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.
What is identity anyway? Affixing “post-” to a noun puts forth the impression that the word following the prefix has been resolved. But we know that nothing involving identity is ever resolved, so long as generations of people continue to breathe themselves into a constant state of becoming. That seems to be a dividing line between critics over the current season of Mad Men. Don Draper keeps making the same mistakes while everyone around him nudges and leaps toward change and personal growth. Of course, Don isn’t the only one who keeps circling back to his past in the show’s penultimate season. It just seems strange that a man who made his fortune by reinventing himself under another man’s name would allow that persona to calcify.
Even though this is the Internet, this isn’t a post about Don Draper. Nor is it a post about reinvention, though since I blog about gender and music culture, that will come into play. It’s possibly a post about a major part of Don’s job, which is creating commercial opportunities for desire onto which consumers can project themselves. I suppose I might be interested in the construction of non-identities. Built into this are identities, of course. We never escape identity. We never “solve” it. We just encounter and engage with more layers of identities as we learn about ourselves and (hopefully) others. No two people are going to look at an advertisement the same way. That’s how Don was able to miss the suicidal tone to his Royal Hawaiian ad, and also why Stan thought the (unintentional) allusion to drowning made it funny. Who knows what Peggy or Joan would have seen had they been in the conference room? Perhaps that discarded men’s shoes assume a male address. Did anyone think to show the drawings to Dawn?
With questions of identity, what do we do with lack? The quest for creative anonymity is as old as pseudonyms, which are as old as media. One question persists: who gets to be anonymous? This is a question the Internet likes the toss around. It was a question that was spun into several productive directions during last week’s Girls in Hoodies podcast (a program that is for my afternoon jog what Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was for Liz Phair’s in that one issue of Seventeen I read in grade school). Recently, a number of artists have emerged onto our screens with little back story and thus ample room for speculation.
But anonymity is also appealing to mainstream artists who try to test the limits of visibility. Sometimes this is done for them by repurposing their sound and image. What I found most interesting about Justin Timberlake’s comeback single “Suit and Tie” was when people took it out of the wedding reception and generated a seemingly limitless series of remixes out of it. While (sanctioned and illegal) remixing is not itself novel, what I found compelling was that various artists turned one of the most marketable voices into a sound or texture that could be manipulated at times almost beyond recognition. This extended to the song’s lyrics. Though a bit embarrassing on paper, extracting and looping lines like “let me show you a few things” gave them an infinite malleability not limited by double entendre.
In an interview where he proclaimed himself the nucleus and hid his face behind a balaclava, Kanye West admitted that people wanted him to record 808s and Heartbreak, by now the turning point of his outsize career, under a different name. The man began his career by speeding up soul samples to make strange our perceptions of black vocal embodiment and now writes himself into histories of predominantly white rock subgenres for the purposes of self-deconstruction. He may not have invented black new wave because Prince, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Fab Five Freddy got there first. But he’ll probably write a song about how that makes him feel happy and small at the same time and we’ll never know what that process looks like. And that balaclava wasn’t just for show. With Kanye, everything is a commentary.
Anonymity creates the possibility for other people to project. This simultaneously speaks to why people were excited by the promotion surrounding the new Daft Punk record and also why many of those people were disappointed by Random Access Memories. Daft Punk is good at events, and those events are only possible when they are dressed as robots. They are good at cultivating interest based on exciting images and collaborations, whether it’s Interstella 5555, the pyramid light show, the Tron soundtrack, cover stories with Pitchfork and GQ, a well-placed spot on SNL, the Collaborators series, or a rumor that they’d perform at Coachella while they unmasked above the hoi polloi to take in Phoenix’s set. It’s still an open question for some as to whether they’re good at albums. Perhaps not if they’re good at making albums—the live instrumentation and sensitive mixing alone make the case for why I’ll eventually buy RAM on vinyl. But it’s an open question as to whether Daft Punk are good at making an entire album millions of people want to play front to back (if such a practice still exists).
