In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.
On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.
St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.
Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.
In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.
I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.
Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.
At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.
Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.
So I just got off the phone with a colleague’s student who’s doing a ‘zine project on feminism and music. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to start your day talking about riot grrrl with a teenage girl.
I teach music history workshops with Girls Rock Camp out of an investment with creating a space for girls to recognize that they are entering into an ongoing history of women and girls coming together to make music. In addition, there’s some important historical moments happening right now. So I thought I’d acknowledge this in song form with a quick post.
First, a few videos from Wild Flag, EMA, and Cher Horowitz, a few acts that I think represent riot grrrl’s legacy.
Next, a tip of the tiara to my Queerbomb brothers and sisters, who took to the streets this past weekend. I recently made a mix CD for our discussion of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place for my cultural theory seminar, and a number of the selections were the influence of Queerbomb participants, along with Homoground and Expatriarch‘s stellar efforts. Let’s shine a light on Katastrophe, Girl in a Coma, and Miz Korona.
Looking toward the future, I’ll honor some girls in my life. Some of my friends are moms, which is tremendously important work. A lot of them are moms to boys, which is very important, since men who love, respect, and honor women usually have women who taught them that (along with the men who love, respect, honor women–some of my best friends are dads too). All of my love goes out to Sylvan, Will, Declan, Max, and Noah and the parents who are raising them to be good people. But a few girls in my life were recently brought into the world or had a birthday. So let’s honor that with some songs by Kate Bush, Norah Jones, Rosie Flores, and Little Eva–women who share their names.
And finally, tomorrow is Wisconsin’s recall election. This is serious business. I’ll be casting my vote and holding hope for a better future. YACHT, Lady Kier, and Invincible will keep me cautiously optimistic.
In the film adaptation of High Fidelity, one of the protagonist’s ex-girlfriends talks about how tall KISS bassist Gene Simmons always looks onstage. Charlie Nicholson’s point is that height—or at least the illusion of it—is central to a rock star’s iconicity. The Demon is a magnetic figure who demands our attention. The raised platforms and his stacked-heel boots force our gaze forward and upward. Height equals power over who possesses and manipulates our gaze. You’ll never see him less than 300 feet tall.
Within the context of the film, this is a throwaway line. We’re not really meant to pay attention to Charlie’s opinion. The point is made in voice-over and montage that she was always the center of attention, even if Rob Gordon was then more interested in watching her mouth than listening to her opinions. But Charlie has a point. Even if Simmons is already a tall man, he’ll always tower over his audience. That’s why he’s a rock star. But the visual parallel is not lost on Gordon. In Rob’s memory, the person articulating this opinion towers over him. He knows she’s way out of his league and dreads the day when someone sunnier and sparkier catches her eye. His name is Marco.
A tall musician is much appreciated when you’re at a show and barely clear five feet. It is often taken for granted that a venue is a site of constant negotiation, if not outright hostility, for many people. Getting there provides its own obstacles. If you don’t have a car, you have to take a bus or catch a cab or coordinate with friends who we can only assume want to see the same band you do. If you do have a car, you might have to drive alone. This could involve circling around several times to find a closer place to park, arming yourself with mace, and being on your guard to and from the gig. This routine disproportionately burdens women and girls.
Then there’s the show itself. Once you get to a concert, you usually have to stand for hours at a time. This alone can exclude potential concert-goers who live with physical disabilities. Furthermore, it is often assumed that everyone attends a concert for the same reason: the music. Let’s challenge the myth that a concert is this utopian gesture of communal good will. Even if you know all five people at some friend’s basement gig, you can’t assume that everyone’s there to see the band. Usually, you’re watching a band with strangers. The larger the venue, the likelier this is to be the case. Thus you might have to endure people spilling beer or stepping on your feet too. In some instances, folks get predatory and grabby. In my experience, it’s more common for some six-foot tower of a person—usually a guy, though not always—to take root directly in front of you. If these people have no sense of others’ personal space, they might clobber you while swaying to the music. This can be even more of a hassle if they’ve been drinking. When you tally this up, obstructed vision can be the least of your problems at a concert.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to shows. If anything, this should motivate people to say “Oh fuck this—Wild Flag is coming to my town and I WILL BE THERE.” We shouldn’t have to hope that our friends or partners will join us for protection. While it’s fun to go to shows with people, everyone should feel safe enough to attend a concert alone. We should claim our space, insist that venues accommodate everyone and be sensitive to their individual needs, and demand safe transport for each attendee.
But height is a feminist issue, and not just because we need monitors flanking an amphitheater stage to catch a glimpse of Rihanna. It’s why the riot grrrl movement was on to something when individual bands insisted that girls stand in front of the crowd at shows. This gesture called out rock’s unspoken misogyny and influenced acts like the Beastie Boys to stop performances if they saw female concert-goers getting mistreated or swallowed up by the pit. Of course, there are plenty of short dudes who go to concerts. But more often, girls and short women are made invisible.
