In a recent interview with Jessica Hopper, Claire Boucher (alias Grimes) revealed that the song “Oblivion” addressed the constant sense of dread women deal with as they embark on a “masculine world associated with sexual assault.” Boucher was writing from her own experiences as a survivor. This was highlighted in Mark Richardson’s write-up on Pitchfork’s 2012 Top 100 Tracks list, on which “Oblivion” was named song of the year. On Slate’s Music Club 2012, Lindsay Zoladz put “Oblivion” in conversation with Angel Haze’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a harrowing song about the rapper’s personal history with child abuse.
Much like Zoladz, upon reading Boucher’s response, I heard “Oblivion” with new ears. Or rather, it confirmed my suspicions. Stripped of its robotic sheen, Boucher reminds me of Roy Orbison, an alien with an arrow in his heart, particularly with lyrics like “when you’re running by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” and Boucher’s phrasing on the line “I will wait forever.” But I could never take these words at face value. The menacing, queer-masculine Casio chorus that overwhelms the song’s second half wouldn’t let me. Nor would the lyrics that bookend the song. Boucher begins with the admission “I never walk about/after dark/It’s my point of view/that someone could break your neck/Coming up behind you always coming and you’d never have a clue” and concludes with the foreboding promise to “see you on a dark night.” Nor would the video, with Boucher in a football stadium and a locker room amid a gaggle of sweaty, undressed young men. When I read Boucher’s interview and processed her intimation, I didn’t say “aha.” I nodded silently to myself. “That makes sense,” I thought. “I knew it.”
Misogynists might hear an erotic thrill in “Oblivion” and surmise that women like being caught. What’s powerful about this song–indeed, why I kept returning to it–is the unsettling juxtaposition of romantic longing and looming endangerment. But the presence of both elements doesn’t mean Grimes is compromising her need for consent. Rather, she’s expressing the constant negotiation and reconciliation women and girls have to do as sexual beings who are treated as objects and marked as easy targets by people who wish to do them harm simply for existing. “Oblivion” is about what it means to desire–often an ongoing internal debate–while keeping your guard up because of what your gender or sexuality represents to others–often a forced external battle. In Molly Lambert’s excellent review of Mad Men‘s “Mystery Date,” which uses the Speck murders as a thematic linchpin, she questions one character’s rape-fantasy pitch by suggesting that the woman in this scenario “wonders exactly what terrible, violent, and life-altering things would happen if she stopped looking out.”
Lambert identifies with Sally Draper, linking the character’s fear with her own recollections of the Polly Klaas abduction. Though she doesn’t address this in the piece directly, Lambert has probably felt the evil of assault in her adult life. I know I have. And I need to be careful with my language, because these aren’t my stories. I also need to be careful that my words don’t reinforce the myth of strangers lurking in the shadows, because statistically people are more likely to be hurt by friends and acquaintances. But I’ve had friends who were harassed on the street. I have friends who don’t feel safe on their own university campuses. A roommate cryptically implied an attack over a solemn brunch at Denny’s after a night out turned into a nightmare.
Of course, I have my own stories. I’m a survivor too. And as an adult, I’ve had multiple experiences of men barking at me (often from the safe distance of the passenger seat) while I walked to the grocery store, went out for a jog, or headed to a show. I remember yelling “don’t touch my fucking hair” at a stranger while I was outside of a bar with some friends in New Orleans. I remember being proud that I had the instinct to articulate my rage. Likewise, I remember being grateful that I had people around me while I did it. I also remember being furious that my guy friends who were chatting inside about Eastbound and Down had the luxury of walking to their hotel after 2 a.m. with minimal threat of harassment. What I remember in all those incidents–especially as I get older, the stories pile up, and I clutch my coat tighter–is that I was lucky.
In fall 2006, two family members were assaulted. The effects of this trauma were catastrophic and far-reaching. During the early stages of the aftermath, my partner’s mother gave me Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I didn’t read it. At 23, I thought I was immune to pop psychology. As I get older, I keep thinking about the relationship between fear and bravery. I used to think bravery meant fearlessness. Last year was the first time I lost a friend in an assault. Esme’s murder was the defining moment of 2012 for me, and most likely one of the most significant events in my adult life. It’s hard to articulate the influence of Esme’s passing. I struggled with coming up with ways to express my grief. There weren’t words for it. I couldn’t write about it. Any attempt to turn it into something else felt shallow and opportunistic. As a feminist, I know that intersectionality is both an essential yet volatile framework. Esme’s murder brings up unresolved issues with gender, race, and mental health. I didn’t know what to do with people calling the African American male suspects “monsters.” I didn’t know what to do with the identified assailant killing himself. I didn’t know what to do with knowing that my friend would most likely be alive if she weren’t a small, attractive young woman. I didn’t know what to do with believing that Esme was brave for walking home from a show in her neighborhood instead of entitled to such freedom. But Esme was brave in so many ways, perhaps especially in her kindness.
