Commemorating “Rock”

29th Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony - Show

Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.

Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.

The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.

Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.

Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.

What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.

I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.

Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.

This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?

The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”

Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?

It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.

Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?

Collecting

In the first chapter to her book, The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed makes the following argument about the meanings that we put into the things we own:

If we arrive at objects with an expectation of how we will be affected by them, this affects how they affect us, even in the moment they fail to live up to our expectations. Happiness is an expectation of what follows, where the expectation differentiates between things, whether or not they exist as objects in the present (29).

This makes a lot of sense to me. Records are my happy object.

Record Store Day 2014

Objects accumulate meanings because of the associations and feelings we bring to them. On last week’s Mad Men, an engineer helps install an IBM 360 in the middle of SC&P and explains computers’ dark thrall to Don Draper: “It’s been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.” Conveniently, recent Mad Men episodes have been framed by promos for AMC’s new period drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which details the development of a fictional Texas-based computer company in the early 1980s. In the clip, a character states: “Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

Ahmed would love that sentence’s circularity. Also, you could replace “computers” with just about any other word and the sentiment would still hold. In Ahmed’s mind, the thing we’re trying to get to is happiness, which we never completely arrive at and often only recognize in retrospect. I was reading Ahmed’s book during Record Store Day, which my partner and I observe every year. As I thumbed through the crates, posted images of my findings, pored over the covers, filed away my vinyl, and threw on my newly purchased copy of the Life Without Buildings reissue, I thought about what expectations collectors put into records. Technologies are often thick with possibility. We may think that a new gadget or toy will be “it.” Instead, we frequently integrate some of their features into our daily lives (load it, check it, quick – rewrite it). We only notice their object-ness when they don’t work (buy it, use it, break it, fix it).

I’m literalizing Ahmed’s use of the word “object.” She uses the term to express how individuals orient themselves within culture. According to Ahmed, people can be objects as well. When they congregate, they often objectify one another. Ahmed argues that this results in children becoming distinctly burdened as symbols for hope. That could explain why the dinner table is a volatile place for some families. But we often symbolize people and risk turning them into our happy objects. It also explains why making a mix for someone always means more than putting a sequence of songs together. The mix is the thing that gets us to the thing.

There’s a curatorial function to record collecting, but it doesn’t mean anything without people. Building a collection implies a sense of discernment, which is learned from living in the world and absorbing social norms. This ascribes unequal value to objects, which we should always question. You may ask yourself if a piece of music “deserves” to be on vinyl and folded into your collection. You may also get rid of things because of unfortunate associations. How often do break-ups forever alter your relationship to music? How often is that association shame? “Happiness is an expectation of what follows,” indeed. Because of a boy, I started college with three Blink-182 albums in my CD collection (including the yellow version of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, the one with “Fuck a Dog” on it). Other records—Björk’s Homogenic; PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea; The Dismemberment Plan’s Change—remind me of that time, but they made it to the other side and accumulated new meanings for me. But when I was ready to let it go, Dude Ranch didn’t even make it to a used record store. I flung it into a parking lot. Part of it was me being spiteful; it was a gift. Part of it was me applying feminism to music snobbery; I was done with pop-punk dick jokes. Part of it was me being a music snob; at 19, pop-punk was my bad object. A big part of it was shame; I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.

Sharing and combining record collections is an act of faith. What if you hate your partner’s records? What if you lose things? What if you end up having to divide everything back up into boxes and go your separate ways? I’ve merged my record collection with another’s exactly once. The ease with which we did it eight years ago was a good sign. We’ve schlepped our records to three homes and two states, but the process never bothered me. When I look at our records, I like being able to see what was him before me (The Aquabats), what was me before him (Depeche Mode), what we don’t share as a couple, what we brought to each other, and what became us.

