Presenters matter to televised award shows. Their immediate function is to hand out prizes. But they often reflect how an industry uses ceremony to perceive of itself at a particular historical moment, whether they’re a bright young thing, an emblem, a legend in their own time, or willing participants in corporate synergy. Sometimes they let you know who’s going to win, as when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg welcomed Martin Scorsese to Mount Rushmore with a Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Sometimes, they fall on their sword and read bad jokes from a teleprompter to keep things moving. Other times, they kill. And sometimes, they signify the distance between the world and the future.
Like most award shows, the Grammys—which broadcast on Monday for the first time in its nearly 60-year history to accommodate Pacific Standard Time—are not always perceptive about the deeper significance of what awards presenters are assigned to distribute. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; critics’ year-end lists suffer from presentism’s biases too. While the institutions responsible for the show—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and CBS, respectively—may have longevity on its mind in other respects, an award show is ultimately a snapshot of an industry at a particular year, as determined by the compromises made while honoring constituents’ perceptions and advertisers’ immediate commercial directives.
Those two things can still tell us quite a bit of what the Grammys thinks it is in 2016. So it matters that Ariana Grande dorked out before the Weeknd’s live performance of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night,” singing puns as she introduced her duet partner on “Love Me Harder,” 2014’s filthiest house pastiche and a launch pad for the two shy nerds at its center. It matters that LL Cool J and James Corden set up a messy, ill-conceived Lionel Richie tribute in order to plug NCIS: Los Angeles and The Late Late Show while Stephen Colbert threw it to Hamilton on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s way to an EGOT. It matters that Ed Sheeran announced Lady Gaga’s David Bowie retrospective because NARAS rewards the British singer’s inoffensive blue-eyed soul but never nominated anything from the chameleon’s boundary-pushing 70s output, which Gaga and Nile Rodgers heavily showcased in their professional-grade “rock opera” eulogy. It matters that Rock Ambassador Dave Grohl honored Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister by introducing a bloated tribute from the Hollywood Vampires, which made a stronger case against white men grinding rock into obsolescence than both hours of Vinyl’s pilot. They made me long for an encore from the excellent Alabama Shakes, who immediately preceded them with a spacious, electrifying rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which won Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, along with Best Alternative Music Album (Sound and Color wasn’t nominated for Best Rock Album). It matters that Sam Smith handed out Best New Artist, that Meghan Trainor took her win very seriously, and that Courtney Barnett probably ducked out early. It matters that Beyoncé gave Record of the Year to Bruno Mars for “Uptown Funk” after they ran off with Maroon 5’s Coldplay’s Super Bowl half-time show, which broadcast a week and a day before on the same network.
And it certainly matters that three surviving members of 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients’ Earth, Wind & Fire presented Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 instead of to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As Taylor Swift accepted her award, I wondered what Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson—bassist Verdine in the middle, honoring his brother Maurice’s legacy by looking like he jumped off That’s The Way of the World by way of Katt Williams’s mood board in a green velvet tuxedo jacket—made of this moment and their place in history as musicians and black men. As category front-runners, 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly are both ostensibly about how artists are shaped by their current circumstances in relation to the music they listened to growing up. Those circumstances matter, and matter differently if you were born in 1989 as a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in a Pennsylvania borough or in 1987 as a black boy to parents endeavoring to raise their family in Compton.
The market is supposed to be the equalizer. Award shows puncture this myth. As a listener I struggle to give Swift the benefit of the doubt because her feminism often comes with an edge of entitled white girl vengeance that I distrust (yes Kanye West’s trolling on “Famous” is legit gross, but Yeezy is a post unto himself). But I appreciate 1989 as a well-crafted genre study. In particular the dazzling “Out of the Woods,” which opened the broadcast, fuses Swift’s Instagram poetry with Jack Antonoff’s fractured pop production to create the best song T’Pau never recorded. 1989 was favored to win because you don’t move that many units of any album at this moment in recording industry history without netting Album of the Year … unless you’re Beyoncé, I guess (Adele’s 25 will win next year when it’s eligible).1989 is also a testament to the album, and perhaps especially to the album on CD, which many record executives wish we still bought. It’s a streamlined, economical, blockbuster pop statement. Or, said differently, it sounds like an album that would win a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016 and in 1989.
Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes (a length of time a CD can store, giving it the advantage over other formats for a time), To Pimp a Butterfly is a glorious mess. The kind of mess you go through to get to nuance. The kind of mess where intersectionality dwells, overlaps, and spills over. What I find most exhilarating about To Pimp a Butterfly is how Lamar and its impressive team of musicians and producers positioned his flow within black musical history, thus connecting his feelings of double consciousness to the radical streak that energized G-Funk, 70s soul, and avant-garde jazz. Lamar led with eleven nominations, and kicked off the broadcast after Swift’s performance and host LL Cool J’s opening monologue by collecting his award for Best Rap Album, which was presented to him by rapper Ice Cube and his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who recently played his father in a biopic about his former group N.W.A (see—presenters matter). Of the five Grammys he won, this was the only award Lamar collected during the broadcast and thus the only opportunity Lamar had to give a speech on live television.
Lamar was also rewarded for “Alright,” a song that has rightly come to represent the resilient ache of #blacklivesmatter in the ongoing, uphill struggle for racial equality and social justice. Though it lost Song of the Year to Sheeran’s wedding reception jam “Thinking Out Loud,” it won Best Rap Performance. Such an accolade is meaningful for a number of reasons, not least of which because it was the first category NARAS established—in 1989, no less—to recognize significant work in hip-hop vocal performance. However its first recipients, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, staged a boycott because the presentation would not be televised. The award for Best Rap Performance—which was reintroduced in 2012—was not broadcast last night either, and Will Smith is still opting out of industry award shows because of systemic inequality.
Which is why it was exhilarating to see Lamar’s medley in the middle of the ceremony. One thing the Grammys are valued for, especially as networks attempt to use televised award shows as an opportunity to capitalize upon social media and second-screen viewing practices, is live musical performances. Over the years, more categories are getting pushed out of the television broadcast and being distributed in other venues and forums to make room for them. Thus it is incumbent upon artists to turn the stage into a platform, and smart performers think about what they want to use that space to say.
Last year, Beyoncé closed the Grammys with a solemn performance of gospel standard “Take My Hand Oh Precious Lord.” It was written by Reverend Thomas Dorsey, beloved by Martin Luther King Jr., and thus claimed by the Civil Rights Movement. It has also been extensively recorded by various singers. One of them was R&B singer Ledisi for the soundtrack to Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical film about the 1965 Voting Rights campaign that was underrepresented as a nominee for 2015’s Academy Awards. Beyoncé was flanked by a men’s chorus in white suits, barefoot with rolled pant legs meant to evoke slave auctions to make a critique about the devaluation of black people in the United States. My DVR cut off the performance. “Formation” may exist, in part, to correct this. You do not cut off Beyoncé.
As an astute musician who has come into his own as a very fine live TV performer (for me, the turning point was when he turned Imagine Dragons into his backing band during the 2014 ceremony), Lamar probably considered not only the importance of his message, but where it was placed in the broadcast (Grammy producer Ken Erlich spoke with Billboard about the segment prior to the ceremony). Introduced by actor Don Cheadle, whose Miles Davis biopic is scheduled for an April 2016 theatrical release with distribution from Sony Pictures Classics (presenters matter), Lamar chose to turn the Staples Center stage into a cell block, casting himself as a prisoner.
To stunned silence, Lamar wound his cuffed hands around the microphone and launched into “The Blacker the Berry.” He then turned the stage into a bonfire for “Alright” in order to expand the parameters of broadcast television by acknowledging the rich, joyous traditions of African dance, if only briefly. Lamar concluded with a unreleased new song—the closest the Grammys really got to acknowledging how digital distribution has bypassed traditional album releases beyond Drake’s nomination for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—which he performed directly for the camera. The crew captured it with a series of frenetic medium close-up shots before zooming out to reveal Lamar standing in silhouette before a projected image of Africa with “Compton” written across it in Old English font. In that brief moment, to thunderous applause, Lamar showed us the distance between the world the recording industry lives in now and the future we have yet to realize.