Last fall, I read Circuits of Visibility, an anthology edited by Radha S. Hegde about gender’s relationship to transnational media flows. Hegde contributes a piece about Indian Hewlett-Packard call center employee Pratibha Srikantamurthy, who was raped and murdered by a cab driver on her way to work in Bangalore. As I read this piece, I understood why a feminist academic like Hegde felt it necessary to write about it (and why it’s still relevant). I feel the feminist impulses of lending visibility and articulating rage in my bones. But I felt like any effort to use my work as a platform or outlet for my confusion, anger, and sadness over Esme would be self-serving and almost as hollow as the UT’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ awful co-opting of Charlie Chauvin’s Esme logo. It wouldn’t bring her back. The act of writing a proper conclusion was especially vexing. I didn’t want to paper over the reality of her death by focusing on her bright, young life, nor did I want to dwell on the brutal facts of her murder. Furthermore, the case was open at the time. But drafting a conclusion felt like lying. Even if the Austin Police Department closed the case–which they did in late December–it couldn’t make some of my friends feel safe to walk alone at night. It never could. The damage was done. Words were useless.
That last sentence is only a half-truth. As a writer, I recognize that the right words, persistently shaped by thoughtful research and personal insight, have tremendous healing properties. Summer Anne Burton’s “The Year Without Esme” found the words I could not and, importantly, shifted the grief outward to focus on how other people mourn and remember this miracle of a person.
Last year, I had trouble finding an outlet to express my feelings and turn them into something else. I fell out of the habit of writing. Well, this isn’t exactly true. I wrote. I completed revisions on an anthology chapter. I contributed reviews for Bitch Magazine and The Moving Image. I wrote four posts for Antenna and a post for In Media Res. Last week, I submitted an article for review. Next month, I’m due to submit another one. And then there’s all of the writing I didn’t share–term papers, weekly responses, notes, presentations, student feedback, marginalia. I channeled my creative energies elsewhere. But I questioned the validity and utility of my words in ways that I hadn’t before. In the past, I always savored conjuring sentences from my laptop like a sorceress manipulates the sky. But now, it feels like a luxury. Now I recognize the immanent critique’s connection not only to self-indulgence but to writer’s block.
Hopefully, such questioning leads to personal growth. Last year, other people’s words resonated where mine could not. I was struck by Angel Haze’s bracing candor, Fiona Apple’s poetic violence, THEESatisfaction’s off-hand introspection, Lower Dens’ muttering, Marisa Paternoster’s bellowing, Nicki Minaj’s blatant disregard, Santigold’s pop genius, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s incantations, Cat Power’s maturation, Grimes’ relentless shapeshifting, Icona Pop’s maniacal glee, Signif’s real talk, Yoko Ono’s couples therapy, Crystal Castles’ icy protest songs, Purity Ring’s heartfelt odes to abjection, and Julia Holter’s celestial hymns. I was particularly taken with the music and words that forced me not to look away, even when it scared me.
What I learned last year is that fear and bravery are usually connected. Fear is the manifestation of uncertainty over unknown entities or prospects. Bravery is the resolve not to be thwarted or to harm out of fear. It doesn’t mean we lose the fear. It just means we don’t let the fear consume us. It’s a difficult commitment and it never resolves itself. As Ann Friedman points out, we can’t guarantee social progress with premature proclamations that we’re moving forward. But let’s try to be brave this year. And let’s be good to each other so that we don’t have to be afraid.
Earlier this week, I launched my personal Web site through UW-Madison’s Comm Arts Department. I built the site as an assignment for my Digital Production class. I intended to use the assignment as a means to update my blog and integrate it into a larger, ongoing project of media-making that I believe is foundational to my scholarly interests in gender, labor, and music culture as a feminist media scholar.
