Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.
Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.
The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.
Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.
Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.
What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.
I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.
Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.
This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?
The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”
Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?
It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.
Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Morgan Neville’s documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom. There might be other Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature that do more to challenge the form. For example, I hear good things about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. In terms of narrative structure, 20 Feet is a fairly conventional music documentary. But I didn’t care, because it honored female back-up singers’ labor.
Back-up singers have captured my imagination for some time. As a kid, I remember latching on to British vocalist Tessa Niles’ high rasp in Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” and following it into the work she did with Berlin, Tears for Fears, and the Pet Shop Boys. A few years later, I found it unjust that disco legend Martha Wash’s collaboration with C+C Music Factory received insufficient compensation. I also found it unacceptable that her work with C+C Music Factory and Black Box was misattributed to Zelma Davis and Katrin Quinol in their music videos because the medium refused to accommodate Wash’s size.
As an adult music fan, I’ve come to respect, admire, and love the voices of women like Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Janice Pendarvis, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer. There isn’t a day now where I don’t play or think about Lennear’s version of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)” or Love’s “Fine Fine Boy” (or, for that matter, “Christmas Time for the Jews“).
Some of this has to do with reflecting upon R&B, soul, and dance music—three genres that always meant a great deal to me—as I get older. I’ve turned to these women for a few reasons. First, I listen for their voices as an extension of my relationship with my mother-in-law, aunt, and older generations of women in my extended family, who have pointed me toward girl groups and the output of influential labels like Motown and Stax. Second, I have come to identify with the rich complexity of these women’s distinct voices and the range of emotions they demonstrate with them in song. Though no less virtuosic in its harrowing empathy, Merry Clayton’s recorded performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” differs from what Lisa Fischer brings to it on stage as a member of the band’s touring ensemble. Third, I think about their historical contributions in relation to more contemporary developments, like Beyoncé’s politically significant and artistically formidable all-female backing band, the Sugar Mamas.
But as an academic who studies music as a site for labor, back-up singers as workers are important figures who frequently struggle for claims to authorship and creative agency, in large part because their contributions to songs are simultaneously audible and invisible. Back-up musicians rarely receive appropriate credit and compensation for their work. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” remains one of the most heavily sampled pieces of music, ostensibly serving as hip-hop’s pulse. But the song is credited to Brown and not the titular drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, whose work is frequently the sampled element from the recording. Such claims to authorship become increasingly fraught in the wake of the 2000 Works Made for Hire and Copyright Corrections Act, which granted recording artists the right to claim legal authorship of their own material. As Matt Stahl notes in his important book about musical labor, Unfree Masters, such a ruling was made at the expense of backing musicians, who were defined as “work-for-hire” artists and offered no legal claims to authorship for their contributions to recorded music (2013).
In addition, back-up singers impel us to listen intersectionally. Often their voices simultaneously signify race and gender. In the documentary, Pendarvis references Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” noting that while the line “and all the colored girls say” is racially problematic, it acknowledges the intersectionality of the musicians providing the pop punctuation of the song’s chorus. Yet I couldn’t find a performance clip for the song that showed Thunderthighs, the girl group on the recording, or a set of touring musicians. This illustrates what’s at stake when we hear women sing—and when the traces of their labor materialize in the grooves and code of the formats that deliver our favorite songs—but we cannot or choose not to see them.
In the introduction to his book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, Nick Couldry talks about voice in terms of value, noting that a cultural and political understanding of its significance “involves particular conditions under which voice as a process is effective, and how broader forms of organization may subtly undermine or devalue voice as a process” (2). For this reason, we should pay attention to back-up singers. In addition, the back-up singer is a figure who needs to be considered in conversations around gender, race, and music culture.
Women’s voices continue to be of interest for feminist media scholars. Often they serve as sites to explore issues of sexist objectification and postfeminist branding built into the production and reception of female vocalists’ industrial and cultural labor. These issues impact back-up singers too. A brief segment of Stardom devotes its attention toward back-up singers’ objectification by burdening them with skimpy clothing and exploitative conditions on stage and at video shoots. The film pays more attention to the expectations placed on women like Clayton, Fischer, Lennear, Love, and Táta Vega to develop solo material—because singing background vocals was perceived as industrially insignificant and creatively suspect—only to receive little support because they were deemed too unattractive for the market or because consumers didn’t “need” another female soul singer when they already had Aretha Franklin (I need Aretha, but not in isolation). These concerns still impact contemporary singers like Judith Hill.
