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.
Late last month, media scholar Jason Mittell posted a piece on why he dislikes Mad Men. I was intrigued by his argument, especially his claim that objects of analysis in academic scholarship are primarily determined by taste. In other words, we tend to research and write about what we like and eschew applying similar critical rigor toward what we don’t. He references Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which attempts to explore the music critic’s disdain for Céline Dion by examining the album that boasts Titantic‘s “My Heart Will Go On.” However, Mittell notes a difference in attitude between him and Wilson. Wilson comes to Dion’s oeuvre as a hip outsider. Mittell, lauded for his ground-breaking work in television studies, approaches one of the two jewels in AMC’s original programming schedule from within his own habitus of quality televisual aca-fandom.
Though I found Mittell’s commentary trenchant, I had a few problems with “On Disliking Mad Men“. He paid peripheral attention to the show’s deliberate peripheral attention to race and gender, the former of which continues to bother me and folks like Michael E. Ross believe needs immediate intervention. As Ian Bogost argued, Mittell also failed to capture a singular argument against Mad Men that couldn’t be applied to other like-minded quality programs.
But my primary quibble is with methodology. As Mittell reports in the essay, he only watched the first season of Mad Men and a few of season two’s episodes for the purposes of constructing his argument. Several commenters addressed this as an issue, though many were fans who seemed at least partially propelled by motives of conversion. Though a fan of the series, I’m not interested in whether Mittell would come to like or appreciate Mad Men. Most of my interest in his criticism actually stemmed from his anti-fandom, a position that tends to get overlooked. My complaint has a completionist bent: how can you write about something you haven’t submerged yourself in?
Mittell makes the valid argument that a season should provide a viewer with enough of an arc to motivate continued investment for a show’s duration. However, for the purposes of criticism this still feels too arbitrary. This may be a tenuous position for a person who values deliberate misreadings and appropriation, as it suggests that texts can only be consumed and interpreted in a limited set of ways. But a television series is a medium of progression and process. A movie ends conclusively, unless it’s spun off into a multiple-installment franchise. Serial television does not. Cliffhangers bridge seasons together. Characters develop, sometimes in profound and unexpected ways. To acknowledge this evolution it seems one has to watch the entire series, even if the person’s opinions don’t change.
Music fandom informs my criticism. Completionism is a fan practice that exists across mediums. Often this is exploited through the commodity fetish, which again straddles mediums. The same person who has the Six Feet Under funeral plot DVD collection probably owns Rhino’s One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, which is packaged in a hat box (I know him — he’s my friend Erik). But I came to understand completionism through music. I’ve followed several artists across albums, in an effort to plot out their artistic trajectories. Sometimes, I continued to keep up long after I lost interest in their musical developments. Other times, I defended them long after they lost cultural relevance. occasionally, I’m surprised when they’re as vital as ever.
But again, we’re talking about taste. To the ire of Animal Collective’s Bordieuvian contrarianism, taste is nigh impossible to escape, much less transcend.
Mittell’s essay presented me with an interesting opportunity. During our workshops for Girls Rock Camp this summer, Kristen at Act Your Age and I noticed two pop stars who consistently showed up when we asked our girls to name the female artists they liked: Katy Perry and Ke$ha. I dislike both artists’ music, which some astute mash-up artists note shares producer credits to the point of becoming compositionally interchangeable.
Initially, I had a hard time understanding either pop star’s musical value. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll enumerate my biases going into the project. Below is my criteria for the music I like. Three of these items were stolen from conversations Björk and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had on musical preference. Unsurprisingly, I like both artists. If an act hits on at least two of these, there’s an excellent chance that I’ll like the music.
1. Emphasis on strange and/or unexpected vocal harmonies. Throw in a 7th or a 5th when you think the triad will satisfy. Better yet, lean into a 2nd. Harmonies should facilitate discord.
2. Preference toward superficial or actual repetition. Song length is usually not a concern, nor is an overt attempt at progression. What is important is hypnosis, transportation, and the space to parse out subtle variation and compositional synthesis (swiped from Murphy).
3. 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.
4. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings and/or angular melodies.
