Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.
As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars.
Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.
Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.
To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.
Do kids still go to book fairs? I hope so. In grade school, I always anticipated them. It was at book fairs that I got some of my favorite titles, including Dyan Sheldon’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, and selections from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. Well, that and the odd Garfield digest because dammit if that lasagna-eating tabby didn’t garner my affection at an early age. But I’d also grab those biographies and user-friendly historical surveys about Beethoven or alternative rock. Hence why I bring up book fairs for a post on Marissa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music–it’s great for the sixth grader who’s just starting to pick up a guitar or headphones and wants some direction toward ladies who rocked when his/her parents were coming of age. If I could assign readings for my Girls Rock Camp music history workshops, I would. Perhaps I’ll tell them to consult their local library or give it a skim on Google Books. Not that I endorse Google as an intermediary.
However, I’m not sure Girl Power will do much for folks who were there or have a deeper understanding of women’s contributions to alternative rock, riot grrrl, Lilith Fair, and pop music in the 1990s. I anticipated how sentences would end before my eyes registered closing punctuation marks. Like, I was there when everyone bought Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I’ve seen Courtney Love . . . evolve. I wore barrettes and black nail polish and made bedroom wallpaper fashioned from magazine images. I remember when girls pretended to be the Spice Girls at junior high talent shows. I didn’t know about riot grrrl in 1993, but after college and student radio, I think I could teach an undergrad course on it.
This isn’t to dismiss Meltzer’s efforts, as she succinctly outlines the players, the period, and the stakes with user-friendly, assured prose that evinces her success as a music journalist. However, I wasn’t surprised by any of her findings and was frustrated by how little there was for me to latch onto. I do commend Meltzer for attempting not to present the decade as a halcyon era whose promise hasn’t been fulfilled in subsequent generations of female musicians. However, I would have appreciated more context about why this decade is especially significant to the development of women in popular music beyond being the time in which Meltzer, some of her respondents, and her peers experienced and identified with music for the first time. At roughly 140 pages, there’s little room to explore these issues.
I certainly appreciate Meltzer’s acknowledgment that riot grrrl and alternative rock were largely the pursuits of white, middle-class musicians and that these subgenres are often privileged by third wave feminists, who reflect these racial and class identities. I empathize with her surreptitious attitude toward women’s music’s earnestness, its influence on the development of Lilith Fair, and the transphobic practices of some women’s music festivals. However, I don’t think she does a good job presenting counterexamples. Her chapter on girl groups focuses almost exclusively on the Spice Girls, without addressing the group’s racial make-up or discussing black female vocal groups like En Vogue, SWV, TLC, or Destiny’s Child. When she talks about solo artists, she inadvertently constructs a binary between commercially friendly confessional singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple or jailbait bubblegum starlets like Britney Spears. Hip hop reached its peak during the decade and several female emcees were responsible for its success, but folks like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lady of Rage, and Sistah Souljah get at-best minimal attention. R&B artists like Adina Howard and Aaliyah confronted and challenged cultural assumptions of black female sexuality. Selena’s influence continues to grow. Here’s hoping subsequent editions of the book include them.
This book is a good start, but begs to be dialogued with books like Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I’d love to get feedback on what seventh grade musicians thinks about how these books represent their musical periods. Better yet, let’s hear how they might be honoring, improving upon, or dispensing with their legacies altogether. I have a hunch Meltzer and Marcus wanna know too.
On Monday, BET premiered My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth about Women in Hip-hop, which was posted in full on Miss Info’s Web site. Unfortunately, the first two segments have since been taken down, but you can see clips on the BET Web site.
In truth, I’m waiting for Rachel Raimist to drop some science on it for The Crunk Feminist Collective next Monday, as she promised on Kristen at Dear Black Woman‘s Facebook page. I’m pretty sure the director of the fantastic Nobody Knows My Name, the forebear of BET’s inquiry on gender and hip hop, has some exquisite criticism plotted out. I’ll read, re-tweet, and provide a link in this entry when the blog post goes live.
Also, if you aren’t following The Crunk Feminist Collective, consider this your call to action. rboylorn’s piece this week about black women and depression was one of the best things I read in recent memory.
But I did see My Mic Sounds Nice and, as a feminist hip hop fan who is also a big fan of Nirit Peled’s Say My Name, feel I should use this space to comment and start a dialogue about it. Overall, I liked it.
1. I’m happy BET felt the need to address this subject matter at all. As far as I know, this was the first documentary made for the network and, not unlike Mad Men‘s Birth of the Independent Woman documentary included in the DVD set for season two, the network’s larger programming context was incorporated into the documentary’s narrative. They could’ve done this quite a bit more — say, launch into a discussion of BET: Uncut — but I’m happy a discussion’s starting.
2. Ava DuVernay directed My Mic Sounds Nice. If that name is familiar, you might have seen her documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which I recommended in a previous post.
3. There’s a good mix of mainstream and independent female MCs. I like seeing Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Lil Mama, and Jean Grae share screen time.
4. In general, the documentary is a good primer for the development of women in hip hop. And early in the documentary, there’s lots of great context for nascent female involvement through battle rapping and emphasis placed on now-obscured female acts like the Sequence.
