Last fall, I saw my former thesis adviser, Mary Kearney, give an excellent presentation on sparkle, girlhood, and post-feminist luminosities. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Angela McRobbie identifies luminosities as spotlight effects of power that bring young women forward as individualized subjects. While luminosity promises to make young women legible cultural subjects, this visibility often becomes a form of surveillance. Kearney takes up sparkle as a form of luminosity that is simultaneously glamorous and vexingly ephemeral for girls and young women. Toward the end of her talk, she argued that scholars should consider what queer theory—and queer political actors like drag queens and glitter bombers—can teach us about sparkle. At the bar afterwards, I asked her what glitter can teach us about throwing shade.
As a Drag Race fan, I’m familiar with throwing shade as a vital historical practice within drag culture. To throw shade is to insult someone. For especially quick, observant queens, it’s an art form. There’s an intellectual component to throwing shade, as indicated by associative terms like “reading.” It is effectively summarized in a segment of Jennie Livingston’s essential 1989 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigates the New York drag ball scene.
Dorian Corey’s comment at the end of this scene suggests that reading is more overtly performative and communal, whereas shade is a subtle, more ephemeral form of subterfuge. Shade complements luminosity. For female celebrities, luminosity is a double-edged sword. What’s the difference between a red carpet appearance and a mug shot? But drag queens frequently harness the light sources found in cosmetics, sequins, and rhinestones to honor feminine strength and often to challenge conventional femininity. They help cast sparkle in a different light. They sparkle to deflect shade. But when a queen shines, she may also become vulnerable to another queen’s shadow, particularly if her light source is basic or counterfeit. Glitter reflects light and the dirt underneath it.
This is where reading comes in as a “fundamental” practice in drag culture. To be insulted is to be recognized. As a perennial mini-challenge on Drag Race, “the library” is a space that honors queens’ ability to be critical of her sisters in a quick, perceptively humorous fashion. Particularly effective queens, like season two contestant Jujubee, can “read for filth” by isolating a queen’s flaws or weaknesses and critiquing them in devastating fashion.
The current cast of Drag Race includes frontrunner Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic with a classic Hollywood aesthetic. In an early workroom appearance, she refers to her punchlines and put-downs as her “Rolodex of hate.” What I especially like about this phrase is how it turns anger into an index. This phrase suggests that emotions have histories with their own root causes and stories. It also turns this particular negative emotion into a technology, a tool that can be used to navigate a variety of social interactions.
A “Rolodex of hate” sounds like a “structure of feeling,” a concept popularized by cultural theorist Raymond Williams to express how certain cultural experiences are understood through representation and felt in everyday life. But a Rolodex is a reference system that allows its user to refer back to pre-existing connections and associations. In this context, “Rolodex of hate” reminds me of what Heather Love refers to as “feeling backward,” or a distinctly queer experience or representation that speaks to subjects’ negotiations of negative or ambivalent feelings like nostalgia, resentment, self-loathing, shame, and despair. It also raises a question: what is knowledge’s relationship to anger?
This is the question that I have for the video to Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” I work for a university, so I was immediately struck by the clip’s location. First off, an empty school will always look like the setting to a horror movie. This is why you will never find me at a library after 7 p.m. But schools are already scary because they’re sites of learning. As a result, they enforce ideologies of knowledge. School is a source of power. That’s where I learned how to diagram sentences and solve equations. It’s also where I learned dominant historical narratives, literary canons, bad words, and political values that I would later challenge and undo … by staying in school. At school, teachers and students also learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers and each other. Such congregation can be difficult for subjects who are persecuted and endangered because of their differences and their inability (or unwillingness) to adhere to norms that are toxic in their restrictiveness. It can also be disorienting, particularly since students and teachers’ actions are subject to scrutiny but its source or intent is not always clear.
