Several months ago, I received a text from a friend. Like much of my correspondence with her, I turned over this statement like a message in a bottle that washed up at my feet.
“the only time I really understand jouissance is when I listen to pop.”
I liked this text for a few reasons. One, it came out of nowhere; I love when some idea or statement seizes a friend with such urgency that she or he has to share it. Two, she taps into what bugs people about this fizzy French word, which is its untranslatability. The word is a derivative of the French verb “jouir,” which roughly means “to enjoy,” and can be broadly applied. Following intellectual contributions from folks like French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, poststructuralists have argued that jouissance is such an intense feeling of joy that it forces the subject to split apart and dissolve with pleasure. This definition makes me think of the phrase “explode into colors,” which a once-promising Portland outfit claimed as a descriptor for its textured, makeshift sound. Three, she connects the word to pop music, which is where I have most frequently been in the presence of such joy. Finally, my attachments to women’s voices as a music fan make me think of Hélène Cixous’ claim that jouissance is a distinctly female experience.
Pop music is about as hard for me to define as jouissance. I’m guided here “purely” by my response to certain instances where female vocalists’ contributions gave me pleasure and what that pleasure might “mean.” For my purposes, I’ll draw upon a few examples of joyful moments in popular music, which will encompass rock, alternative, and R&B in this post. In different instances, it can also include commercial permutations of country, hip-hop, metal, and other musical genres.
In the season six episode, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mad Men featured Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as its end credit music. At its most basic level, the selection demonstrates how countercultural forms like psychedelic music, hippie fashion, and (the promise of) sexual revolution seeped into mainstream consciousness during the late 60s. Implicitly, it may also be gesturing toward advertising’s eventual reliance on music licensing over jingles and original compositions, a shift Timothy D. Taylor attributes to the industrial fervor over Boomer-era nostalgia, blockbuster soundtracks, and MTV. What struck me most about the song’s placement was to whom it was referring. “Two Cities” is primarily a place-setting episode designed to cap off a season with moments of profound darkness that were frequently diluted by scattershot storytelling (Pete particularly), underserved characters (Dawn especially), and an origin story for its protagonist’s bruised psychology that frequently relied upon caricature (Don, obviously).
In the context of the episode, “Piece” comments on Joan’s attempt at professional advancement and her tentative alliance with Peggy. Much of Joan’s storyline focuses on the aftermath of her fifth season arc, which culminated in a partnership at the agency that she acquired through prostitution and resulted in further subjugation because of her gender and management’s devaluing of administrative labor. Joan relies on subterfuge to acquire Avon as a client. With some considerable hesitation, Peggy becomes her ally and hopefully seeds a spin-off where the pair launch an agency and hire on Dr. Faye Miller to conduct their research.
I love that the cue suggests a relationship between Joan’s plight as a professional and Janis’ confrontational pleas of self-sacrifice. First, I would have thought that Janis’ scrappiness and unconventional beauty would more clearly resonate with Peggy (though really, she’s Carole King right down to the Brill Building pedigree). Second, Janis insists that she can prove that a woman’s femaleness is steel-girded. I can think of few figures who can withstand the harrowing cultural damage of women’s objectification better than Joan Holloway. Unfortunately, it’s conditioned her to ignore possible alliances, especially with other women. Joan uses fashion and professionalism as armor. In doing so, she projects to the world that she is confident and essential to the process. But because of the nature of her work and the terms of her partnership, only Peggy sees Joan’s strength. As a result, Joan has never been given entrée into the world of client lunches and social club networking because men like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell view her as a sex object and not as an equal.
The unstudied recklessness of Joan’s professional daring in “Two Cities” mirrors the strain Joplin puts on her voice. Rock critic Ellen Willis argues that, as an interpreter of other people’s songs, Joplin “did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them” going on to add that the singer’s pursuit of pleasure was driven by “a refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder—and the magic of extremes” (2011, 128-129). This provides resistance to Joplin’s voice, that crack when she commands “C’mon, come on, Come! On!, COME ON and TAKE IT” thrilling in its defiance and its cathartic release. If this is jouissance—and it sounds like it to me—the pleasure I get from her voice and that she seems to have gotten from singing as an articulation act comes from having to wrestle against such restraint.
