Close out the new year with my Antenna post on RuPaul’s Drag Race and sponsorship.
Earlier this week, I launched my personal Web site through UW-Madison’s Comm Arts Department. I built the site as an assignment for my Digital Production class. I intended to use the assignment as a means to update my blog and integrate it into a larger, ongoing project of media-making that I believe is foundational to my scholarly interests in gender, labor, and music culture as a feminist media scholar.
I’ll start by saying a bit about the initial process of building a blog. At first, it was infuriating. It was especially frustrating because my ambition exceeded my reach. I drew out a detailed, multi-page layout. I have a very clear vision for how I want my site to look and what I want it to do. Ultimately, I want my Web site to have curated collections for previous and ongoing research. I also want it to have the capacity to stream my mixes and deejay setlists. But I needed to know how to create a style sheet first.
As a class, we used Dreamweaver to build our sites. This is software in which I once claimed proficiency based on watching friends use it to build their Web sites, but I never really played with it before. My experience as a blogger and freelancer allowed me to treat the Internet like a Word document, because someone else built the frame onto which my words, images, clips, and links appeared. We also read Jon Duckett’s HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites as a reference guide. Because of the accelerated nature of most graduate courses at R1 institutions, this involved reading 50 to 100 pages of the book at a time and (hopefully) absorbing the material as you went. Like many people essentially acquiring foreign language skills, I’m learning through error. I learned how to do something by spending hours figuring out what I did wrong, combing the book and other online resources, texting friends for advice, and toggling between HTML and CSS and doing minor tweaking that would either change nothing on the page or radically change the layout and design elements, depending on my commands.
When you’re also balancing the expectations of coursework, a TA assignment, and other administrative duties, it’s easy to freak out. I freaked out at least once. After a particularly unproductive day in the lab that culminated in me putting a picture on top of the header, I felt myself reverting to that day in freshmen geometry when everyone seemed to get proofs but me. I wanted to cry. Unfortunately, I share an office with five other teaching assistants and had an hour before facilitating four consecutive discussion sections. So I took several deep breaths, let a friend hug me, tabled it, and taught undergraduates about the political underpinnings of television’s transnational practices of importation, formatting, and co-production. Then I had dinner with a friend. Then I talked to a couple of people in my class who were having trouble or experiencing anxiety about the project. Then I went back to my layout design and attempted to break up the assignment into small, discrete chunks. First I’d create the “About” page. This involved building a header in Photoshop. I took a picture of myself reaching for a copy of The Gossip’s Arkansas Heat (originally used as the header for this blog), cropped and resized the image, added a layer of text with my name, positioned it in a place where it would be clearly visible, and saved it for the Web. Once I had the layout the way I wanted it, I could easily transfer it to the CV page, the Research page, and the Playlists page. Then, I poked around WordPress and found a layout that more or less matched my Web site’s layout and design (960 grid! Helvetica!). I originally conceived of redesigning the blog to match the site layout, but this was an easier solution. As I worked, I developed a better understanding of HTML, CSS, and Photoshop. I started to love working on my site. I started to realize that, like my blog, this space would undergo an unending process of construction. I built myself a home. Two days after I turned in the assignment, I built the site’s splash page.
This assignment made me remember why I’m taking this Digital Production class, which I forgot during the constant negotiation of coursework expectations, lesson plans, grading, and deadlines for future projects. I’m invested in university production programs doing right by their female undergraduates. I want more women to be media literate and I want more women to be media-makers. I don’t presume an additive approach will “fix” the television and film industries. More women working in television and film won’t inherently make those industries commit to more progressive hiring and retention practices. It won’t end sexism, racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, sizeism, ableism, and ageism. But education is never a loss. Educating women should always be a priority. And educating men and women to work together in an equitable manner will enact positive social change. As someone who teaches a studies course about post-network era television to undergraduates who want to work in the television or film industry, I want them to acquire the vocabulary and critical thinking skills in order to interrogate the processes by which television is created, distributed, and consumed. As a feminist media scholar who studies women’s below-the-line intermediary labor in the music, television, and film industries, I’m invested in helping close the gender gap. I’m invested in eventually teaching production classes so I can help create a space where students acquire skills that allow them to rethink what’s possible and to destabilize potential assumptions of who gets to enact that work. And as an instructor, I’m committed to the ongoing process of learning through teaching students how to think and work together.