I get why disco, rock opera, and acid jazz flourishes might alienate some listeners, regardless of whether they’re built around a nine-minute song where Giorgio Moroder talks about his music career. I’m not one of those people, but I get it. But I think such questions miss the point. Daft Punk has made a career out of creating deafening hype around the promise of mass inclusion in order to alienate listeners with their music-nerd references. Collective memory may single out the angry Human After All as uneven because they ground it out in two weeks (I side with Ted Leo on this one; it’s an underrated punk record that brings to mind the apocalyptic Bush Administration and, like their other albums, plays well with cardio). But historical revision allows for the perception that Discovery was greeted as a stone classic when it actually took some time (and distance from their Gap ad with Juliette Lewis) for a critical mass to adjust to the sound of disco synth fusing with prog guitar.
What I find interesting is how Daft Punk is at the center of this ambivalence while insisting on keeping their human likenesses hidden. On the one hand, it’s a deeply collaborative impulse. Obscuring their faces speaks to the pair’s devotion to disco’s utopian promise of friends, lovers, and strangers keeping time with each other as the real stars of the dance floor. It also speaks to why they insisted on showcasing the participation of Pharrell, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, Todd Edwards, Romanthony (RIP), and Nile Rodgers, along with Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams and veteran session musicians like bassist James Genus and drummer John “J.R.” Robinson. But it also speaks to the enviable control they have over their image to opt out of having personalities like plebeians. They get to stand 50 feet tall, clutching one of the most expensive sounding records in a year when Justin Timberlake cut a Timbaland record and Kanye West cut a Ministry record with Daft Punk. It’s a responsibility they take seriously, but it’s not one bestowed on everyone.
In a lot of ways, Daft Punk’s authoritative anonymity and love for pop detritus makes me think of Rhye, another mysterious two-piece who insist on hiding their faces in print and on stage. When “The Fall” and “Open” materialized last year, many people assumed that the singer in front of this quiet storm was a woman. The assumption was made in part because the vocalist sounded more than a little bit like Sade and Tracey Thorn. But as was made clear when Rhye’s front man revealed himself as Mike Milosh, our ears are not used to hearing men sigh in their upper register about the ache of desire and the thrill of having sex with someone willing to know you. If Jordan Baker claimed to love big parties for their intimacy, Rhye is the corner conversation to Daft Punk’s warehouse rave.
Yet it would be imprecise to categorize the group’s sound as minimal. As they identify in an interview for NPR, the intro for “Open” alone has a complex multi-instrument arrangement. This fact was nicely illustrated in a recent concert posted on the site that at once showcased their large touring band and shadowed their faces. Yet what seems to be fundamental about Rhye is the constructedness of intimacy tied to uncluttered arrangements, candid lyrics, knowing appropriations of adult R&B and jazz, and hidden faces. In the liner notes to their debut album Woman, Milosh credits his wife, Alexa, as his muse. He also explains that the title track repeats the word as a mantra because he felt using her name would have been too obvious. Yet he has also posted his at-home performance of “Open” for Alexa on YouTube.
If the woman Milosh is serenading looks familiar, Alexa Nikolas is a former child actress who recently appeared on Mad Men as grieving hippie Wendy Gleason. A quick Internet search led me to the couple’s Twitter accounts, home movies they’ve made together, and a site of American Apparel-lite photographs Milosh took of her. Does this diminish my reception of Woman, a bewitching withdrawn breath of an album? Not exactly. Part of Rhye’s appeal is that by limiting their image and crafting opaque, primarily first-person/second-person pop narratives, you can put yourself into the album. And since identity is fluid here, it opens up some possibilities. Queer listeners often have to negotiate or ignore explicit pronoun referents to heterosexual coupling. We don’t have to do as much recalibrating here.