5. The overall approach to talking about women in hip hop is refreshingly discursive. DuVernay frames each voice and opinion as distinct and weaves differing or contradictory viewpoints from each subject. For example, it puts Yo-Yo’s intimations that she felt pressure to project a hyper-sexual image in the wake of Foxy Brown and Lil Kim’s mainstream success in the mid-90s in sharp relief to Trina and Nicki Minaj’s lucrative construction of their personae.
There are some things I felt a little strange about, though. These issues don’t speak to the documentary, but rather internal struggles from within a music industry conditioned toward conventional business practices, which hinge on patriarchal thinking.
1. Many mainstream artists — particularly EVE, who came up through the Ruff Ryders crew — have no problem with male mentorship and don’t feel any need to challenge or question it. Conversely, some male recording execs frame certain female MCs’ success as inherently positive, regardless of their views on gender and sexuality.
2. Likewise, there’s some strange pathology around mainstream female rappers being more of a financial drain on the music industry because of conventional beauty ideals. I don’t want to pathologize women of color any further by making essentializing claims about the upkeep of black hair and will instead refer you to Dear Black Woman’s rules. However, I find Missy Elliott, EVE, and Trina’s unchallenged claims that female hip hop artists have to be glamorous and therefore financially burdensome against the idea that male MCs just have to throw on jeans and a t-shirt in need of greater complication. How might fashion-forward MCs like André 3000 and Kanye West challenge this? And why do female MCs have to be conventionally attractive in order to be successful? While the latter is a rhetorical question, I’ll continue to keep asking it.
3. I love Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. Also, I know how Hill’s absence from the music industry speaks to a profound loss within the genre, but I would’ve liked a) less time devoted exclusively to them, b) more conflicting opinions about them beyond universal praise, and c) a larger context of what other female rappers were doing — particularly in the underground — during their commercial reign.
4. A key idea that is both perpetuated and challenged is that female MCs don’t sell. I would have appreciated more nuance about the state of the music industry in general. Hip hop’s boom crested into pop music’s record-breaking commercial success in the late-90s. However, the 2000s have largely been defined by the ubiquity of digital music culture and a bankrupt music industry. Surely this speaks more to low sales than the cost of hiring and maintaining a glam squad for a female MC.
Best of all, though, the documentary ends with a look toward the future. The interview subjects plug female MCs they think will continue the legacy. Refreshingly, and with not a little business savvy, much consideration is given to underground artists. Jean Grae name-checks Iris and Psalm One. Fembassy editor-in-chief Glennisha Morgan recommends Invincible. A genre with all of them working in continuum with Nicki Minaj is one I’ll continue to follow.
The first half of 2010 has been eventful for music, hasn’t it? Epic break-up albums from Spoon, Joanna Newsom, Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Controversial music videos from Lady Gaga, Badu, and M.I.A. Janelle Monáe cornering the “Hey Ya” market with “Tightrope.” The initial run of David Simon’s Treme, which is a feast for music geeks. Courtney Love re-emerging like some fucked-up phoenix rising from the ashes of coke and pixie dust. Corin Tucker making a solo album. The Lilith Fair relaunching this summer, though unfortunately at one point in support of anti-choice brainwashing complexes crisis pregnancy centers. Christina Aguilera collaborating with some interesting folks on her new album. And so many amazing album covers. Goddamn.
By my count, we have four new covers to talk about: the Dap-Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Hole’s Nobody’s Daughter, Monáe’s soon-to-be-released The ArchAndroid, and Aguilera’s Bionic. As I want to write proper reviews for the first three titles, I figured today’s post could be on D*Face‘s cover art for Bionic, which doesn’t come out until June. I’ll admit that I’m pretty nervous that I don’t see Santigold, M.I.A., and Le Tigre listed as producers on the album’s Wiki entry. While I do note Ladytron, I’ll also point out that it’s the dudes in the band who worked with her. The lead single “Not Myself Tonight,” has been released and I like it even if it’s slipping on the charts. The Hype Williams-directed video is set to premiere on Vevo tomorrow, though you can look at snippets and stills from the singer’s Web site. The cover was revealed last month and to whet our appetites, I thought we could briefly look at it.
Haters can say that the lead single is derivative, but that’s one hell of a cover. Admittedly, the critique is pretty close to the surface: the cover shows the obscured constructedness of pop stars, the technological interventions on their voices and bodies, and the potential disembodiment of normative and subservient female glamor. I’d also bring up Richard Dyer’s call in White to make whiteness strange. It also seems to recall Daft Punk’s politically dire and underrated Human After All and the corporate shills and politicians in They Live.
As I mentioned in my review of Badu’s new album linked above, the cyborg — and the cyborg as doll — is a racially fraught cultural figure that black women have channeled in their work, particularly Missy Elliott and Lil Kim. I’d add Monáe and Nicki Minaj (channeling Kim) to that list.
I’d also point out that Björk and Chris Cunningham challenged the racial and sexual connotations of the cyborg in the music video for “All Is Full Of Love.”