Just as I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t control how my words are interpreted by others, I’ve embraced that this Web site is a public work in progress. I designed it on a Mac. It currently looks weird in Internet Explorer, though it appears to be compatible with Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. It looks okay on my phone. I still have a lot of work to do. I need to add anchors to my CV in HTML. I need to include a contact page. I need to add credits for Girls Rock Camp Rhode Island and Scratched Vinyl editor Chi Chi Thalken for their images that I used in the Home and About pages. While I wanted it to be clean and uncluttered, it might be a bit too minimalist. I might be oppressing you with Helvetica. Finally, how do I maintain a Web site without giving in to the governing logics of branding that I believe to be antithetical to the larger political project of cultural studies?
For my final project, I’m working on further developing the Research and Playlist pages. Currently, my Research page consists of three images that link to my PowerPoint presentations of a Girls Rock Camp workshop, a guest lecture, and a conference presentation. Pretty lo-fi. Taking a cue from Miriam Posner, what I’d ultimately like to do is curate an interactive collection for each workshop, lecture, and presentation that incorporates text, images, AV material, and secondary research. I won’t be able to do this for every conference presentation and guest lecture I’ve done by the end of the semester. So I’ll start by curating a collection on the Girls Rock Camp curriculum I designed with my friend Kristen. I’ll bring in the images and videos we collected for our workshop and integrate songs from the supplemental mix CD we made for our workshop into this collection.
I want all of my deejay setlists to be available through SoundCloud, so I will make one playlist streamable. I want to stream my setlists through my site for a few reasons. One, I want listeners to have access to my research. I use the word “research” purposefully, because I discovered that Cathy Dennis’ “Touch Me” references Wish & Fonda Rae’s “Touch Me (All Night Long)” through doing the same kind of digging that I have done through scholarly and trade publications to write a term paper. I think of my Queens deejay sets as aural histories of women’s contributions to soul, hip-hop, and R&B. But as a feminist, I’m conscious of who my deejay nights exclude. There are geographical barriers. My sets certainly aren’t available to people who live outside of Madison. My sets may also be inaccessible to people who live with physical disabilities or social anxieties. Going to the Alchemy requires transportation. It also requires feeling comfortable in loud public spaces. It may also presume that you’re a social drinker, which prohibits potential listeners who are sober or in recovery. It may also be unfeasible to attend if you can’t frequent local establishments due to a limited budget or particular familial responsibilities. Finally, I’m especially aware of how holding a deejay night on a Friday or Saturday evening might prohibit people who don’t feel safe going out alone or in small groups late at night. Let me be clear: I want people to see me spin in person. But I also want to give listeners options, because being complicit with exclusivity means perpetuating inequality.
In addition to building a database, converting vinyl to a digital format, and creating streamable mixes, I want my Playlist page to enact another function. Around Halloween, I had a conversation with a friend about how to celebrate while using it as a platform for creating awareness and challenging social practice. My friend was especially upset about a local ad that showed a woman being dragged inside a haunted house. It was hard for her to separate the image from a recent news story about a woman who was murdered in her own home. It was hard for either of us not to think of how we lost Esme and how her murder continues to influence how we carry ourselves at night. Thinking about this in relation to my upcoming deejay gig, I thought about how it might be nice to link a seemingly fun event to larger social issues. So I’m planning on picking one song from a setlist and relating it to one regional non-profit that is seeking to end violence against women and children. For example, how might we put Millie Jackson‘s “It’s All Over But the Shouting” in conversation with the Settlement Home for Children in Austin?
These are big ideas that I’m trying to take on a little bit at a time in the ongoing development of my site. I welcome any and all ideas people may have regarding both design and content. Let the great (ongoing) experiment begin.
