My job is weird. It’s a hard job to explain in a sentence. I’ve gotten it down to “I’m a feminist media scholar who studies the industrial labor behind music’s mediation,” as such portable declarations are necessary in professional settings. You still have to know what “mediation” means, however. And “industrial” might make certain people think of Skinny Puppy instead of booking agents. More to the point, answering the question “What do you do?” is difficult. I do a lot of things that I can break down easily. I write. I teach. I do service work.
Those short sentences neatly contain and obscure a messy, constantly generative circuit of activity. I draw boundaries around my time so that I can maintain a certain level of productivity. I keep prioritized lists of goals for myself each semester and extended holiday, which always involves drawing up itemized lists of smaller tasks I need to complete. I rotate between various responsibilities in anticipation of the series of deadlines that always shadow the margins of my day, week, month, semester, or year. I try to remember to look up from my screen to let in the larger world and its people, even if I have to write it into my day planner.
For me, writing is what I love most about my job. I enjoy teaching. It’s immediately gratifying, particularly in those moments where I help students “get it” (by “it,” I mean “power”). I enjoy service work. Currently, I am the press liaison for The Velvet Light Trap and I’ve learned so much by putting an issue together. I am also about to serve a two-year term as the graduate representative of the women’s caucus for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and I am particularly invigorated for what the future holds with that endeavor. But writing is where I feel, to borrow a lovely phrase from a talented musician, like a room without a roof.
By “writing,” I don’t mean “research” or “editing.” I’m fine with editing, particularly because I’m at peace with the faultiness of language. Any chance you are given to write a sentence is a chance to rewrite that sentence. As a scholar, I tend to tread water when it comes to research. I’ve always been more comfortable writing the idea rather than letting the findings determine the argument. This is a bad habit. I realized the consequence of this over winter break when I read my first scholarly publication—a competent anthology chapter in a great edited collection—and felt like I was entering into an unfurnished room. I bracket writing and research off as two separate activities. I write at least one hour per day, and give myself one day at the end of the week to blog. I’ve taken to researching five hours a week, or roughly one hour per day per work week. By “research,” I mean scouring the trades, search engines, and my university’s library and archival data bases. I may take notes, but any other scholarly writing I do is kept separate.
Writing is when I’m at my happiest as a scholar. The integrity of my writing and its reception are different concerns. I leave that to editing. I’m referring to the deceptively simple, solitary act of constructing sentences and grouping them into sequences and paragraphs. No one can touch me when I’m in that place. Any insecurity or anxiety I have about being a graduate student, instructor, minor Internet presence, or human being falls away when I give myself over to writing.
It’s hard to find that place. It takes time to get there, which is why I have to guarantee myself the hour and sacrifice other things to protect it. It’s also hard to maintain this level of productivity. It’s hard to carve out your days into time-bound increments. It’s also hard to maintain the level of energy required of ceaselessly generating work. This week, I had difficulty with it. I felt the struggle on the page, where it matters most to me. Specifically, I felt it in the page’s absence from my week, because I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked and worried that my words would never live up to the potential I hope for them in my head.
Being far away from the writing process is usually what causes these feelings for me. So does being alive sometimes. Because it’s hard to write when you have doubts that crowd your mind and eclipse the observations you’re trying to make, the theories you’re trying to apply and invent, the analysis you’re trying to construct, and the arguments and issues upon which you’re trying to intervene. How do you write when you’re tried? How do you write when you’re sad? How do you write when you’re certain that your words don’t matter? These are real concerns. I always struggle with them. Today, I got two hours of sustained writing done. Now I’m taking two hours to commit this post to record. Here, I’ll acknowledge three key contributors to my insecurities and how I work with them.
Last spring, I participated in a panel at SCMS that was coordinated by Maureen Ryan at Northwestern and fellow MCS friend and colleague, Sarah Murray. Ryan gave a presentation about performances of failure in lifestyle blogs. It had a wickedly perceptive title: “Comparison is The Thief of Joy.” Girl, truth. As a woman, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t negatively compare myself to my perceptions of other people’s success. This affliction stymied me when I entered into the media studies master’s program at UT Austin. I still struggle with it. My PhD program is peopled by phenomenally talented graduate students and faculty members. This is inspiring. It also can make me feel bad about myself if I choose to let it. I often believe that any modicum of success I’ll achieve in school and perhaps later in my career will result simply from trying to keep up with the other two staggeringly bright and intellectually rigorous people with whom I share a cohort. I have to remember what I’m bringing to the table. This can be a challenge or an uncertainty.
