Knowledge gaps are a funny thing. As a media studies graduate student, I’m frequently confronted by what I haven’t seen. Some of these titles baffle my students and colleagues–The Goonies, The Hunger Games, all six installments of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator 2. I caught up with Psy’s “Gangham Style” last summer. I saw Die Hard a few weeks ago. I watched the Beyoncé album two days before Christmas, which is a lifetime ago for Internet traffic. I’ve never seen a complete season of Seinfeld, despite its deathless existence in syndication.
Of course, I could make closing these gaps more of a priority. To some extent, I do. I’ll often take cues from my friends and carve out a little time for certain films, television shows, and music. For example, I’m currently watching cult Lisa Kudrow vehicle The Comeback in honor of my friend Erik because I miss him. Last winter, my partner and I started a holiday tradition of watching guild screener copies of “For Your Consideration” fare with his Chicago-based aunt and uncle who work in the entertainment industry. And I’m always keeping a list. But the above admission may suggest a couple of things about me. First, it might seem curious for someone who cannot keep up with such widely accepted touchstones of popular culture to keep a music blog and pursue graduate education in media studies. Second, more skeptical readers may intuit a curatorial function to my limited exposure.
But who doesn’t curate what they consume? When I was younger, I made a conscious effort to avoid a lot of blockbuster fare because I assumed things like Sid and Nancy were more important. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about the larger political implications behind my consumer decisions. I tend to be rather dogmatic in my choices. Seth MacFarlane doesn’t need me to support his various entertainment ventures, so I have no reason to watch Family Guy and witness the program’s awful treatment of Meg Griffin. As a result, I usually prioritize media and art created by women. Even if I take issue with what I’ve seen or heard, I recognize the relative difficulty of finding an audience for such work. And taking issue means thinking, either in writing or through conversation. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of UW-Madison alumna Jill Soloway’s excellent feature debut, Afternoon Delight and even luckier to ask her about the productively messy collision of the film’s feminist and class politics during the Q&A. Exposing myself to these things and engaging with the women who made them is always going to matter to me.
Yes, I tend toward “cool,” feminist/women-affirming, indie/left-of-mainstream things. This is why I tend to avoid doing a year-end write-up. My favorites probably wouldn’t surprise you. And while I love reading other people and publications’ lists–if for no other reason than to play catch-up–ranking systems often evade me. What does it mean to be the seventh-best album of the year? What does it mean to be “Album of the Year” in the first place? But during my first year at Madison, I befriended a feminist media scholar who, to my mind, came to her subject of study (comics) for the same reason I cared about the production of music culture: it enriched our feminism.
Last year, my favorite album cover was Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe. In general, I think Santi White makes fun, innovative pop music. This album was no exception. But I was especially taken with White’s multiple, fragmented presence in the composition–in a bespoke suit as a man, in duplicate as glamorous attendants, in a Napoleon-ic pose as a work of art. I struggled to find words to interpret the cover’s larger meanings. Defeated and distracted by other obligations, I abandoned the draft. Similar feelings and responsibilities kept me quiet this year. After a point, you wonder if it’s too late to contribute one more post about Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. You’re not sure where to fit a thousand words over your ambivalence about the presence of Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox’s queer, Marfans-formed body in Dallas Buyers Club. You let things go.
I’m sad about that, as I’m happiest when I give myself the opportunity to write independent of mine or others’ expectations. Recently, my thesis adviser shared a blog one of her students started. What struck me the most about it was its seeming immediacy. When I started this blog, many of my posts boiled down to 200 words of “hey, look at this thing!” I miss that. I believe in making soft resolutions at the dark, cold start of a new year. That’s how I started this blog. While I’m going to try not to put enormous pressure on myself to be a prolific, visible writer, I will attempt to share more.
One thing I’m always willing to share is album art. Much of what first drew me to music were evocative covers around which you could build your world. I imagine that this same sense of wonder, of seductive immersion, brought people to Star Wars too. Here now are a selection of some of my favorite album covers and a brief explanation of why I loved them.
Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Cover Art: Sam Spratt
If I were to give out an award for album of the year, it might go to this electric lady. As with her previous outing, I would still like her to refine her focus a bit more. But I’m not going anywhere. If Beyoncé is our Queen of Pop, then Monáe is our two-tone funky Prince(ss). I love this cover for the same reason I love Master of My Make-Believe (the leader has a pompadour, but the Monáettes each have a distinct personality under their matching mod bobs) and also because I was so happy that Erykah Badu recast herself as the female, pink version of the Love Below in OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” video.
