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.
Recently, Texas-based filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez got in touch with me about a Kickstarter campaign she launched with Kara Bowers, better known as rapper KB the Boo Bonic, for the “2 Playa” music video, which they were trying to finance. They previously worked together on a short film entitled feMC (which also features Miss Manners, host of KOOP Radio’s “Hip Hop Hooray” and a personal friend). Hernandez summarized the treatment in an email:
The music video we are fundraising for encompasses a message of young feminism. KB skates around town and comes across a flyer for a child’s beauty pageant. Disgusted, she skates to the pageant to bomb the show. Sneaking in the backstage, [KB] looks on at young girls with hopeless faces as their show moms fancy them up with gobs of makeup, layers of hairspray and prissy, glittery dresses. KB throws down the makeup and knocks over the dresses, grabbing the girls and running out to the stage. On a rebellious rampage, KB and the new kickass pageant beauties begin a food fight, throwing cupcakes on stage.
Sounds awesome, right?!?!? Fortunately, they’ve already reached their goal. But independent artists always need fan support, however small. This blog has a soft spot for underground female hip hop artists, independent female directors, and female creative collaborations. And if they’re making art with a feminist or feminist-friendly message, isn’t that what so much of us live for? I know it keeps me pumped. So big ups to KB and Hernandez and keep an eye on their new video.
This is my last week editing Antenna for the summer. So I thought I’d write a little post about Bob’s Burgers‘ breakout character Tina Belcher and sexuality. Check it out.
It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
M.I.A.’s Madonna’s half-time show took some unpacking, didn’t it? You can read my take over at Antenna.
During my brief trip to Texas, I went to the video premiere for Christeene’s “African Mayonnaise” at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was pretty excited to see the final product, as I knew it was a tense shoot. I also heard it was Christeene’s best video to date. I can vouch for it. Given Christeene’s impressive videography, that’s saying something. It is an exhilarating video. It has dense, beautiful imagery that requires multiple viewings to unpack all the stuff that’s going on. It demands you watch it more than once. It’s a statement video, one that I might place alongside Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. But it’s a lot more fun to watch than most statement videos, particularly since they tend to be overlong yet short on ideas, Artistically Significant yet ultimately shallow, and include dialogue. Get to the hook already!
The song is about celebrity–the mutual dependence between star and fan, the malleability of image, the tricky business of turning a person into a constellation of symbols, the star’s contentious relationship with the camera, the acrid deliciousness of scandal. The video mirrors that concept in its attempts to create iconographic imagery and reveal that those images are made possible through surveillance. In addition to what PJ Raval and his crew shot and edited, the video also includes footage–mostly taken from smart phones–from fans and onlookers.
One of the major themes of the video–perhaps Christeene’s entire M.O.–is invasion. The video shows Christeene and her back-up dancers shimmying in front of the Austin Motel and sashaying through a food court, a supermarket, a barber shop, a hair salon, a gym, a patio bar, the UT South Mall, Starbucks, a Scientology center. Christeene also poses in front of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe and is displayed on a television monitor placed in a chicken coop apparently belonging to the artist. I don’t see malevolence behind these moments of invasion, though some of the men do look uncomfortable about receiving dances from Christeene and her minions. I even think there’s potential moments for community formation. Certainly the dance party at the end of the video celebrates Austin’s queer scene. But I see such gestures of good will and inclusion in Christeene high-fiving a woman at the gym and waving to a young girl at the grocery store. I think the collaborative nature of the video’s shoot reflects this spirit as well. In taking a piece of Christeene, many people are part of the process of constructing her.
