I’ve never cared for Alicia Keys. “Fallin'” may be the song that launched her career and got butchered at countless American Idol auditions, but “frontin'” is the verb I associate with her. Yet articulating these feelings means checking any impulse to serve as the race police. Where does a white southern girl get off calling a New Yorker of mixed racial heritage a phony?
A few months ago, I was tipsy in my house. The Grammy nominations were announced, and I went on a rant about the Arcade Fire. Deeming them Grammy bait, this dovetailed into me yelling about Taylor Swift and then, as if the heavens parted, I announced that Alicia Keys is exactly like Swift. My reasoning was that they both project an air of authenticity that I think makes them even more artificial. They also let Grammy voters feel really progressive for championing young women and artists of color, even though both artists do very little to upset traditional notions of gender and race. Also, it don’t hurt that they’re pretty and align with conventional (re: white) beauty standards. Or something like that. You’d have to ask my partner what I actually said. He thought I had a point and should explore it in a post, but he probably also thought the drunk lady needed a nap.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a bachelorette party. Back at the hotel, one of the guests put on As I Am as we were getting ready to throw lingerie at our friend (I bought a gift card to a local fetish boutique; I’m liberated, but I’m not the friend who buys you drawers). “Superwoman” came on and one of my friends mused “I really like this song.” Given the proceedings, and that the honoree was a friend from the college feminist group I was involved in, it was somewhat in the spirit of the evening. I think I gave said friend a reassuring nod and poured myself a margarita.
In theory, I like “Superwoman.” It’s got a nice message. I thought it was cool when Keys performed it with Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle at the American Music Awards a few years back. As a feminist, I should like it. But I just can’t get into Keys. I’m bracketing off her film career, though I do want to see Smoking Aces and The Secret Life of Bees at some point. I do like one Keys song, which is also off As I Am. “Teenage Love Affair” is pretty catchy. But my enjoyment has much to do with “(Girl) I Love You” by the Temprees, which Keys’ hit generously samples from. The strings, groove, and backing beat all inform Keys’ track and make it irresistible. Keys’ vocals fluctuate between gleeful innocence and carnal grit. The lyrics, though trite, suggest expressions of teen female sexuality too complex and conflicted for the virgin/whore binary.
But I’m not fond of the video, which repurposes Spike Lee’s School Daze. The source material is a disquieting film about the political life and troubling race and gender relations at a historically black college. The clip is a sweet love story between two college students (played by Keys and Derek Luke). Luke’s character registers as sensitive because he leads demonstrations for AIDS relief in Africa (he also lines up with Keys’ charity work). Vaughn Dunlap’s anti-aparthied efforts in School Daze didn’t suggest he was an enlightened male. Like many progressive males, his activism often engendered deeply ingrained chauvinism, misogyny, and elitism.
People treat Keys like a Serious Artist when I think she’s silly. When the press dubs certain musicians as Serious Artists, I’m automatically incredulous and looking for threads to pull (I did come around on Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty, though). Molly Lambert recently compared Keys to fellow New Yorker Billy Joel in a write-up on “Un-thinkable,” which placed 64th on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks last year. I get the comparison–they’re piano-playing balladeers with an Empire state of mind. It’d be pretty cool if Keys had a defunct metal band in her closet, though I’ll take her Cosby Show cameo.
More than anything, Keys reminds me of world-class showboater Céline Dion, who is completely artless about how her big dumb feelings play out on stage. Keys’ scenery-chewing performance of “Adore” during the Prince medley at the BET Awards? Totally a Dion move. Actually, I’d really like to see Dion roll around on a piano. Wait, no I wouldn’t. Okay, yes I would. Keys doesn’t have Dion’s pipes, but she pumps love songs with such empty bombast that it becomes ridiculous. Maybe I just filter too many things through irony. Or maybe I think there’s something hollow about her performed earnestness. It’s probably both. Back me up, Maria Bamford.
Not that Billy Joel is above being a silly goose. What is boomer pablum like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if not dead serious and, thus, sublimely silly. Damn you, Cola wars!