You’ll never have enough records. There’s a beautiful sadness to that fact when you’re a collector. I’ll never hear all of the necessary sounds in the world and I’ll never have enough shelves to house them in one place and that is very comforting. Of course, technological progress has radically changed our perception of ownership and storage. Digitization has made just about anything available through both legal and illegal means and we can place that stuff in increasingly smaller, light-weight, and ephemeral spaces. Toward the end of a long, uncertain semester, I started to scan all of the paper I accumulated during course work and teaching. I did this to achieve a sense of control. I may not know what shape my dissertation will take or what its impact will be. But I imagine being happier and more at ease once the stacks on my desk and floor disappear. However, new stacks will probably spill over in their place. Happy objects are messy.

What I’m talking about is gathering. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed waxes poetic about tables and returns to them briefly in The Promise of Happiness. According to Ahmed, the table is a writing surface, a technology that bears the traces of its use, a gathering space, and an item that recedes into the background until certain interactions cause its presence to intensify (2006). Her meditation on tables reminds me of how scholars like David Morley, Lynn Spigel, and Ann Gray have theorized the television and the political significance of individuals and families’ interactions with it in the home. It also made me think about when Mary Kearney described television as something you need to dust during a class activity in her feminist television criticism graduate seminar. I never looked at another television set without thinking about dust, and I think about what else accumulates in my home full of objects. Records gather meaning in dust and in scuff marks. We put them there.

Review: Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor

Anatomy of an Actor

In this retrospective, film critic Karina Longworth recognizes Meryl Streep as a feminist icon changing Hollywood’s representational politics. Tracking this project across ten films, Longworth argues that “[i]n playing and thereby giving voice to the voiceless, she has again and again authored alternative historical fiction, from a female point of view. That’s more than speaking to feminism—that’s enacting feminism” (16).

The book is divided into two parts. The first half details Streep’s early career, which is defined by prestige and transformation. During this period, she earned two Academy Awards for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice. However, Longworth argues that Streep’s commitment to giving rich subjectivity to her characters is a feminist act. This often involved finding ways to identify with and revise underwritten characters. It also required her to negotiate the film industry’s gendered expectations.

In 1985, Out of Africa was a hit. It also initiated a backlash against Streep that coincided with conservative politics’ enervation of the feminist movement. She responded by starring in comedies like Death Becomes Her, which forwarded venomous feminist critiques but were dismissed as box office failures. This “low” point Streep’s career would continue until the mid-1990s when she became a draw for her empathetic depictions of middle-aged women, from awakened housewife Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. This shift defines the book’s second half.

I am convinced by Longworth’s argument, but wonder what kind of feminism Streep enacts. Her work depicts individual women’s desire for parity. This doesn’t upend capitalism or centralize intersectionality, which complicates her Oscar victory over Viola Davis for The Iron Lady. Though this illustrates Hollywood’s uncritical championing of hero(ine) narratives, is collective action represented Streep’s films beyond her collaborations with Cher, Goldie Hawn, and Nora Ephron? I will hold onto these questions when I watch Streep play Emmeline Pankhurst in Sarah Gavron’s 2015 period feature, Suffragette.

Also, how does feminism change historically? The book parallels second wave’s peak and backlash, as well as third wave’s advent and postfeminism’s ossification. This allows for the feminist reclamation of historical subjects like Thatcher. While Longworth acknowledges the exceptionalism of Streep’s late-period renaissance, shifting definitions of feminist ideology differently influence her success. Nonetheless, Longworth’s book is a necessary intervention and a welcome addition to any feminist cinephile’s library.

Recommended:  Fariha Róisín’s n+1 essay, “Devil in Disguise,” which reclaims Streep’s performance as prissy romance novelist Mary Fisher in Susan Seidelman’s She-Devil.

Rising Energies

Last fall, I saw my former thesis adviser, Mary Kearney, give an excellent presentation on sparkle, girlhood, and post-feminist luminosities. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Angela McRobbie identifies luminosities as spotlight effects of power that bring young women forward as individualized subjects. While luminosity promises to make young women legible cultural subjects, this visibility often becomes a form of surveillance. Kearney takes up sparkle as a form of luminosity that is simultaneously glamorous and vexingly ephemeral for girls and young women. Toward the end of her talk, she argued that scholars should consider what queer theory—and queer political actors like drag queens and glitter bombers—can teach us about sparkle. At the bar afterwards, I asked her what glitter can teach us about throwing shade.