I’m not convinced that Aguilera has done anything new here, but continue to be interested with whom and what she chooses to align.
Erykah Badu’s latest offering is one of the year’s most anticipated releases for me. A long-time fan, Mama’s Gun changed my perception of the world. Carrying on the artist’s tradition of bridging personal reflection with political awareness, 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) evinced the work of a maturing artist and mother with an insurrectionist’s heart. Released during the twilight of the Bush Administration and somewhat of a musical departure with its use of digital composition and recording software, Badu linked the political climate to the addiction and disease that destroyed many people of color during the “greed is good” Reagan years. Sometimes, as with TV on the Radio’s 2008 release, Dear Science, Badu suggested possibilities for change. But most of these moments came from within and not out of hoping a political leader would make any profound difference for the citizenry.
While 4th World War should be judged on its own merits, another reason it was so interesting was that it was the first installment of a two-part series. And if this album was so forward-thinking and challenging, what lies ahead in part two?
The answer will be the focus of this entry. Released at the end of March, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) was preceded by a controversial music video for lead single “Window Seat.” My first introduction to the song was about a week prior to the video’s release. She performed the song with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and I was pumped.
Some reviewers have been disheartened by this album, which basically focuses on a disintegrating romatic relationship. Jody Rosen claims it’s too consciously strange at times and is lacking in many actual songs, which is a claim I think you could make about 4th World War upon first listen. Jessica Hopper believes the album’s inward focus lacks the energy and cultural relevance that propelled the series’ first offering.
While I’m an admirer of both critics, I think Oliver Wang‘s assessment most closely mirrors my thoughts. While 4th World War may have been more outwardly political and Return of the Ankh more personally reflective and at times self-pitying, I find Badu to be consistent, and her newest release only bolsters my opinion. Going back to Baduizm and including Worldwide Underground, Badu’s oft-overlooked follow-up to Mama’s Gun, all of her albums contain moments of self-reflection and political consciousness (sometimes in the same song, as on “Other Side of the Game,” “…& On,” and “Danger”) celebrations of love, and outpourings of grief (Mama’s Gun‘s “Orange Moon,” “In Love With You,” and “Green Eyes”). Her albums are also punctuated with skits and asides that suggest that Badu is at once strange, silly, and smart (“Afro” and “Amerykahn Promise,” for starters).
All of these moments can be found here. There’s reflections on the personal and professional juggling that Badu tires of in “Window Seat.” “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)” focuses on capitalism in ways that to me recall Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings protest “Money” and P!nk’s “Stupid Girls,” which mockingly indicts status-obsessed starlets. But these concerns have always been in Badu’s mind.
Album opener “20 Feet Tall” features Badu reminding herself that she is strong enough to get over her heartache. Studio riff “You Loving Me” is an example of Badu’s self-deprecating humor that may have been cut from another artist’s album out of a need to showcase more polished, “important” work. And closer “Out My Mind, Just In Time” recalls the wordplay and drama of “Green Eyes” though is messier, more emotionally conflicted, and ends in discordance that recalls Joanna Newsom’s “Does Not Suffice,” from another great 2010 break-up record, Have One on Me. I also think the last track is a promise of things to come: Badu may be wounded for now, but she’s got unfinished business to tend to.
And while 4th World War wasn’t as lavish a production, all of her albums show a clear indebtedness to funk, soul, and jazz in their arrangements. They also feature hip hop’s common practice of sampling (revisit “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” or take a look at her production team for clearer evidence of Badu’s fandom). As Wang points out in his review, samples provide multiple layers of meaning that gesture toward the time in which Badu came of age as well as her influences and personal history.
I’d also like to reclaim the break-up album a bit, as women have made art out of them, processing personal feelings with little filter and suggesting how power dynamics are gendered in heterosexual couples. Joni Mitchell did it with Blue. Björk did it with Homogenic. As with Mama’s Gun, I think Badu is continuing in that tradition.
Finally, while its contents may lack obvious political content, I think Badu and Kyledidthis created visually stunning and connotatively loaded album art. On the cover, Badu is drawn as a robot — perhaps the robot girl she sings as in “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)”. Black female artists have referenced the cyborg and the android in their work, notably Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Janelle Monáe. Cultural critic Steven Shaviro neatly unpacks the potential connotations of Elliott and Kim identifying as cyborgs in his essay “Supa Dupa Fly: Black Women as Cyborgs in Hiphop Videos.” In a culture that privileges whiteness and still clings to racist ideologies, whether consciously or not, black women especially have been dehumanized because of presumptions about their sexuality and pressures to abide by Anglo/Eurocentric beauty standards.
Robot Badu confronts her potential audience on the cover, her gaze direct. Human Badu emerges from her skull, naked, sitting in grass, holding a tuning fork, and under a tree with branches that spell her name. Surrounding the robot is the flora that continues to grow amidst human-made weapons, airplanes, government buildings, and foreclosed houses that accompanied images of dead babies, fast food, television, and drugs on 4th World War‘s cover. While nature is long associated with female identity, Badu acknowledges her continual presence in both worlds. This album’s growing on me, and evidence that one of pop music’s most original artists is herself still evolving.