This extends well past the venue space. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, a three-and-a-half-hour film about the invisible drudgery of feminine domestic labor, is brilliant for a whole host of reasons. But there are at least two meanings behind the shots where the main character’s head is cropped in the frame. One is that Dielman’s subjectivity—which we might register through facial cues—doesn’t matter to those around her. The other is that the shot illustrates the director’s point of view. This is what a short person sees. It’s why at some point I want to write a book about concert spectatorship just so the cover can be an image of what I often see at a rock show: lots of people’s heads and shoulders and maybe the band. Rejecting this perspective is how rock concerts taught me to use my elbows as a feminist.
Off stage, you’ll never see EMA’s Erika M. Anderson or YACHT’s Claire L. Evans less than six feet tall. But what they do with their height on stage is interesting. At a recent show at the Sett, Evans channeled Robyn or mid-80s Nick Rhodes with her white suit, leotard, wedge heels, and matching platinum coif. At around the same time, I also caught EMA at the Frequency. Anderson was quietly holding court in grungy clothes and reddish-brown hair—a departure from the dark-rooted blonde dye job I saw her sporting at previous concerts and in promotional photos.
The shows were very different from one another, both in terms of the music itself and in how the audiences responded to each band. In many ways, YACHT is a successor to conceptual new wave bands like DEVO and the B-52s. They’re art nerds with a chick lead singer who use cult imagery and capitalist symbols to keep the dance party going. Some of the audience got this while others wrapped their arms around amplifiers to steady themselves through a drug trip. A fair number of audience members hooted at Evans, and it was interesting to see her at once play with her sexuality and openly disdain others’ objectification.
EMA is no less interested in symbolic imagery. Like Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Michael Gira, and Kim Gordon before her, there’s something very Catholic about Anderson’s free-associative lyrics, particularly her emphasis on ritual, sacrifice, and erotic pain. God (or Leadbelly, or Leadbelly interpreted by Kurt Cobain) may have also taught her to negotiate, because she had the audience’s rapt attention while rarely propelling her voice above a whisper.
Granted, an intimate venue disguised as a dive bar is not the same as a state college’s multipurpose venue space. WUD booked YACHT’s show and has a partnership deal with Best Buy. I doubt 100 people were at the EMA show, but all of them seemed to focus their energies on the band and only unfolded their arms to quietly clap after each song. If the two bands swapped venues—and both bands have experience with many kinds of performance spaces—we’d have seen two different shows. Yet I was able to see Evans and Anderson very clearly. With Evans, I pushed myself to the front and craned my neck. With Anderson, I got a clear view of the stage between two sets of shoulders. Both women took ownership of their space, using their bodies to demonstrate choreographed dance moves and filling the air with their distinct voices. I couldn’t take my eyes off either of them.
It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
This year, three new albums found their way into my constant rotation. One is EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, which is the strongest debut album I’ve heard so far (feelings I share with Lindsay Zoladz and Stacey Pavlick). Erika M. Anderson’s spare acoustic-drone psychodrama is all peroxide and rusty razor blades. It’s an interesting stylistic counterpoint to one of last year’s great debuts, Glasser’s Ring, where Cameron Mesirow encrusted her electro-feminist musings with barnacles and jewels.
The other two albums are huge artistic leaps forward. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake reminds people who only casually listened to her after Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that she remains one of rock’s most vital artists. These tend to be the same people who wish she revisited Rid of Me, not knowing that she did in 2004 with Uh Huh Her, which is seething and vital on its own terms. tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is the other one, and a beast live. Here, Merrill Garbus proves the Blackberry ad wasn’t a fluke and that her debut album’s lo-fi set-up was less an aesthetic choice than a pragmatic necessity. Like Kala, w h o k i l l foregrounds propulsive drumming and struts and shines like a pop record. Both have been met with near-unanimous critical acclaim. They’re also two of my favorite records of the year so far. No contest.
Thematically, they have much in common. Put simply, they’re albums about forging and contending national identit(ies) in countries that have or continue to define themselves by war, a point Harvey articulated about England in her recent Fresh Air interview. They also quote from other artists to locate and conjure their country’s musical heritage. w h o k i l l‘s dazzling opener, “My Country,” references “America” and “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s first prominent interracial, mixed gender rock band. It also champions the United States’ problematic multicultural spirit throughout, with liberal quotations from cultural imports like ska and reggae and Garbus’ omnipresent ukulele. England‘s “The Glorious Land” samples the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The saxophone and trombone in “The Last Living Rose” sound like a Kinks flourish. “The Colour of the Earth,” an elegy to a dead soldier, barrels along like a pub anthem. Two of the album’s showcased instruments, the autoharp and the zither, echo the lush stringed instrumentation that made 4AD the nation’s home for dream pop in the album’s three-song centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “All and Everyone,” and “On Battleship Hill.” It’s as much a British album in sound as it is for its interest in the First World War and England’s involvement with the ongoing crises in the Middle East.