Cover Art: Jane Chardiet
Margaret Chardiet is mythologizing herself when she says that this tableau is a recreation of a moment when she found maggots eating a dead flower nestled inside an old love letter. But all mediation is mythology anyway. And this image nicely reflects Abandon‘s brutal beauty. I can’t wait to see her live.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Cover Art: Kathleen Judge
It’s easy to reduce this to Case’s “depression” album, and I certainly don’t want to do that (Case contains multitudes). Yet this image elegantly represents the perilous creatures you invent in your mind and the woozy clarity that comes with wrestling your own sadness and anger. Also, I marvel that her voice and writing get sharper and more formidable with each album. If I were a lit major, I’d more confidently assay a Flannery O’Connor comparison. But really, Case is on her own journey.
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Cover Art: Martin Falck
Beets are my favorite vegetable because they taste like the earth, look like vital organs, and stain cutting boards with a lurid, eye-searing pink. If it’s not hot pink, fuchsia, or magenta, go home. Pink needs to call attention to itself, make itself strange. Pink cannot be a complicit color. It must be rude and loud and slightly disorienting. Our queer brothers and sisters know this, and so do the Knife. Also, stick around for Liv Strömquist’s sleeve art. Actually, I’d be comfortable with claiming this as my favorite album, as I always had it on hand when I wrote.
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
Cover Art: Dean Chalkley and Rob Crane
When you have the bearing of a queen and the voice of a superstar, you don’t need to face forward. We can meet your gaze. We can marvel at your profile and anticipate you drawing in your breath before you start in on another song.
Cover Art: Isaac Gale
Upon second glance, this picture appears to be a woman waiting for her hair dye to take hold. But the vivid, austere combination of pale skin, blue wall, and smeared red substance suggest, much like the album, a presence more menacing in its intimacy. Something tells me that the feminist theorist after whom the album is named would appreciate the image and its myriad interpretations.
Cover Art: Tom Manaton and Daniel Sannwald
One of my favorite late-night performances of the year was M.I.A.’s one-two punch of “YALA” and “Come Walk With Me” on The Colbert Report under blinking red and green lights to match her album art. My entire relationship to this album is through YouTube and, with the pixelation, that sounds about right. A nice companion piece to Shaking the Habitual.
The Julie Ruin, Run Fast
Cover Art: Allyson Mitchell
If I designed the cover art for Run Fast, I would try to capture my feelings from listening to this record, which disrupted any household chore with a one-woman dance-off. Then I found out that the image is part of a series called “Ladies Sasquatch” by artist Allyson Mitchell about “imagining utopias or queer/politicized worlds where gender is dreamed about outside of social construction.” I still discover new heroes and heroines each time I listen to “Hot Topic,” and now I can add Mitchell to the list. This is just one more example of how Kathleen Hanna transformed my citational politics.
The Blow, The Blow
Cover Art: Melissa Dyne
The triangle is the support structure to so much architecture. It’s the basic unit for stars, pyramids, and yield signs. It’s a shape that delights in difference, able to be scalene, isosceles, equilateral, right, obtuse, acute. Khalela and Melissa know this, and pitch their warped pop music somewhere between the mundane and the divine in tribute.
Dynasty, A Star in Life’s Clothing
Cover Art: Simone Cihlar and Darryl Richardson
If only this image were in motion, as there’s not a dull moment on this lively album. Like the best pop stars, Dynasty is a beauty who moves. She’s another artist I can’t wait to see live.
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Cover Art: Gaspar Noé
Gender is definitely operative in taste curation, and often subordinates femininity. Such concerns apply to Ferreira, a young pop star who captures the imagination of male creative types like filmmaker Noé, producer Ariel Rechtshaid, DIIV front man Zachary Cole Smith, and fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Hedi Slimane. But there’s a depth, candor, and rage to her voice (qualities sharpened by survival) that informs this cover and makes the Shirley Manson comparisons more than a question of eyeliner.