But the charged moments–what made the film infamous in friend circles before its premiere–were the scuffles with authority. Police officers escorted Christeene and the crew off the premises during the shoot at various locations. In particular, staff members at the Church of Scientology of Texas locked their doors and confiscated equipment. Folks also harassed the star and crew with hate speech. At least one person cried godless and I like that this moment is reframed as a joke about the stupidity and destructiveness of queerphobia. I think such moments of brutality and intolerance, and the willingness to share them and package them as part of a music video, are what’s so powerful about this clip. Celebrity may have power over us, but it’s useless without people using that platform to challenge larger social and institutional problems. It’s thrilling to watch a queer artist, dressed in unconvincing drag, confront such phobia in public. Christeene does it through humor and an invitation of inclusion, but the stakes are fucking high in the war against individual freedom. Cops might rough you up. People might yell at you because you tucked in your dick and flaunted your ass in public. Cult practitioners may take your stuff and make threats. It happens off-camera.
Christeene also reclaims space as a star. Stars often accommodate the context they’re in, particularly at red carpet events and photo shoots. Teams of people make them into whatever they need to be for a film premiere, magazine interview, or concert. Even stars photographed without makeup is a construction no different from a band breaking out an acoustic guitar to do an “unplugged” performance. Stripping down is as much an act as wearing a safe Armani gown. I don’t know if many would label Christeene a star. She’s not starring in an action movie based on a board game, though I’d love her to play Queen Frosteene in Candyland: The Reckoning. She’s not performing for a televised award show, though she’d show up in an outfit at least as eye-catching as Björk’s swan dress. She doesn’t have a hit album, though I think that might come. Have you heard her music? The production’s really good and the singles are ready for the clubs.
But Christeene is a star to me, perhaps in the way that Courtney Love and Sinéad O’Connor insisted upon their own fame and found an audience with their outsize talent and personality. Christeene wasn’t groomed for celebrity. Quite frankly, I don’t think she has interest in grooming of any kind. Yet she has become a star for some on the basis of her formidable imagination and her total ownership of this invented persona. It continues to blow my mind that Christeene and Rebecca Havemeyer share Paul Soileau’s body. Frankly, I’m intimidated by the kind of creative person who can breathe these beings into existence even if I’m thrilled that such a person can take pop iconography and make something truly punk out of it. That’s probably why I write about it instead.
But actually, the challenge to write about Christeene is also exciting for me. Lokeilani Kaimana might attest that it’s hard to do. A friend of mine at school recently did a job talk about sketch comedy and used Funny or Die as a case study. I wondered how a figure like Christeene, who used the site as a distribution platform, might disrupt how we conceptualize FoD’s viewership and comedy more broadly. I attempted to explain Christeene to the speaker and the audience, grasping at words like “bad drag,” “gold tooth,” and “rectum.”
She’s especially difficult to talk about in terms of race. I believe this is deliberate on the part of the artist, but no less dicey in execution. “African Mayonnaise” refers to the mixture of cum and fecal matter on a spent penis after anal sex. The use of the term “African” to connote darkness and shit is … yikes. Many might say it’s outright racist, and I’m not sure I have an argument against such an appraisal. In a lot of ways, Christeene’s dangerous play with race as a white drag performer reminds me of Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent piece on CocoRosie and artistic risk. There are certainly perils and limits to playing with race, not the least of which is alienating an audience.
I don’t want to applaud these artists and call them brave or misunderstood simply for making people angry or uncomfortable. I know their work might play into rather than challenge other people’s racist assumptions. But I think there’s something valuable to not only acknowledging that such assumptions exist in the culture, but that they must be confronted, mutated, and roughed up in the process (working with a gay filmmaker of color who was a cinematographer on Trouble the Water doesn’t hurt either). Anyone can make millions from an anthem about individuality and perseverance that makes vague claims toward and cynically leaches off of a queer audience. But it takes something more to position yourself as a star and base such fame on the abjection of stardom.
Some may make comparisons between Lady Gaga’s crutches and Christeene becoming someone else’s (or her own) santorum. For one, what an uninspired comparison. For another, celebrating one’s own abjection, framing it as explicitly queer, and making angry, giddy, political, participatory art out it feels a lot more transgressive to me than some of the music passing as such these days. She may never win a Grammy, but I’m no less challenged, outraged, and awestruck. Sounds like pop to me.