Apart from the video’s setting, I’m struck by Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxxx’s lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere about the politics of negative reinforcement, using Azealia Banks’ “212” as an example. The rappers’ extensive use of the word “bitch” cannot be ignored, though we should recognize that the word has different meanings when it is activated by a woman or a queer man. But I’m also interested in its interplay with “college,” “knowledge,” “dissertation,” “classroom,” “outline,” “cohesive,” “lunchtime,” “first period,” and “thesis.” Schools circulate ideologies through discipline. We tend to associate “discipline” with official codes of conduct that sanction certain behavior and academic practices. Discipline also circulates through less formal means. Subjects are also disciplined by schoolyard fights, incriminating gossip, and withering glances. But sometimes, anger is coded through refinement. In a graduate seminar, you might say “I find the author’s argument problematic” or “I hear what you’re saying, but I quibble with you about …” Such niceties allow you to make your point, even if you’d rather yell and throw things instead. That tension is what I find most compelling about “Ima Read”; Katz and Foxxx appropriate scholarly decorum to use it as a weapon instead of as a euphemism.
I try to lead a simple, fulfilling life; anger is a part of that. Yoko Ono begins “Revelations” with the line “Bless you for your anger, it’s a sign of rising energy.” As a feminist, I am often furious about actions and events—however subtle, however seismic—where people and various -isms ingratiate themselves into cultural representations and everyday life in order to oppress and maintain the dominant order. Sometimes I just cry. This is why I’ve never understood how weeping is denigrated as feminine. I reject such binaries and how they devalue women and femininity by denying their connections to “masculine” emotions like anger. And crying is never a dainty, submissive act for me; it destroys my face. But depending on the circumstances, I also respond with confrontation, with inquiry, with silence. As Ono’s lyrics suggest, such energy has multiple potential outcomes. Anger is productive. It transforms. But what can we do with these energies? How can we use it to teach and what can anger teach us?
To cook a meal and share it with someone is both a good will gesture and an act of faith. It requires intimacy, both to navigate various allergies, politics, and preferences and to spoon out something you made. Cooking’s transformative power guides singer-songwriter Kelis Rogers, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in the mid-2000s and launched her sauce collection, Feast, in 2013. On Food, her excellent sixth album and follow-up to 2010’s underrated Flesh Tone, Kelis dishes homemade comfort with songs like “Breakfast,” “Jerk Ribs,” “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” “Cobbler,” and “Friday Fish Fry.” The album begins with her young son, Knight, asking “Are you hungry? My mom made food.” Kelis considers food as both a currency of affection and a symbol for the emotional nourishment she wants and expects as a musician, mother, daughter, and woman.
Food is an album about wanting to feed and be fed. The most overt references to desire center on carnal satisfaction, whether it be an insistent plea for ice-cold water on “Friday Fish Fry,” a quiet wish for someone to fill up personal space on “Floyd,” or a breathless sigh from a clandestine reunion on “Rumble.” However, Kelis doesn’t just treat a good meal as a facile metaphor for sex.
On “Breakfast,” Kelis observes that “so much of who we are is from who first taught us how to love.” Families often congregate around the dinner table, even if such communion can be tense and complicated. Throughout Food, Kelis lovingly references her son and father, the late jazz musician Kenneth Rogers. On “Hooch,” Kelis reflects on her son’s innocence, opening with the line “These are the days in your life/When you cross up, time is free/Like your daddy say the world is yours/So let it come naturally.” Her hesitant phrasing is rich with meaning, both to the son she wants to protect and to his father, her ex-husband Nas, whose 1994 single she references.
She is similarly guarded about romance. On the chorus to the opening track, she proclaims that her new love “is the real thing” while later equivocating that “maybe we’ll make it to breakfast.” Ultimately, her omnivorous curiosity provides its own sustenance. Sometimes her artistic endeavors result in physical distance, which she poignantly expresses on an unadorned cover of Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone.” But on the dazzling closer, “Dreamer,” she honors her imagination, which gives her the strength to create wonderful meals, songs, and worlds and share them with others.
