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.
Happy new year, y’all! I trust you all have woken up by now and had pancakes to soak up the hangover. Or maybe you just quietly sipped some tea, played with a noisemaker, and went to bed at 12:01. Either way, let’s make 2012 our year. And since a number of us found out that we lost a good friend today and are reeling from the horror and tragedy of such a deep loss, let’s make this Esme’s year too.
Earlier this fall, I expressed interest in contributing a piece on America’s Next Top Model for In Media Res. The forum is running a series on the show later this month that will be worth checking out when it goes live. But as sometimes happens, I bit off more than I could chew. Long story short, I missed the deadline by about a month due to end-of-the-semester scrambling. So I thought I’d offer up what I planned to pitch to IMR in order to circulate my ideas and help publicize the site. Also, next time I’ll write the deadline into my calendar.
I stopped appointment viewing ANTM about a year (roughly two cycles) after I earned my master’s degree. But the show was very much a part of my schedule during graduate school, particularly my second year when I was working on my thesis. My deadlines always seemed to fall on Thursdays, so an episode of ANTM, cycle 8 and Chinese takeout helped prepare me for a long Wednesday night. And I will drop everything if a cable network is airing a marathon. I’ve lost weekends over reruns of the show on VH1 and Lifetime.
What do I find compelling about the show? Tyra’s certainly a fascinating character, but it’s not just her. Some time ago, a BUST contributor argued that the show had radical potential by depicting the modeling industry as a strange, discursive sites for experimentation and play with feminine beauty. This may be an overly generous interpretation, but it’s part of my interest. But to borrow an observation made by a colleague at a conference a few years back, I’m troubled by how Tyra and the ANTM staff enforce their supremacy over black contestants by messing with their hair, a major and highly contested site of identity for many black women.
Yet I do think the show offers a number of teaching moments regarding the intersections between race and gender throughout the show’s run. In cycle 8, Jaslene and the crew did a photo shoot in male drag. The results, particularly Natasha Galinka’s hip-hop-inspired shoot, reaffirmed many of Judith Halberstam’s assertions about the ambiguous nature of play and racial performance in drag king shows. Thea Lim called out the show’s use of colorface in a controversial cycle 14 episode that featured a photo shoot where the models had to pass as women of mixed ethnic heritage. I imagine there’s some kind of postracial rhetoric operating here–if models are supposed to transcend any identity in order to be commodifiable in an international industry fixated on edge and nowness, why not have them transcend racial difference?
Yet as any casual ANTM viewer knows, the show often has trouble transcending race (fact: it’s something none of can do). One common trope in the show’s 17-season run (one swiped from The Real World, masterfully satirized on Chappelle’s Show, and recirculated in basically any show where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds share a house) is the simmering feud between white contestants and black contestants. Often, the white contestants with beef on ANTM come with a coalition of passive-aggressive housemates from the ‘burbs in desperate need of enrollment in a critical race theory course. They tend to target, or be targeted by, one to at most three contestants of color. The feud is usually shaped by regional difference between suburban white girls uncomfortable sharing space with ’round-the-way black girls.
But I think the show also reinforces racial difference in a variety of ways. As mentioned earlier, the makeover episode is a site of articulating difference in a way that asserts cultural supremacy against black women. But sometimes a shoot’s creative direction affirms such difference. Witness cycle 10’s music photo shoot. Many of the models who excel at this shoot are white girls working within rock and pop contexts. The contestants who do poorly or cause concern at panel are those whose assignments worked against the raced implications of musical genres–an African model posing as heavy metal, two women from multicultural backgrounds representing white-dominated genres like country and folk, and a lily-white contestant whose “tone-deaf” interpretation of R&B costs her the competition.
What I find especially interesting here is how race informs generic affiliation. Notice Paulina Porizkova having to explain “emo” to Miss Jay, which she dismisses as white people music. Note too that Tyra admonishes Aimee for failing to embody a genre as popular as R&B. The subtext here is that R&B is Tyra’s music but not Aimee’s, and thus racial difference is once again reinforced. Granted, Stacy-Ann and Anya are called out for playing it safe or relying on costuming and lighting for shoots that respectively represented house and punk. But Whitney is given disproportionate praise for representing a musical genre that fetishized white-trash and thrift-store aesthetics, which no doubt made the contestant–who was repeatedly compared to Anna-Nicole Smith–bristle. Finally, Fatima’s repeated use of the term “metal rock” seems to demonstrate that the model has literally no connection to the genre beyond sticking her tongue out.