Savages, Silence Yourself
Cover Art: Antoine Carlier and Richard Dumas
Because finally a group of women can update Joy Division and beat countless art school boys at their own game. And because “Husbands” and this cover seems to have something to do with Patti Smith’s Horses too.
Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Cover Art: Rob Carmichael
Apparently Gigi served as inspiration for Holter’s third album. I have trouble making out the references–perhaps Chevalier is eclipsing my recollections of Caron, perhaps I should read some Colette. But this photograph–of some building on a Los Angeles city street–reminds me of that feeling of waking up from a long car trip, rubbing your neck and losing grip on your last dream, to a place not quite recognizable as a destination.
Cover Art: Jonathan Turnaer
In many ways, this cover reminds me of the kaleidescopic Ring, save for a few key differences. First, the muted color palette. Second, a clearer sense of place. Finally, Cameron Mesirow’s decentered but guiding presence.
Cover Art: Garrett Born
First, BEST DENIM JACKET EVER. Second, I saw Lizzo open for Poliça earlier this year and she shut it down. Third, one of the songs on this album is called “Lizzie Borden.” Fourth, she’s part of a crew called GRRRL PRTY and I don’t need to explain to you why that’s awesome. Fifth, I appreciate her commitment to that hat even if it doesn’t offer proper shade. I don’t know where she’s at or where she’s planning to go in this picture, but I will follow her and the party that forms around her. Pump this album at full blast in your car. Dance like it’s your friend’s going-away bash and she’s not getting the deposit back. See Lizzo if she comes to your town. Get your life.
Back in late January, I revisited “Making Plans for Nigel.” In a blog post on the best musical moments of 2012, a post-doc in my program compared Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” to the XTC single. Point taken. The riff and the hook are strikingly similar. But knowing that the final semester of course work was fast approaching, and especially knowing that I was putting together an independent study on gender and labor, I kept reflecting on the lyrics.
As a kid, I liked this song. But it wasn’t until I was fresh out of undergrad, editing training courses at an e-learning company, that I began to think of this song as a possible critique on labor (or parenting, but often biological and corporate parentage uphold and recirculate the same ideals). Eight hours under fluorescent lights can do that to you. The song is told (with tongue in cheek) from the perspective of Nigel’s masters, who believe that selfless diligence and deference to management will guarantee their charge’s happiness. Yet as I was preparing for the semester–pulling books from the library, writing reading notes, drafting pre-lims reading lists, revising writing and teaching materials–I kept returning to the line “Nigel is happy in his work.”
Nigel’s masters are speaking for him. They’re assuming he’s happy in his work. But what if he is actually happy in his work? Happy the way Peggy Olson is happy when she’s stumbling out of her office after 6 p.m. to stretch and steal a cigarette from the typing pool. Happy the way I am happy when I’m writing and completely lose track of time. Sure, happiness is a moving target when it comes to labor. Those of us who tend to overwork ourselves must advocate equitable treatment and insist against self-exploitation, especially if we are women and there are gendered expectations that we’ll overextend ourselves. Self-care is real, y’all. As a feminist media scholar who studies gender and labor–mainly because I think the ways in which women’s labor is valued in the media industries needs to be studied, but also to some extent because I’m a woman who is never not working–I keep thinking through the negotiation between loving your work and making a commitment to learning to love yourself.
In many ways, I’ve been thinking about this well before I went back to grad school. Those who have followed this blog from the beginning (i.e., April 2009) know that I came into the MCS PhD program with a very clear idea of what dissertation I wanted to write. Because I was writing it into this blog. While maintaining this space, I reflected quite a bit on my memories of my experiences in college radio. I worked for four years at UT’s station, 91.7 KVRX. During this time, I was simultaneously developing my feminist politics. It was through my involvement with Alliance for a Feminist Option, a campus feminist sorority, that I read Gloria Anzaldúa and Patricia Hill Collins and became friends with brilliant women who were thinking through a lot of the same stuff I was processing. Working at KVRX allowed me to apply my feminist education. Because while I eventually thought of the station as home, I also saw a lot of sexist bullshit go down.