Ann Friedman thinks women should befriend their formidably accomplished peers as a feminist act. I agree. My way out of comparison is collaboration. I take as many opportunities as I can to work with smart, driven people. I don’t do this to vampire their success. I do this because collaborating on a lecture, article, panel presentation, journal issue, or some other project might result in something greater in combination than in isolation. In doing so, I’ve cultivated fulfilling relationships with amazing women because I recognize them as complicated people instead of objectify them as a tidy series of CV items. Of course, I’m mindful of how collaboration can exclude others or when collaboration isn’t mutually beneficial. But when I see a powerful woman wrestle with something heavy, I don’t just marvel at her strength and distance myself from it. I ask if she needs help shouldering the weight.
Part of why I love writing is because it gives me a tremendous excuse to disengage with the world outside and burrow inward. Being an only child equipped me well for hours of solitary play and invention. The song lyric that best captures my childhood is the line in the Pet Shop Boys’ “Left to My Own Devices” when Neil Tennant sings about being a lonely boy in a world of his own imagining. My only real use for nature was as a stage for my childhood fictions. I was 25 before I felt comfortable meeting strangers in my peer group. Writing is often a retreat for me because it’s easier to express myself on the page than in person. This becomes an untenable scholarly position when your research questions necessitate that you talk to people.
I recently defended my dissertation proposal and now have roughly two years to research and write a project about how industry professionals like booking agents, licensors, supervisors, and promoters bring music to television and how identity shapes their perceptions of their work. I have five case studies in place. I have trade discourse and other traces of industrial self-disclosure to look at. But I need to ask people questions and that can be a little scary. It’s scary for two reasons. First, it’s hard to create a set of questions that are open-ended and don’t presume particular answers yet can yield usable data. I can be good at it, perhaps in part because I only like to ask big questions with answers I can’t predict. But it’s also difficult to create an instant rapport with a stranger or acquaintance.
My partner interviews hip-hop artists for his zine, Scratched Vinyl. He argues that creative people love talking about their work. One thing I am recognizing as I begin the process of ethnographic research and qualitative interviews is that ostensibly, my research subjects and I are there for the music. In Pink Noises, Tara Rodgers applies Lisa M. Tillmann-Healy’s concept, friendship as a method, to explain how interviewing female electronic musicians and composers represents “mutual efforts to build friendships and cultivate professional support” (3). As a media scholar, most of my critical interest in many television programs and films originates in its music. And much of my interest in music revolves around labor practices and claims to authorship. I’m a fan who’s interested in music as a space for work as much as it opens up sites for affect and performance. Perhaps the people I interview feel similarly.
Finally, my job can feel infinite. That usually sounds really exciting to me. I hope that there will always be a place for me in the academy as long as I have ideas I am able to research and refine into publication. I don’t worry about having those ideas, because music will always be a tremendous site for asking questions about gender, labor, and identity. I am also confident I can continue to commit those ideas to writing and share them with people. But I do worry that immersion could lead to burnout. That’s why I have to disengage. I have to get off the Internet. I have to go outside. I have to preserve my connections with friends, whether it’s over the phone or surrounding a pitcher. I have to pursue other projects that could feed into my research but are not directly in the service of my academic life. Right now, I’m completing deejay training at WSUM because I missed having a radio show. The show I pitched focuses on women’s contributions in soul, hip-hop, and R&B. I anticipate moving “Queens” to college radio will fuel my research somehow, at least on back-up singers. But I don’t have larger intellectual ambitions. I just have some records I wanna play.
And with that, I have to go. There’s a world out there tonight and I plan to engage with some part of it. The writing will be waiting when I get home.
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.
Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.
When Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City late last spring, several critics praised the album and group’s burgeoning maturity. The markers were easy to hear—the multi-textured production aesthetic, the religious references, the desire to nest, the mourning of geography lost to memory, the jolting intimacies of road trip arguments, the extracted wisdom teeth. Their third album is great. I was particularly struck by Rostram Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig’s evolution as composers. Their work with producer Ariel Rechtshaid is confident and balanced. They motivate the varied sonic elements and flourishes on this record by giving them a sense of space. Koenig continues to improve as a songwriter as well, shading his stories and monologues with rich character detail and incessant melody.