Yet I return to this clip because it seems so rare to watch a woman watch a man perform for her. What is Alexa thinking? Is that an energy drink she’s holding? Does this video offer any insights into these people’s life together? Does this offer a space to reconsider the male gaze or is male privilege so pervasive that it can take up disembodiment? And what do we do with Milosh and collaborator Robin Hannibal consciously drawing upon the seductive, confessional music we tend to associate with women? Does the answer to this question change when we take into account Hannibal’s professional relationship with Coco O. as one-half of the R&B pop group Quadron? Is this scene too small for such questions (no)? Does it matter if I recognize myself in that wordless lovers’ exchange at the end of the clip (yes)?
Anonymity serves many purposes in pop music. For electronic artists like Daft Punk and Rhye, it can allow them to evade the tired presumptions of electronic music’s inauthentic performativity by following New Order’s example and having other people star in their music videos. For up-and-comers and mainstream talent, it can gin up interest that they hope will lead to faithful gatherings of various size. There’s something productive about the performance of Daft Punk and Rhye’s anonymity that allows for these men to create an aural, danceable collaborative space that makes room for many performers’ and listeners’ subjectivities. But as a fan, I’m unconvinced that this gets us past identity because Daft Punk and Rhye are given the privilege to be anonymous. We cannot forget that there is a privilege to masking one’s identity that is not equally distributed or uniformly motivated. Some require anonymity to make art and take a political stance in the face of suppression.
With Kanye and Spring Breakers taking up the balaclava, I think about the members of Pussy Riot and their need for anonymity to enact and commit to radical feminist politics. Yet in this case, wearing the balaclava simultaneously provides privacy and recognition. As Lindsay Zoladz observed in her recent interaction with a few members during their visit in New York for the premiere of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, these otherwise anonymous young women transformed when they put them on for photographs.
Performativity is operative regardless of whether they hide their faces. But they have become visible to us by wearing the balaclava, an appropriative symbol of radical chic that they wore for their own collective protection. Yet I also find it exciting and powerful that, in the article, I don’t know what these women look like, nor can I confirm their given names. Some people take up anonymity to make visible through radical action the systemic injustices that oppress and silence individuals on the basis of gender, age, race, sexuality, class, and ability through a host of (sometimes individual, often intersectional) phobias. They have to. And that they’re willing to do it in plain sight regardless of whether people can identify them is all the more powerful.
Back in late January, I revisited “Making Plans for Nigel.” In a blog post on the best musical moments of 2012, a post-doc in my program compared Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” to the XTC single. Point taken. The riff and the hook are strikingly similar. But knowing that the final semester of course work was fast approaching, and especially knowing that I was putting together an independent study on gender and labor, I kept reflecting on the lyrics.
As a kid, I liked this song. But it wasn’t until I was fresh out of undergrad, editing training courses at an e-learning company, that I began to think of this song as a possible critique on labor (or parenting, but often biological and corporate parentage uphold and recirculate the same ideals). Eight hours under fluorescent lights can do that to you. The song is told (with tongue in cheek) from the perspective of Nigel’s masters, who believe that selfless diligence and deference to management will guarantee their charge’s happiness. Yet as I was preparing for the semester–pulling books from the library, writing reading notes, drafting pre-lims reading lists, revising writing and teaching materials–I kept returning to the line “Nigel is happy in his work.”
Nigel’s masters are speaking for him. They’re assuming he’s happy in his work. But what if he is actually happy in his work? Happy the way Peggy Olson is happy when she’s stumbling out of her office after 6 p.m. to stretch and steal a cigarette from the typing pool. Happy the way I am happy when I’m writing and completely lose track of time. Sure, happiness is a moving target when it comes to labor. Those of us who tend to overwork ourselves must advocate equitable treatment and insist against self-exploitation, especially if we are women and there are gendered expectations that we’ll overextend ourselves. Self-care is real, y’all. As a feminist media scholar who studies gender and labor–mainly because I think the ways in which women’s labor is valued in the media industries needs to be studied, but also to some extent because I’m a woman who is never not working–I keep thinking through the negotiation between loving your work and making a commitment to learning to love yourself.
