At some point during the winter holidays, I found myself in an airport terminal checking my Twitter feed. Sarah Jaffe tweeted that she wakes up to Azealia Banks’ “212”. By the end of my first term at Madison, I integrated it into my morning routine. It’s forward-looking pop that’s brimming with attitude. Banks’ filthy mouth rivals her pop star’s ear. No wonder you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with the song’s oft-quoted lyric. I hope Karl Lagerfeld paid for one.
Mainly, “212” made me feel good. It made me feel 50 feet tall on my afternoon jogs. It made me feel invincible as I was wrapping up term papers and posting students’ grades. It made me feel good while drowning out crying babies or trying to wrap my head around Judith Butler’s “Contingent Foundations” on the bus. It still makes me feel like the pedestrian bridge is my runway when I’m heading over to Memorial Library from Vilas.
But I began to wonder why I felt good listening to “212”. Look, I’m not anti-pleasure. Let’s celebrate our bodies. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s play. But as a feminist, I think we have a responsibility to account for how our pleasures are constituted, what they mean, and if they harm or exclude others. So I could easily pull apart the elements that make it a great pop song. Any well-constructed pop song can withstand such deconstruction and usually does without its permission.
There’s Banks’ giddy delivery. She thrilled that she’s getting away with lines like “cock-a-licking in the water by the blue bayou.” There’s the beat, of course, coupled with passages of relentlessly inventive, unfolding, interlocking hooks. And there’s oh so much fun queer sex at play that I don’t even care or notice if I’m being dominated. Actually, I like it! The song’s deceptively simple melody and complex production design reveals itself gradually upon repeated listens. It is rich with “details and decisions that” according to Tom Ewing, “suggest a scary degree of pop talent.” And like any good piece of pop art, it’s projectable. It sounds like a dystopian rave remix to “Miss Mary Mack.” It sounds like a dance party at zero gravity. It sounds like tripping balls, making crank calls, and scissoring on the moon. It transcends all of these empty proclamations.
But as a feminist, I wondered how or if I could justify liking this song, or if that was missing the entire point. I couldn’t figure out how I felt about the song’s trash talk. Which of course made me think about all of the other female MCs I love who could teach graduate seminars on the subject. Trash talk is the foundation of battle rapping. Importantly, it’s something women in hip hop engage in with one another as well as with their male counterparts. Roxanne Shanté took on Sparky Dee and UTFO. It’s also integral to the process of star formation, uttering a self in opposition and from an elevated platform (at least seemingly) of her own making.
Does trash talk fit into feminist practice? This is a follow-up question to another issue I’ve posed on this blog: how does feminism account for feminists who don’t get along with each other? I don’t like to think of any feminist as my enemy, but I knew at least one in my early twenties who is no longer my friend. How does feminism account for that? Sisterhood is about collaboration, but collaboration is hardly utopian. Even people with the same goals will radically disagree and may even make each other angry. I try to be kind to myself and not negatively compare myself against “more successful” colleagues in my small moments. As a feminist, I feel it’s my duty to be supportive or, if I can’t be so noble, at least not petty. But I have as much “Imma ruin you, cunt” in me as I do “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”
But I’m stuck in a dead end. I wrote a term paper about anti-fan discourse around Zooey Deschanel last semester. One of my professor’s critiques was that I seemed unable to engage with my own anti-fandom. Which is true. I actively avoided engaging with it because I didn’t want to confuse my hatred of “Zooey Deschanel” (as sign, as image, as marketing tool) with my relative lack of knowledge about Zooey Deschanel, person. I know some infuriating things about her that suggest I would hate her as a person, but I’m not sure where to make the distinction. And I’m worried that the entire exercise might be misogynistic.
“212” uses the word “bitch” constantly, almost as a preposition. It also treats the n-word like a preposition, which is a different but related issue I don’t know how to address. I’m aware that I contribute to a publication that reclaimed “bitch” for feminist purposes. So long as Bitch continues to publish work by people like s.e. smith, Aymar Jean Christian, Alyssa Rosenberg, J. Victoria Saunders, and Audra Schroeder, I’ll remain proud of that. But I’m deeply ambivalent about such appropriation.
I get the tactical reasons behind it–steal and repurpose words that have been imposed on you. But on the one hand, I do not like and do not abide being called a “bitch,” “slut,” or “hoe” as an ironic term of endearment by girlfriends. I don’t think it’s cute. I think it’s oppressive. I feel the ground shift beneath me each time I hear it on a lunch date or at happy hour, as though the subtext beneath the sweetly delivered pejorative is “Imma ruin you, cunt.” All of the sudden an innocent meet-up is a game of chess and I lost my queen. Yet on the other hand, I can’t count how many times I’ve used those words on myself. 30 Rock fans, remember that cutaway gag where a dolled-up Liz Lemon looks in the mirror, yells at herself for sweating, and calls herself a bitch? I only laughed because I recognized an ugly side of myself in the joke.
I may (and do) mouth the words “Imma ruin you cunt” on the way to class and in the middle of the run. But the bridge to “212” is what gets me. It’s the only sung moment, and appropriately, the only truly vulnerable moment. Banks questions her own bravado, laziness, and expendibility. It’s a heavy moment, and one she cannot dwell on because the beat carries her away. As it should. These moments of self-doubt are necessary, transformative, and recurrent, but we can’t be paralyzed by them.
In some ways, “212” is a mirror image of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” There’s a major difference between the two songs, of course. “212” doesn’t end with a gong or indulge in Orientalist notions of Japanese women’s sense of style. Imagine my horror when I was rocking out to it for the fifth time and realized she wasn’t singing “Your hair is sure cute, girl. Damn, you’ve got some wicked style.” Stefani’s desire to “go back and do Japan, give me lots of brand new fans” should’ve been a clue. Or the video. That’s how pop gets you.
“What You Waiting For?” is about Stefani’s fear that she’s an imposter and can’t create new music as a solo artist after years of fronting No Doubt. It’s in the verses that she calls herself a stupid hoe. The bridge is where she imagines herself past the self-loathing and back on stage. Where the comparison doesn’t work is that Banks isn’t colonizing Asian women for personal gain (on that tack, I await her M.I.A. collaboration). But where the comparison does have some salience is in how Banks spends most of the song bragging, talking shit, acquiring sexual favors, and dominating people except in one instance where she’s not sure if she’s worth it. Banks and Stefani have to confirm for themselves that they matter so they can keep on dancing. So do we. Sometimes we need a pop song to help us move forward, even if the reasons why we dance are never innocent.