Glitter Bomb

As a Drag Race fan, I’m familiar with throwing shade as a vital historical practice within drag culture. To throw shade is to insult someone. For especially quick, observant queens, it’s an art form. There’s an intellectual component to throwing shade, as indicated by associative terms like “reading.” It is effectively summarized in a segment of Jennie Livingston’s essential 1989 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigates the New York drag ball scene.

Dorian Corey’s comment at the end of this scene suggests that reading is more overtly performative and communal, whereas shade is a subtle, more ephemeral form of subterfuge. Shade complements luminosity. For female celebrities, luminosity is a double-edged sword. What’s the difference between a red carpet appearance and a mug shot? But drag queens frequently harness the light sources found in cosmetics, sequins, and rhinestones to honor feminine strength and often to challenge conventional femininity. They help cast sparkle in a different light. They sparkle to deflect shade. But when a queen shines, she may also become vulnerable to another queen’s shadow, particularly if her light source is basic or counterfeit. Glitter reflects light and the dirt underneath it.

This is where reading comes in as a “fundamental” practice in drag culture. To be insulted is to be recognized. As a perennial mini-challenge on Drag Race, “the library” is a space that honors queens’ ability to be critical of her sisters in a quick, perceptively humorous fashion. Particularly effective queens, like season two contestant Jujubee, can “read for filth” by isolating a queen’s flaws or weaknesses and critiquing them in devastating fashion.

Bianca Del Rio

The current cast of Drag Race includes frontrunner Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic with a classic Hollywood aesthetic. In an early workroom appearance, she refers to her punchlines and put-downs as her “Rolodex of hate.” What I especially like about this phrase is how it turns anger into an index. This phrase suggests that emotions have histories with their own root causes and stories. It also turns this particular negative emotion into a technology, a tool that can be used to navigate a variety of social interactions.

A “Rolodex of hate” sounds like a “structure of feeling,” a concept popularized by cultural theorist Raymond Williams to express how certain cultural experiences are understood through representation and felt in everyday life. But a Rolodex is a reference system that allows its user to refer back to pre-existing connections and associations. In this context, “Rolodex of hate” reminds me of what Heather Love refers to as “feeling backward,” or a distinctly queer experience or representation that speaks to subjects’ negotiations of negative or ambivalent feelings like nostalgia, resentment, self-loathing, shame, and despair.  It also raises a question: what is knowledge’s relationship to anger?

This is the question that I have for the video to Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” I work for a university, so I was immediately struck by the clip’s location. First off, an empty school will always look like the setting to a horror movie. This is why you will never find me at a library after 7 p.m. But schools are already scary because they’re sites of learning. As a result, they enforce ideologies of knowledge. School is a source of power. That’s where I learned how to diagram sentences and solve equations. It’s also where I learned dominant historical narratives, literary canons, bad words, and political values that I would later challenge and undo … by staying in school. At school, teachers and students also learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers and each other. Such congregation can be difficult for subjects who are persecuted and endangered because of their differences and their inability (or unwillingness) to adhere to norms that are toxic in their restrictiveness. It can also be disorienting, particularly since students and teachers’ actions are subject to scrutiny but its source or intent is not always clear.

