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.
If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.
Critics are expected to make comparisons. The ability to recognize similarities between people, texts, and ideas is a skill expected of those who observe and write on culture. As music criticism continues to be transformed by post-structuralism, feminism, poptimism, and retromania, a number of writers are praised for articulating a profound connection that seems strained or completely unrelated upon first utterance. What does Taylor Swift have in common with Def Leppard, KISS, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj? Plenty, according to her. What would she have to talk about with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino? Plenty, according to me.
Putting forth these kinds of arguments speaks to contemporary culture’s continued indebtedness to the merging of high and low art that resulted from modernism accidentally rubbing elbows with postmodernism on the train after a sojourn to Warhol’s factory and kind of liking it. It speaks to why my friend Jen hates that Roy Lichtenstein stole from comic books to legitimate panels and pixels for gallery dwellers. It also speaks to why so many Americans are thrilled to see themselves through Mad Men‘s eyes, even if they don’t agree on whether or not the show actually feels like the past.
Music critics love to forge connections between artists across genres. For one, it’s a way for us to show off our eclecticism. Jody Rosen making a comparison between Justin Bieber and Frankie Lymon demonstrates his knowledge of pop history. Me arguing that the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a country song lets some folks know that I understand the group’s connection to Gene Vincent links them to proto-punk bands like Suicide as well as a larger songwriting tradition. It’s also a way for us to launch arguments with one another. But it’s also a way to challenge the definitions of what constitutes a genre by pretending the boundaries around it don’t exist. There’s privilege in trespassing and appropriating, of course. But there’s also the possibility of liberation, particularly from meaningless and oppressive words like “authenticity” and the segregated taste hierarchies they impose.
Paying attention to what songs musical acts decide to cover can be productive when we talk about hybridity, eclecticism, genre, and cultural assumptions. People still tend to be surprised by a cover by a “rock” artist interpreting a “pop” song outside of their genre–even American Idol judges who know Colton Dixon is just copying 30 Seconds to Mars’ take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I was embarrassed when I visited Travis Morrison’s old Web site and listened to his spirited, acoustic version of Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy,” but I knew the Dismemberment Plan well enough to not be surprised by it. I actually prefer Stars’ lounge-y cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” to the original.
When I originally encountered Lisa Robinson’s Vanity Fair cover story on Katy Perry, I rolled my eyes at her comparison between the singer and Dolly Parton. A small part of me was offended–I respect Dolly as a musician and regard Perry as a bad object. My initial response is telling, particularly in how I reverted back to objectification, binarism, and misogyny–feminists are never done unlearning. But I also thought the comparison was super-obvious. Both women became famous for their particular brands of winking hyperfemininity. …And?
Then I listened to Perry’s “The One That Got Away” while waiting in line at Subway one day and was mesmerized by it. What I found especially transfixing was that, if you dulled its electro sheen and slowed it down, I think you’d have a country song. My friend Sarah pointed out that you’d basically have a Taylor Swift song, which challenges my original position on both artists. Here’s what I think makes it feel like a country song.
. . . Actually, I’ll give you a moment to process the age makeup and Diego Luna first.
-The lyric about making out in a Mustang to Radiohead is at once a very specific reference to Perry’s former relationship yet holds universal appeal. It sets the tone for the entire song, which contains references to tattoos, Johnny Cash, and delinquent romance. A hallmark of country songwriting is incorporating minute character details that seem particular to the artist and to millions of listeners.
-The elegant, austere sadness of the song’s melody makes you drop a tear in your beer and gives you the forward momentum to get off your bar stool and sleep it off. The composition is at once simple, yet towering and opulent. It’s as if the song was plated with gold and girded with steel, an abstract description that sounds like a Parton lyric.
-Perry doesn’t have Linda Ronstadt’s vocal abilities. Few do. But the wounded quality to Perry’s voice makes me think of “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good”, particularly in the chorus. Listen to the twang she puts on “in another life” to deepen the song’s sense of urgency and romantic ache and her rueful, muted delivery on a lyric like “us against the world,” which is paired with a descending melodic line.