I’ll start by saying a bit about the initial process of building a blog. At first, it was infuriating. It was especially frustrating because my ambition exceeded my reach. I drew out a detailed, multi-page layout. I have a very clear vision for how I want my site to look and what I want it to do. Ultimately, I want my Web site to have curated collections for previous and ongoing research. I also want it to have the capacity to stream my mixes and deejay setlists. But I needed to know how to create a style sheet first.
As a class, we used Dreamweaver to build our sites. This is software in which I once claimed proficiency based on watching friends use it to build their Web sites, but I never really played with it before. My experience as a blogger and freelancer allowed me to treat the Internet like a Word document, because someone else built the frame onto which my words, images, clips, and links appeared. We also read Jon Duckett’s HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites as a reference guide. Because of the accelerated nature of most graduate courses at R1 institutions, this involved reading 50 to 100 pages of the book at a time and (hopefully) absorbing the material as you went. Like many people essentially acquiring foreign language skills, I’m learning through error. I learned how to do something by spending hours figuring out what I did wrong, combing the book and other online resources, texting friends for advice, and toggling between HTML and CSS and doing minor tweaking that would either change nothing on the page or radically change the layout and design elements, depending on my commands.
When you’re also balancing the expectations of coursework, a TA assignment, and other administrative duties, it’s easy to freak out. I freaked out at least once. After a particularly unproductive day in the lab that culminated in me putting a picture on top of the header, I felt myself reverting to that day in freshmen geometry when everyone seemed to get proofs but me. I wanted to cry. Unfortunately, I share an office with five other teaching assistants and had an hour before facilitating four consecutive discussion sections. So I took several deep breaths, let a friend hug me, tabled it, and taught undergraduates about the political underpinnings of television’s transnational practices of importation, formatting, and co-production. Then I had dinner with a friend. Then I talked to a couple of people in my class who were having trouble or experiencing anxiety about the project. Then I went back to my layout design and attempted to break up the assignment into small, discrete chunks. First I’d create the “About” page. This involved building a header in Photoshop. I took a picture of myself reaching for a copy of The Gossip’s Arkansas Heat (originally used as the header for this blog), cropped and resized the image, added a layer of text with my name, positioned it in a place where it would be clearly visible, and saved it for the Web. Once I had the layout the way I wanted it, I could easily transfer it to the CV page, the Research page, and the Playlists page. Then, I poked around WordPress and found a layout that more or less matched my Web site’s layout and design (960 grid! Helvetica!). I originally conceived of redesigning the blog to match the site layout, but this was an easier solution. As I worked, I developed a better understanding of HTML, CSS, and Photoshop. I started to love working on my site. I started to realize that, like my blog, this space would undergo an unending process of construction. I built myself a home. Two days after I turned in the assignment, I built the site’s splash page.
This assignment made me remember why I’m taking this Digital Production class, which I forgot during the constant negotiation of coursework expectations, lesson plans, grading, and deadlines for future projects. I’m invested in university production programs doing right by their female undergraduates. I want more women to be media literate and I want more women to be media-makers. I don’t presume an additive approach will “fix” the television and film industries. More women working in television and film won’t inherently make those industries commit to more progressive hiring and retention practices. It won’t end sexism, racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, sizeism, ableism, and ageism. But education is never a loss. Educating women should always be a priority. And educating men and women to work together in an equitable manner will enact positive social change. As someone who teaches a studies course about post-network era television to undergraduates who want to work in the television or film industry, I want them to acquire the vocabulary and critical thinking skills in order to interrogate the processes by which television is created, distributed, and consumed. As a feminist media scholar who studies women’s below-the-line intermediary labor in the music, television, and film industries, I’m invested in helping close the gender gap. I’m invested in eventually teaching production classes so I can help create a space where students acquire skills that allow them to rethink what’s possible and to destabilize potential assumptions of who gets to enact that work. And as an instructor, I’m committed to the ongoing process of learning through teaching students how to think and work together.
Just as I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t control how my words are interpreted by others, I’ve embraced that this Web site is a public work in progress. I designed it on a Mac. It currently looks weird in Internet Explorer, though it appears to be compatible with Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. It looks okay on my phone. I still have a lot of work to do. I need to add anchors to my CV in HTML. I need to include a contact page. I need to add credits for Girls Rock Camp Rhode Island and Scratched Vinyl editor Chi Chi Thalken for their images that I used in the Home and About pages. While I wanted it to be clean and uncluttered, it might be a bit too minimalist. I might be oppressing you with Helvetica. Finally, how do I maintain a Web site without giving in to the governing logics of branding that I believe to be antithetical to the larger political project of cultural studies?