I was one of many of the women on staff could (and did) trade cautionary tales about listener harassment. The most common offense female deejays confronted was the unidentified, disembodied male voice who would call in to inform us—often accompanied by grunting and/or contemptuous laughter—that we sounded sexy. Speaking for myself, I went on the air because I had records to play. I was trying to share knowledge. The amount of research that went into my shows was comparable to the research I do as an academic. Many of the songs I played were from records that were out of print, released on labels that no longer existed, and were recorded by artists—many of whom were women, many of whom identified as queer—relegated to the footnotes of history, if they were even granted such a citation. To reduce my work to the assumed seductive properties of my voice was insulting, and it was an insult waged upon many female deejays. This resulted in me taking down my email address. I stopped giving out the station phone number as frequently during my broadcasts. And I got good at hanging up on rude callers. But each time I did, I wondered if I lost an opportunity to chat with a female listener. Rarely did women call in during my show (at least not women who were not my AFO grrrlfriends). When they did, they usually wanted to talk about who I was playing.
These were not problems my male contemporaries (including my partner, who hosted the blues program and served as music director) seemed to have to deal with. We certainly had allies. But male deejays did not seem to need to engage in the same tactical maneuvers as their female counterparts. It was common for women to serve as co-hosts and/or bring friends and partners to the station for protection. It was less common for women to agree to do a radio show alone and/or in the late evening and early morning when public transportation was unreliable and the streets were empty. Yet amid all that nonsense, I still lived for programming a radio show. I still lived for reviewing albums and going to shows. And I wasn’t alone. So on the one hand, there’s a negotiation for self-worth and equitable treatment. On the other hand, there’s the distinct pleasure of being happy in one’s work, despite (and sometimes because of) this sexist bullshit.
My blog changed with time. I used to update every day, chasing various news items and writing 300-word posts about videos I liked. I don’t do that anymore. I prioritize my time differently. As a grad student, I have to. More to the point, as a grad student I feel like I have to do research and piece together as much context as I can before I attempt to write anything. But I’m also trying to learn to listen to what I need, particularly because grad school provides a lot of opportunities for labor and leaves you with the task of determining whether that labor is beneficial to you. Grad school requires you to make time for things. But it doesn’t give you much time. It assumes that you’ll make these choices for yourself. This can be difficult, particularly if you internalize the ways in which labor expectations privilege masculinized norms of self-sacrifice and individual achievement.
So as this blog developed, I became interested in labor as a subject of study. Maintaining a blog to break up a work day can do that to you. In December 2009, I wrote a short post on music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. It would ultimately lead me to my dissertation topic. I am a feminist media scholar who studies the intersections of gender, labor, and music culture in a post-network era. I have come to these intersecting subjects of study through my own experiences, questions of identity (or, because intersectionality matters, identities) always come first for me. One reckless habit I have cultivated as a graduate student is not worrying about whether other research projects bear similarities to mine, thus occluding me from committing myself further to particular subjects and lines of inquiry. In point of fact, a number of people have already written on similar topics. I am preparing to write a dissertation about women’s intermediary labor between the music, television, and new media industries. Taking Vicki Mayer’s organizational schema from her book Below the Line, I will pay particular attention to positions such as booking, promotion, licensing, and music supervision.
The last area has already cultivated a sizable body of knowledge within media and film studies (see: Aslinger, 2008; Klein, 2009; Barnett, 2010; Lewanowski, 2010; Anderson, 2011). However, there is still more to explore. We can think through how this field of labor is intertextual and relies upon laborers’ accumulation of cultural capital, fluency in copyright law and business practices, negotiated knowledge of several industries and their distinct needs, and the sensitivity they must demonstrate to the ways in which certain musicians and affiliated genres are deployed to hail particular audiences. Furthermore, supervisors’ labor relies on and has been shaped by the industrial practices of licensing, promotion, and booking. Finally, greater attention must be paid to how labor identities and gendered assumptions about labor shapes this work.
Women contributed a largely ignored history of work in these areas that has only recently cultivated a (compromised) visibility. Women’s work seems to have been delegitimized in these fields for a few reasons. For one, these labor positions are historically perceived as catalysts for struggle to penetrate various barriers to entry. If industrially or culturally sanctioned “auteurs” like film director Wes Anderson and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner want to place a Beatles’ song in one of their projects and the music supervisor or licensor cannot negotiate a licensing fee that fits within the budget (Beatles’ songs are notoriously expensive to license), the burden of responsibility (or blame) tends to fall on the laborer who cannot ink the deal.