There’s also something insidious about the racial politics of Keys’ critical success. Upon arrival, I was always suspicious that the press and music industry embraced Keys in response to Lauryn Hill’s rapid artistic decline. In 1999, Hill swept the Grammys. By 2002, Hill went into hiding and Keys was the lauded newcomer. Both dropped out of Columbia, won Best New Artist, and had the burden of model minority status to deal with. But Keys was the one with a steady career. She latched on to political causes that relied on institutional reform rather than radical action. Hill made one of the best records of the 90s and then promptly got branded as crazy, in part for questioning a racist music industry. One fit in, the other dropped out. Given her status, Keys was able to assert an urban black female identity, so long as it was diluted and palateble to a white audience. She did this largely through sartorial choices and in generic identification that could accomodate a mass audience.
I would imagine the presence of Keys’ white mother eased some people’s concerns. It certainly seemed to give her allowances. When she wed Swizz Beats, who was married when they got together, few raised an eyebrow. The rumor mill was not so kind to Fantasia Barrino. But I’m not making any pronouncements that Keys plays up her blackness or projects a studied black authenticity. I will say that I think it is a performance, and one I don’t particularly care for, but will leave it at that. Stronger claims are dangerous. I have no right to assume how Keys conceptualizes her identity.
Furthermore, I don’t know how one negotiates mixed heritage and issues of passing and representing. Having seen friends work through it, I can gather that it’s a fraught ongoing process but refuse to offer judgment over something I can never experience. Nor am I intending to blame Keys for benefiting from institutional racism, as I’m sure she could tell me some stories. What I am saying is that there’s something profoundly unsettling about a music industry that treats talented black women as replaceable. I am also saying Keys has benefited from this system. As has Beyoncé, an artist I like but gave me pause after she donned blackface and performed for Hannibal Gaddafi.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to offer. I’m still struggling with why I don’t like Alicia Keys and what racist underpinings might inform my disdain. I’m tempted to chalk it up to having little regard for a competent musician championing love one bland pop song at a time, but I know it’s never that simple.
Late last year, a reader sent me an e-mail asking what my thoughts on the Lykke Li’s “Get Some.” Truth told, any news about the Swedish singer’s forthcoming Wounded Rhymes was hovering my mind’s periphery. I knew it was coming out soon and that she contributed a song for Twilight‘s New Moon soundtrack. I liked her first album Young Novels. I thought it was interesting that “I’m Good (I’m Gone)” was sung by the season nine cast of American Idol in one of their embarrassing car commercial music videos. But that was really the extent of it. So when the reader pointed that Li refers to herself as a lover’s prostitute in “Get Some,” I was pretty bummed and surprised I hadn’t heard about it. At best, it gives detractors more ammunition to claims that indie recording artists are the quickest to sell out.
Look, I’m not here to knock prostitutes. I’m starting on the second season of Deadwood, and Trixie is one the show’s most interesting characters. I understand that several feminists have spoken in defense of their work, including a lawyer friend of mine who wrote a really stunning piece of legal writing on the subject when she was in school. I recognize that many people go into prostitution on their own accord and derive pleasure and self-empowerment from their work. As their work often gets collapsed in with human trafficking (which is an altogether different matter and should be eradicated), we should recognize that sex workers are real people who are providing services. Frankly, I think they should get health benefits and union rights like other professions do in the states. But I also feel beyond uncomfortable with a society that places a dollar value on exchanging sexual favors with paid strangers.
As a feminist, I’m ambivalent about prostitution as a profession. However, I’m really not okay with female pop stars self-identifying as prostitutes in their songs, particularly as misguided attempts to gin up controversy, construct blockhead metaphors about the power dynamics of female sexuality, or be edgy. I get that Li is Swedish and thus may have a different outlook on it than this ugly American. However, though it’s perhaps meant to be perceived as transgressive, women playing the whore ultimately seems like such a safe play. It presents the illusion of confronting taboos around sexuality, but casts women in the societal roles ascribed for them. This is why I’m probably not going to get much out of the penis P.O.V. shots that await me when I get around to seeing Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. Maybe by the time they appear, I’ll have fallen asleep or smashed my television.