Apart from the video’s setting, I’m struck by Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxxx’s lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere about the politics of negative reinforcement, using Azealia Banks’ “212″ as an example. The rappers’ extensive use of the word “bitch” cannot be ignored, though we should recognize that the word has different meanings when it is activated by a woman or a queer man. But I’m also interested in its interplay with “college,” “knowledge,” “dissertation,” “classroom,” “outline,” “cohesive,” “lunchtime,” “first period,” and “thesis.” Schools circulate ideologies through discipline. We tend to associate “discipline” with official codes of conduct that sanction certain behavior and academic practices. Discipline also circulates through less formal means. Subjects are also disciplined by schoolyard fights, incriminating gossip, and withering glances. But sometimes, anger is coded through refinement. In a graduate seminar, you might say “I find the author’s argument problematic” or “I hear what you’re saying, but I quibble with you about …” Such niceties allow you to make your point, even if you’d rather yell and throw things instead. That tension is what I find most compelling about “Ima Read”; Katz and Foxxx appropriate scholarly decorum to use it as a weapon instead of as a euphemism.

I try to lead a simple, fulfilling life; anger is a part of that. Yoko Ono begins “Revelations” with the line “Bless you for your anger, it’s a sign of rising energy.” As a feminist, I am often furious about actions and events—however subtle, however seismic—where people and various -isms ingratiate themselves into cultural representations and everyday life in order to oppress and maintain the dominant order. Sometimes I just cry. This is why I’ve never understood how weeping is denigrated as feminine. I reject such binaries and how they devalue women and femininity by denying their connections to “masculine” emotions like anger. And crying is never a dainty, submissive act for me; it destroys my face. But depending on the circumstances, I also respond with confrontation, with inquiry, with silence. As Ono’s lyrics suggest, such energy has multiple potential outcomes. Anger is productive. It transforms. But what can we do with these energies? How can we use it to teach and what can anger teach us?

Serving Up Food

Food - Cover

To cook a meal and share it with someone is both a good will gesture and an act of faith. It requires intimacy, both to navigate various allergies, politics, and preferences and to spoon out something you made. Cooking’s transformative power guides singer-songwriter Kelis Rogers, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in the mid-2000s and launched her sauce collection, Feast, in 2013. On Food, her excellent sixth album and follow-up to 2010’s underrated Flesh Tone, Kelis dishes homemade comfort with songs like “Breakfast,” “Jerk Ribs,” “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” “Cobbler,” and “Friday Fish Fry.” The album begins with her young son, Knight, asking “Are you hungry? My mom made food.” Kelis considers food as both a currency of affection and a symbol for the emotional nourishment she wants and expects as a musician, mother, daughter, and woman.

Food is an album about wanting to feed and be fed. The most overt references to desire center on carnal satisfaction, whether it be an insistent plea for ice-cold water on “Friday Fish Fry,” a quiet wish for someone to fill up personal space on “Floyd,” or a breathless sigh from a clandestine reunion on “Rumble.” However, Kelis doesn’t just treat a good meal as a facile metaphor for sex.

On “Breakfast,” Kelis observes that “so much of who we are is from who first taught us how to love.” Families often congregate around the dinner table, even if such communion can be tense and complicated. Throughout Food, Kelis lovingly references her son and father, the late jazz musician Kenneth Rogers. On “Hooch,” Kelis reflects on her son’s innocence, opening with the line “These are the days in your life/When you cross up, time is free/Like your daddy say the world is yours/So let it come naturally.” Her hesitant phrasing is rich with meaning, both to the son she wants to protect and to his father, her ex-husband Nas, whose 1994 single she references.

She is similarly guarded about romance. On the chorus to the opening track, she proclaims that her new love “is the real thing” while later equivocating that “maybe we’ll make it to breakfast.” Ultimately, her omnivorous curiosity provides its own sustenance. Sometimes her artistic endeavors result in physical distance, which she poignantly expresses on an unadorned cover of Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone.” But on the dazzling closer, “Dreamer,” she honors her imagination, which gives her the strength to create wonderful meals, songs, and worlds and share them with others.