A few weeks back, the trailer surfaced for Greetings From Tim Buckley, the first of reportedly two Jeff Buckley biopics in the works. The one that is currently in production attempts to take on the singer-songwriter’s brief career in its entirety, all the better to showcase its acquired rights to his original material. It boasts a cast of name actors. It also promises to make a star out of Reeve Carney, the British singer-actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to the alt-rocker. For some people, this is kind of a big deal. As a long-time Buckley fan who has followed trade discourse on a number of potential and aborted biopic projects since the late 90s when early cheerleader Brad Pitt trumpeted his interest, I’ve been concerned about who would tell the story and what such a film would focus on. I’ve been particularly interested in casting rumors and maintain that 2006-era James Franco would have been the way to go.
The other film, which made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival to some acclaim, appears to be a different animal. Penn Badgley—best known as Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey and also received attention for his work in Easy A and Margin Call—plays Jeff. However, rather than attempt to take on the young singer’s career, the film centers on his promising debut at a tribute concert for his late father, folk singer Tim Buckley, the man from whom he inherited an otherworldly voice but otherwise never knew.
Bracketing off the remainder of Jeff’s career is a smart move. For one, this story is arguably the most compelling portion of David Browne’s Dream Brother, a biography that dialogues father and son’s personal lives, professional trajectories, and untimely deaths. Focusing on a time before the son wrote his own material is perhaps a clever way to hide that the production didn’t receive permission from Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, who oversees his estate.
Situating Greetings within the music biopic’s governing conventions, the decision to build a film around one minor but important legend is also a way to potentially distance itself from the genre’s limitations. Stated broadly, music biopics are boring. They essentially tell the same story. A musician—usually male—cannot handle the pressures of fame. He indulges, he betrays trusts, he self-medicates, and he overcomes his vices—either through posthumous legacy or with a second wife. This makes it ripe for parody, whether we’re talking about Walk Hard or Behind the Music.
These are a set of conventions that are hard to rework or overcome. Arguably–and I say this as a fan–not even post-modern, self-aware music biopics like 24-Hour Party People completely pull it off. For all of Tony Wilson’s winking at the film’s construction of his record label’s mythology, all the conventions are in place. Ian Curtis commits suicide. Shawn Ryder succumbs to decadence and hurts the label in the process. Martin Hannett substitutes one addiction with another and dies. Factory Records loses its money through a series of poor business decisions and has to shutter the label and its night club, where Wilson gets to dance with his ghosts one last time. Given the film’s proclivity for postmodern asides, it misses an opportunity to not better integrate female artists who had minor or tangential relationships with the label and its scene. Linder Sterling made fliers for the Buzzcocks and fronted Ludus. ESG performed at the Haçienda’s opening night and recorded with Hannett. Happy Mondays’ backup singer Rowetta Satchell reportedly survived an abusive relationship with Ryder.
One possible reason why this film genre retraces the same narrative conventions is that the life of a touring musician is potentially a boring subject for a feature film. A concert can be a magical experience, a site of interpersonal conflict, or just another show. Otherwise, a tour is often a series of interchangeable cities, hotels, interviews, stage setups, vehicle breakdowns, and fast food restaurants anchored by a bus and limited wardrobe that adopts a stench which blooms and stagnates the longer you’re away from home. It’s tough to make this glamorous or narratively compelling for a feature film, which may explain why musicians’ lives and performances have arguably been better served by documentaries and concert films. David Byrne unveiling the oversized suit in Stop Making Sense is exciting. The countless moments where he and the rest of the Talking Heads engage in passive-aggressive sparring or ignore each other is not.
So where does this leave Greetings? Based on the trailer, Badgley does a capable job mimicking Jeff’s voice, mannerisms, and odd charisma. However, I worry that the film (or the studio) doesn’t trust its audience enough to recognize Badgley’s effort. The scenes selected for the trailer bluntly underline how much he looks and sounds like his father and that his performance at St. Ann’s Church was transcendent. Importantly, they use other people’s reactions to illustrate Buckley’s otherworldly star presence and artistry rather than trusting that filmgoers might be caught up enough in Badgley’s performance to make that leap for themselves. It’s especially intrusive at the end of the trailer when Jeff covers “Once I Was.” The camera lingers on reaction shots—particularly his lover’s tear-streaked face—instead of his performance.