It’s a tenuous connection fraught with racial difference, but Li’s single made me wonder why I celebrate Rihanna’s sexual frankness or am more accommodating of Keri Hilson’s gleefully explicit “The Way You Love Me.” I think we still might live in a culture where black women declaring and demanding sexual gratification on their own terms is unfortunately really unsettling for many people. Though I certainly hope that these women are recognized for more than their libido, I’m glad their pleasure doesn’t seem to come with a price tag.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
I kick off the penultimate week of “Tuning In” with my thoughts on the Crystal Bowersox, American Idol‘s lone female contestant.
I was a choirgirl. From sixth grade until I started grad school, I was in some kind of singing ensemble. When I was a teenager, I was in all of my high school’s musicals and hoped to one day be on Broadway. Chamber choir. Church choir. Pop choir. Texas All-State Choir. Concert and Sight-Reading. Solo and Ensemble. Voice lessons. Recitals. Running clinics for my mom’s junior high ensembles. E-T-C. This was my life.
It’s perhaps no surprise that I have a bit of a vested interest in Glee, Fox’s new TV series that focuses on a high school glee club in Ohio. The network ran the pilot after American Idol last night. Here are my thoughts.
First, the pros:
1. I will watch Jane Lynch in anything. She’s awesomely funny and brings some butch swagger to every project. She’s already my favorite thing about the show. I love her take on the tough, unimpressed cheerleading coach.
2. I love that Mercedes, the full-figured African American glee clubber, demands to sing lead and refuses to be in the background. The actress, Amber Riley, can really sing! I also like that she’s quick to announce whiteness, referring to the ensemble’s jock ringer as “Justin Timberlake”. Oh, and she wears cute outfits. I especially liked her sailor outfit at the end of the pilot when she insists on managing the glee club’s wardrobe. I was in charge of our choral program’s wardrobe senior year. I anticipate hilarity to ensue.
3. I think Kurt, the gay boy in glee club, has potential. He is stereotypical, but shows promise as a complex character. Some might think it’s cliched to have a gay teen in glee club but, eh, I knew three gay guys who were in the musicals, including my first boyfriend. It’s a safe space for some of them. Also, I liked Kurt’s rendition of “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago because a) it’s ironic, as he’s totally not — he’s out and proud and b) it’s poignant, because he’s bullied and unpopular.
4. They totally nailed the characterization of Rachel Berry, the glee club’s aspiring ingenue. She’s determined, alert, ruthlessly perky, consumately professional, and more than a little insecure. And actress Lea Michele, a Broadway veteran, has got pipes!
And then the cons:
1. I can do without director Will Schuester’s totally unnecessary love triangle between his materialistic, castrating wife and Emma Pillsbury, the perfectionist guidance counselor with the cute haircut and wardrobe. UGH. SO OVER LOVE TRIANGLES. If they cut this, Mr. Schuester could actually be shown directing the glee club.
2. Since this is TV, the characterization of glee club is a little far-fetched. These kids have a full band, which seems too expensive. Our pop choir was accompanied by our harried choir director on piano. And a fancy rival school has the girls in a flirty polka-dotted dress when they sing Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” that seems too expensive and flashy for the average high school show choir. Especially since I’m imagining the girls in this emsemble to have multiple outfits. We just had one black and gold dress and jacket, bless us.
3. I doubt the average high school show choir could get away with singing a song like “Rehab” anyway because of the “mature” subject matter. Again, TV is fantastical.
4. While I like Mercedes and Kurt, they’re pretty broad and tokenistic. As is Tina C., the Asian American girl who, apart from a stutter, has absolutely no defining characteristic. Oh, she does sing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” for her audition. I can do with never hearing this song again.
5. Finn, the football star with the gift of song is even more boring than Chris Klein in American Pie. But these guys usually are.
6. Speaking of Finn, I don’t remember choir membership being such a form of social suicide. We had male and female jocks in choir. Several members of our cheerleading squad were featured dancers in the musicals. It wasn’t so much the refuge for the school’s social outcasts as the show chooses to depict it.
7. I don’t love the singing. Overall, it’s very pop. Too nasal, too pinched, too thin. Breath support should come from the diaphram instead of the chest. The singers should drop their jaws and round their mouths. But, it came on after American Idol, so it doesn’t surprise me. Singing has to be commercial here.
Still some work to do, but I’m willing to spend a bit more time with it in the fall.