Cooking requires balance. On Food, Kelis finds an excellent sous chef in producer David Sitek. Neither are genre purists—Kelis never identified as an R&B singer, Sitek’s band TV on the Radio created anthemic rock out of borrowed and reclaimed elements. On Food, they treat the studio like a spice rack. With arranger Todd Simon, they make irresistible pop from such ingredients as gospel vocals, funk guitar, Afrobeat percussion, soul brass, and new wave synth flourishes. Sometimes the results are slightly murky and overseasoned. But most of this textured, sensuous record left me with a full stomach, a contented heart, and a clean plate. Bring a fork.

En/Joy

Several months ago, I received a text from a friend. Like much of my correspondence with her, I turned over this statement like a message in a bottle that washed up at my feet.

the only time I really understand jouissance is when I listen to pop.”

I liked this text for a few reasons. One, it came out of nowhere; I love when some idea or statement seizes a friend with such urgency that she or he has to share it. Two, she taps into what bugs people about this fizzy French word, which is its untranslatability. The word is a derivative of the French verb “jouir,” which roughly means “to enjoy,” and can be broadly applied. Following intellectual contributions from folks like French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, poststructuralists have argued that jouissance is such an intense feeling of joy that it forces the subject to split apart and dissolve with pleasure. This definition makes me think of the phrase “explode into colors,” which a once-promising Portland outfit claimed as a descriptor for its textured, makeshift sound. Three, she connects the word to pop music, which is where I have most frequently been in the presence of such joy. Finally, my attachments to women’s voices as a music fan make me think of Hélène Cixous’ claim that jouissance is a distinctly female experience.

Pop music is about as hard for me to define as jouissance. I’m guided here “purely” by my response to certain instances where female vocalists’ contributions gave me pleasure and what that pleasure might “mean.” For my purposes, I’ll draw upon a few examples of joyful moments in popular music, which will encompass rock, alternative, and R&B in this post. In different instances, it can also include commercial permutations of country, hip-hop, metal, and other musical genres.

In the season six episode, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mad Men featured Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as its end credit music. At its most basic level, the selection demonstrates how countercultural forms like psychedelic music, hippie fashion, and (the promise of) sexual revolution seeped into mainstream consciousness during the late 60s. Implicitly, it may also be gesturing toward advertising’s eventual reliance on music licensing over jingles and original compositions, a shift Timothy D. Taylor attributes to the industrial fervor over Boomer-era nostalgia, blockbuster soundtracks, and MTV. What struck me most about the song’s placement was to whom it was referring. “Two Cities” is primarily a place-setting episode designed to cap off a season with moments of profound darkness that were frequently diluted by scattershot storytelling (Pete particularly), underserved characters (Dawn especially), and an origin story for its protagonist’s bruised psychology that frequently relied upon caricature (Don, obviously).

In the context of the episode, “Piece” comments on Joan’s attempt at professional advancement and her tentative alliance with Peggy. Much of Joan’s storyline focuses on the aftermath of her fifth season arc, which culminated in a partnership at the agency that she acquired through prostitution and resulted in further subjugation because of her gender and management’s devaluing of administrative labor. Joan relies on subterfuge to acquire Avon as a client. With some considerable hesitation, Peggy becomes her ally and hopefully seeds a spin-off where the pair launch an agency and hire on Dr. Faye Miller to conduct their research.

I love that the cue suggests a relationship between Joan’s plight as a professional and Janis’ confrontational pleas of self-sacrifice. First, I would have thought that Janis’ scrappiness and unconventional beauty would more clearly resonate with Peggy (though really, she’s Carole King right down to the Brill Building pedigree). Second, Janis insists that she can prove that a woman’s femaleness is steel-girded. I can think of few figures who can withstand the harrowing cultural damage of women’s objectification better than Joan Holloway. Unfortunately, it’s conditioned her to ignore possible alliances, especially with other women. Joan uses fashion and professionalism as armor. In doing so, she projects to the world that she is confident and essential to the process. But because of the nature of her work and the terms of her partnership, only Peggy sees Joan’s strength. As a result, Joan has never been given entrée into the world of client lunches and social club networking because men like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell view her as a sex object and not as an equal.