I would imagine the primary motivation behind relying on other characters to tell the audience just how engaging Tim and Jeff Buckley were as performers is so the film to get around the potential liability of its subjects’ relative obscurity. Many people, if they know Jeff at all, are only familiar with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which scored several 9/11 montages and Seth Cohen’s summer retreat and was performed by a few American Idol contestants. Critical estimation of Grace, his only album, grew after his death. It certainly influenced a number of vocalists—Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey, Maxwell, Duncan Sheik, Chris Cornell, Chris Martin, John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright—most of whom were more commercially successful. Tim’s work was well regarded by critics and peer musicians, particularly his early output, which sought to broaden the scope of folk music by folding in the textures and improvisatory impulses of free jazz. But he never had a proper hit record.
This makes the film’s title potentially confusing for people who are not familiar with either musician. Greetings takes its name from the tribute concert that helped establish Jeff’s presence in New York’s underground music scene and piqued the curiosity of major label A&R representatives. The title assumes that you know who these men are and their (non-)relationship to each other while the trailer hedges its bets by having virtually every character remind Jeff of his connection to Tim and his own artistic potential. The title is also potentially insulting to Jeff, who in some sense is once again overshadowed by his father’s legacy.
But I’m actually more concerned with what Greetings does to Rebecca Moore, Jeff’s former girlfriend. Moore did not give this or any other production permission to use her name and likeness in the film. I respect her decision. For one, she was with this man a long time ago and was the subject of many of his songs (most notably “Lover You Should Have Come Over”). More importantly, she’s always had her own thing going on. She is the daughter of Peter and Barbara Moore, an artist and historian associated with the Fluxus art movement. She is a fixture in New York’s avant-garde theater and music scene who received attention for protesting Lower East Side redevelopment initiatives. She is also a multi-instrumental independent recording artist. When she met Buckley, she was already an established presence in this scene. In the trailer, despite Imogen Poots’ best efforts, she’s reduced to a starry-eyed intern named Allie with a crush on her boyfriend’s father.
Another noteworthy figure in Jeff’s romantic life was Joan Wasser, who was in a relationship with the singer at the time of his death. Like Moore, Wasser is an accomplished veteran of New York’s independent music scene. It’s my understanding that she also did not grant permission for the use of her name and likeness in any related film project. One of my favorite parts of Dream Brother is Wasser’s recollections of the first night she spent with Jeff while their bands embarked on a tour together. Though Jeff had a reputation for being a player, many of his friends and romantic partners were creative women who had little to no interest in being part of the same industry with which he made his bed. I recognize that these productions must avoid reproducing too close a likeness to these women for legal reasons. But by parroting conventional representations of women in music biopics as blindly supportive and caught up in their lovers’ mystique, Greetings‘ filmmakers potentially do a disservice to their subject, a young man who had a bit more going on than his father’s voice and cheekbones, and the people who were part of his life.
Two nights ago, in anticipation of its forthcoming all-star season, I finished watching RuPaul’s Drag Race (available on Logo’s Web site). It is, as they say in my field, a rich text. It’s also a lot of fun. Where else on my television will I see a group of blind-folded drag queens play “Pin A Cock on Ru’s Mouth”? Or hear someone sing “Jesus is a biscuit–let Him soak you up”? Werk.
What am I responding to exactly? Without pulling Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter off the bookshelf (too late) in order to theorize drag in relation to performativity, repetition, (failed) imitation, and parody, Drag Race’s most useful intervention is asserting that drag–like identity, like life–is not one thing. Instead, drag is multitudinous, intraculturally specific, and thrives on difference. SO/CAL queens don’t tend to use padding as their Southern counterparts do. Some queens focus on runway presentation and modeling. Some queens use drag as a form of comedic address. Some queens came to drag culture as actors, designers, and makeup artists. Some queens lip sync. Some queens have bands. Some queens have language barriers. Some queens come up through the pageant circuit. Many of them internalize normative ideas about feminine beauty. Some of them react against sisters who specialize in more deliberately avant-garde forms of drag (which has its own normative ideas about feminine beauty). Some queens are dads. Some queens transition. The show has a number of referents, most notably America’s Next Top Model. I lost interest in that show after the show ran out of ways to compellingly represent the ongoing construction of beauty. Drag Race could potentially explore these issues without ever touching the bottom.