Offering valuable contributions to this corpus, scholars like Mavis Bayton and Mary Celeste Kearney have drawn our attention toward female instrumentalists and female-only bands (1998, 2006). I am indebted to this work as a feminist media scholar who uses music culture as a lens through which to ask and address questions of identity. And I believe that we should consider women’s work as instrumentalists, as well as composers, producers, and sound engineers. But I want to be careful not to place female instrumentalists in a hierarchy over vocalists by implicitly or explicitly suggesting that female instrumentalists are more legitimate as musicians.
I was in chorus for my entire adolescence and intermittently as an adult. What I learned as one alto amid all of the voices of the ensemble was the creative and technical skill required in forming one sound from a variety of unique sources. It is intellectually challenging to simultaneously hear yourself and blend your voice with the rest of the choir. You have to learn to breathe, read music, modify pitch, and stagger rhythm holistically. There’s an ontology required of singing that helps you understand how sound as a source of power is both top-down and bottom-up. It’s easy to reduce singing to assuming a pose. It is that, but technically excellent and emotionally resonant singers remind us that it is never only that. Thus in my work, I want to honor the technical, creative, and collaborative contributions of female back-up singers.
In this regard, Stardom is especially successful. There are several moments in the film that explicitly illustrate this. The film includes a scene of Clayton listening to her incendiary vocal track for “Gimme Shelter,” and you can only imagine what it might feel like for a black woman to sing “rape, murder–it’s just a shout away” at full power. There are a few montages of Fischer in the thrall of her own voice. Her live performance at a screening during the Napa Valley Film Festival illustrates this nicely. It also complicates how we understand labor by acknowledging the self-contained pleasure behind such effort.
One way that Stardom bypasses the traditional documentary narrative of personal ruin is by acknowledging that back-up singers’ labor is different. For one, their positionality on stage and in public estimation prevents them from having to bear the weight of what fame can do to your voice. Vega claims that if she had become more successful as a solo artist, she would likely have been consumed by substance abuse in order to cope with such scrutiny.
A practical reality of their work that the film gets at implicitly is that consistently good singing requires rest. In high school, my vocal coach told me to rest before singing competitions. She instructed me to get as much sleep as possible two nights before I sang before judges, because your vocal chords need to be loose in order to be flexible. Singing is an act of athleticism that requires wholeness and self-care. This requires us to reconsider what labor means and how exhaustion and self-sacrifice—two problematic hallmarks of “hard work”—can be detrimental to your instrument. Mariah Carey was canny in the later stages of her career to emphasize rhythm over vocal range. “Emotions” is nearly impossible to sing, but “Shake It Off” is no easy undertaking at karaoke. But I do wonder what her high end would sound like now if she insisted on more sleep and if the machinery around her honored that request. This seems connected to why Clayton was at home asleep when the Stones invited her to an afterhours studio session.
On Oscar night, I hope this film receives some acknowledgement of its service to these women’s contributions and legacy. With any luck, Neville will defer his acceptance speech to them and they can pay their respects through song, thus offering the broadcast a compelling musical moment for a ceremony conspicuously absent of such possibilities. Regardless, they’ve already made history. Let’s listen and, in doing so, recognize the work they’ve shared with us.
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.
A couple of weeks into August and 2012 has already been a year of profound loss for pop culture enthusiasts, music fans, and queer folks–many of whom are one in the same. Enumerating the recently deceased is too much to bear–it was when it we lost Esme, it was when I was out of town and missed the news of Ms. Melodie’s passing. For me, it seems as though I’ve almost literally lost someone great since the first day of the new year. Just consider that on the same day we began mourning the sudden death of queer theorist Alexander Doty, we also lost drag performer and LGBT activist Sister Boom Boom and singer Chavela Vargas.
Much of my interaction with Vargas’ work is mediated through cinema. I think I first saw her in Babel, but I disliked its obvious interpersonal connections and the racist pathology of Rinko Kikuchi’s mute teenager so intensely that I blocked it out. Pedro Almodóvar offered a proper introduction to her music, as he featured her music in several of his films. She had a brief musical appearance in Julie Taymor’s Frida, a cameo that doubles as an intertextual reference to her rumored affair with the titular artist.
It’s hard not to be crushed by the weight of such loss or to be stymied by reflections on our limited, uncertain time on this earth. It’s also hard not to regret putting off tribute because you’re not sure what to say. For some time, I sat on a post on Vargas’ appearance in Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret, a film about a troubled romance novelist. I was deeply moved by Marisa Paredes’ lead performance and believe Flower to be slightly underrated. I hope isn’t just remembered for certain plot points’ subsequent references in All About My Mother and Volver. I intended to make a comparison between Paredes’ brave, vulnerable performance and Vargas’ heroically candid singing, but didn’t think I had much of an argument. And then Vargas’ heart and respiratory system gave out on August 5th at 92 years of age, which nullifies such reservations.
