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.
The other night, I watched Missy Elliott’s Behind the Music. It’s a pretty good episode. I forgot how many talented ladies Elliott worked with, including Tweet, Nelly Furtado, and Alyson Stoner. Joan Morgan champions “One Minute Man” for articulating that women can seek out sex for it’s own sake. Mary J. Blige backs Elliott’s genius regardless of her size. Elliott’s mother Patricia talks about coming forward as a domestic abuse survivor at her daughter’s behest. And Elliott speaks candidly about working through traumas related to incest and childhood molestation, living with Grave’s disease, struggling to break into the music industry as part of the girl group Fayze, and getting edited out of the video to Raven-Symoné’s “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” because she was fat, even though she co-wrote the song. Damn. At least Heart videos had Ann Wilson’s face, even though the camera lusted after Nancy’s guitar-slung torso.
I knew we were going to talk about protégée Aaliyah’s death, which brought back so many memories. The plane crash. The news reports. Fatima Robinson crying. The posthumous release of the video for “Rock the Boat.” Jackets with the singer’s face airbrushed on the back. DMX in the “Miss You” video. Her older brother Rashad weeping during her episode of Behind the Music. Missy and Tim’s hearts breaking. All these feelings came up again when I watched the Elliott episode, as I’m sure they do for the rapper-producer every day. They flooded back this morning when I read Leslie Pitterson’s Clutch Magazine piece, which commemorates the 10-year anniversary of her death excerpts Damon Dash’s Billboard interview about his relationship with the singer and the grief he worked through.
In a weird way, the loss of Aaliyah also came back last week when I watched an episode of Buffy that featured Ashanti as a demon. She seemed to be channeling Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned, or maybe that’s who writer Jane Espenson and the wardrobe department were trying to conjure. I knew something wicked was afoot, because there’s no way Ashanti would date a schlub like Xander. This also made me think of what a weird time the early 2000s were when Ashanti broke Billboard records but left no impression on me besides coming off as impolite to a chauffeur in an episode of Punk’d because she expressly forbid him from talking to her. Ah, Punk’d. How it played into (and often betrayed) celebrity image construction. Justin Timberlake is a stoned mama’s boy. Magic Johnson is quite level-headed when dealing with his son’s scorned lover. Katie Holmes gets pushed around. Of course, the show also presented a lot of scenarios where black celebrities had to deal with law enforcement. Call out Ashton’s racial insensitivity, Dave Chappelle!
Anyway, Ashanti wearing belly chains and wielding swords just made me miss Aaliyah. This might have worked better if it was Rihanna. I’m willing to see her an action movie, even if it’s stupid to build a film franchise on a board game. Maybe the “Hard” video was her audition for a Tank Girl reboot. Maybe Michelle Rodriguez will be in it. . . . But I digress.
I love Aaliyah’s music, as do many friends. In high school, girlfriends made up dances for her songs. Ginny created an interpretive dance for the first verse to “Are You That Somebody?” Brooke came up with a routine for “Try Again” that she performed at prom. I was introduced to Aaliyah in junior high when I saw the video for “Back & Forth” on the Box (a channel in need of more academic scholarship and a Grantland oral history). Who was this cool girl with the silky voice and why was she wearing sunglasses? It’s staggering how many amazing singles she had in her too-short career: “One In a Million,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “We Need a Resolution,” an amazing cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” and my all-time favorites “More Than a Woman” and “4-Page Letter.”
For me, Aaliyah represented the future. In this and other ways, she reminds me of Selena. Both women were veteran entertainers who were just about to break into the mainstream when their lives were cut tragically short, at 22 and 23 respectively. They continue to influence artists and develop fan bases across generations and borders. They also seemed to have a lot of self-respect. Both women were sexy, but refused to be degraded or turned into objects. They seemed in control of their sexuality. They knew girls were watching them, and they also knew to save some of themselves from the public eye. Like Janet Jackson before them and Beyoncé after, they made self-possession sexy. Hell, Aaliyah was secretly married to R. Kelly as a teenager and that didn’t stick to her (or him, really). She kept quiet about it. It undoubtedly changed her, but she wasn’t a victim and it wasn’t your business what transpired between them. It didn’t define her. It was never going to. The cover to Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number says it all. Notice which figure is blurry and out of frame and who doesn’t have to take off her shades to look directly at the camera and hold your attention. All that, and she never had to raise her voice. You were one a million, Aaliyah. You still are.
Ya’ll, the Lilith Fair is getting a reboot this summer. I missed the festival during its original run in the late-90s. Honestly, I wasn’t too invested in it. I was happy that founder Sarah McLachlan was putting it together, but the majority of the bill offerings were pretty nice white lady adult contemporary at the time.
But co-founder Terry McBride has resurrected the festival and it’s coming to Austin some time next summer. I gotta say that this summer’s roster looks good: Loretta Lynn, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Cat Power, Gossip, Metric, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Beth Orton, Emmylou Harris, Janelle Monáe, Teagan and Sara, Corrine Bailey Ray, fuckin’ Heart. Of course, we’ve still got plenty of nice white lady music, but it seems as if there was some effort to mix up the genres a little bit so it isn’t only about ladies strumming acoustic guitars (ex: Mary fuckin’ J!). On that tack, I’m pretty uninterested in Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, Sara Bareilles, and Colbie Caillat’s involvement, but I understand that the festival’s gotta draw in some big MOR names. That said, I like that there’s some rad queer ladies and women of color on the bill.
