsorship.
Two nights ago, in anticipation of its forthcoming all-star season, I finished watching RuPaul’s Drag Race (available on Logo’s Web site). It is, as they say in my field, a rich text. It’s also a lot of fun. Where else on my television will I see a group of blind-folded drag queens play “Pin A Cock on Ru’s Mouth”? Or hear someone sing “Jesus is a biscuit–let Him soak you up”? Werk.
What am I responding to exactly? Without pulling Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter off the bookshelf (too late) in order to theorize drag in relation to performativity, repetition, (failed) imitation, and parody, Drag Race’s most useful intervention is asserting that drag–like identity, like life–is not one thing. Instead, drag is multitudinous, intraculturally specific, and thrives on difference. SO/CAL queens don’t tend to use padding as their Southern counterparts do. Some queens focus on runway presentation and modeling. Some queens use drag as a form of comedic address. Some queens came to drag culture as actors, designers, and makeup artists. Some queens lip sync. Some queens have bands. Some queens have language barriers. Some queens come up through the pageant circuit. Many of them internalize normative ideas about feminine beauty. Some of them react against sisters who specialize in more deliberately avant-garde forms of drag (which has its own normative ideas about feminine beauty). Some queens are dads. Some queens transition. The show has a number of referents, most notably America’s Next Top Model. I lost interest in that show after the show ran out of ways to compellingly represent the ongoing construction of beauty. Drag Race could potentially explore these issues without ever touching the bottom.
An interesting tension that many contestants work through is ambivalence about the political import of their work. They see themselves as entertainers and often want to keep politics out of their work. But a commitment to drag as a profession and lifestyle usually assumes a set of decisions with very real consequences. Though at least two contestants have since come out as transgendered and taken steps toward transitioning, most contestants identify as gay men. I don’t want to collapse gay male and trans female identities any more than I want to assume that a skinny gay white man from Philadelphia, a muscular gay Puerto Rican man, or a fat black gay man from Compton share the same struggle and politics. However, to the ire of some commentators sensitive to tropes of gay male victimhood, one of the show’s dominant narratives is that many of these contestants lived through homophobic bullying in their youth and live against homophobic policies in their adulthood. Thus in some sense these queens are seen as survivors whose art has given them tools for self-actualization, aspirant female icons, and communities peopled by chosen families and sisters.
It’s worth mentioning the show’s relationship to commercialism. Sponsorship is a real presence on the show. Contestants win a number of prizes and amenities from gay-owned businesses like ALANDCHUCK.travel and an assortment of goodies from drag-oriented clothing lines, cosmetic companies, and jewelry collections. Winners also represent Absolut Vodka, a mass-produced liquor strategically marketing itself toward LGBT consumers. To my knowledge, Drag Race has yet to include a sober contestant. This sponsorship limits the show’s availability to potential contestants who received or are in treatment for alcohol addiction. Absolut’s sponsorship tacitly assume that all queens drink. Each episode involves some bit of vodka-motivated hobnobbing and catfighting. I’ve yet to see a queen abstain.
Furthermore, RuPaul uses the show as a platform to extend her brand by promoting albums, books, shoes, and other properties. The show involves the contestants in that branding process by using the show’s challenges to mount infomercials and music videos for RuPaul’s work. They may be (and often are) very entertaining challenges that make for compelling television, but we must think through commercialism’s relationship to drag culture. While I don’t want to lean on Michel de Certeau’s binary concept of strategies and tactics (that article is under a stack of papers), I do think the political implications of “making do” with the limited resources bestowed upon marginalized groups by dominant institutions and structures yields powerful, potentially subversive results when applied to drag. Though drag is, in some sense, mainstream, its origins are more modest and hard-scrabble. Compromised access to economic resources motivated many queens to fashion themselves into various personae with whatever they could sew, glue, find, copy, or steal. How does that change when queens compete to win a designer lace-front wig?
It’s also worth noting how the show sanctions what kinds of drag queens RuPaul chooses to represent her. Bloggers Tom and Lorenzo argued that the show tends to champion queens who prioritize image over talent. You could make the case that this is true of Raja and Sharon Needles. Even though their styles of drag were edgier–Raja’s look is genderqueer editorial, Sharon’s goth sensibility has range and humor–their crowned status as the future of drag was still based on their appearance. Both contestants also flirt with hipster racism. Raja–who is of Indonesian and Dutch descent–used her background as a make-up artist in order to attempt to transcend race, a feat endeavored several times by her former employer, America’s Next Top Model. Needles recently encountered pushback for using racial epithets as well as Nazi and rebel imagery in her drag show.
This doesn’t diminish my pleasure as a viewer. If anything, it enriches and adds depth to my reception. Where I derive the most pleasure as a viewer and critic is during the “lip sync for your life” segment, which pits the two lowest-ranking queens against one another in a lip sync challenge that manages to feel redemptive, regardless of which queen wins. If I had to choose a LSFYL anthem, it’d be “Whispers” by Kathy Diamond and Aeroplane. You want a track you know by heart that allows you to rise over the competition like a motherfucking phoenix. To quote a wise queen, “Get up, look sickening, and make them eat it.” Alexis Mateo did just that with Fantasia Barrino’s “Even Angels.”
During a deliberation, RuPaul observed that successful queens need to be fluent in popular culture. Drag is an inherently intertextual form, one built on reference to various cultural icons as well as parodic and imitative gender performances. Celebrity impersonation and lip syncing as hallmarks of drag culture. Unfortunately, the show’s editing rarely allows us to see the artistry behind lip syncing. Instead, it relies upon judge and contestant response to convey the success of certain performances. It may also suggest that musical genres are cultural categories and contestants’ mastery over particular genres is dependent on race. In the context of the show, “Large and in charge, chunky yet funky” contestant Latrice Royale can’t access Wynonna Judd’s “No One Else On Earth” as well as competitor Chad Michaels. But no one can touch Royale’s rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” or Gladys Knight’s “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” (which I recently played at a deejay gig in her honor).
Yet it’s not as simple as saying the show is racist for suggesting she can do a soul classic better than a country crossover hit, in part because Royale has an understanding of those songs’ performance traditions and the emotional meanings to them that is as much learned as it is felt. In other words, Royale demonstrates how lip syncing is an embodied act supported by a real intelligence about the cultural texts she’s situated within. She doesn’t need to sing for you to hear her voice. That’s not the talent of a Miss Congeniality. Make them eat it during the all-star season, Latrice. You’re a queen who deserves to take home the crown.