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.
Recently, I had the pleasure of catching Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective GRRRL PRTY. It was an excellent set—full of energy and good will. Lots of underground hip-hop legends like Psalm One and P.O.S. made appearances. But GRRRL PRTY delivered, trading verses and beats like they were turning a consciousness-raising meeting into a game of typewriter. How else do you write manifestas?
At the end of the evening, they rapped over Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.” It was an infectious performance, in part because it was clear how much GRRRL PRTY and the audience loved this song. But what moved me most about it was when they authoritatively chanted “No Ikes, only Tinas” over Jay-Z’s now-infamous command: “Now eat the cake, Anna-Mae/eat the cake, Anna-Mae!” It neatly captured my ambivalence over the song as a fan. I love most of the song, but like many, I can’t swallow that line.
Much of “Drunk In Love” is outstanding. The production is excellent, cannily bringing together trap beats, strings, and vocal arpeggios and transforming those elements into exhilarating pop. Beyoncé’s performance channels Carrie Bradshaw flirting with Aiden during last call. She revels in the grain of her lower register. She exaggerates words because she knows that sexy and silly are often the same thing. She babbles. She articulates her preferences (#surfbort). She lets the power of her own pleasure overtake her, so that when she bellows “We be all night!” I imagine her punching the ocean and delighting in the messy splashes that explode under her fists. The lyrics are funny and shockingly candid. Of course, the candor is part of a performance. But the sex she describes seems believable, both in its hotness and its goofiness. How did we get from the dance floor to the kitchen? And when did we have time to run a bath?
I mentally bracket a few things out of the song. I don’t know what to do with Beyoncé’s use of “daddy,” here and elsewhere on Beyoncé. I consciously avoid that word in all contexts. The cute, upturned second syllable always bothered me as a kid. But I’m not Beyoncé. It would be treacherous and facile to read into the age difference between her and her husband. No two couples feel a twelve-year gap the same way. I don’t want to be the kind of feminist who sanctions other people’s sexual expression. I don’t know what that word means to Beyoncé, and it’s in lots of people’s vocabulary. So I’ll step aside from it.
But I can’t step aside from “eat the cake.” I’m hardly alone. First, as has been well-documented, it references a scene of partner violence in the Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, a connection further supported by Jay identifying himself with Turner’s abusive ex-husband, Ike. Beyoncé’s clear admiration for and emulation of Tina gives the reference additional heft as well. It also makes her engagement with the line disconcerting. She mouthed the phrase while staring at the camera in the video. She delivered part of it with Jay at the Grammys.
There’s the other, pettier reason why that line bothers me. Jay needs to step up his game. This has been the dominant narrative about him following (and preceding) the release of Watch the Throne. My favorite part of the video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” is when Jay remains seated after Justin introduces his verse with “Get out your seat, Hov.” He lets the pop star do all the work while he leans into the mic between puffs from his cigar.
There are parts of Jay’s verse to “Suit and Tie” that I enjoy, like when he’s addressing Beyoncé’s parents. Likewise, I’m okay with some of Jay’s verse on “Drunk In Love.” The “panties right to the side” line reminds me of a scene in Jill Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight, which featured several scenes of candid marital sex. I’m uncomfortable with the “beat the box up like Mike” line. First, it reminds me of The Ying-Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” which made me anxious despite its crisp production. Jay’s also comparing himself to Mike Tyson, another black male cultural figure who mistreated his female counterparts.
But I wish that Jay rose to Beyoncé’s occasion. If we took Ike out of the “cake” line (which we can’t), it would still be a dumb, leering come-on (get it?). She’s risen to his occasion in their relationship. And she clearly put quantifiable and incalculable effort into this album. But I hear a distance in his performance on “Drunk In Love.” Certainly he’s not big on public displays of affection. For all of the fanfare over the steaminess of their Grammy performance of “Drunk In Love,” the most honest moment for me was when he shyly removed his hand from her backside after realizing that millions of people witnessed that display of physical intimacy. Maybe he collaborates better with producers. Maybe he’s hungry when there’s beef. When listening to his verse, I’m reminded of how Kanye West asked Nicki Minaj to rewrite her verse for “Monster.” She summoned the strength to deliver a passage that reduced the efforts of West, Jay, Rick Ross, and Justin Vernon to dust. Perhaps a love song is not the place to channel that kind of creative energy, but Jay’s verse and performance on “Drunk In Love” illustrates a power differential in hip-hop that requires one rapper to apply herself and another rapper to phone it in on his superstar wife’s album.