For my final project, I’m working on further developing the Research and Playlist pages. Currently, my Research page consists of three images that link to my PowerPoint presentations of a Girls Rock Camp workshop, a guest lecture, and a conference presentation. Pretty lo-fi. Taking a cue from Miriam Posner, what I’d ultimately like to do is curate an interactive collection for each workshop, lecture, and presentation that incorporates text, images, AV material, and secondary research. I won’t be able to do this for every conference presentation and guest lecture I’ve done by the end of the semester. So I’ll start by curating a collection on the Girls Rock Camp curriculum I designed with my friend Kristen. I’ll bring in the images and videos we collected for our workshop and integrate songs from the supplemental mix CD we made for our workshop into this collection.
I want all of my deejay setlists to be available through SoundCloud, so I will make one playlist streamable. I want to stream my setlists through my site for a few reasons. One, I want listeners to have access to my research. I use the word “research” purposefully, because I discovered that Cathy Dennis’ “Touch Me” references Wish & Fonda Rae’s “Touch Me (All Night Long)” through doing the same kind of digging that I have done through scholarly and trade publications to write a term paper. I think of my Queens deejay sets as aural histories of women’s contributions to soul, hip-hop, and R&B. But as a feminist, I’m conscious of who my deejay nights exclude. There are geographical barriers. My sets certainly aren’t available to people who live outside of Madison. My sets may also be inaccessible to people who live with physical disabilities or social anxieties. Going to the Alchemy requires transportation. It also requires feeling comfortable in loud public spaces. It may also presume that you’re a social drinker, which prohibits potential listeners who are sober or in recovery. It may also be unfeasible to attend if you can’t frequent local establishments due to a limited budget or particular familial responsibilities. Finally, I’m especially aware of how holding a deejay night on a Friday or Saturday evening might prohibit people who don’t feel safe going out alone or in small groups late at night. Let me be clear: I want people to see me spin in person. But I also want to give listeners options, because being complicit with exclusivity means perpetuating inequality.
In addition to building a database, converting vinyl to a digital format, and creating streamable mixes, I want my Playlist page to enact another function. Around Halloween, I had a conversation with a friend about how to celebrate while using it as a platform for creating awareness and challenging social practice. My friend was especially upset about a local ad that showed a woman being dragged inside a haunted house. It was hard for her to separate the image from a recent news story about a woman who was murdered in her own home. It was hard for either of us not to think of how we lost Esme and how her murder continues to influence how we carry ourselves at night. Thinking about this in relation to my upcoming deejay gig, I thought about how it might be nice to link a seemingly fun event to larger social issues. So I’m planning on picking one song from a setlist and relating it to one regional non-profit that is seeking to end violence against women and children. For example, how might we put Millie Jackson‘s “It’s All Over But the Shouting” in conversation with the Settlement Home for Children in Austin?
These are big ideas that I’m trying to take on a little bit at a time in the ongoing development of my site. I welcome any and all ideas people may have regarding both design and content. Let the great (ongoing) experiment begin.
One of my favorite reality TV characters is Jay McCarroll, who won the first season of Project Runway. He seemed like the kind of person you’d want to meet for brunch or a late-night movie after a shitty day at the office. A friend, in other words. He was also the kind of person who declined $100,000 and a mentorship with Banana Republic so he wouldn’t be tethered to another person’s vision and a company’s bottom line. Mainly, I loved how he used headphones as an accessory to tie his collection together.
What do headphones mean? There’s a class status associated with them. One of my professors observed that when he commuted to Fordham, he saw more white ear buds the closer he got to work and a greater variety of clunky, outdated sets the further public transportation took him away from campus. I plug a pair of Sony MDR-V150s into my smart phone when I go for a run, take the bus, or work from home. I don’t get any sound from the right side. Tech-conscious consumers might gather that I’m a late adopter and a frugal consumer regardless of my grad student income. They may also think I don’t care about sound quality, which is sometimes true. Often I’ll take the comfort of music over sonic fidelity. I do share a Bose set with my partner for deejaying, as optimal sound quality is necessary.
What do headphones say about how we interact with the world and one another? It wouldn’t be off-base to say that I use them so I don’t have to listen to you. When I’m on the bus, I don’t want to hear or get roped into errant conversations. When I’m out for a run, I am very conscious about having my femininity objectified. I also think running is boring without music. When I’m coming off the bus to teach or attend class, I pick songs to center myself and boost my confidence.