In many ways, I’ve been thinking about this well before I went back to grad school. Those who have followed this blog from the beginning (i.e., April 2009) know that I came into the MCS PhD program with a very clear idea of what dissertation I wanted to write. Because I was writing it into this blog. While maintaining this space, I reflected quite a bit on my memories of my experiences in college radio. I worked for four years at UT’s station, 91.7 KVRX. During this time, I was simultaneously developing my feminist politics. It was through my involvement with Alliance for a Feminist Option, a campus feminist sorority, that I read Gloria Anzaldúa and Patricia Hill Collins and became friends with brilliant women who were thinking through a lot of the same stuff I was processing. Working at KVRX allowed me to apply my feminist education. Because while I eventually thought of the station as home, I also saw a lot of sexist bullshit go down.
I was one of many of the women on staff could (and did) trade cautionary tales about listener harassment. The most common offense female deejays confronted was the unidentified, disembodied male voice who would call in to inform us—often accompanied by grunting and/or contemptuous laughter—that we sounded sexy. Speaking for myself, I went on the air because I had records to play. I was trying to share knowledge. The amount of research that went into my shows was comparable to the research I do as an academic. Many of the songs I played were from records that were out of print, released on labels that no longer existed, and were recorded by artists—many of whom were women, many of whom identified as queer—relegated to the footnotes of history, if they were even granted such a citation. To reduce my work to the assumed seductive properties of my voice was insulting, and it was an insult waged upon many female deejays. This resulted in me taking down my email address. I stopped giving out the station phone number as frequently during my broadcasts. And I got good at hanging up on rude callers. But each time I did, I wondered if I lost an opportunity to chat with a female listener. Rarely did women call in during my show (at least not women who were not my AFO grrrlfriends). When they did, they usually wanted to talk about who I was playing.
These were not problems my male contemporaries (including my partner, who hosted the blues program and served as music director) seemed to have to deal with. We certainly had allies. But male deejays did not seem to need to engage in the same tactical maneuvers as their female counterparts. It was common for women to serve as co-hosts and/or bring friends and partners to the station for protection. It was less common for women to agree to do a radio show alone and/or in the late evening and early morning when public transportation was unreliable and the streets were empty. Yet amid all that nonsense, I still lived for programming a radio show. I still lived for reviewing albums and going to shows. And I wasn’t alone. So on the one hand, there’s a negotiation for self-worth and equitable treatment. On the other hand, there’s the distinct pleasure of being happy in one’s work, despite (and sometimes because of) this sexist bullshit.
My blog changed with time. I used to update every day, chasing various news items and writing 300-word posts about videos I liked. I don’t do that anymore. I prioritize my time differently. As a grad student, I have to. More to the point, as a grad student I feel like I have to do research and piece together as much context as I can before I attempt to write anything. But I’m also trying to learn to listen to what I need, particularly because grad school provides a lot of opportunities for labor and leaves you with the task of determining whether that labor is beneficial to you. Grad school requires you to make time for things. But it doesn’t give you much time. It assumes that you’ll make these choices for yourself. This can be difficult, particularly if you internalize the ways in which labor expectations privilege masculinized norms of self-sacrifice and individual achievement.
So as this blog developed, I became interested in labor as a subject of study. Maintaining a blog to break up a work day can do that to you. In December 2009, I wrote a short post on music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. It would ultimately lead me to my dissertation topic. I am a feminist media scholar who studies the intersections of gender, labor, and music culture in a post-network era. I have come to these intersecting subjects of study through my own experiences, questions of identity (or, because intersectionality matters, identities) always come first for me. One reckless habit I have cultivated as a graduate student is not worrying about whether other research projects bear similarities to mine, thus occluding me from committing myself further to particular subjects and lines of inquiry. In point of fact, a number of people have already written on similar topics. I am preparing to write a dissertation about women’s intermediary labor between the music, television, and new media industries. Taking Vicki Mayer’s organizational schema from her book Below the Line, I will pay particular attention to positions such as booking, promotion, licensing, and music supervision.