An interesting tension that many contestants work through is ambivalence about the political import of their work. They see themselves as entertainers and often want to keep politics out of their work. But a commitment to drag as a profession and lifestyle usually assumes a set of decisions with very real consequences. Though at least two contestants have since come out as transgendered and taken steps toward transitioning, most contestants identify as gay men. I don’t want to collapse gay male and trans female identities any more than I want to assume that a skinny gay white man from Philadelphia, a muscular gay Puerto Rican man, or a fat black gay man from Compton share the same struggle and politics. However, to the ire of some commentators sensitive to tropes of gay male victimhood, one of the show’s dominant narratives is that many of these contestants lived through homophobic bullying in their youth and live against homophobic policies in their adulthood. Thus in some sense these queens are seen as survivors whose art has given them tools for self-actualization, aspirant female icons, and communities peopled by chosen families and sisters.
It’s worth mentioning the show’s relationship to commercialism. Sponsorship is a real presence on the show. Contestants win a number of prizes and amenities from gay-owned businesses like ALANDCHUCK.travel and an assortment of goodies from drag-oriented clothing lines, cosmetic companies, and jewelry collections. Winners also represent Absolut Vodka, a mass-produced liquor strategically marketing itself toward LGBT consumers. To my knowledge, Drag Race has yet to include a sober contestant. This sponsorship limits the show’s availability to potential contestants who received or are in treatment for alcohol addiction. Absolut’s sponsorship tacitly assume that all queens drink. Each episode involves some bit of vodka-motivated hobnobbing and catfighting. I’ve yet to see a queen abstain.
Furthermore, RuPaul uses the show as a platform to extend her brand by promoting albums, books, shoes, and other properties. The show involves the contestants in that branding process by using the show’s challenges to mount infomercials and music videos for RuPaul’s work. They may be (and often are) very entertaining challenges that make for compelling television, but we must think through commercialism’s relationship to drag culture. While I don’t want to lean on Michel de Certeau’s binary concept of strategies and tactics (that article is under a stack of papers), I do think the political implications of “making do” with the limited resources bestowed upon marginalized groups by dominant institutions and structures yields powerful, potentially subversive results when applied to drag. Though drag is, in some sense, mainstream, its origins are more modest and hard-scrabble. Compromised access to economic resources motivated many queens to fashion themselves into various personae with whatever they could sew, glue, find, copy, or steal. How does that change when queens compete to win a designer lace-front wig?
It’s also worth noting how the show sanctions what kinds of drag queens RuPaul chooses to represent her. Bloggers Tom and Lorenzo argued that the show tends to champion queens who prioritize image over talent. You could make the case that this is true of Raja and Sharon Needles. Even though their styles of drag were edgier–Raja’s look is genderqueer editorial, Sharon’s goth sensibility has range and humor–their crowned status as the future of drag was still based on their appearance. Both contestants also flirt with hipster racism. Raja–who is of Indonesian and Dutch descent–used her background as a make-up artist in order to attempt to transcend race, a feat endeavored several times by her former employer, America’s Next Top Model. Needles recently encountered pushback for using racial epithets as well as Nazi and rebel imagery in her drag show.
This doesn’t diminish my pleasure as a viewer. If anything, it enriches and adds depth to my reception. Where I derive the most pleasure as a viewer and critic is during the “lip sync for your life” segment, which pits the two lowest-ranking queens against one another in a lip sync challenge that manages to feel redemptive, regardless of which queen wins. If I had to choose a LSFYL anthem, it’d be “Whispers” by Kathy Diamond and Aeroplane. You want a track you know by heart that allows you to rise over the competition like a motherfucking phoenix. To quote a wise queen, “Get up, look sickening, and make them eat it.” Alexis Mateo did just that with Fantasia Barrino’s “Even Angels.”