Cooking requires balance. On Food, Kelis finds an excellent sous chef in producer David Sitek. Neither are genre purists—Kelis never identified as an R&B singer, Sitek’s band TV on the Radio created anthemic rock out of borrowed and reclaimed elements. On Food, they treat the studio like a spice rack. With arranger Todd Simon, they make irresistible pop from such ingredients as gospel vocals, funk guitar, Afrobeat percussion, soul brass, and new wave synth flourishes. Sometimes the results are slightly murky and overseasoned. But most of this textured, sensuous record left me with a full stomach, a contented heart, and a clean plate. Bring a fork.
Several months ago, I received a text from a friend. Like much of my correspondence with her, I turned over this statement like a message in a bottle that washed up at my feet.
“the only time I really understand jouissance is when I listen to pop.”
I liked this text for a few reasons. One, it came out of nowhere; I love when some idea or statement seizes a friend with such urgency that she or he has to share it. Two, she taps into what bugs people about this fizzy French word, which is its untranslatability. The word is a derivative of the French verb “jouir,” which roughly means “to enjoy,” and can be broadly applied. Following intellectual contributions from folks like French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, poststructuralists have argued that jouissance is such an intense feeling of joy that it forces the subject to split apart and dissolve with pleasure. This definition makes me think of the phrase “explode into colors,” which a once-promising Portland outfit claimed as a descriptor for its textured, makeshift sound. Three, she connects the word to pop music, which is where I have most frequently been in the presence of such joy. Finally, my attachments to women’s voices as a music fan make me think of Hélène Cixous’ claim that jouissance is a distinctly female experience.
Pop music is about as hard for me to define as jouissance. I’m guided here “purely” by my response to certain instances where female vocalists’ contributions gave me pleasure and what that pleasure might “mean.” For my purposes, I’ll draw upon a few examples of joyful moments in popular music, which will encompass rock, alternative, and R&B in this post. In different instances, it can also include commercial permutations of country, hip-hop, metal, and other musical genres.
In the season six episode, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mad Men featured Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as its end credit music. At its most basic level, the selection demonstrates how countercultural forms like psychedelic music, hippie fashion, and (the promise of) sexual revolution seeped into mainstream consciousness during the late 60s. Implicitly, it may also be gesturing toward advertising’s eventual reliance on music licensing over jingles and original compositions, a shift Timothy D. Taylor attributes to the industrial fervor over Boomer-era nostalgia, blockbuster soundtracks, and MTV. What struck me most about the song’s placement was to whom it was referring. “Two Cities” is primarily a place-setting episode designed to cap off a season with moments of profound darkness that were frequently diluted by scattershot storytelling (Pete particularly), underserved characters (Dawn especially), and an origin story for its protagonist’s bruised psychology that frequently relied upon caricature (Don, obviously).
In the context of the episode, “Piece” comments on Joan’s attempt at professional advancement and her tentative alliance with Peggy. Much of Joan’s storyline focuses on the aftermath of her fifth season arc, which culminated in a partnership at the agency that she acquired through prostitution and resulted in further subjugation because of her gender and management’s devaluing of administrative labor. Joan relies on subterfuge to acquire Avon as a client. With some considerable hesitation, Peggy becomes her ally and hopefully seeds a spin-off where the pair launch an agency and hire on Dr. Faye Miller to conduct their research.
I love that the cue suggests a relationship between Joan’s plight as a professional and Janis’ confrontational pleas of self-sacrifice. First, I would have thought that Janis’ scrappiness and unconventional beauty would more clearly resonate with Peggy (though really, she’s Carole King right down to the Brill Building pedigree). Second, Janis insists that she can prove that a woman’s femaleness is steel-girded. I can think of few figures who can withstand the harrowing cultural damage of women’s objectification better than Joan Holloway. Unfortunately, it’s conditioned her to ignore possible alliances, especially with other women. Joan uses fashion and professionalism as armor. In doing so, she projects to the world that she is confident and essential to the process. But because of the nature of her work and the terms of her partnership, only Peggy sees Joan’s strength. As a result, Joan has never been given entrée into the world of client lunches and social club networking because men like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell view her as a sex object and not as an equal.