There is also an assumption that labor that relies upon technical skill and is organized by craft unions and guilds is not as valuable because it is perceived as dependent upon and subservient to “creative” labor like writing, directing, producing, and acting, thus “justifying” and reinforcing the industrial hierarchies of above- and below-the-line labor. Booking, supervision, licensing, and promotion all qualify as below-the-line labor and thus tend to be delegitimized. The line between work and fandom is often blurred for these particular laborers, which can cause further perceptual delegitimation within the media industries. Finally, pervasive sexist and misogynistic assumptions remain on what it means for women to enact these labor roles. Much of this work takes place in meetings with artists, label representatives, legal teams, and publishers. Many of these exchanges take place through electronic communication channels, in offices, or in conference rooms. There are gendered assumptions in place even in these exchanges.
However, a good bit of this work still takes place at industry festivals like SXSW or backstage at concerts. As scholars like Sara Cohen have noted, such cultural spaces are historically off-limits or available in a restricted capacity to women because of minimal concerns for individual safety to, from, and at a gig, which is usually booked after-hours in poorly-lit metropolitan areas with limited public transportation and parking accommodations that many of their male counterparts rarely had to consider (Cohen, 1997). Hence why a number of artists associated with the riot grrrl movement repurposed second-wave segregationist practices by holding female-only shows or insisting that male audience members stand in the back. Hence why more shows were all-ages events in repurposed performance spaces that took place earlier in the evening.
Because there remain pernicious assumptions that women and girls simply entering into a venue space must have heteronormative sex-based ulterior motives for contact, as the idea of women and girls who turn their music fandom into a livelihood (coupled with the cultural degradation of groupies’ labor and the sexist assumption that women and girls at a concert must be groupies) is unconscionably foreign to many people. What is more, there is an assumption that all people go to a concert to hear live music. As I’ve written (and will continue to write) since January 1, 2012, there are consequences for this not always being the case.
What does this mean for my scholarship? By extension, what does this mean for this blog? Or what some of you might really be asking: where’s your post on Beyoncé? Good questions all. I’ve thought a lot about Beyoncé as a site for understanding race, gender, and labor. Beyoncé has always been known for fancy footwork. This is really just an extension of how closely she controls her own image. A friend asked why Beyoncé “let” Michelle Williams take the lead on their new single. My catty reply: “Beynevolence. That’s what her fifth album will be called” (I say this as a fan, B’Day 4 life). I keep thinking about the intense coordination of the Destiny’s Child reunion, the Super Bowl half-time show, the GQ cover story, the HBO documentary, and the announcement of her world tour. A lot of interesting discourse came out of this confluence of brand positioning. I thought Leah Carroll’s comparison of Life Is But a Dream and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning was especially interesting in terms of their particular evocations of “realness.” I also thought about Beyoncé advantageously comparing herself to an athlete in her GQ cover story (a connection photographer Terry Richardson extended because his dick has no imagination).
I like Beyoncé. A major part of what I like about her–aside from her voice, songs, performances, and music videos–is her insistence of control. However, some may argue that such a need for control keeps Life Is But a Dream, which she directed, from functioning as a proper documentary. It often shuts down moments where we might learn something about the subject. Beyoncé won’t offer much detail on her relationship with her father and the decisions she made to be her own manager. More to the point, for all of her insistence on female solidarity, professional agency, and sexual fulfillment, Beyoncé does not seem to have much of a relationship with anyone. We barely see her with Jay. We see her with her nephew, but not her sister Solange. We see footage of her singing “Lovefool” with Kelly and Michelle from their Destiny’s Child days, but then they’re clapping for her from a distance at an awards show. We see a few moments where she asserts her authority backstage, but many of those are dropped in with little context and quickly backed away from. These are ruptures that demand questions the documentary can’t or won’t answer.