During a deliberation, RuPaul observed that successful queens need to be fluent in popular culture. Drag is an inherently intertextual form, one built on reference to various cultural icons as well as parodic and imitative gender performances. Celebrity impersonation and lip syncing as hallmarks of drag culture. Unfortunately, the show’s editing rarely allows us to see the artistry behind lip syncing. Instead, it relies upon judge and contestant response to convey the success of certain performances. It may also suggest that musical genres are cultural categories and contestants’ mastery over particular genres is dependent on race. In the context of the show, ”Large and in charge, chunky yet funky” contestant Latrice Royale can’t access Wynonna Judd’s “No One Else On Earth” as well as competitor Chad Michaels. But no one can touch Royale’s rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” or Gladys Knight’s “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” (which I recently played at a deejay gig in her honor).
Yet it’s not as simple as saying the show is racist for suggesting she can do a soul classic better than a country crossover hit, in part because Royale has an understanding of those songs’ performance traditions and the emotional meanings to them that is as much learned as it is felt. In other words, Royale demonstrates how lip syncing is an embodied act supported by a real intelligence about the cultural texts she’s situated within. She doesn’t need to sing for you to hear her voice. That’s not the talent of a Miss Congeniality. Make them eat it during the all-star season, Latrice. You’re a queen who deserves to take home the crown.
Last week was a whirl of wind. This week is whipping up quite a gust of air as well. But I don’t want any more days to pass without referring you all to a post I wrote for In Media Res. Wrapping up the site’s excellent week on hip-hop cinema, I curated a post on Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames in relation to Invincible, Jean Grae, and Tamar-kali’s tour of same name. Do check it out.
Some readers have been back in school for at least a week (hi, mom). But in Madison we start after Labor Day. Today also marks my first day TAing a new class and the first day to my last year of coursework. For many people, today represents possibility–new teachers, new classes, new school supplies, new misadventures. There’s a lot riding on it, which is actually why I prefer the second day of school. But I’m ready to get back to it. I chose my outfit, packed my lunch, and went to bed early. I also picked out some “plate” music.
Next week, my graduate program is playing a kickball game to start off the new year. As an attendant of many ASL games, I understand the importance of selecting the right song for coming up to bat. The use of pre-recorded music at sporting events fascinate me wherever I’m watching, particularly when it heightens our collective response to people challenging themselves and others to win. Remember when Aly Raisman scored lower than expected on her balance beam final and the judges scurried to review the routine after the Károlyis challenged them? During their brief deliberation, Katy Perry’s “Firework” blared in the background. That song was on a loop during the Olympics, but in that moment Perry’s song called attention to the “liveness” of the moment. It played in real time as part of the diegesis and thus sounded radically different.
When you participate in a sporting event, music is just as enveloping. It can also give you a window into the player. The sounds and lyrics people use to create or convey a certain attitude during competition says quite a bit about them (even when they pick Eminem). For me, selecting “plate” music for a kickball game was soothing, as the sport is the root of a number of gym-related childhood traumas. But I bump “plate” music wherever I go. Here are some songs that make me feel invincible, especially on days heavy with expectation.
Recently, Texas-based filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez got in touch with me about a Kickstarter campaign she launched with Kara Bowers, better known as rapper KB the Boo Bonic, for the “2 Playa” music video, which they were trying to finance. They previously worked together on a short film entitled feMC (which also features Miss Manners, host of KOOP Radio’s “Hip Hop Hooray” and a personal friend). Hernandez summarized the treatment in an email:
The music video we are fundraising for encompasses a message of young feminism. KB skates around town and comes across a flyer for a child’s beauty pageant. Disgusted, she skates to the pageant to bomb the show. Sneaking in the backstage, [KB] looks on at young girls with hopeless faces as their show moms fancy them up with gobs of makeup, layers of hairspray and prissy, glittery dresses. KB throws down the makeup and knocks over the dresses, grabbing the girls and running out to the stage. On a rebellious rampage, KB and the new kickass pageant beauties begin a food fight, throwing cupcakes on stage.
Sounds awesome, right?!?!? Fortunately, they’ve already reached their goal. But independent artists always need fan support, however small. This blog has a soft spot for underground female hip hop artists, independent female directors, and female creative collaborations. And if they’re making art with a feminist or feminist-friendly message, isn’t that what so much of us live for? I know it keeps me pumped. So big ups to KB and Hernandez and keep an eye on their new video.