The unstudied recklessness of Joan’s professional daring in “Two Cities” mirrors the strain Joplin puts on her voice. Rock critic Ellen Willis argues that, as an interpreter of other people’s songs, Joplin “did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them” going on to add that the singer’s pursuit of pleasure was driven by “a refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder—and the magic of extremes” (2011, 128-129). This provides resistance to Joplin’s voice, that crack when she commands “C’mon, come on, Come! On!, COME ON and TAKE IT” thrilling in its defiance and its cathartic release. If this is jouissance—and it sounds like it to me—the pleasure I get from her voice and that she seems to have gotten from singing as an articulation act comes from having to wrestle against such restraint.

In their necessary theoretical work on happiness and the technological and cultural histories of the orgasm, Sara Ahmed and Annamarie Jagose draw upon work from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Michel Foucault to remind us that pleasure is intensified by pain and objectionable behavior. In thinking about how this influences jouissance, I recall Björk’s “Hyperballad.” It’s hard to pick one song that effectively demonstrates the concept in her repertoire. The woman recorded “Violently Happy,” which may be a synonym for jouissance. But I’ve always been struck by how such an anthemic dance track can be built from such private, contradictory emotional impulses. The song details a morning ritual. A lover wakes up each morning and walks right up to a mountain cliff, taking in the scenery and imagining herself in free fall before she returns to life with her partner, who’s still asleep at home. She wonders what it would be like to surrender to the rocks underneath her, and whether she would greet death with open or closed eyes. The video poignantly demonstrates jouissance through division by representing three versions of the singer—as mountain range, as video game avatar, as playback image—as layers that comprise the (fractured) whole. And I have often felt the full weight of this song on the dance floor, feeling my eyes well up with tears as she screams “to be safe up here with you” as I surrender to rhythm and confession’s relentless build-up to pleasure’s edge.

My favorite moment in Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” is near the end when she breaks into a fit of laughter that compromises her singing quality. Her declaration that this love “feels so good” sounds as if her voice is trying to break free from poor breath control and strained vocal chords. As a result of her glee, she doesn’t give herself enough support to open up her throat and hit the note. Though I recognize its manufacture, this moment of the song sounds “genuine,” as though Jackson is so consumed by her own human joy that she must declare it, even if (and possibly because) this pleasure has left her breathless. But while I dance against the grain of Janis, Björk, and Janet’s voices, I don’t think jouissance is just about the resistances built into pleasure. Roland Barthes popularized the grain of the voice as a concept that could address the erotic materiality of the voice. But while grain is often audible in a singer’s vocal roughness, we cannot give undue emphasis to wailing, screeching, and moaning at the expense of articulations of pleasure with smoother textures. To understand Jackson’s vocal contributions to pop music, we have to understand instances where jouissance is not a site of friction but a moment where we gather together peaceably in its transformative release.

I love Jackson for many reasons. Foremost, I credit her for having as much to do with shaping my feminist politics by modeling a female sexuality defined by the erotics of consent, intimacy, and self-respect. In popular estimation, Madonna is credited with this shift in pop music’s sexual politics, but Jackson did as much in her work and also brought collectivism and black consciousness into her chosen idiom. But I also responded to the ease in her voice. Janet has a shy, small voice, and one that frequently radiates happiness. I often hear a smile when she sings, even in her more confessional or confrontational moments. Perhaps part of this happiness comes from her ability to connect singing and dancing as a circuit of performance rather than distinct professional activities. In her voice, and its signification of happiness, I hear something akin to what Ahmed identifies in the carefree protagonist of Mike Leigh’s film, Happy-Go-Lucky, that “freedom from care is also a freedom to care, to respond to the world, to what comes up, without defending oneself or one’s happiness against what comes up” (222).