I stopped short of using “mature” to describe the album. What does that word mean in this context? Is a quartet of Columbia alum older and therefore wiser simply because they started meditating on God, mortgages, and mortality in their late 20s? Or was it that they became better at editing themselves in the studio? So often, “maturity” seems bound up in discourses of refinement and respectability. If that’s the case, what do we do with a track like “Diane Young,” a short, kaleidoscopic freakout about being cut down in the prime of life that sounds a bit like George Michael’s “Faith”?
How is maturity gendered? Last year, I kept returning to Fiona Apple’s excellent 2012 album The Idler Wheel… I love a lot of things about that record. Since female vocals were my transitional object, I focus on her voice. Apple’s lower register was always a sign of her maturity. When she started her recording career as a teenager, some dismissed it as precocious or pathologized it as a remnant of the sexual violence she survived as a child. But as Apple has gotten older, there’s such variety to her low notes. Sometimes they fray out of fatigue or boredom. Sometimes they land like bullets. Sometimes they curl up from anxiety or erotic anticipation. Her upper register is beautifully elastic and without vanity. Her ear for phrasing continues to sharpen, gracefully making conversation and inner monologue swerve, dip, and pivot like a choreographer.
But what I identify with most about Idler is how evocatively Apple’s lyrics capture the uncertainty that comes from getting older. You may accumulate experience as you age. People may perceive you as wise when they look upon the gray streaks in your hair and the drawn lines upon your face. But you may not feel wise when you’re crying over dinner, losing yourself in a person, or sitting alone in your apartment. In those moments, you don’t always feel mature. And if maturity is bound up in certain rites of passage and markers of fiscal responsibility—marriage, parenthood, property acquisition—that you haven’t achieved or can’t meet, you might feel pretty childish.
Yet you may also know yourself more. You may have a better sense of your preferences, behavioral cues, bad habits, or scripts. You may know better what you look for in companionship. You may better understand who you can trust with multiple dimensions of yourself and who you can’t. You may stop trying to impress people or compare yourself to your perception of others’ successes. You may get better at listening and articulating need and learning from past mistakes. That might mean the wrinkles and streaks that line and shade your face represent a wisdom that comes from ambivalence.
Being young and famous seems like the worst. It seems like such a fleeting, exhaustive, uncertain thing to hang your identity upon. It plays chicken with failure. The tonal shift between Justin Bieber’s two mug shots illustrates this nicely, as well as the wrecked complexion and bewildered gaze in both photographs. It’s why Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” sounds like a funeral dirge.
I’m currently researching female pop star fragrance collections. At the moment, I’m exploring how Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears’ respective licensing arrangements with Coty, Inc. and Elizabeth Arden influenced this paratextual extension of postfeminist celebrity labor. As I’ve been digging through the trades, I’ve been most struck by how Spears’ partnership with Elizabeth Arden served as a way to allay industrial and cultural anxiety surrounding her declining musical career and mental health in the mid- to late 2000s. At the same time, sustaining a fragrance collection puts pressure on pop stars to reinvent and fragment themselves with each campaign. One fragrance is not enough. The market relies upon turning pop stars into brands that are supported by fractured, regenerative sexiness and discursively invisible manufacturing practices.
In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence’s character professes to love the smell of top coat, which is “perfume-y but there’s also something rotten.” Cosmetics promise us youth and newness, but their properties change as we wear them on our skin. My wrists smell differently at the end of the day from when I apply an invigorating spritz to them as part of my morning routine.
Fiona Apple doesn’t have her own fragrance collection. When she kissed off the VMAs in 1997, she revoked her chances for such licensing ventures. I feel guilty that this was the moment when I started to like Apple. I was skeptical of Apple when her debut album, Tidal, came out in 1996. Though I was happy to see a wave of angry young women seize the air, I was concerned about how this might get co-opted and homogenized. I was also incredulous of her age, perhaps for similar reasons why people take issue with Lorde. What if people latched onto her, only to drain her resources and cast her aside before she turned 25?