The unstudied recklessness of Joan’s professional daring in “Two Cities” mirrors the strain Joplin puts on her voice. Rock critic Ellen Willis argues that, as an interpreter of other people’s songs, Joplin “did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them” going on to add that the singer’s pursuit of pleasure was driven by “a refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder—and the magic of extremes” (2011, 128-129). This provides resistance to Joplin’s voice, that crack when she commands “C’mon, come on, Come! On!, COME ON and TAKE IT” thrilling in its defiance and its cathartic release. If this is jouissance—and it sounds like it to me—the pleasure I get from her voice and that she seems to have gotten from singing as an articulation act comes from having to wrestle against such restraint.
In their necessary theoretical work on happiness and the technological and cultural histories of the orgasm, Sara Ahmed and Annamarie Jagose draw upon work from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Michel Foucault to remind us that pleasure is intensified by pain and objectionable behavior. In thinking about how this influences jouissance, I recall Björk’s “Hyperballad.” It’s hard to pick one song that effectively demonstrates the concept in her repertoire. The woman recorded “Violently Happy,” which may be a synonym for jouissance. But I’ve always been struck by how such an anthemic dance track can be built from such private, contradictory emotional impulses. The song details a morning ritual. A lover wakes up each morning and walks right up to a mountain cliff, taking in the scenery and imagining herself in free fall before she returns to life with her partner, who’s still asleep at home. She wonders what it would be like to surrender to the rocks underneath her, and whether she would greet death with open or closed eyes. The video poignantly demonstrates jouissance through division by representing three versions of the singer—as mountain range, as video game avatar, as playback image—as layers that comprise the (fractured) whole. And I have often felt the full weight of this song on the dance floor, feeling my eyes well up with tears as she screams “to be safe up here with you” as I surrender to rhythm and confession’s relentless build-up to pleasure’s edge.
My favorite moment in Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” is near the end when she breaks into a fit of laughter that compromises her singing quality. Her declaration that this love “feels so good” sounds as if her voice is trying to break free from poor breath control and strained vocal chords. As a result of her glee, she doesn’t give herself enough support to open up her throat and hit the note. Though I recognize its manufacture, this moment of the song sounds “genuine,” as though Jackson is so consumed by her own human joy that she must declare it, even if (and possibly because) this pleasure has left her breathless. But while I dance against the grain of Janis, Björk, and Janet’s voices, I don’t think jouissance is just about the resistances built into pleasure. Roland Barthes popularized the grain of the voice as a concept that could address the erotic materiality of the voice. But while grain is often audible in a singer’s vocal roughness, we cannot give undue emphasis to wailing, screeching, and moaning at the expense of articulations of pleasure with smoother textures. To understand Jackson’s vocal contributions to pop music, we have to understand instances where jouissance is not a site of friction but a moment where we gather together peaceably in its transformative release.
I love Jackson for many reasons. Foremost, I credit her for having as much to do with shaping my feminist politics by modeling a female sexuality defined by the erotics of consent, intimacy, and self-respect. In popular estimation, Madonna is credited with this shift in pop music’s sexual politics, but Jackson did as much in her work and also brought collectivism and black consciousness into her chosen idiom. But I also responded to the ease in her voice. Janet has a shy, small voice, and one that frequently radiates happiness. I often hear a smile when she sings, even in her more confessional or confrontational moments. Perhaps part of this happiness comes from her ability to connect singing and dancing as a circuit of performance rather than distinct professional activities. In her voice, and its signification of happiness, I hear something akin to what Ahmed identifies in the carefree protagonist of Mike Leigh’s film, Happy-Go-Lucky, that “freedom from care is also a freedom to care, to respond to the world, to what comes up, without defending oneself or one’s happiness against what comes up” (222).
