Last Saturday, I made the trek many fellow Austinites forged (including some folks I know, including my dear friend Curran, who came with local queer royalty). Some folks (including a work friend) were staying warm at Central Presbyterian watching Shearwater perform. I went to the Mohawk to see Kool Keith, who was recording the performance for a forthcoming release. And frankly, people, he was boring. The sound quality was a little muffled, but the overall performance was lacking. Very “do you accept the charges?” Now, he was only 15 minutes late, which seems pretty reasonable given the emcee’s characteristic disregard for punctuality (one friend saw him in the late 90s and he was over an hour late, but he did pass out individual baggies that contained chicken wings and juice boxes, which I think is a fair trade). But the Mohawk is an outdoor venue and, due to noise ordinances, the concert had to be over by midnight. And while I think people who live in apartment complexes across from venues on Red River need to accept concert noise as part of the neighborhood charm, it also meant Keith did a 45-minute medley cherry-picking cuts from his prolific, personality-traversing career.
More to the point, I had to confront something I knew I’d have to deal with at a Kool Keith show: feminist discomfort. As a hip hop fan, I’ve had to do a lot of negotiating. I like Kanye pointing out social injustice, but I cock my head and raise my eyebrows when he says he’d do anything for a blonde dyke (or when he festoons his videos with model corpses). I like it when Murs empathizes with young women who have to reconcile their blended heritages in a racist world but cross my arms and scowl when he brags about inserting a glow stick inside a rave attendee. I’ve liked Keith since Black Elvis (and then went back for Dr. Octagonocologist) largely for the same reasons I maintain that Tracy Morgan is in many ways the strongest player on 30 Rock: his surreal, destabilizing flow possesses a stunningly elliptical rhythm and wordplay that seems to bump into ugly truths about how black men are perceived and misunderstood in white society. And they’re both funny as hell. After all, Keith penned “You Live At Home With Your Mom” and, in doing so, probably influenced every writing staff currently employed by Adult Swim.
But as the self-professed originator of pornocore, Keith often trades in graphic depictions of sexuality which tend to be unsettling, bizarre, and hyper-focused on the abject. In other words, Keith doesn’t use the long-form player to conduct quiet storms. And even with smoother efforts like Sex Style and portions of Black Elvis, he isn’t so much embodying a loverman persona so much as exaggerating its inherent ridiculousness from the inside (well, he might be embodying it too). However, intent is always vulnerable to interpretation and, in a crowd where an audience heavy in straight-reading white dudes were cheering on dancers shimmying to “Girl Let Me Touch You There,” the weirdness of the message may have gotten lost.
Though I’m glad that I finally saw hir, I didn’t think Big Freedia was that great either. To echo my friend Curran, Freedia is very one-note and the live performance really demonstrated this. I know Freedia was the toast of Fun Fun Fun Fest and it’s great that ze’s getting a larger audience. Again, sound may have been an issue. And I’m not one to complain about seeing ladies shake it and don’t want to be the politically correct police but for a black, queer artist, there was a lot of skinny white girl ass up on stage. But maybe that’s how Freedia likes it. As a petite white woman who attended the show with her male partner, I have no room to play culture police. After all, a fat black woman I can guarantee is queer dropping it on stage assures a whole other set of problems with reception and representation.
What you might be gathering from the proceedings is that its sexual and racial politics were . . . complicated. This is where the opening act stole the show in my estimation. Shane Shane is based in Madison, Wisconsin and recalls Gravy Train!!!! instead of Brother Ali. Shane hurled his burly frame (bedecked in a sailor suit) across the stage. He bellowed, crooned, and minced his way through a set that swiped from MC Luscious’ “Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend” and boasted a posterboard headdress for each song in his set (except the ballad, of course). He was novel, irritating, and pretty damn thrilling. Not a lot of Midwestern bears would have the courage to perform such a confrontational, anarchic, unquestionably gay set for this Southern crowd. It may have been too much for some people (a deejay friend headed for the bar during the set because he didn’t like Shane’s voice). And frankly, I’m not sure if Shane Shane’s limited charms can be distilled on record or will outlive this particular moment. Based on this interview with the A.V. Club, I hope he does. If he’s playing in your town, you should see him. Whether you’re annoyed, elated, or a giddy combination of the two, Shane Shane will deliver. Last Saturday, he gave the headliners a lesson in spectacle, stage presence, and subversion.