And while I don’t want to compare Harvey to Kate Bush, another dark-haired musician/lady genius with a complicated obsession with her homeland, I do marvel at how Harvey uses her voice as genderfuck. For an album largely about war and living with its atrocities, I agree that using a breathy tone destabilizes the directness of her words. In its way, it reminds me more of Armando Iannucci’s staggering In the Loop, a piercing satire about Anglo-American politics and the Iraq invasion. Harvey uses her voice to offset and deepen the tragedy. Iannucci and his writing team use comedy to illustrate the stupid, careless banter of ambitious civil servants, career politicians, and military personnel who use words and protocol to kill people and destroy nations. Has anyone synced up “The Words That Maketh Murder” to any scene in that movie on YouTube? It’s intuitive.
But let’s face facts. They’re albums by white women. Of course, we’re a homogenuous group amongst ourselves and these two albums are their own entities. w h o k i l l is an album about being a white woman with a complex interiority. Garbus opines about gentrification on “Gangsta,” fantasizes about making love to the cop who is arresting her brother in “Riotriot,” mourns the loss of a loved one by police brutality on “Doorstep”, and tries to unlearn ingrained body hatred in “Es-so”. While she may be embellishing or fictionalizing at times, she is certainly singing from her peer group’s perspective, specifically the vantage point of relocated urban white hipsters (Garbus recently moved to Oakland). Harvey plays with gender, assuming the role of a traumatized male soldier or embodying a degendered narrator, and her ability to morph into these characters connotes white privilege. Garbus’ play with ebonics (using words like “gangsta,” “powa,” “killa,” and, on her first record, “fiya” for “gangster,” “power,” “killer,” and “fire”) suggests the same thing.
This gets at issues of appropriation. “England” samples Said El Kurdi’s “Kassem Miro” and “Written on the Forehead” lifts Winston “Niney” Holness’ “Blood and Fire” while employing an omniscent narrator to reflect on the cultural richness and war-wrecked blight of some unattributed Middle Eastern country that Harvey has revealed to be about present-day Iraq, even though several countries still use dinar as currency. These songs gesture toward England’s history as a brutal colonizer, as well as its migratory musical and cultural heritage. They are my favorite songs on the record–elliptical, searching, imaginative. But as is often the case with sampling, that doesn’t mean they’re racial politics aren’t troubled.
In the middle of “Killa,” seemingly an ode to female self-empowerment, Garbus asks “would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?” It’s a question imbued in white female privilege. But it’s also an interesting and productive question white people don’t like to ask or think on very often. Best of all, it’s also a question with an answer. It’s why Merrill Garbus was able to study African folkloric traditions while attending a liberal arts college, smear paint across her face, and cite Fela Kuti as an influence. It’s why Glasser’s backup singers put on conical hats for Jimmy Fallon without explanation and no one cries foul. It’s why Kate Bush is allowed to use black people to “color” a music video. It’s why the very concept of eclecticism in popular music is racially loaded and lousy with class signifiers that would make Bourdieu put down his tea cup and furrow his brow.
It’s also a question I could ask to get at why my friend Kristen was one of the few black women in our grad program at UT. It’s a question that gets at the heart at why I didn’t think to introduce her to Cassandra, another black woman in my friend group constellation–because I didn’t want to seem racist for assuming that my black girlfriends would like each other. It also gets at my embedded racism when I sent panicked text messages to them about some pushback I got from my Alicia Keys post. I wanted confirmation that I was racially sensitive and, once I realized what I was doing, immediately apologized for trying to force them into the role of wise black female cultural arbiter when they probably just wanted to sleep or watch television or eat ice cream. It’s why Maya Rudolph’s bridal party is comprised of white ladies. It’s why seeking out a black Zooey Deschanel may be a fool’s errand and thus why it may be more productive to champion Web series’ like the nuanced, hilarious The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl instead. Because class, race, and white cisfemale privilege color all of this, and like Harvey and Garbus, I directly benefit from it.
When I started this blog, it was out of a personal need to highlight female musical contributions. Now sometimes it just seems like I’m just championing white ladies–hence the delay on a post I’ve been writing in my head for a few months. Nowhere is this more evident than in looking at my record collection, which also proves that fetishizing an eclectic mix of genres across identity categories means having the disposable income to do so (or at least deciding not to buy a car or make a baby with it). And as much as I recommend Georgia Anne Muldrow, pump Betty Davis, put Chavela Vargas on mix CDs, laud Cibo Matto and OOIOO, seek out acts like the Lost Bois, celebrate Jean Grae’s new effort, breathlessly await Psalm One’s next album, and agree that white women shouldn’t only listen to artists that reflect their own identities, it probably reads as either defensive or self-congratulatory for being down. Scratch that, it is being defensive and self-congratulatory. That doesn’t mean I’m only going to make mixes with white ladies on it. I just refuse to take credit or feel good about myself for including Ebony Bones or the Bags on a mix CD.