There’s an embedded privilege to using technology to opt out of daily social interactions. What does it mean if I don’t want to talk to strangers on the bus? What would it mean if I didn’t have a set of headphones to remove me from my immediate surroundings? What does it mean that I would never wear headphones while walking alone at night?
One time last spring, I forgot to pack my headphones and a chatty older woman asked me a bunch of questions about what I was reading. It was Derrida’s essay on différance, so I couldn’t answer her conclusively. But for some reason I got really angry that she was talking to me. Some of this had to do with the 7 a.m. commute. A lot of it had to do with feeling like she was invading my space. So I curtly said that I didn’t know. Then I felt terrible, because she was just trying to make conversation. But she found someone else to talk to, so I continued mouthing Derrida’s words silently to myself. Another time I was heading home from a long day at school. Two women were talking about a mutual friend applying to grad school. They were dead against her decision, because what gainfully employed individual would go into the humanities in this economy? I took this question personally because it’s what I ask myself every day (grad school is an act of faith). So I scowled at them, changed seats, and listened to Can’s “Moonshake” because it was roughly the length of the ride before my stop and, as Jonathan Sterne points out with the help of several scholars in The Audible Past, “[r]elations of space become relations of time.”
What you may gather from these anecdotes is that I’m not great with people and I use music to distance myself from them. In part, that’s true. But first of all, who’s good with people on the bus? This is a loaded question. I’ve shared the bus with people with mental problems or drink to excess to dull some kind of pain. Many people take the bus because they can’t afford not to if they don’t have a car. They may travel great distances to work, school, and home (if they have one). Someone is driving that bus. This blurs the boundaries between passengers’ personal space and drivers’ work space. That’s why I always thank them for dropping me off, except for that one racist driver who yelled at a group of teenagers seated in the back for playing some hip hop at moderate volume.
But as a cultural studies scholar, why would I cut myself off from forced interactions between strangers on public transit? Sometimes I don’t. When a little girl sits next to you, names the women on the cover of the book you’re reading, and introduces you to her alter ego, you leave the headphones in your bag. Sometimes I use the bus to work through shit. I’ve cried on the bus twice this year, thus bringing strangers into my reality. Like Robin Scherbatsky, I wasn’t ashamed. I was overwhelmed and allowed myself some release. As a feminist, I believe crying in public defies societal expectations that women are supposed to suppress their feelings. But who gets to cry on the bus? And even if I pat myself on the back for being subversive, I leave my sunglasses on and dial down the volume. I see these people on a regular basis.
In a larger sense, headphones keep me connected to the world just as they appear to remove me from it. I study music culture, which means I’m constantly listening to music. What am I listening for? Often people take on research in familiar areas and see and hear things they expect to find. In my field, fandom often informs our research. But even as I accumulate knowledge, I put on headphones to hear sounds I’m not familiar with. A curiosity with the unknown is what drove me to host a college radio show, to start a blog, and to book a deejay gig at a local restaurant.
This means living with anxiety. I’m not sure why I booked a set at Alchemy. I needed grocery money. My partner spins regularly at Natt Spil, which engendered a sense of competition just as much as it comforted me to know that you can play records in front of people and not die from it. But I have this drive to do things and put myself in situations that I don’t quite understand. As much as I can tell, it’s about entering into a cultural tradition with people like Tara Rodgers and the women she interviewed for Pink Noises who wanted to prove they were fluent enough with technology and their own record collections to pull it off.
Proving myself wasn’t the only part of my decision, though. As I get older, more confident, and kinder to myself, I identify feminism with self-actualization and possibility more so than with marginalization. For me, it’s about holding on to that feeling while channeling my anger at oppressions within and outside of feminism toward productive, transformative work and living a life I respect. So I think about music in terms of sharing. I do this in part because I’m finishing Lawrence Lessig’s Remix and just finished Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age and they talk quite a bit about sharing economies. I also do this in part because so often music, as with many taste cultures, encourages insiderism and amassing cultural capital that, if you’re a real dick, you withhold to lord over people.
I recently made a mix CD for a seminar discussion I facilitated on Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Place and Time because I didn’t assume all of my classmates spent their twenties listening to the Butchies and Le Tigre. Having been isolated from film scholarship on movies I haven’t seen (and worse, scholarship that used pyschoanalysis to explain those films), I thought band names don’t mean anything if you read over them without an aural reference point. I had knowledge that I wanted to share. I renewed that knowledge as I made the mix, adding songs by contemporary queer artists whose work enriches or challenges Halberstam’s interpretation of queer subcultural practice.
