Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.
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.
I made a girlfriend a mix CD for Galentine’s Day. This was the reasonable thing to do when said friend made you an awesome batch of vegan Linzer cookies and a homemade card with Burberry hearts. I don’t want to disclose too many of the songs, because I made the mix especially for her. However, here are a few tracks I’m willing to share with ya’ll.
For all the lahhh-vuhhhs.
For promising introductions.
For the soldiers of love.
For those who know the best love is the kind you give yourself.
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.