In their necessary theoretical work on happiness and the technological and cultural histories of the orgasm, Sara Ahmed and Annamarie Jagose draw upon work from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Michel Foucault to remind us that pleasure is intensified by pain and objectionable behavior. In thinking about how this influences jouissance, I recall Björk’s “Hyperballad.” It’s hard to pick one song that effectively demonstrates the concept in her repertoire. The woman recorded “Violently Happy,” which may be a synonym for jouissance. But I’ve always been struck by how such an anthemic dance track can be built from such private, contradictory emotional impulses. The song details a morning ritual. A lover wakes up each morning and walks right up to a mountain cliff, taking in the scenery and imagining herself in free fall before she returns to life with her partner, who’s still asleep at home. She wonders what it would be like to surrender to the rocks underneath her, and whether she would greet death with open or closed eyes. The video poignantly demonstrates jouissance through division by representing three versions of the singer—as mountain range, as video game avatar, as playback image—as layers that comprise the (fractured) whole. And I have often felt the full weight of this song on the dance floor, feeling my eyes well up with tears as she screams “to be safe up here with you” as I surrender to rhythm and confession’s relentless build-up to pleasure’s edge.
My favorite moment in Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” is near the end when she breaks into a fit of laughter that compromises her singing quality. Her declaration that this love “feels so good” sounds as if her voice is trying to break free from poor breath control and strained vocal chords. As a result of her glee, she doesn’t give herself enough support to open up her throat and hit the note. Though I recognize its manufacture, this moment of the song sounds “genuine,” as though Jackson is so consumed by her own human joy that she must declare it, even if (and possibly because) this pleasure has left her breathless. But while I dance against the grain of Janis, Björk, and Janet’s voices, I don’t think jouissance is just about the resistances built into pleasure. Roland Barthes popularized the grain of the voice as a concept that could address the erotic materiality of the voice. But while grain is often audible in a singer’s vocal roughness, we cannot give undue emphasis to wailing, screeching, and moaning at the expense of articulations of pleasure with smoother textures. To understand Jackson’s vocal contributions to pop music, we have to understand instances where jouissance is not a site of friction but a moment where we gather together peaceably in its transformative release.
I love Jackson for many reasons. Foremost, I credit her for having as much to do with shaping my feminist politics by modeling a female sexuality defined by the erotics of consent, intimacy, and self-respect. In popular estimation, Madonna is credited with this shift in pop music’s sexual politics, but Jackson did as much in her work and also brought collectivism and black consciousness into her chosen idiom. But I also responded to the ease in her voice. Janet has a shy, small voice, and one that frequently radiates happiness. I often hear a smile when she sings, even in her more confessional or confrontational moments. Perhaps part of this happiness comes from her ability to connect singing and dancing as a circuit of performance rather than distinct professional activities. In her voice, and its signification of happiness, I hear something akin to what Ahmed identifies in the carefree protagonist of Mike Leigh’s film, Happy-Go-Lucky, that “freedom from care is also a freedom to care, to respond to the world, to what comes up, without defending oneself or one’s happiness against what comes up” (222).
I’ll close by offering some ways to challenge or add nuance to my consideration for how jouissance functions in pop music. First, I’d like to consider how pop music signifies jouissance in ways that do not privilege or overemphasize the erotic and take up other forms of pleasure. Second, I’d like to acknowledge that jouissance is not just registered in the voice but in its interplay. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Kelis perform “Breakfast” at NPR’s SXSW showcase last month and felt the full intensity of her joy as she sang and strutted amid her multi-part ensemble. Pleasure resides in the voice’s interaction with instrumentation, composition, and production aesthetics. It’s not just about the singer, but the singer’s voice as one interactive element in a larger compositional or performative space. Finally, jouissance is about listening as an embodied practice, which is how we are able to respond to pop music by singing along, dancing in and out of time, and wiping away tears, perhaps all at once.
Pop music can be part of a circuit for joy. Therefore, jouissance is about the promise of bodily and spiritual connection, however briefly. Ahmed identifies happiness as a series of moments that create texture and shared impressions, instances where we are “brought to life by the absurdity of being reminded of something, where a sideways glance can be enough to create a feeling that ripples through you” (219). Ultimately, Ahmed argues that these moments are ephemeral and are given undue burden as an ideal in a culture that occludes the transformative possibilities that “negative” feelings can allow us. To be happy is not an ideal but part of a spectrum of human existence. It’s fleeting and it’s a feeling we tend to recall (and distort) from memory. Pop music can transform a moment or take us back to it and let us bask in its afterglow or feel pleasure in its friction. It may deliver happiness in brief increments and through ephemeral means, but it can transform our relationship to the world. It’s a point in time that we can always discover or return to, often with as much ease as a needle finds its groove or a song finds its algorithm.