As I was watching, I kept thinking about bell hooks’ critique of Madonna: Truth or Dare and the ways in which the Material Girl pathologizes her back-up dancers in terms of race and sexuality and elects herself as their white savior (hooks, 1999). No such intervention from Beyoncé. However, as someone who is especially excited about her all-female band, I was sad to see little connection between Beyoncé and the Sugar Mamas. Furthermore, I was flummoxed by the scene where choreographer Frank Gatson orders Beyoncé’s dancers to sew their hats into their hair. A friend noted that one of the women he yells at is Ashley Everett, one of the pop star’s choreographers and dance captains. This scene gave me pause for a few reasons. For one, it’s a rare scene where another woman’s labor is acknowledged. For another, it’s a tense scene between members of the touring company and the interplay of race and gender frames the tension. Furthermore, Beyoncé is not in this scene. This distances herself from the labor that also helps create “Beyoncé.” Yet at the same time, this scene was included in the film by either Beyoncé or her editing team. Thus there is an acknowledgement of the dancers’ labor, yet Beyoncé’s connection to that labor is unclear. Being able to make those connections would help us better understand the star’s labor, as well as the surrounding labor that makes her stardom possible. But speaking to those absences and ruptures is a start.
I’m taking an independent study on gender and labor for my pre-lims and dissertation. I haven’t come up with my pre-lims question, but I’m noticing many themes. Some include: the processes of deskilling through technological changes and historical materialism, the assumption that women’s wages are supplemental for a family income, the identity-based connections between production and consumption, the struggle to articulate worth, the contingent visibility and shaping of race and gender by work environment and industrial definitions, paternalistic labor practices and educational opportunities, unions’ sexist obstructions toward female laborer participation, women entering into identity-based competitions with other women, the expectations of motherhood, and the contingent coalitions female laborers form and continue to form despite various oppositional forces. I’m also noticing that not a lot of media studies scholarship deals directly with gender and labor, though this is changing. I’m putting together a mix CD for the indie study. The act of curating a mix is useful to me, and I might be able to pull out a question by thinking about gender and music as sites of labor. I’m struggling to find songs that don’t treat these subjects as inevitably vulnerable to exploitation and subjugation. I’m looking for music that gets at the nuances of negotiating a love for labor with an insistence not to self-exploit. Here are some songs I’ve chosen so far. I welcome other suggestions.
Some readers have been back in school for at least a week (hi, mom). But in Madison we start after Labor Day. Today also marks my first day TAing a new class and the first day to my last year of coursework. For many people, today represents possibility–new teachers, new classes, new school supplies, new misadventures. There’s a lot riding on it, which is actually why I prefer the second day of school. But I’m ready to get back to it. I chose my outfit, packed my lunch, and went to bed early. I also picked out some “plate” music.
Next week, my graduate program is playing a kickball game to start off the new year. As an attendant of many ASL games, I understand the importance of selecting the right song for coming up to bat. The use of pre-recorded music at sporting events fascinate me wherever I’m watching, particularly when it heightens our collective response to people challenging themselves and others to win. Remember when Aly Raisman scored lower than expected on her balance beam final and the judges scurried to review the routine after the Károlyis challenged them? During their brief deliberation, Katy Perry’s “Firework” blared in the background. That song was on a loop during the Olympics, but in that moment Perry’s song called attention to the “liveness” of the moment. It played in real time as part of the diegesis and thus sounded radically different.
When you participate in a sporting event, music is just as enveloping. It can also give you a window into the player. The sounds and lyrics people use to create or convey a certain attitude during competition says quite a bit about them (even when they pick Eminem). For me, selecting “plate” music for a kickball game was soothing, as the sport is the root of a number of gym-related childhood traumas. But I bump “plate” music wherever I go. Here are some songs that make me feel invincible, especially on days heavy with expectation.
It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
Recently Logan Hill contributed a piece for Vulture on the invigoration of music video production on the Internet following a dry spell for the medium on television. Of course, folks have noted this as YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, and a host of other clip-sharing sites became ubiquitous alongside MTV’s continued programming choices to inundate their audience with reality shows. The network recently took “Music Television” out of its logo. For a moment, it seemed like DVD collections like Palm Pictures’ Directors Label series would step in and make music videos more available to the public, but clearly the Internet has won, even invigorating the careers of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
While I don’t see this move as little more than a shift indicative of how we consume media, I would also like to point out that many of these headline-grabbing Internet sensation music videos are notable for another reason. The scandal and celebrity associated with these big-budget clips center on female pop stars. In the past year, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Shakira, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and M.I.A. have made garnered attention and controversy with clips inundated with sexual and/or violent imagery that might not fly on post-network television but keep the blogoshere typing, Tweeting, and uploading. Alongside those artists, fringe acts like Peaches, Yo! Majesty, and Gossip — all peopled by queer musicians — have garnered some recognition for their work.