It’s too easy to pathologize Beyoncé here. But she said that she’s not his little wife and I believe her. That means we have to recognize her authority in the “cake” line’s presence on “Drunk In Love” in the first place. Beyoncé’s lyrics and videos contain more campy, meme-worthy catchphrases and cultural references than an episode of Drag Race. But we can’t treat “eat the cake” like “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” “a diva is a female version of a hustler,” or “I just woke up like this.”
As was true of the first four albums, Beyoncé is an intersectional work of contradiction. In “Flawless,” she juxtaposes a lyrical post-feminist swagger with a sample from a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk that advocated for gender equality. Importantly, the song includes Adichie’s claim “We raise girls to see each other as competitors—not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing…” That inclusion is critical. In the chorus to “Partition,” an exhibitionist fantasy in the spirit of Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Beyoncé drops the sex goddess act to say that she wants to be the kind of girl you like. That admission is critical too.
What makes Beyoncé powerful as a female artist is that her work and personae centralize the tension between projecting invincibility and revealing an insecurity that often comes from wanting more. Beyoncé wants every woman and girl to have a piece of the pie. But she also wants a bigger piece than everyone else. This is a feminist struggle. This is also a struggle she shares with many other women in pop music, including Tina. I hope Beyoncé reaches out to her as a fan, as an entertainer, and as a woman. If music initiated this controversy, maybe it can resolve it too. In 2008, the pair performed “Proud Mary” at the Grammys. Perhaps they can reunite next year. “Grown Woman” and “Better Be Good To Me” would sound great together.
Close out 2013 by checking out my Antenna post on Beyoncé.
Knowledge gaps are a funny thing. As a media studies graduate student, I’m frequently confronted by what I haven’t seen. Some of these titles baffle my students and colleagues–The Goonies, The Hunger Games, all six installments of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator 2. I caught up with Psy’s “Gangham Style” last summer. I saw Die Hard a few weeks ago. I watched the Beyoncé album two days before Christmas, which is a lifetime ago for Internet traffic. I’ve never seen a complete season of Seinfeld, despite its deathless existence in syndication.
Of course, I could make closing these gaps more of a priority. To some extent, I do. I’ll often take cues from my friends and carve out a little time for certain films, television shows, and music. For example, I’m currently watching cult Lisa Kudrow vehicle The Comeback in honor of my friend Erik because I miss him. Last winter, my partner and I started a holiday tradition of watching guild screener copies of “For Your Consideration” fare with his Chicago-based aunt and uncle who work in the entertainment industry. And I’m always keeping a list. But the above admission may suggest a couple of things about me. First, it might seem curious for someone who cannot keep up with such widely accepted touchstones of popular culture to keep a music blog and pursue graduate education in media studies. Second, more skeptical readers may intuit a curatorial function to my limited exposure.
But who doesn’t curate what they consume? When I was younger, I made a conscious effort to avoid a lot of blockbuster fare because I assumed things like Sid and Nancy were more important. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about the larger political implications behind my consumer decisions. I tend to be rather dogmatic in my choices. Seth MacFarlane doesn’t need me to support his various entertainment ventures, so I have no reason to watch Family Guy and witness the program’s awful treatment of Meg Griffin. As a result, I usually prioritize media and art created by women. Even if I take issue with what I’ve seen or heard, I recognize the relative difficulty of finding an audience for such work. And taking issue means thinking, either in writing or through conversation. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of UW-Madison alumna Jill Soloway’s excellent feature debut, Afternoon Delight and even luckier to ask her about the productively messy collision of the film’s feminist and class politics during the Q&A. Exposing myself to these things and engaging with the women who made them is always going to matter to me.