If “respectability” is hegemonic, then how do we understand immaturity? I want to resist constructing a simple binary that casts it as maturity’s opposite, particularly because the demarcations between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood aren’t so neatly delineated. I keep replaying another VMA moment over in my head. Miley Cyrus’ performance late last summer upset me. I carried it with me into the classroom the following fall, often referring to it or to her trajectory and confronting the performance directly in a lecture I gave on intersectionality. Many critics objected to her lewd behavior. I didn’t really care about Cyrus cavorting in a beige bikini and waving a foam finger. Much of her performance felt like a rite of passage. Spears stripped down to a rhinestone-studded beige bodysuit in 2000. At least there was something agentic and humorous about Cyrus’ display, like she was making fun of sexy.
What made my stomach turn was Cyrus’ racial appropriation. This was why I asked students what it meant for her to take up visual signifiers of ratchet culture as a white woman and how it means differently when black female pop stars like Beyoncé take them up. How would we feel if Rihanna performed this song, since writer-producer Mike WiLL Made It originally pitched it to her? What surprised me was that this wasn’t the issue about Cyrus’ performance for many people. What did it mean for Cyrus to hire the LA Bakers as her back-up dancers for the video and VMA performance for “We Can’t Stop”? What did Amazon Ashley’s presence—her height, her size—mean? What did it mean for Cyrus to slap her ass? What do we do with their labor? What does their participation mean to them? What does it mean to Cyrus?
Madonna’s performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs may have created the template for young female pop stars with designs on integrating sexual maturity into their brand. But Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” brought to mind Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 ceremony, which heavily referenced Marie Antoinette. I thought about the presence of black and Latin bodies as servants and members of the court. On the one hand, it was interesting to see these subjects get written into such Eurocentric histories. On the other hand, their presence doesn’t challenge Madonna’s ability to rule from the center. I thought about the dancers. What did their work mean for Madonna? What did it mean to them? For example, in one interview, back-up dancer Niki Harris recalled hearing the concept for the performance. She reminded Madonna that white powder didn’t look good on black skin.
What bothers me about Cyrus is that she’s consistently defended, excused, or explained away her VMA performance. Sometimes it seems like she’s trolling us. At least Cyrus hasn’t covered Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black.” Perhaps taking time out of an interview to entertain the other side of the debate would keep her from staying on message, but I worry that Cyrus’ dismissal of such critique suggests that pop means never having to say you’re sorry. But some great music came out of apologies and reappraisals. In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing women like Apple, Beyoncé, Janelle Monaé, Cat Power, Erykah Badu, and Neko Case challenge maturity. Perhaps Cyrus will change her tune as she gets older and more ambivalent.
Recently, I had the pleasure of catching Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective GRRRL PRTY. It was an excellent set—full of energy and good will. Lots of underground hip-hop legends like Psalm One and P.O.S. made appearances. But GRRRL PRTY delivered, trading verses and beats like they were turning a consciousness-raising meeting into a game of typewriter. How else do you write manifestas?
At the end of the evening, they rapped over Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.” It was an infectious performance, in part because it was clear how much GRRRL PRTY and the audience loved this song. But what moved me most about it was when they authoritatively chanted “No Ikes, only Tinas” over Jay-Z’s now-infamous command: “Now eat the cake, Anna-Mae/eat the cake, Anna-Mae!” It neatly captured my ambivalence over the song as a fan. I love most of the song, but like many, I can’t swallow that line.
Much of “Drunk In Love” is outstanding. The production is excellent, cannily bringing together trap beats, strings, and vocal arpeggios and transforming those elements into exhilarating pop. Beyoncé’s performance channels Carrie Bradshaw flirting with Aiden during last call. She revels in the grain of her lower register. She exaggerates words because she knows that sexy and silly are often the same thing. She babbles. She articulates her preferences (#surfbort). She lets the power of her own pleasure overtake her, so that when she bellows “We be all night!” I imagine her punching the ocean and delighting in the messy splashes that explode under her fists. The lyrics are funny and shockingly candid. Of course, the candor is part of a performance. But the sex she describes seems believable, both in its hotness and its goofiness. How did we get from the dance floor to the kitchen? And when did we have time to run a bath?