5. Tenuous reconciliation between electronic and acoustic instruments (thanks, Björk). Emphasis on “tenuous.” I have no use for a twee indie rock outfit that shoehorns in cute synth burbling over conventional rock riffs.
6. Funneling intensely private emotions through the very public act of singing (Björk has few peers in this category).
This rubric may strike some as oppressively pretentious, but these are my comforts and points of interest. I think at its best, mainstream pop music is capable of touching upon at least the first three items on the list, so it’s not necessarily a matter of art versus commerce when mapping out preferences. But Ke$ha and Katy Perry don’t meet any of this criteria for me.
The protectionist feminist in me is also pretty horrified that girls like them. While I don’t think censorship is the answer, I do think figuring out what they like about them is necessary.
I admit to being amused by Ke$ha when Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted an early performance of “Dinosaur.” Actually, some music geeks I know like her, deeming her funny, smart, ironic, and a forward-thinking pop star. Jamie Freedman at Always More to Hear talked about posting an entry called “In Defense of Ke$ha” during a lunch date, and I’m interested to seeing this piece materialize. But as much I wanted to like her talk-singing and deliberately shambolic performance on Saturday Night Live, I could not. Also, Ke$ha’s odes to partying and borderline alcoholism register differently in a gay club than they do when a pre-teen sings about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Plus, she has got to stop her sartorial appropriations of pan-Native American garb.
When Perry’s second single “I Kissed a Girl” became a smash in 2008, I was throbbing with righteous indignation. Some of it was full-on music snobbery. How dare some pop tart swipe Peaches and Goldfrapp’s glossy electropop? I bristled at Perry’s image as a preacher’s daughter turned servile kewpie doll seemed to spring from the id of Leisure Suit Larry. But the message behind “I Kissed a Girl” made me angrier. It positioned Sapphic flirting as harmless, temporary, superficially transgressive, and ultimately in need of heterosexual male validation. I want the exact opposite in a pop song. You can imagine how I felt when Out put her on their cover.
By the time Perry’s inane ”California Gurls” came out earlier this summer, her image as a superficially edgy pop star with a predictable sense of heterosexually palatable feminine camp did little to challenge what I already thought of her. Neither did employing venerate sell-out Snoop Dogg for guest services. Neither did playing dress-up with various markers of teenage identity as host of the Teen Choice Awards. Neither will marrying Russell Brand. Neither will providing the voice of Smurfette in the doomed film adaptation of The Smurfs. Casting my friend Chu in the “Teenage Dream” music video tested my subjectivity, but ultimately confirmed that Perry needs to associate herself with hip, fashion-foward, androgynous young people to bolster her image. Thankfully, my friend is not the one in the headdress.
So I had to put theory into practice. I listened to every track of their’s I could find for the past few weeks, anticipating Perry’s forthcoming Teenage Dream album. For fun, I tempered this experiment with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to test whether my reaction toward artists I don’t like changed in relation to Important Music. I also read Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love in preparation of my experiment. I recognize its contribution, though I can’t champion the effort I derisively referred to as Let’s Talk About Anything But the Album. Too often, Wilson sabotages insightful contextualization of Dion’s aspirational class positioning and ethnic identity in relation to her voice’s function as a luxury item or a continuation of hair metal’s power ballad against gross projections of his unbridled disdain or unnecessary explanations to oft-cited theories of taste circulating in Western philosophy and cultural studies. Furthermore, the chapter he devotes to Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love is a reprinted submission that reads like a conventional album review.
This potentially illustrates the limits of such critical inquiries. Though I found Wilson’s book frustrating, I couldn’t improve upon it here. I warmed a little toward Ke$ha’s Animal, which foregrounds her singular personality and features the pop metal barnburner “Party at a Rich Dude’s House.” Perry’s first two albums are joyless affairs, saddled with the burdens of putting up with bad boys and defining yourself as someone else’s vacuous sexual object instead of your own realized sexual subject. Both artists (and their songwriting teams) share the habit of putting down men through emasculation and viewing every girl as competition.
In short, neither pop star move me toward any notable form of appreciation regardless of how much I consumed. I’m curious to try this exercise on other artists, though am frustrated that taste will continue to warp the outcome. Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Probably. Can I transcend them? Maybe not, but I’ll keep listening.