The last area has already cultivated a sizable body of knowledge within media and film studies (see: Aslinger, 2008; Klein, 2009; Barnett, 2010; Lewanowski, 2010; Anderson, 2011). However, there is still more to explore. We can think through how this field of labor is intertextual and relies upon laborers’ accumulation of cultural capital, fluency in copyright law and business practices, negotiated knowledge of several industries and their distinct needs, and the sensitivity they must demonstrate to the ways in which certain musicians and affiliated genres are deployed to hail particular audiences. Furthermore, supervisors’ labor relies on and has been shaped by the industrial practices of licensing, promotion, and booking. Finally, greater attention must be paid to how labor identities and gendered assumptions about labor shapes this work.
Women contributed a largely ignored history of work in these areas that has only recently cultivated a (compromised) visibility. Women’s work seems to have been delegitimized in these fields for a few reasons. For one, these labor positions are historically perceived as catalysts for struggle to penetrate various barriers to entry. If industrially or culturally sanctioned “auteurs” like film director Wes Anderson and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner want to place a Beatles’ song in one of their projects and the music supervisor or licensor cannot negotiate a licensing fee that fits within the budget (Beatles’ songs are notoriously expensive to license), the burden of responsibility (or blame) tends to fall on the laborer who cannot ink the deal.
There is also an assumption that labor that relies upon technical skill and is organized by craft unions and guilds is not as valuable because it is perceived as dependent upon and subservient to “creative” labor like writing, directing, producing, and acting, thus “justifying” and reinforcing the industrial hierarchies of above- and below-the-line labor. Booking, supervision, licensing, and promotion all qualify as below-the-line labor and thus tend to be delegitimized. The line between work and fandom is often blurred for these particular laborers, which can cause further perceptual delegitimation within the media industries. Finally, pervasive sexist and misogynistic assumptions remain on what it means for women to enact these labor roles. Much of this work takes place in meetings with artists, label representatives, legal teams, and publishers. Many of these exchanges take place through electronic communication channels, in offices, or in conference rooms. There are gendered assumptions in place even in these exchanges.
However, a good bit of this work still takes place at industry festivals like SXSW or backstage at concerts. As scholars like Sara Cohen have noted, such cultural spaces are historically off-limits or available in a restricted capacity to women because of minimal concerns for individual safety to, from, and at a gig, which is usually booked after-hours in poorly-lit metropolitan areas with limited public transportation and parking accommodations that many of their male counterparts rarely had to consider (Cohen, 1997). Hence why a number of artists associated with the riot grrrl movement repurposed second-wave segregationist practices by holding female-only shows or insisting that male audience members stand in the back. Hence why more shows were all-ages events in repurposed performance spaces that took place earlier in the evening.
Because there remain pernicious assumptions that women and girls simply entering into a venue space must have heteronormative sex-based ulterior motives for contact, as the idea of women and girls who turn their music fandom into a livelihood (coupled with the cultural degradation of groupies’ labor and the sexist assumption that women and girls at a concert must be groupies) is unconscionably foreign to many people. What is more, there is an assumption that all people go to a concert to hear live music. As I’ve written (and will continue to write) since January 1, 2012, there are consequences for this not always being the case.
What does this mean for my scholarship? By extension, what does this mean for this blog? Or what some of you might really be asking: where’s your post on Beyoncé? Good questions all. I’ve thought a lot about Beyoncé as a site for understanding race, gender, and labor. Beyoncé has always been known for fancy footwork. This is really just an extension of how closely she controls her own image. A friend asked why Beyoncé ”let” Michelle Williams take the lead on their new single. My catty reply: “Beynevolence. That’s what her fifth album will be called” (I say this as a fan, B’Day 4 life). I keep thinking about the intense coordination of the Destiny’s Child reunion, the Super Bowl half-time show, the GQ cover story, the HBO documentary, and the announcement of her world tour. A lot of interesting discourse came out of this confluence of brand positioning. I thought Leah Carroll’s comparison of Life Is But a Dream and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning was especially interesting in terms of their particular evocations of “realness.” I also thought about Beyoncé advantageously comparing herself to an athlete in her GQ cover story (a connection photographer Terry Richardson extended because his dick has no imagination).