Yes, I tend toward “cool,” feminist/women-affirming, indie/left-of-mainstream things. This is why I tend to avoid doing a year-end write-up. My favorites probably wouldn’t surprise you. And while I love reading other people and publications’ lists–if for no other reason than to play catch-up–ranking systems often evade me. What does it mean to be the seventh-best album of the year? What does it mean to be “Album of the Year” in the first place? But during my first year at Madison, I befriended a feminist media scholar who, to my mind, came to her subject of study (comics) for the same reason I cared about the production of music culture: it enriched our feminism.
Last year, my favorite album cover was Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe. In general, I think Santi White makes fun, innovative pop music. This album was no exception. But I was especially taken with White’s multiple, fragmented presence in the composition–in a bespoke suit as a man, in duplicate as glamorous attendants, in a Napoleon-ic pose as a work of art. I struggled to find words to interpret the cover’s larger meanings. Defeated and distracted by other obligations, I abandoned the draft. Similar feelings and responsibilities kept me quiet this year. After a point, you wonder if it’s too late to contribute one more post about Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. You’re not sure where to fit a thousand words over your ambivalence about the presence of Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox’s queer, Marfans-formed body in Dallas Buyers Club. You let things go.
I’m sad about that, as I’m happiest when I give myself the opportunity to write independent of mine or others’ expectations. Recently, my thesis adviser shared a blog one of her students started. What struck me the most about it was its seeming immediacy. When I started this blog, many of my posts boiled down to 200 words of “hey, look at this thing!” I miss that. I believe in making soft resolutions at the dark, cold start of a new year. That’s how I started this blog. While I’m going to try not to put enormous pressure on myself to be a prolific, visible writer, I will attempt to share more.
One thing I’m always willing to share is album art. Much of what first drew me to music were evocative covers around which you could build your world. I imagine that this same sense of wonder, of seductive immersion, brought people to Star Wars too. Here now are a selection of some of my favorite album covers and a brief explanation of why I loved them.
Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Cover Art: Sam Spratt
If I were to give out an award for album of the year, it might go to this electric lady. As with her previous outing, I would still like her to refine her focus a bit more. But I’m not going anywhere. If Beyoncé is our Queen of Pop, then Monáe is our two-tone funky Prince(ss). I love this cover for the same reason I love Master of My Make-Believe (the leader has a pompadour, but the Monáettes each have a distinct personality under their matching mod bobs) and also because I was so happy that Erykah Badu recast herself as the female, pink version of the Love Below in OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” video.
Cover Art: Jane Chardiet
Margaret Chardiet is mythologizing herself when she says that this tableau is a recreation of a moment when she found maggots eating a dead flower nestled inside an old love letter. But all mediation is mythology anyway. And this image nicely reflects Abandon‘s brutal beauty. I can’t wait to see her live.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Cover Art: Kathleen Judge
It’s easy to reduce this to Case’s “depression” album, and I certainly don’t want to do that (Case contains multitudes). Yet this image elegantly represents the perilous creatures you invent in your mind and the woozy clarity that comes with wrestling your own sadness and anger. Also, I marvel that her voice and writing get sharper and more formidable with each album. If I were a lit major, I’d more confidently assay a Flannery O’Connor comparison. But really, Case is on her own journey.
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Cover Art: Martin Falck
Beets are my favorite vegetable because they taste like the earth, look like vital organs, and stain cutting boards with a lurid, eye-searing pink. If it’s not hot pink, fuchsia, or magenta, go home. Pink needs to call attention to itself, make itself strange. Pink cannot be a complicit color. It must be rude and loud and slightly disorienting. Our queer brothers and sisters know this, and so do the Knife. Also, stick around for Liv Strömquist’s sleeve art. Actually, I’d be comfortable with claiming this as my favorite album, as I always had it on hand when I wrote.
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
Cover Art: Dean Chalkley and Rob Crane
When you have the bearing of a queen and the voice of a superstar, you don’t need to face forward. We can meet your gaze. We can marvel at your profile and anticipate you drawing in your breath before you start in on another song.