I’ll close by offering some ways to challenge or add nuance to my consideration for how jouissance functions in pop music. First, I’d like to consider how pop music signifies jouissance in ways that do not privilege or overemphasize the erotic and take up other forms of pleasure. Second, I’d like to acknowledge that jouissance is not just registered in the voice but in its interplay. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Kelis perform “Breakfast” at NPR’s SXSW showcase last month and felt the full intensity of her joy as she sang and strutted amid her multi-part ensemble. Pleasure resides in the voice’s interaction with instrumentation, composition, and production aesthetics. It’s not just about the singer, but the singer’s voice as one interactive element in a larger compositional or performative space. Finally, jouissance is about listening as an embodied practice, which is how we are able to respond to pop music by singing along, dancing in and out of time, and wiping away tears, perhaps all at once.

Pop music can be part of a circuit for joy. Therefore, jouissance is about the promise of bodily and spiritual connection, however briefly. Ahmed identifies happiness as a series of moments that create texture and shared impressions, instances where we are “brought to life by the absurdity of being reminded of something, where a sideways glance can be enough to create a feeling that ripples through you” (219). Ultimately, Ahmed argues that these moments are ephemeral and are given undue burden as an ideal in a culture that occludes the transformative possibilities that “negative” feelings can allow us. To be happy is not an ideal but part of a spectrum of human existence. It’s fleeting and it’s a feeling we tend to recall (and distort) from memory. Pop music can transform a moment or take us back to it and let us bask in its afterglow or feel pleasure in its friction. It may deliver happiness in brief increments and through ephemeral means, but it can transform our relationship to the world. It’s a point in time that we can always discover or return to, often with as much ease as a needle finds its groove or a song finds its algorithm.

Say Yes to Love

Punk doesn’t usually present itself as headphones music. With some exception, it’s not a producer’s genre. Punk gives short shrift to polish and studio trickery. For many punk bands, the record isn’t the document. The gig is the thing. What matters is the band’s immediate, sweaty connection to the crowd.

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Meredith Graves’ voice made me grab my headphones. As the front woman for Syracuse-based quartet Perfect Pussy, her contributions to her band’s 22-minute debut album necessitate cupping my headphones to pull her words closer to my ears. Graves trades in stream-of-conscious monologues that weave between the wonder, loneliness, and anger of being a hopeful, yet very uncertain twentysomething. With good reason, many critics are already quoting passages from “Interference Fits” (which features the rhetorical question from which the album gets its title) and “Dig” (“I want to fuck myself/and I want to eat myself”). The album begins with a representative line (my favorite) “Watch me, I’m kicking the wall/I’ll break through it before I go/and leave a hole my shape in everything I know.” These are important, meaningful words from a young, conflicted woman. But I had to strain to hear them.

On record, Graves’ voice registers just enough above the din of drummer Garrett Koloski’s thunderous percussion, the scrape of Ray McAndrew’s guitar, the persistent drone of Shaun Sutkus’ pile of synthesizers, and Greg Ambler’s scorched earth bass playing. The album never wavers in its energy or intensity, but I’m particularly partial to the run of songs in the middle of Say Yes (“Big Stars” through “Dig”), where the band is tightest and most focused.

During their SXSW showcase for NPR, a mosh pit opened up because of course. But as I tried to protect myself from flying skateboard wheels and the weight of predominantly male bodies, I struggled to hear Graves. Soundboard issues aside, the presence absence of Graves’ voice was compelling. At the center of this chaos was a small woman calling attention to her physical commitment as a musician—her steady stream of urgent words, her emphatic phrasing, her shifting rhythms, her flailing gestures, her neck muscles—but it almost didn’t register. And I wanted very much to hear her.

Requiring this level of effort on the listener’s part speaks to why the group has captured such fervent critical interest. At the risk of reducing Graves to her gender, a female-fronted punk band is still too much of a novelty for my liking. Much of this album is consumed with ambivalence around romance, sex, friend groups, and gendered expectations of personal fulfillment; struggling to hear the woman pontificating about these subjects adds another deceptively thin layer of interpretation. But the band does compelling things with that novelty, which suggests that musicianship makes identity and subjectivity into political issues and not the other way around. Hold your headphones close.