I’ll close by offering some ways to challenge or add nuance to my consideration for how jouissance functions in pop music. First, I’d like to consider how pop music signifies jouissance in ways that do not privilege or overemphasize the erotic and take up other forms of pleasure. Second, I’d like to acknowledge that jouissance is not just registered in the voice but in its interplay. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Kelis perform “Breakfast” at NPR’s SXSW showcase last month and felt the full intensity of her joy as she sang and strutted amid her multi-part ensemble. Pleasure resides in the voice’s interaction with instrumentation, composition, and production aesthetics. It’s not just about the singer, but the singer’s voice as one interactive element in a larger compositional or performative space. Finally, jouissance is about listening as an embodied practice, which is how we are able to respond to pop music by singing along, dancing in and out of time, and wiping away tears, perhaps all at once.
Pop music can be part of a circuit for joy. Therefore, jouissance is about the promise of bodily and spiritual connection, however briefly. Ahmed identifies happiness as a series of moments that create texture and shared impressions, instances where we are “brought to life by the absurdity of being reminded of something, where a sideways glance can be enough to create a feeling that ripples through you” (219). Ultimately, Ahmed argues that these moments are ephemeral and are given undue burden as an ideal in a culture that occludes the transformative possibilities that “negative” feelings can allow us. To be happy is not an ideal but part of a spectrum of human existence. It’s fleeting and it’s a feeling we tend to recall (and distort) from memory. Pop music can transform a moment or take us back to it and let us bask in its afterglow or feel pleasure in its friction. It may deliver happiness in brief increments and through ephemeral means, but it can transform our relationship to the world. It’s a point in time that we can always discover or return to, often with as much ease as a needle finds its groove or a song finds its algorithm.
Punk doesn’t usually present itself as headphones music. With some exception, it’s not a producer’s genre. Punk gives short shrift to polish and studio trickery. For many punk bands, the record isn’t the document. The gig is the thing. What matters is the band’s immediate, sweaty connection to the crowd.
Meredith Graves’ voice made me grab my headphones. As the front woman for Syracuse-based quartet Perfect Pussy, her contributions to her band’s 22-minute debut album necessitate cupping my headphones to pull her words closer to my ears. Graves trades in stream-of-conscious monologues that weave between the wonder, loneliness, and anger of being a hopeful, yet very uncertain twentysomething. With good reason, many critics are already quoting passages from “Interference Fits” (which features the rhetorical question from which the album gets its title) and “Dig” (“I want to fuck myself/and I want to eat myself”). The album begins with a representative line (my favorite) “Watch me, I’m kicking the wall/I’ll break through it before I go/and leave a hole my shape in everything I know.” These are important, meaningful words from a young, conflicted woman. But I had to strain to hear them.
On record, Graves’ voice registers just enough above the din of drummer Garrett Koloski’s thunderous percussion, the scrape of Ray McAndrew’s guitar, the persistent drone of Shaun Sutkus’ pile of synthesizers, and Greg Ambler’s scorched earth bass playing. The album never wavers in its energy or intensity, but I’m particularly partial to the run of songs in the middle of Say Yes (“Big Stars” through “Dig”), where the band is tightest and most focused.
During their SXSW showcase for NPR, a mosh pit opened up because of course. But as I tried to protect myself from flying skateboard wheels and the weight of predominantly male bodies, I struggled to hear Graves. Soundboard issues aside, the presence absence of Graves’ voice was compelling. At the center of this chaos was a small woman calling attention to her physical commitment as a musician—her steady stream of urgent words, her emphatic phrasing, her shifting rhythms, her flailing gestures, her neck muscles—but it almost didn’t register. And I wanted very much to hear her.
Requiring this level of effort on the listener’s part speaks to why the group has captured such fervent critical interest. At the risk of reducing Graves to her gender, a female-fronted punk band is still too much of a novelty for my liking. Much of this album is consumed with ambivalence around romance, sex, friend groups, and gendered expectations of personal fulfillment; struggling to hear the woman pontificating about these subjects adds another deceptively thin layer of interpretation. But the band does compelling things with that novelty, which suggests that musicianship makes identity and subjectivity into political issues and not the other way around. Hold your headphones close.