I like Beyoncé. A major part of what I like about her–aside from her voice, songs, performances, and music videos–is her insistence of control. However, some may argue that such a need for control keeps Life Is But a Dream, which she directed, from functioning as a proper documentary. It often shuts down moments where we might learn something about the subject. Beyoncé won’t offer much detail on her relationship with her father and the decisions she made to be her own manager. More to the point, for all of her insistence on female solidarity, professional agency, and sexual fulfillment, Beyoncé does not seem to have much of a relationship with anyone. We barely see her with Jay. We see her with her nephew, but not her sister Solange. We see footage of her singing “Lovefool” with Kelly and Michelle from their Destiny’s Child days, but then they’re clapping for her from a distance at an awards show. We see a few moments where she asserts her authority backstage, but many of those are dropped in with little context and quickly backed away from. These are ruptures that demand questions the documentary can’t or won’t answer.
As I was watching, I kept thinking about bell hooks’ critique of Madonna: Truth or Dare and the ways in which the Material Girl pathologizes her back-up dancers in terms of race and sexuality and elects herself as their white savior (hooks, 1999). No such intervention from Beyoncé. However, as someone who is especially excited about her all-female band, I was sad to see little connection between Beyoncé and the Sugar Mamas. Furthermore, I was flummoxed by the scene where choreographer Frank Gatson orders Beyoncé’s dancers to sew their hats into their hair. A friend noted that one of the women he yells at is Ashley Everett, one of the pop star’s choreographers and dance captains. This scene gave me pause for a few reasons. For one, it’s a rare scene where another woman’s labor is acknowledged. For another, it’s a tense scene between members of the touring company and the interplay of race and gender frames the tension. Furthermore, Beyoncé is not in this scene. This distances herself from the labor that also helps create “Beyoncé.” Yet at the same time, this scene was included in the film by either Beyoncé or her editing team. Thus there is an acknowledgement of the dancers’ labor, yet Beyoncé’s connection to that labor is unclear. Being able to make those connections would help us better understand the star’s labor, as well as the surrounding labor that makes her stardom possible. But speaking to those absences and ruptures is a start.
I’m taking an independent study on gender and labor for my pre-lims and dissertation. I haven’t come up with my pre-lims question, but I’m noticing many themes. Some include: the processes of deskilling through technological changes and historical materialism, the assumption that women’s wages are supplemental for a family income, the identity-based connections between production and consumption, the struggle to articulate worth, the contingent visibility and shaping of race and gender by work environment and industrial definitions, paternalistic labor practices and educational opportunities, unions’ sexist obstructions toward female laborer participation, women entering into identity-based competitions with other women, the expectations of motherhood, and the contingent coalitions female laborers form and continue to form despite various oppositional forces. I’m also noticing that not a lot of media studies scholarship deals directly with gender and labor, though this is changing. I’m putting together a mix CD for the indie study. The act of curating a mix is useful to me, and I might be able to pull out a question by thinking about gender and music as sites of labor. I’m struggling to find songs that don’t treat these subjects as inevitably vulnerable to exploitation and subjugation. I’m looking for music that gets at the nuances of negotiating a love for labor with an insistence not to self-exploit. Here are some songs I’ve chosen so far. I welcome other suggestions.
In a recent interview with Jessica Hopper, Claire Boucher (alias Grimes) revealed that the song “Oblivion” addressed the constant sense of dread women deal with as they embark on a “masculine world associated with sexual assault.” Boucher was writing from her own experiences as a survivor. This was highlighted in Mark Richardson’s write-up on Pitchfork’s 2012 Top 100 Tracks list, on which “Oblivion” was named song of the year. On Slate’s Music Club 2012, Lindsay Zoladz put “Oblivion” in conversation with Angel Haze’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a harrowing song about the rapper’s personal history with child abuse.