I did something similar in prepping my deejay gig. I reread Jessica Hopper’s Rookie post on deejaying. I pulled every album I thought I’d need, combed through my favorite music podcasts (see blogroll) for suggestions, and downloaded a bunch of songs. I was putting together a mix of soul, R&B, and hip hop tracks from female artists, which was informative. You could build an entire set around obscure funk and post-disco tracks that were repurposed as recognizable samples. You could do an entirely different set devoted to songs originally recorded by black women that were later popularized by white women.
One thing became clear to me as I was putting my set together: I was hearing a lot of black women’s voices. I wasn’t sure what it meant, though s.e. smith’s “Writing the Other” floated through my mind. I wanted to honor these women, their voices, their subjectivities, and use my three-and-a-half hour set to develop a discursive musical history you could dance, drink, chat, and hook up to.
By my high standards, I’d give myself a B-. I need to work on transitions. Raymond Williams’ concept of flow is foundational to my discipline. Though he was talking about how television programs bleed into advertising and one another, I thought about the intellectual labor involved in being able to make connections between songs based on shared compositional and thematic elements and turning that into a coherent listening experience for other people. It involves anticipating the audience’s needs and using equipment as a barrier from them.
I kept thinking about the limitations of genre. I only think genres are useful when blown up, as Kathryn Bigelow did with her “wet western” Point Break and as Joe Cornish did with his allegorical urban sci-fi action comedy Attack the Block. Music is no exception. As a music listener, what I enjoy most about Girls Rock Camp is hearing songs that don’t quite work–a vocalist channeling Adele opposite a bassist trying not to channel Kim Gordon, a punky chorus about RSVPing to a party, a haunting vocal solo in an otherwise cheerful song about summer vacation, two keyboardists and one guitarist in the same band. So as much as I love playing Betty Davis, I kept wondering what “Bar Hoppin'” would sound like paired with the Meat Purveyors’ “Thinking About Drinking” instead of El Riot’s “Do It Right.” I want to hear all women at once. I also want to better field requests, which means letting go of the music so I can play reggae for one patron and Azealia Banks’ “212” for a group of friends and get personal satisfaction out of it too.
For me, headphones create a conduit between unfamiliar texts and interpersonal relations. I was wearing headphones when Frank Ocean came out. I used my headphones to take in Planningtorock’s amazing “Patriarchy Over and Out,” which a college friend recommended to me via gchat (incidentally, his artwork considers how people engage with Internet culture). I used my headphones when crafting this post. I’ll use my headphones when I’m on the bus, though I’ll always use the set that doesn’t register sound in one ear in case someone wants to strike up an interesting conversation. I use my headphones to at once retreat from the world and understand my place within it.
I don’t usually write about politics. If I do, it’s folded into a post about something else. Make no mistake. As a feminist, political consciousness and activism are very important to me. I just don’t think writing on policy and legislation is something I do well. I tend to forget representatives’ names and feel I lack the rhetorical nuance to report on issues the way I write about, say, Odd Future’s problematic cultural ascendancy. I provide commentary. I follow and contend in-depth analysis from folks like LaToya Peterson, s.e. smith, Everett Maroon, Amanda Marcotte, Melissa McEwan, Katherine Haenschen, and Rachel Maddow, and check in with Slate, Salon, NPR, the Guardian, Racialicious, Tiger Beatdown, and ColorLines like a good liberal. I also have friends who commit their lives to politics. I try to absorb as much of what they have to say as possible while parsing out what party ideology jibes with my own beliefs.
Where possible, I do like to take political action. I believe my work with Girls Rock Camp Austin is political in nature. If I lived in Wisconsin, I’d be picketing with the students and police officers. Matter of fact, there’s a distinct chance I’ll be marching with them soon enough if Scott Walker continues to sell out his constituents. Once I know where I’ll be next fall, I’d like to get back to volunteering. I don’t make a lot of money at my job, but I donate some of my earnings to organizations like OutYouth. I recently attended Austin’s Walk for Choice and proudly hoisted a sign I got from the March for Women’s Lives, which I participated in during college. I believe civic action is important. That is why I’m bowling with Lilith Fund in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. It’s also why I’m taking time out to ask that you sponsor my team.