What I’m getting at here is country music is at once clearly defined and not one thing. So it makes sense that Perry performed this song last fall at the American Music Awards in a hot pink getup and matching guitar that looked like Jem landed at the Grand Ol’ Opry (BTW, I’d totally see Perry, Swift, Rihanna, and Jessie J play the Misfits in a live-action film adaptation of Jem and the Holograms). The genre’s defining characteristics are distinct, yet also malleable and permeable. That’s what makes listening to music so much fun, and thinking about it continuously rewarding.
I’m okay with Katy Perry and Rihanna being buddies. I’m just gonna let it go like Andrea Plaid allowed Rihanna’s “S&M” video to circulate without clutching her pearls.
While I bristle at the idea that Perry allegedly wanted Ms. Fenty to serve as adult entertainment at her bachelorette party, I liked their connection ever since I saw those photos of the pair vacationing after Rihanna split with Chris Brown. I’m happy when any two female celebrities have a long-standing friendship. It’s why I like that Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat found each other, even if I reserve the right to hate on that TV series they pitched about crafty hipsters who relocate to Los Angeles. Female professionals should stick together. Work, both within and outside of the celebrity fishbowl, is a boys’ club. Solidarity is better than, you know, laughing at Britney while she snorts your cocaine or fighting over Wilmer Valderrama. Remember those dark days? Lohan forever.
I’ve made my feelings known about Perry. I’ve also been a die-hard Rihanna fan since “Pon de Replay” entered into heavy rotation. Hipster cred aside, Rihanna has had a phenomenal five-year run. Britney Spears released her first greatest hits compilation at that point in her career and Greatest Hits: My Prerogative and there’s some definite padding after “Toxic” and “I’m a Slave 4 U”. If Rihanna were to follow suit, there’d hardly be a slouch in the bunch. I only hope some Rated R cuts make it in.
By the way, I don’t mean any disrespect toward Britney’s inaugural best-of, especially since it includes “Do Somethin’”. I also believe that Britney released her best album to date in 2007. Blackout would be noteworthy for Robyn’s vocal work alone. But I’m with Rob Sheffield–it may be the most influential pop record of recent memory.
However, Perry and Rihanna’s friendship makes me think about my preferences. The majority of white feminists roundly dismissed Perry. Yet many of us praise Rihanna. Some of this might be weird hair envy, but a lot of our admiration stems from knowing she’s a survivor. We may read that into her music. But on the surface, Perry and Rihanna have a bit in common. Both are limited singers who have smartly aligned themselves with skillful producers who can craft a mean dance-pop gem. They also foreground their sexuality in somewhat conventional ways.
For me, the two diverge by how they construct their sexuality. Perry’s femme camp feels disingenuous, like she’ll only dance at the gay bars long enough to project footage from her wedding onto the train of her dress. Her conceptualization of female sexuality is ultimately passive, heteronormative, and shot through with regressive double standards. But Rihanna seems to draw strength from her sexuality, usually making demands and taking action instead of batting her eyelashes and letting the boys call the shots. Maybe they’ll come together on some future project. Here’s hoping they remember to recruit Britney and Nicki Minaj.
Last night, Tobi Vail shared wonderful news with the Typical Girls listserv: Kill Rock Stars’ acts Grass Widow and STLS were releasing new music today and playing a few gigs together. You can even listen to Grass Widow’s new album, Past Time, through Spinner. STLS’s Drumcore doesn’t officially come out until September 7th, but I’m already excited.
I’ve been following Grass Widow‘s mumbled surf rock since Carrie Brownstein highlighted them on NPR’s All Songs Considered SXSW preview. STLS’s new work also comes as good news. One half of this percussive duo is Lisa Schonberg, erstwhile member of the now-defunct Explode Into Colors, who I luckily got to see once before they disbanded. In sum, the two bands abide by two tenets I’ve since added to my list of biases in a recent post decrying the work of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, whose sophomore effort Teenage Dream also comes out today.
1. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
2. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings or angular melodies.
Unfortunately, these acts will not be making it to Austin on their dates together. Hopefully they’ll change their minds and add a few dates. But if they’re coming to a venue near you — especially if you’re a blogger named Caitlin who is relocating to Portland — I do hope you check them out.