I mentally bracket a few things out of the song. I don’t know what to do with Beyoncé’s use of “daddy,” here and elsewhere on Beyoncé. I consciously avoid that word in all contexts. The cute, upturned second syllable always bothered me as a kid. But I’m not Beyoncé. It would be treacherous and facile to read into the age difference between her and her husband. No two couples feel a twelve-year gap the same way. I don’t want to be the kind of feminist who sanctions other people’s sexual expression. I don’t know what that word means to Beyoncé, and it’s in lots of people’s vocabulary. So I’ll step aside from it.
But I can’t step aside from “eat the cake.” I’m hardly alone. First, as has been well-documented, it references a scene of partner violence in the Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, a connection further supported by Jay identifying himself with Turner’s abusive ex-husband, Ike. Beyoncé’s clear admiration for and emulation of Tina gives the reference additional heft as well. It also makes her engagement with the line disconcerting. She mouthed the phrase while staring at the camera in the video. She delivered part of it with Jay at the Grammys.
There’s the other, pettier reason why that line bothers me. Jay needs to step up his game. This has been the dominant narrative about him following (and preceding) the release of Watch the Throne. My favorite part of the video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” is when Jay remains seated after Justin introduces his verse with “Get out your seat, Hov.” He lets the pop star do all the work while he leans into the mic between puffs from his cigar.
There are parts of Jay’s verse to “Suit and Tie” that I enjoy, like when he’s addressing Beyoncé’s parents. Likewise, I’m okay with some of Jay’s verse on “Drunk In Love.” The “panties right to the side” line reminds me of a scene in Jill Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight, which featured several scenes of candid marital sex. I’m uncomfortable with the “beat the box up like Mike” line. First, it reminds me of The Ying-Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” which made me anxious despite its crisp production. Jay’s also comparing himself to Mike Tyson, another black male cultural figure who mistreated his female counterparts.
But I wish that Jay rose to Beyoncé’s occasion. If we took Ike out of the “cake” line (which we can’t), it would still be a dumb, leering come-on (get it?). She’s risen to his occasion in their relationship. And she clearly put quantifiable and incalculable effort into this album. But I hear a distance in his performance on “Drunk In Love.” Certainly he’s not big on public displays of affection. For all of the fanfare over the steaminess of their Grammy performance of “Drunk In Love,” the most honest moment for me was when he shyly removed his hand from her backside after realizing that millions of people witnessed that display of physical intimacy. Maybe he collaborates better with producers. Maybe he’s hungry when there’s beef. When listening to his verse, I’m reminded of how Kanye West asked Nicki Minaj to rewrite her verse for “Monster.” She summoned the strength to deliver a passage that reduced the efforts of West, Jay, Rick Ross, and Justin Vernon to dust. Perhaps a love song is not the place to channel that kind of creative energy, but Jay’s verse and performance on “Drunk In Love” illustrates a power differential in hip-hop that requires one rapper to apply herself and another rapper to phone it in on his superstar wife’s album.
It’s too easy to pathologize Beyoncé here. But she said that she’s not his little wife and I believe her. That means we have to recognize her authority in the “cake” line’s presence on “Drunk In Love” in the first place. Beyoncé’s lyrics and videos contain more campy, meme-worthy catchphrases and cultural references than an episode of Drag Race. But we can’t treat “eat the cake” like “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” “a diva is a female version of a hustler,” or “I just woke up like this.”
As was true of the first four albums, Beyoncé is an intersectional work of contradiction. In “Flawless,” she juxtaposes a lyrical post-feminist swagger with a sample from a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk that advocated for gender equality. Importantly, the song includes Adichie’s claim “We raise girls to see each other as competitors—not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing…” That inclusion is critical. In the chorus to “Partition,” an exhibitionist fantasy in the spirit of Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Beyoncé drops the sex goddess act to say that she wants to be the kind of girl you like. That admission is critical too.
What makes Beyoncé powerful as a female artist is that her work and personae centralize the tension between projecting invincibility and revealing an insecurity that often comes from wanting more. Beyoncé wants every woman and girl to have a piece of the pie. But she also wants a bigger piece than everyone else. This is a feminist struggle. This is also a struggle she shares with many other women in pop music, including Tina. I hope Beyoncé reaches out to her as a fan, as an entertainer, and as a woman. If music initiated this controversy, maybe it can resolve it too. In 2008, the pair performed “Proud Mary” at the Grammys. Perhaps they can reunite next year. “Grown Woman” and “Better Be Good To Me” would sound great together.