My job is weird. It’s a hard job to explain in a sentence. I’ve gotten it down to “I’m a feminist media scholar who studies the industrial labor behind music’s mediation,” as such portable declarations are necessary in professional settings. You still have to know what “mediation” means, however. And “industrial” might make certain people think of Skinny Puppy instead of booking agents. More to the point, answering the question “What do you do?” is difficult. I do a lot of things that I can break down easily. I write. I teach. I do service work.
Those short sentences neatly contain and obscure a messy, constantly generative circuit of activity. I draw boundaries around my time so that I can maintain a certain level of productivity. I keep prioritized lists of goals for myself each semester and extended holiday, which always involves drawing up itemized lists of smaller tasks I need to complete. I rotate between various responsibilities in anticipation of the series of deadlines that always shadow the margins of my day, week, month, semester, or year. I try to remember to look up from my screen to let in the larger world and its people, even if I have to write it into my day planner.
For me, writing is what I love most about my job. I enjoy teaching. It’s immediately gratifying, particularly in those moments where I help students “get it” (by “it,” I mean “power”). I enjoy service work. Currently, I am the press liaison for The Velvet Light Trap and I’ve learned so much by putting an issue together. I am also about to serve a two-year term as the graduate representative of the women’s caucus for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and I am particularly invigorated for what the future holds with that endeavor. But writing is where I feel, to borrow a lovely phrase from a talented musician, like a room without a roof.
By “writing,” I don’t mean “research” or “editing.” I’m fine with editing, particularly because I’m at peace with the faultiness of language. Any chance you are given to write a sentence is a chance to rewrite that sentence. As a scholar, I tend to tread water when it comes to research. I’ve always been more comfortable writing the idea rather than letting the findings determine the argument. This is a bad habit. I realized the consequence of this over winter break when I read my first scholarly publication—a competent anthology chapter in a great edited collection—and felt like I was entering into an unfurnished room. I bracket writing and research off as two separate activities. I write at least one hour per day, and give myself one day at the end of the week to blog. I’ve taken to researching five hours a week, or roughly one hour per day per work week. By “research,” I mean scouring the trades, search engines, and my university’s library and archival data bases. I may take notes, but any other scholarly writing I do is kept separate.
Writing is when I’m at my happiest as a scholar. The integrity of my writing and its reception are different concerns. I leave that to editing. I’m referring to the deceptively simple, solitary act of constructing sentences and grouping them into sequences and paragraphs. No one can touch me when I’m in that place. Any insecurity or anxiety I have about being a graduate student, instructor, minor Internet presence, or human being falls away when I give myself over to writing.
It’s hard to find that place. It takes time to get there, which is why I have to guarantee myself the hour and sacrifice other things to protect it. It’s also hard to maintain this level of productivity. It’s hard to carve out your days into time-bound increments. It’s also hard to maintain the level of energy required of ceaselessly generating work. This week, I had difficulty with it. I felt the struggle on the page, where it matters most to me. Specifically, I felt it in the page’s absence from my week, because I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked and worried that my words would never live up to the potential I hope for them in my head.
Being far away from the writing process is usually what causes these feelings for me. So does being alive sometimes. Because it’s hard to write when you have doubts that crowd your mind and eclipse the observations you’re trying to make, the theories you’re trying to apply and invent, the analysis you’re trying to construct, and the arguments and issues upon which you’re trying to intervene. How do you write when you’re tried? How do you write when you’re sad? How do you write when you’re certain that your words don’t matter? These are real concerns. I always struggle with them. Today, I got two hours of sustained writing done. Now I’m taking two hours to commit this post to record. Here, I’ll acknowledge three key contributors to my insecurities and how I work with them.
Last spring, I participated in a panel at SCMS that was coordinated by Maureen Ryan at Northwestern and fellow MCS friend and colleague, Sarah Murray. Ryan gave a presentation about performances of failure in lifestyle blogs. It had a wickedly perceptive title: “Comparison is The Thief of Joy.” Girl, truth. As a woman, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t negatively compare myself to my perceptions of other people’s success. This affliction stymied me when I entered into the media studies master’s program at UT Austin. I still struggle with it. My PhD program is peopled by phenomenally talented graduate students and faculty members. This is inspiring. It also can make me feel bad about myself if I choose to let it. I often believe that any modicum of success I’ll achieve in school and perhaps later in my career will result simply from trying to keep up with the other two staggeringly bright and intellectually rigorous people with whom I share a cohort. I have to remember what I’m bringing to the table. This can be a challenge or an uncertainty.