Much like Zoladz, upon reading Boucher’s response, I heard “Oblivion” with new ears. Or rather, it confirmed my suspicions. Stripped of its robotic sheen, Boucher reminds me of Roy Orbison, an alien with an arrow in his heart, particularly with lyrics like “when you’re running by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” and Boucher’s phrasing on the line “I will wait forever.” But I could never take these words at face value. The menacing, queer-masculine Casio chorus that overwhelms the song’s second half wouldn’t let me. Nor would the lyrics that bookend the song. Boucher begins with the admission “I never walk about/after dark/It’s my point of view/that someone could break your neck/Coming up behind you always coming and you’d never have a clue” and concludes with the foreboding promise to “see you on a dark night.” Nor would the video, with Boucher in a football stadium and a locker room amid a gaggle of sweaty, undressed young men. When I read Boucher’s interview and processed her intimation, I didn’t say “aha.” I nodded silently to myself. “That makes sense,” I thought. “I knew it.”
Misogynists might hear an erotic thrill in “Oblivion” and surmise that women like being caught. What’s powerful about this song–indeed, why I kept returning to it–is the unsettling juxtaposition of romantic longing and looming endangerment. But the presence of both elements doesn’t mean Grimes is compromising her need for consent. Rather, she’s expressing the constant negotiation and reconciliation women and girls have to do as sexual beings who are treated as objects and marked as easy targets by people who wish to do them harm simply for existing. “Oblivion” is about what it means to desire–often an ongoing internal debate–while keeping your guard up because of what your gender or sexuality represents to others–often a forced external battle. In Molly Lambert’s excellent review of Mad Men‘s “Mystery Date,” which uses the Speck murders as a thematic linchpin, she questions one character’s rape-fantasy pitch by suggesting that the woman in this scenario “wonders exactly what terrible, violent, and life-altering things would happen if she stopped looking out.”
Lambert identifies with Sally Draper, linking the character’s fear with her own recollections of the Polly Klaas abduction. Though she doesn’t address this in the piece directly, Lambert has probably felt the evil of assault in her adult life. I know I have. And I need to be careful with my language, because these aren’t my stories. I also need to be careful that my words don’t reinforce the myth of strangers lurking in the shadows, because statistically people are more likely to be hurt by friends and acquaintances. But I’ve had friends who were harassed on the street. I have friends who don’t feel safe on their own university campuses. A roommate cryptically implied an attack over a solemn brunch at Denny’s after a night out turned into a nightmare.
Of course, I have my own stories. I’m a survivor too. And as an adult, I’ve had multiple experiences of men barking at me (often from the safe distance of the passenger seat) while I walked to the grocery store, went out for a jog, or headed to a show. I remember yelling “don’t touch my fucking hair” at a stranger while I was outside of a bar with some friends in New Orleans. I remember being proud that I had the instinct to articulate my rage. Likewise, I remember being grateful that I had people around me while I did it. I also remember being furious that my guy friends who were chatting inside about Eastbound and Down had the luxury of walking to their hotel after 2 a.m. with minimal threat of harassment. What I remember in all those incidents–especially as I get older, the stories pile up, and I clutch my coat tighter–is that I was lucky.
In fall 2006, two family members were assaulted. The effects of this trauma were catastrophic and far-reaching. During the early stages of the aftermath, my partner’s mother gave me Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I didn’t read it. At 23, I thought I was immune to pop psychology. As I get older, I keep thinking about the relationship between fear and bravery. I used to think bravery meant fearlessness. Last year was the first time I lost a friend in an assault. Esme’s murder was the defining moment of 2012 for me, and most likely one of the most significant events in my adult life. It’s hard to articulate the influence of Esme’s passing. I struggled with coming up with ways to express my grief. There weren’t words for it. I couldn’t write about it. Any attempt to turn it into something else felt shallow and opportunistic. As a feminist, I know that intersectionality is both an essential yet volatile framework. Esme’s murder brings up unresolved issues with gender, race, and mental health. I didn’t know what to do with people calling the African American male suspects “monsters.” I didn’t know what to do with the identified assailant killing himself. I didn’t know what to do with knowing that my friend would most likely be alive if she weren’t a small, attractive young woman. I didn’t know what to do with believing that Esme was brave for walking home from a show in her neighborhood instead of entitled to such freedom. But Esme was brave in so many ways, perhaps especially in her kindness.