Cover Art: Isaac Gale
Upon second glance, this picture appears to be a woman waiting for her hair dye to take hold. But the vivid, austere combination of pale skin, blue wall, and smeared red substance suggest, much like the album, a presence more menacing in its intimacy. Something tells me that the feminist theorist after whom the album is named would appreciate the image and its myriad interpretations.
Cover Art: Tom Manaton and Daniel Sannwald
One of my favorite late-night performances of the year was M.I.A.’s one-two punch of “YALA” and “Come Walk With Me” on The Colbert Report under blinking red and green lights to match her album art. My entire relationship to this album is through YouTube and, with the pixelation, that sounds about right. A nice companion piece to Shaking the Habitual.
The Julie Ruin, Run Fast
Cover Art: Allyson Mitchell
If I designed the cover art for Run Fast, I would try to capture my feelings from listening to this record, which disrupted any household chore with a one-woman dance-off. Then I found out that the image is part of a series called “Ladies Sasquatch” by artist Allyson Mitchell about “imagining utopias or queer/politicized worlds where gender is dreamed about outside of social construction.” I still discover new heroes and heroines each time I listen to “Hot Topic,” and now I can add Mitchell to the list. This is just one more example of how Kathleen Hanna transformed my citational politics.
The Blow, The Blow
Cover Art: Melissa Dyne
The triangle is the support structure to so much architecture. It’s the basic unit for stars, pyramids, and yield signs. It’s a shape that delights in difference, able to be scalene, isosceles, equilateral, right, obtuse, acute. Khalela and Melissa know this, and pitch their warped pop music somewhere between the mundane and the divine in tribute.
Dynasty, A Star in Life’s Clothing
Cover Art: Simone Cihlar and Darryl Richardson
If only this image were in motion, as there’s not a dull moment on this lively album. Like the best pop stars, Dynasty is a beauty who moves. She’s another artist I can’t wait to see live.
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Cover Art: Gaspar Noé
Gender is definitely operative in taste curation, and often subordinates femininity. Such concerns apply to Ferreira, a young pop star who captures the imagination of male creative types like filmmaker Noé, producer Ariel Rechtshaid, DIIV front man Zachary Cole Smith, and fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Hedi Slimane. But there’s a depth, candor, and rage to her voice (qualities sharpened by survival) that informs this cover and makes the Shirley Manson comparisons more than a question of eyeliner.
Savages, Silence Yourself
Cover Art: Antoine Carlier and Richard Dumas
Because finally a group of women can update Joy Division and beat countless art school boys at their own game. And because “Husbands” and this cover seems to have something to do with Patti Smith’s Horses too.
Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Cover Art: Rob Carmichael
Apparently Gigi served as inspiration for Holter’s third album. I have trouble making out the references–perhaps Chevalier is eclipsing my recollections of Caron, perhaps I should read some Colette. But this photograph–of some building on a Los Angeles city street–reminds me of that feeling of waking up from a long car trip, rubbing your neck and losing grip on your last dream, to a place not quite recognizable as a destination.
Cover Art: Jonathan Turnaer
In many ways, this cover reminds me of the kaleidescopic Ring, save for a few key differences. First, the muted color palette. Second, a clearer sense of place. Finally, Cameron Mesirow’s decentered but guiding presence.
Cover Art: Garrett Born
First, BEST DENIM JACKET EVER. Second, I saw Lizzo open for Poliça earlier this year and she shut it down. Third, one of the songs on this album is called “Lizzie Borden.” Fourth, she’s part of a crew called GRRRL PRTY and I don’t need to explain to you why that’s awesome. Fifth, I appreciate her commitment to that hat even if it doesn’t offer proper shade. I don’t know where she’s at or where she’s planning to go in this picture, but I will follow her and the party that forms around her. Pump this album at full blast in your car. Dance like it’s your friend’s going-away bash and she’s not getting the deposit back. See Lizzo if she comes to your town. Get your life.
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.