A week into my stint with Bitch and I think I’ve officially got the hang of it. In today’s entry for “Tuning In”, I focus on Neko Case starring in the Cheyenne Cinnamon pilot for Adult Swim. Check it out.
So, I’m going to bend a rule tonight in the service of addressing (and hopefully discussing) larger issues with race and gender: talk about a dude’s work. But I’ve been sitting on my hands for a while thinking about the music videos that will be the focus of this post and how they depict people of color, specifically black women, so let’s get to it.
Eric Wareheim, for those who may not know, is the “Eric” of Adult Swim staple Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It’s a highly irreverent, deliberately low-budget and ugly-looking sketch comedy show that might not even call itself as such. It’s also really funny. For further reading on the subject, I suggest my friend Evan’s great job Flow column. I’ll also point you in the direction of Jeff Sconce’s piece on recurring characters The Beaver Boys, a piece Evan also cites.
But Wareheim also directs music videos, usually bringing his lo-fi, ironic, discomforting approach to these projects. Two such clips make me really uncomfortable (these clips are NSFW).
The first video is Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor,” which came out earlier this summer. Admittedly, I know very little about whether or not the sexually graphic nature of the dancing is in any way a reflection of the culture and the personnel who put this together (Diplo and Switch of Major Lazer recorded their debut, Guns Don’t Kill People . . . Lazers Do in Jamaica; this is also where guest rapper Vybz Kartel comes from). But I feel oogy about the unveiled metaphor of dance as sex, what it might mean to have black (heterosexually coupled) bodies as spectacle, how those bodies are depicted and objectified, what staid notions about black female sexuality might be enforced, and what sex positions are privileged (lots of doggy-style). Add to this the lo-fi, day-glo excess of the video’s environment and the music video seems to be endorsing racist notions of primitivism, social immobility, and sexual insatiability.
When you add animation, issues of disembodiment, cheap clothes, fat bodies, and explicit sex scenes to all of this, as Wareheim did last year with his video for Flying Lotus’s “Parisian Goldfish” (which Pitchfork just dubbed the 50th greatest video of the decade), things get ickier.
Now, I’m not trying to suggest that it’s bad for black people to have sexual appetites, nor am I trying to suggest similar restrictions on fat women (really, I’m not proposing these sanctions on any person). In fact, I think we need more overtly (and complexly) sexual fat women of all races and ethnicities in media culture. If they’re on top, so much the better.
But it seems a really queasy thing to spectacularize black heterosexuality and manipulate the bodies of black dancers and actors in such a baldly grotesque manner for a music video. It seems especially queasy when the person pulling the strings, pointing the camera, and in Wareheim’s case, putting together the animation sequences is a white guy.
Admittedly, director Chris Cunningham covered equally murky territory with his clip for Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker,” but it seemed there was a critique being made against mainstream hip hop’s preoccupations with materialism, misogyny, and female objectification.
I hasten to add that this critique also comes from a white guy making a music video for a white guy. I’d be far more interested in seeing more subtle, nuanced critiques about race, gender, and hip hop come from people of color. Thus, I’ll gesture toward Charles Stone III’s clip for The Roots’ “What They Do.” If you know of any smart, awesome female directors who have done similar work, please let me know.
With Wareheim’s work here, I wonder what the critique is. That it’s purposefully uncomfortable? But at what cost and at whose expense? While Wareheim may be working here with black, male and female entertainers and musicians (except Major Lazer, who is made up of two white guys who work with a lot of artists of color from all over world), what is he having them do and what does it mean?