On the surface, the presence female pop stars have in reviving the music video format also recalls MTV’s nascence. Many note that the first clip the network aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” followed it, along with a whole host of female pop stars who battled rock acts and hair metal bands for programming supremacy. The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Eurythmics’ lead singer Annie Lennox all catapulted to stardom during the network’s infancy, as art rock acts like Kate Bush also received some stateside recognition.
While the current stable of video stars seem to subvert conventional femininity by playing with camp and excess, I’m actually inclined to read many of these artists as ultimately normative. Many of the video narratives, regardless of costuming or cultural references, tend to rehash contrived narratives about young women getting rowdy in the club and letting her (hetero)sexual inhibitions run wild. I believe Badu’s “Window Seat” and M.I.A.’s “Born Free” challenge these offerings however, by either making female nudity at once mundane and endangered or by dispensing of the female pop star altogether to focus on government-sanctioned ultraviolence. Monáe’s approach might be the most refreshing as she recontextualizes rock and R&B’s cultural origins within a female body covered up in menswear that’s ready to teach you some new dance steps.
In addition, many of these musical artists are working with established male video directors. Gaga revived the career of Jonas Åkerlund, who originally made a name for himself working with Madonna. While it’s easy to read these directors as auteurs, I’m inclined to point out that some of them have established collaborative relationships with these women across several projects. This also recalls how Gondry came into the cultural lexicon. While we may now think of him as the visionary behind White Stripes videos and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, an Icelandic pop star named Björk selected him to direct his first English-language music video after years working in France. The clip was for “Human Behaviour,” which launched both of their careers in the states.
I’d like to bring up in the current emergence of female pop stars on the Internet is that almost all of them are solo artists taking sole focus on big-budget music videos. While I don’t want to suggest that these women are not musicians, or overlook the fact that Beyoncé tours with an all-female backing band, I find it disheartening that we aren’t seeing as many images of women and girls creating video images as collaborators, whether between female artists and directors, as members of a band, or female artists who collaborate with one another. While Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have been known to work together, as have M.I.A. and Santigold, it would be nice to see more music videos with a group of women or girls as the focus.
Likewise, I also find it frustrating that so many of these big productions have to be so moneyed, most notably Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” Perhaps a new group of bands and musical artists in collaboration with one another will also make names for themselves as music videos continue to thrive on the Internet. Who says you need a big budget and an iconic pop star to make a clip for the ages?
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.
So, by now we probably all know that Christina Aguilera’s got a new album coming out this spring. It’s called Bionic, which is as rad a title as any. I consider myself a Christina fan, and have enjoyed watching her develop as a singer. And I thought Back to Basics, while overlong, was a lot of fun. Do we all need to watch the “Candyman” music video she co-directed with Matthew Rolston to jog our memories? Okay.
But while I’ve got Bionic on my radar, the folks she’s collaborated with is what really fills me with anticipation. She’s worked with rad ladies like M.I.A., Santigold, and post-riot grrrl icons Le Tigre. If she could bring in artists like Björk, one of her favorite singers, or Gossip, my head might explode. I’m anticipating some tough, glossy electroclash and I hope I get it. While I’m not sure what the album sounds like and do hold some reservations, I’m excited that Le Tigre have been back at work after their hiatus. Also I do think this collaboration is important.
Sure, indie music’s cross-pollinations with commercial fare in the recent past are well-documented. If this applies to big-name producers like Lukasz Gottwald, it certainly applies to lesser-known talent who might be able to lend a certain caché. Remember when LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy tried to produce a Britney Spears single? Hell, remember the rumor that Kathleen Hanna was going to serve as one of the many producers of Paris Hilton’s inauspicious debut? Yeah, we’ve been doing this for a while.
But how often do independent and mainstream female artists work together? How many superstar pop singers espouse even remotely feminist values that could jibe with Le Tigre’s politics (besides P!nk and maybe Lady Gaga)? How many pop stars even claim “Deceptacon” to be one of their jams? And while Mariah Carey liked Hole’s Live Through This, I like that Aguilera actually went in to the studio with these artists. I’ll reserve judgement on the music until I hear a final product, but I respect the professional motivations of all parties. I also look forward to hearing the results, especially if they’re built for the dance floor.