Ann Friedman thinks women should befriend their formidably accomplished peers as a feminist act. I agree. My way out of comparison is collaboration. I take as many opportunities as I can to work with smart, driven people. I don’t do this to vampire their success. I do this because collaborating on a lecture, article, panel presentation, journal issue, or some other project might result in something greater in combination than in isolation. In doing so, I’ve cultivated fulfilling relationships with amazing women because I recognize them as complicated people instead of objectify them as a tidy series of CV items. Of course, I’m mindful of how collaboration can exclude others or when collaboration isn’t mutually beneficial. But when I see a powerful woman wrestle with something heavy, I don’t just marvel at her strength and distance myself from it. I ask if she needs help shouldering the weight.
Part of why I love writing is because it gives me a tremendous excuse to disengage with the world outside and burrow inward. Being an only child equipped me well for hours of solitary play and invention. The song lyric that best captures my childhood is the line in the Pet Shop Boys’ “Left to My Own Devices” when Neil Tennant sings about being a lonely boy in a world of his own imagining. My only real use for nature was as a stage for my childhood fictions. I was 25 before I felt comfortable meeting strangers in my peer group. Writing is often a retreat for me because it’s easier to express myself on the page than in person. This becomes an untenable scholarly position when your research questions necessitate that you talk to people.
I recently defended my dissertation proposal and now have roughly two years to research and write a project about how industry professionals like booking agents, licensors, supervisors, and promoters bring music to television and how identity shapes their perceptions of their work. I have five case studies in place. I have trade discourse and other traces of industrial self-disclosure to look at. But I need to ask people questions and that can be a little scary. It’s scary for two reasons. First, it’s hard to create a set of questions that are open-ended and don’t presume particular answers yet can yield usable data. I can be good at it, perhaps in part because I only like to ask big questions with answers I can’t predict. But it’s also difficult to create an instant rapport with a stranger or acquaintance.
My partner interviews hip-hop artists for his zine, Scratched Vinyl. He argues that creative people love talking about their work. One thing I am recognizing as I begin the process of ethnographic research and qualitative interviews is that ostensibly, my research subjects and I are there for the music. In Pink Noises, Tara Rodgers applies Lisa M. Tillmann-Healy’s concept, friendship as a method, to explain how interviewing female electronic musicians and composers represents “mutual efforts to build friendships and cultivate professional support” (3). As a media scholar, most of my critical interest in many television programs and films originates in its music. And much of my interest in music revolves around labor practices and claims to authorship. I’m a fan who’s interested in music as a space for work as much as it opens up sites for affect and performance. Perhaps the people I interview feel similarly.
Finally, my job can feel infinite. That usually sounds really exciting to me. I hope that there will always be a place for me in the academy as long as I have ideas I am able to research and refine into publication. I don’t worry about having those ideas, because music will always be a tremendous site for asking questions about gender, labor, and identity. I am also confident I can continue to commit those ideas to writing and share them with people. But I do worry that immersion could lead to burnout. That’s why I have to disengage. I have to get off the Internet. I have to go outside. I have to preserve my connections with friends, whether it’s over the phone or surrounding a pitcher. I have to pursue other projects that could feed into my research but are not directly in the service of my academic life. Right now, I’m completing deejay training at WSUM because I missed having a radio show. The show I pitched focuses on women’s contributions in soul, hip-hop, and R&B. I anticipate moving “Queens” to college radio will fuel my research somehow, at least on back-up singers. But I don’t have larger intellectual ambitions. I just have some records I wanna play.
And with that, I have to go. There’s a world out there tonight and I plan to engage with some part of it. The writing will be waiting when I get home.
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.
Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.