Many have already written on Vargas’ life and legacy–I especially like Arturo García’s tribute. Maybe people will be inspired to watch or revisit Flower with Vargas’ voice as a guide. I take comfort in knowing that we’ll always have her sandpaper-and-silk voice, which knew how to reconcile the devastation of loss with the promise of renewal.
So I just got off the phone with a colleague’s student who’s doing a ‘zine project on feminism and music. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to start your day talking about riot grrrl with a teenage girl.
I teach music history workshops with Girls Rock Camp out of an investment with creating a space for girls to recognize that they are entering into an ongoing history of women and girls coming together to make music. In addition, there’s some important historical moments happening right now. So I thought I’d acknowledge this in song form with a quick post.
First, a few videos from Wild Flag, EMA, and Cher Horowitz, a few acts that I think represent riot grrrl’s legacy.
Next, a tip of the tiara to my Queerbomb brothers and sisters, who took to the streets this past weekend. I recently made a mix CD for our discussion of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place for my cultural theory seminar, and a number of the selections were the influence of Queerbomb participants, along with Homoground and Expatriarch‘s stellar efforts. Let’s shine a light on Katastrophe, Girl in a Coma, and Miz Korona.
Looking toward the future, I’ll honor some girls in my life. Some of my friends are moms, which is tremendously important work. A lot of them are moms to boys, which is very important, since men who love, respect, and honor women usually have women who taught them that (along with the men who love, respect, honor women–some of my best friends are dads too). All of my love goes out to Sylvan, Will, Declan, Max, and Noah and the parents who are raising them to be good people. But a few girls in my life were recently brought into the world or had a birthday. So let’s honor that with some songs by Kate Bush, Norah Jones, Rosie Flores, and Little Eva–women who share their names.
And finally, tomorrow is Wisconsin’s recall election. This is serious business. I’ll be casting my vote and holding hope for a better future. YACHT, Lady Kier, and Invincible will keep me cautiously optimistic.
The older you get, the crueler life can be. This is particularly true of the evil and arbitrary nature in which we lose people we love. Early yesterday morning at the start of a new year, while a number of us were out celebrating, sleeping, scoping out the after parties, or rounding the drive-thru, we lost Esme. I’m mindful that her friends or family members may read this post and don’t want to cause them any more pain. But Esme was a wonderful human being who deserves to be celebrated. I hope to do that here. I believe I have a singular responsibility in paying tribute on this blog because of the folks who showed me support, Esme was an MVP in an over-sized Feminist Music Geek t-shirt. I’m lucky to be one of many people who can claim her as a friend.
Esme was a teacher and gave the gifts of listening, improvising, and problem-solving to her friends. She was an amazing Girls Rock Camp counselor and became a model for how I present myself in front of students and run a classroom. She was hilarious–always quick with a joke, a story about her mom, or a day-after reel about a night out on the town. She was also tiny, but always seemed larger in part because she could frequently be seen at shows or parties holding a tall boy or a long neck seemingly a third her size. When I lived in Austin, I would frequently chat with her while she pulled a shift at Waterloo, when we found each other in some mutual friend’s kitchen, or when we’d both be taking in a Ted Leo show. Every time we’d say our goodbyes, we’d always hug, bemoan that we weren’t closer, and promise to stay in touch.
Then I moved away. During the past month or so, she tried to touch base on gchat. But I selfishly couldn’t pull myself away from school work, and now I wish like fuck I had. Because I probably wouldn’t remember what book I was reading or what assignment I was grading, but I know I’d remember talking to Esme about the records she was listening to and nights out with her sister or our friends. I guess the truth is that you can never prepare for losing someone so suddenly, and thus there is never enough time. And quite frankly, I always imagined Esme would live a long life, wearing Keds and jean shorts and calling me “dude” at boat parties well into the twilight of our years. Damn.
In this instance, rock ‘n’ roll is our solace. Esme loved rock music. She was rock, as far as I’m concerned. Wild Flag’s “Romance” was one of my favorite songs from last year and the line “the sound is the blood between me and you” reminds me of this lightning rod of a woman. I’m going to close now with a holiday song she liked that takes on new resonance in light of recent events, a song we danced to after a music history workshop, a song from a band we always hoped would reunite, and song from a GRCA band she coached. Esme got it. She knew rock and roll was eternal. As long as we’ve got the sound, we’ll never lose her.
Visit Esme’s tribute site if you would like to make a donation to help Esme’s family pay for expenses.