As I don’t think the bill is 100% finalized, I’m hoping Thao and the Get Down Stay Down gets a spot on the bill. I’d also support additions like Jean Grae, Bat for Lashes, Neko Case, Marnie Stern, Shunda K, and Ponytail. I think it’d be cool if a stage was set up for local acts so folks like Follow That Bird, Yellow Fever, and Schmillion could get some more exposure — or even cooler if said bands formed their own counterfestival. Oooh, and if only they could get Sleater-Kinney to reunite. Can’t wait to see how this shapes up. For more up-to-date information, keep an eye on the festival’s Web site.
Season three of 30 Rock ended last night on a high note (ugh, pun). Sending up celebrity charities and benefit concerts will always be funny. You can watch the full episode here.
Now, I could get into a discussion of my qualms with the past season — particularly how episodic it became and how it tended to give the show’s supporting players the shaft in lieu of more screen time for the leads and many, many guest stars.
I could also get into a larger discussion of my feelings about the show’s gender politics (some of which you can read here) — I will say that Pete calling Liz a bitch last night hurt my stomach, and that bisexuality was not invented in the 90s to sell hair products. As the show goes on, sometimes I’m not sure if misogynistic jokes are made as a commentary on misogyny or if they are simply misogynistic jokes. Tricky. But I’ll bracket it for now.
Things I liked.
1. Cindy Lauper: Still drunk after all these years.
2. Norah Jones: Hello, cutie! Like your hair. Hope that Lonely Island makes a video with you for “Dreamgirl,” the song you did together.
3. Why is Sheryl Crow the only one getting paid? Give some money to Mary J.
4. Jenna singing, if only briefly. Jenna singing = comedy gold. Kudos to Jane Krakowski for a) being a great singer and b) mining it for laughs. More of Jenna singing next season, please. In fact, how about a 30 Rock musical episode?
5. The Beastie Boys (minus MCA, where have ya been?) and Talib Kweli rapping about how good things don’t always come in pairs, like heads or attack dogs. I’ll always have love for the Beasties, who’ve renounced their early mookish persona and embraced feminism. I’ll also always love Talib Kweli, who has written celebratory rhymes about fatherhood and childbirth. Yay, dudes who get it!
6. Mary J. Blige’s foundation is still looking for that Loch Ness Monster. Keep hope alive.
7. Clay Aiken is totally Kenneth Parcell’s cousin.
8. Elvis Costello is an international man of mystery, as I’ve long suspected.
9. This storyline a) sent up the vapid, self-serving do-goodery celebrities are known for and b) brought us closer to the inner workings of putting on TGS, two things that I’ve always loved about 30 Rock. It also reminded me of Musicians for Free-Range Chickens, a charity group SNL gave a platform to in the mid-90s.
Can’t wait for season four!
It’s with a heavy heart that I report that Lil Rounds, the gorgeous, scrappy mother of three from Memphis, is out of the competition to be the next American Idol. And they kicked her out so anti-climactically — right at the beginning, after the awful, hokey group performance of the Jackson 5′s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” tying last night’s disco theme together in a heinous way (also, did anyone else notice that the obligatory Ford music video was for Lykke Li’s “I’m Good, I’m Gone”?). She didn’t even get to be in the hot seat! They just sent her home, letting her kill “I’m Every Woman” one last time.
I’m sad for a few reasons. One, Lil Rounds had such an awesome, promising start in the competition. She was my early favorite. Do you remember when she performed Mary J’s “Be Without You” at the very beginning, securing her a spot in the Top 12? Do you remember how she, to borrow from judge Randy Jackson, “blew it out the box”?
The thing is, she could never really hold onto that (though I liked her renditions of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”). She kept choosing goopy ballads or copying iconic artists (I mean, you can’t touch Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, much less copy her look — you just can’t). In short, it seemed like she had a hard time figuring out who she was. If I were a judge, I’d be like “listen to less 80s-era Whitney and more Sharon Jones.”
But also, this was a bad season for ladies. I wanted Alexis Grace to have the chance to develop. I wanted Megan Corkrey (later Megan Joy) to be as good as her audition. And I hope Allison Iraheta, the rad 17-year-old girl with the whiskey voice and hair straight out of Jem and the Holograms who narrowly escaped elimination tonight, gets the prize (or at least gets to square off with boy-next-door Kris Allen and the divisive, gender queer, Hot Topic rocker Adam Lambert — I’m beyond done with the white boy appropriations of sub-Timberlake Matt Giraud and sub-Michael McDonald Danny Gokey).
And, of course, Lil’s exit needs to be put in a larger context around the show’s troublesome history with race. Black people have it harder on Idol, especially the ladies. Tamyra Gray was let go before her time. So was Jennifer Hudson, though she seems to be doing well. Mandisa was also an early favorite of mine (though her lack of tolerance for the LGBT community is unfortunate). Fantasia Barrino was the first female African American winner, but she hasn’t received nearly the mainstream success that fellow winners and Southern girls like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have gotten. Paris Bennett was let go the season that the insufferable Taylor Hicks won (man, talk about white boy appropriation). The worst for me was the finals for season 6, when it seemed that the darker and less normative the contestant was, the quicker they were let go (LeKeesha Jones, Melinda Doolittle), until we were left with the white boy beatboxer and the mixed race, purity ring-wearing, Christian who could pass.
Anyway, I hope this isn’t the last we hear of Lil. She’s got a great voice, a great name (!), and a lot of heart. Hopefully, she can figure out how to market it.