The other night, I watched Missy Elliott’s Behind the Music. It’s a pretty good episode. I forgot how many talented ladies Elliott worked with, including Tweet, Nelly Furtado, and Alyson Stoner. Joan Morgan champions “One Minute Man” for articulating that women can seek out sex for it’s own sake. Mary J. Blige backs Elliott’s genius regardless of her size. Elliott’s mother Patricia talks about coming forward as a domestic abuse survivor at her daughter’s behest. And Elliott speaks candidly about working through traumas related to incest and childhood molestation, living with Grave’s disease, struggling to break into the music industry as part of the girl group Fayze, and getting edited out of the video to Raven-Symoné’s “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” because she was fat, even though she co-wrote the song. Damn. At least Heart videos had Ann Wilson’s face, even though the camera lusted after Nancy’s guitar-slung torso.
I knew we were going to talk about protégée Aaliyah’s death, which brought back so many memories. The plane crash. The news reports. Fatima Robinson crying. The posthumous release of the video for “Rock the Boat.” Jackets with the singer’s face airbrushed on the back. DMX in the “Miss You” video. Her older brother Rashad weeping during her episode of Behind the Music. Missy and Tim’s hearts breaking. All these feelings came up again when I watched the Elliott episode, as I’m sure they do for the rapper-producer every day. They flooded back this morning when I read Leslie Pitterson’s Clutch Magazine piece, which commemorates the 10-year anniversary of her death excerpts Damon Dash’s Billboard interview about his relationship with the singer and the grief he worked through.
In a weird way, the loss of Aaliyah also came back last week when I watched an episode of Buffy that featured Ashanti as a demon. She seemed to be channeling Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned, or maybe that’s who writer Jane Espenson and the wardrobe department were trying to conjure. I knew something wicked was afoot, because there’s no way Ashanti would date a schlub like Xander. This also made me think of what a weird time the early 2000s were when Ashanti broke Billboard records but left no impression on me besides coming off as impolite to a chauffeur in an episode of Punk’d because she expressly forbid him from talking to her. Ah, Punk’d. How it played into (and often betrayed) celebrity image construction. Justin Timberlake is a stoned mama’s boy. Magic Johnson is quite level-headed when dealing with his son’s scorned lover. Katie Holmes gets pushed around. Of course, the show also presented a lot of scenarios where black celebrities had to deal with law enforcement. Call out Ashton’s racial insensitivity, Dave Chappelle!
Anyway, Ashanti wearing belly chains and wielding swords just made me miss Aaliyah. This might have worked better if it was Rihanna. I’m willing to see her an action movie, even if it’s stupid to build a film franchise on a board game. Maybe the “Hard” video was her audition for a Tank Girl reboot. Maybe Michelle Rodriguez will be in it. . . . But I digress.
I love Aaliyah’s music, as do many friends. In high school, girlfriends made up dances for her songs. Ginny created an interpretive dance for the first verse to “Are You That Somebody?” Brooke came up with a routine for “Try Again” that she performed at prom. I was introduced to Aaliyah in junior high when I saw the video for “Back & Forth” on the Box (a channel in need of more academic scholarship and a Grantland oral history). Who was this cool girl with the silky voice and why was she wearing sunglasses? It’s staggering how many amazing singles she had in her too-short career: “One In a Million,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “We Need a Resolution,” an amazing cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” and my all-time favorites “More Than a Woman” and “4-Page Letter.”
For me, Aaliyah represented the future. In this and other ways, she reminds me of Selena. Both women were veteran entertainers who were just about to break into the mainstream when their lives were cut tragically short, at 22 and 23 respectively. They continue to influence artists and develop fan bases across generations and borders. They also seemed to have a lot of self-respect. Both women were sexy, but refused to be degraded or turned into objects. They seemed in control of their sexuality. They knew girls were watching them, and they also knew to save some of themselves from the public eye. Like Janet Jackson before them and Beyoncé after, they made self-possession sexy. Hell, Aaliyah was secretly married to R. Kelly as a teenager and that didn’t stick to her (or him, really). She kept quiet about it. It undoubtedly changed her, but she wasn’t a victim and it wasn’t your business what transpired between them. It didn’t define her. It was never going to. The cover to Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number says it all. Notice which figure is blurry and out of frame and who doesn’t have to take off her shades to look directly at the camera and hold your attention. All that, and she never had to raise her voice. You were one a million, Aaliyah. You still are.