Last fall, I read Circuits of Visibility, an anthology edited by Radha S. Hegde about gender’s relationship to transnational media flows. Hegde contributes a piece about Indian Hewlett-Packard call center employee Pratibha Srikantamurthy, who was raped and murdered by a cab driver on her way to work in Bangalore. As I read this piece, I understood why a feminist academic like Hegde felt it necessary to write about it (and why it’s still relevant). I feel the feminist impulses of lending visibility and articulating rage in my bones. But I felt like any effort to use my work as a platform or outlet for my confusion, anger, and sadness over Esme would be self-serving and almost as hollow as the UT’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ awful co-opting of Charlie Chauvin’s Esme logo. It wouldn’t bring her back. The act of writing a proper conclusion was especially vexing. I didn’t want to paper over the reality of her death by focusing on her bright, young life, nor did I want to dwell on the brutal facts of her murder. Furthermore, the case was open at the time. But drafting a conclusion felt like lying. Even if the Austin Police Department closed the case–which they did in late December–it couldn’t make some of my friends feel safe to walk alone at night. It never could. The damage was done. Words were useless.
That last sentence is only a half-truth. As a writer, I recognize that the right words, persistently shaped by thoughtful research and personal insight, have tremendous healing properties. Summer Anne Burton’s “The Year Without Esme” found the words I could not and, importantly, shifted the grief outward to focus on how other people mourn and remember this miracle of a person.
Last year, I had trouble finding an outlet to express my feelings and turn them into something else. I fell out of the habit of writing. Well, this isn’t exactly true. I wrote. I completed revisions on an anthology chapter. I contributed reviews for Bitch Magazine and The Moving Image. I wrote four posts for Antenna and a post for In Media Res. Last week, I submitted an article for review. Next month, I’m due to submit another one. And then there’s all of the writing I didn’t share–term papers, weekly responses, notes, presentations, student feedback, marginalia. I channeled my creative energies elsewhere. But I questioned the validity and utility of my words in ways that I hadn’t before. In the past, I always savored conjuring sentences from my laptop like a sorceress manipulates the sky. But now, it feels like a luxury. Now I recognize the immanent critique’s connection not only to self-indulgence but to writer’s block.
Hopefully, such questioning leads to personal growth. Last year, other people’s words resonated where mine could not. I was struck by Angel Haze’s bracing candor, Fiona Apple’s poetic violence, THEESatisfaction’s off-hand introspection, Lower Dens’ muttering, Marisa Paternoster’s bellowing, Nicki Minaj’s blatant disregard, Santigold’s pop genius, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s incantations, Cat Power’s maturation, Grimes’ relentless shapeshifting, Icona Pop’s maniacal glee, Signif’s real talk, Yoko Ono’s couples therapy, Crystal Castles’ icy protest songs, Purity Ring’s heartfelt odes to abjection, and Julia Holter’s celestial hymns. I was particularly taken with the music and words that forced me not to look away, even when it scared me.
What I learned last year is that fear and bravery are usually connected. Fear is the manifestation of uncertainty over unknown entities or prospects. Bravery is the resolve not to be thwarted or to harm out of fear. It doesn’t mean we lose the fear. It just means we don’t let the fear consume us. It’s a difficult commitment and it never resolves itself. As Ann Friedman points out, we can’t guarantee social progress with premature proclamations that we’re moving forward. But let’s try to be brave this year. And let’s be good to each other so that we don’t have to be afraid.