Interestingly, hip-hop is not represented in this shoot. That’s a missed opportunity, as the genre simultaneously reifies stereotypical notions of black American masculinity and is global in scope both in terms of production and reception. While hip-hop seems to have a racial affiliation, it doesn’t always have the same affiliation depending on what national borders are crossed. While racial and class privilege bolster eclecticism, this shoot confirms the still widely-held belief that when you announce your affinity for a particular musical genre, you reaffirm cultural assumptions of racial categories in need of troubling.
We’re in February now, which means people are releasing albums again. Yesterday, I listened to new stuff from Toro Y Moi, PJ Harvey, and Adele. I giggled at Urban Outfitters streaming Underneath the Pine, but that’s not unexpected. UO and retailers like American Eagle sell compilations upon occasion. As I mentioned in my review of TOKiMONSTA’s Midnight Menu, the first time I heard an Air song was at the mall. It makes sense. Both artists make music for looking at your ass in expensive jeans. Matter of fact, Chaz Bundick is straight up trying to make Air records.
By the way, if anyone has written on department stores using music as a part of brand identification, please let me know.
In anticipation of their official release dates later this month, NPR is streaming Harvey and Adele’s new albums. I’m sure most readers would expect that I’d devote some space to Harvey’s Let England Shake. However, I’d imagine that regular followers of this blog are already digging the new album and are excited about the short films that are accompanying it. They can probably also tell you that she didn’t peak with Rid Of Me and continues to make great records. They might even say that White Chalk is far more intense than To Bring You My Love. Regardless of whether you know this or not, do check it out.
But I thought I should trumpet my excitement about Adele’s 21. It might be a populist vote, and I strongly encourage fans who want to check out lesser-known artists to give a listen to Orgone and Andreya Triana. However, I’m a believer in supporting good musicians with universal appeal–folks like Jill Scott, Sharon Jones, and fellow Texans like Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones. My mom might have acquired a taste for Joanna Newsom when I played “Sawdust and Diamonds” for her, but what’s not to love about these ladies?
The Grammys are this Sunday, and I plan to tune in and perhaps live Tweet alongside the folks over at In Media Res, who are devoting this week to critical explorations in pop music. I’ve got a cocktail riding on the Album of the Year winner. If it goes to Katy Perry, the hellmouth will open and we won’t have any new Septembers. You’ll recall Adele won two awards in 2009, including the contentious Best New Artist prize. I totally think she deserved it. I admitted my love for her (and my scorn for Vogue‘s sizeism) early in this blog’s run. My only reservation with 21 is that I don’t think there’s a song that matches lead single “Rolling In The Deep,” which opens the album and is powerful enough to bring about a Biblical flood. But “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go” are also in heavy rotation, and her version of the Cure’s “Lovesong” honors the original (which I have tepid feelings for, as I don’t need Robert Smith when I have Siouxsie Sioux) and far exceeds the 311 cover. Adele’s sophomore album is exactly what it needs to be–accomplished, singular, and lousy with hits. She’s well on her way to becoming the Dusty Springfield of my generation, and is becoming our Adele in the process.
Check in with media journal In Media Res (@MC_IMR on Twitter). This week’s theme is ubiquitous pop star Lady Gaga. Yesterday, Brazen Beauties‘ Jessalynn Keller essay on Gaga’s postfeminist rhetoric took focus. Today’s feature is Kirsty Fairclough’s piece on Gaga’s installation with Terence Koh and her employment of an avant-garde sensibility in the construction of her mainstream celebrity.
The journal has also devoted issues to Glee, Twilight, Mad Men, and other phenomena of popular culture. For folks curious to read further, I’d gladly draw your attention to recent issues on fan/celebrity relationships and sports and media.