I’m a feminist because I believe there’s value in aligning with an ethos that’s committed to dismantling the patriarchy and celebrating a transinclusive notion of female identit(ies), even when I have to fight for it to be equitable, acknowledge when it isn’t, and help work toward creating a system of -isms that includes all my sisters (even the ones who don’t want me as their sisters). So I’ll keep trying to be an ally, always call race into question when I’m talking about gender, and assume I have much more to learn than I do to teach. I love music because it transports me both within and outside myself and provides me with sites of identification and something to do on a Saturday night, and then forces me to consider the implications of such mental travel and hive formation. I love writing about it because it clarifies my opinions, opens up a dialogue, and holds me accountable. I love Let England Shake and w h o k i l l, because they are angry, varied, and gracious. And it’s because I love them that I have to question why I do.
You know what I love to watch? Women dancing. No, icky trolls, I don’t mean strippers, though like Missy says, “ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang . . . just make sure you’re ahead of the game.” I’m referring to females claiming ownership of their bodies through dance, which of course includes strippers as much as it presumes Kate Bush. I bet Louise Lecavalier knows what I’m talking about and would probably add that there’s joy to be felt in stretching your body’s physical limits. No doubt Merrill Garbus would chime with a reminder not to forget the importance of forging a communal spirit. Movement creates an index of symbols and guiding a beat with your body can feel very powerful indeed. The other night, at a friend’s wedding reception, I had the pleasure of remembering that with friends. I hope you do too.
This first one is EMA’s “California,” a single off her debut solo record, Past Life Martyred Saints. Erika Anderson’s movements here aren’t strict dance, but they are clearly choreographed for this song, as she’s performed this routine at shows.
The second clip is for movement one of Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind (Just In Time),” which Badu directed. Hopefully it is well-known that I think Badu’s a genius, like how Ellen Willis thought Janis Joplin was a genius. Badu is a master of embodying intangible feelings with her voice and body, as she does here. If her music and image is “difficult” to some (and “crazy” to ableists), it’s only because she’s telling the truth. Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted this on her Facebook profile and it’s so great I had to jot off an entire post around it. Thank you for making my day, ma’am.
Today, I thought I’d share two music videos I really like. They don’t necessarily have thematic similarities. EMA’s “Milkman” music video is in color, employs trippy imagery, and looks deliberately cheap. Tearist’s “Disposition (In Black)” clip is in black and white, creates a sense of foreboding with shadows, quick cuts, and strobe effects, and is beautiful in its compositional austerity.
But both foreground the female singers–Erika Anderson and Yasmine Kittles–in a manner not completely out of step with pop video standards. No, we’re not dealing with Katy Perry cheesecake. No one is ejaculating icing from their bras, and glad I am for that because Jesus Christ never again. However, if music videos are foremost about elevating musicians to stardom–if only for a few minutes–these clips follow that trajectory while creating arresting imagery that befits the artists in the process.
I should also disclose that I’m prompted to dash off this post because the director of “Disposition (In Black)” contacted me recently. She told me about a write-up she saw on Lin Party where the author posted the video and used it as a springboard to talk about how Kittles makes him hard (incidentally, he didn’t talk about the song, the video, or the craft put into either creation). She wondered if I had written on the prevalence of these kinds of responses toward female artists by male critics in the past. Here’s an edited version of my response. I took out mention of the director’s opinion, because I’m not sure if she wants that reprinted. I thought I’d share because it deserves a larger conversation and I’m happy to use this blog as a forum.
So this guy is the worst! This goes way beyond getting the band’s name wrong. “If you ever have the erratic urge to jump up and shove your soft spot crotch in my face in public (or private) I will welcome it with two arms, a shirt that says ‘Fuck me I’m Bell from Bell Biv Devoe’”?!?!? (note: the author is referring to a video Kittles did with Erik Wareheim where she straddles his face several times to Bat for Lashes’ “Daniel”) Really? Gross. This just reminds me of how my journalism professors would say things like “don’t describe a woman as beautiful if you’re doing a feature profile on her” or “don’t describe what the (female) rape victim wore.” The idea being that women are so often judged on looks that we don’t even think about it when deciding whether disclosing that kind of information suggests a bias and furthers the story. Like, what do these things actually tell us about the person? Giving into it is both lazy reportage and old-school sexism.