I don’t ask for money very often. I took a telemarketer job for six months in college and it was pretty degrading. I’ve never set up a PayPal or a Kickstarter account for this blog. Instead, I rely on downloading, review copies, and promo CDs to keep overhead low. As I’d love to revamp this blog and start recording podcasts for it, I may solicit at a later date. I also don’t want to perpetuate the idea that feminists of my generation come down from the mountain only when our reproductive rights are in jeopardy. There are a lot of issues that affect women and girls that we should be fighting for. Prison and education reform, equal pay, trans rights, eradicating human trafficking and child abuse, comprehensive sex education, dismantling rape culture and institutional racism, same-sex adoption and partner benefits, universal health care, and closing the technology gap most immediately come to mind.
But preserving reproductive choice is also of integral importance to me. I have always believed that giving women and girls the right to choose to enter into motherhood rather than foist it upon them improves the quality of life for all involved parties. I believe allowing abortion as an option following conception from traumatic experiences like rape and incest is a necessity we have to protect. I believe providing women and girls with autonomy by providing them education about sexual health and contraception will make the world a better place.
However, I’m not just bowling so that more girls and women have access to abortion. Anti-choice folks tend to think all we’re concerned about is making sure women and girls can get abortions. They also believe we come to our decision to have them in a cavalier manner. The former assumption simplifies a complex, interrelated set of issues into one watch word. The latter myth is just stupid and insulting. Organizations like Lilith Fund work toward providing information, counseling, and resources to their community. Facilities like Planned Parenthood provide folks with birth control and information on family planning, as well as administer pap smears and other standard procedures to guarantee women’s health. This is especially important at a time when proposed legislation is getting scary on a medieval level. Georgia state rep Bobby Franklin wants expectant mothers to prove their miscarriages occured naturally (read this great Crunk Feminist Collective enumerating recent attacks on reproductive justice). My own governor Rick Perry (who I’ve never voted for) wants me to look at a sonogram before going through with a termination. This is at a time when abortion providers are becoming an endangered species and access to contraception continues to be compromised.
It’s not a game. It’s about livelihood. I’m willing to do many things, including bowl for it. I hope you’ll support me and my team (seriously, just click on the link and provide us with whatever you can spare), as well as take personal action.
Last week, Kristen at Act Your Age tipped me off to a Change.org news item about British actress Emma Thompson is putting together a concept album addressing human trafficking. I don’t have much to add but did want to acknowledge the upcoming album here.
Though I have reservations, I applaud Thompson’s efforts to use her stature and largesse toward bringing awareness. I also get the sense from Thompson’s prolonged commitment that this plays differently than most celebrities’ political causes, which can often be completely self-serving. I’m also curious what Just Enough For the Real World will sound like, who was involved, what Thompson brought to it artistically, what the collaborations will bring about, and what insights we can gather from the songs. More importantly, I hope the proceeds from this project–combined with other global efforts–conclusively eradicate this and all forms of coersive human oppression.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
Last week on the Internet was defined, for many, as a time and place when folks debated whether or not Tina Fey is a good ambassador for feminism. I remain in the “she’s not perfect and at times super-problematic but I still value what she’s contributing and would rather advocate that more women bring feminism into comedy than have one successful white lady speak for the movement” camp. Here’s where I also insert a shout-out to Amy Poehler, who many also find problematic but has given us Smart Girls at the Party and The Mighty B!, in addition to killing it as proclaimed feminist Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation.
But I’d also like to acknowledge two pop stars who were motivated by feminism this past week. First up, Britney Spears had untouched photographs run alongside airbrushed images from a recent photo shoot. This news comes in the wake of French parliament member Valérie Boyer advocating that France require all advertising featuring people who have been digitally altered to be labeled. Boyer sees this as a way to combat poor female body image and unrealistic beauty standards. I believe this to be a responsible move on Spears’s part, especially to her younger fans. I also find it disconcerting that Spears’ muscle definition was taken away and her skin was lightened in the touch-ups.
In addition, I was heartened when Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style forwarded me a Jezebel post wherein Chilli from TLC identified with the f-word in a recent interview. While I understand that women of color have a thorny relationship with the term, I appreciate that the pop star took ownership of the word when many say “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” TLC were also one of the first pop acts I remember championing feminist issues like female autonomy, girl friendships, sexual health, and self-esteem in their music. “No Scrubs”? “Hat 2 Da Back”? They always sounded like feminists to me.