There’s a line in Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, a documentary about the professional rivalries between alt-rock groups the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols during the late 90s and early 2000s, that I keep turning over in my mind. In an early scene in the film, the Dandys are absolving themselves of influencing the BJM to relocate from San Francisco to Portland to initiate some sort of musical revolution. Demonstrating their corporate allegiances, the Dandys defer to their partnership with Capitol Records and the need to deliver on their contract by producing an album. In their minds, the revolution must be delayed until after they become successful in capitalist terms. Here, the Dandys cast themselves as ambitious, efficient, and functional. This is in opposition to the BJM, who are framed as undisciplined, excessive, and (self-)destructive. According to corporate logic, only one group can be successful. After that success is confirmed, then you can usher in the revolution and get your friends to squat in Capitol Records. Dandys keyboardist Zia McCabe delivers the definitive line. “We were being productive,” she surmises, thus suggesting that the BJM, who were unsigned and filtering out hordes of side players due to persistent, drug-fueled interpersonal problems, were unproductive.
I return to this line for a few reasons. For one, I’m still not sure how either band would define “the revolution.” I have a clearer take that for the BJM it doesn’t involve cowing to the music industry. Even then, however, BJM mastermind Anton Newcombe promises to make the employees at TVT a “shitload of money” when they briefly sign to the major indie. The Dandys take cues from their namesake, Andy Warhol, and flatten pop culture in order to shade it in with camp and irony. They certainly nail the first part, creating time-shifting pop music that sounds somewhat akin to what buying a CBGB’s shirt off the rack at Urban Outfitters feels like.
The film is invested in playing up the two groups’ differences. The filmmakers deliberately chose to film the BJM in Super 8, giving their narrative a lo-fi, retro feel that bears the grain of authenticity and blurs around the margins. The Dandys were filmed in 16mm, lending their story a crisper image quality that jibes with the group’s pop aspirations. But I’ve never been convinced that Dig! is a study in opposites. For one, I’m not sure that the class distinctions between the two groups break down as neatly as we can assume. Newcombe is represented as a product of a broken family, raised by a single mother in Orange County while his father medicated mental problems with alcohol. The Dandys are represented as “the most well-adjusted band in America,” the products of nuclear families with parents who invested in Intel. However, the BJM were managed by Dave Deresinski, whose father was an AIDS researcher at Stanford. By others’ accounts, McCabe grew up working-class.
Importantly, both frontmen are chasing a mode of 60s-era Romantic rock artistry that is dead, and may never have actually existed. As a result, both Newcombe and Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor have never seemed authentic to me. Newcombe’s propensity to riot, dress in white, and put on a faux British accent in his singing scans as slightly “realer” than Taylor-Taylor wearing cowboy hats, toting skateboards, and digging on vegan food. It comes to bear on their music. The BJM produce droning guitar hymns brimming with melody but bloated by hippie pablum about bad trips and wicked women. The Dandys produce an approximation of whatever might be selling—Britpop, psychedelia, 80s-revivalist glam—and slap some pun-driven lyrics about the counterculture or sex on top like bumper stickers on a VW Bug. And if Newcombe isn’t for sale, as he claims The Beatles and Taylor-Taylor were, then what decisions led to licensing “Straight Up and Down” for Boardwalk Empire? Appeals might be made to legitimation—the pedigree of the project, the artful use of musical anachronism, the belief that HBO isn’t television anyway—but is this fundamentally different than the Dandys’ licensing of “Bohemian Like You” to Vodafone? I’m not entirely convinced. Legitimation seems like an excuse, not an opposition.
I also return to this line because I wonder what it means for a woman, the only woman in the Dandy Warhols, to claim that the band was being productive. What does it mean for a woman to say that we were being productive? Both the Dandys and the BJM played with women. This creates an aura of progressivism through inclusion. It is meaningful for bands to be mixed-gender. It is powerful to see men and women play together and it creates the potential for shifting gender dynamics in the music industry. Men and women need to learn how to share space. Rehearsal space. Stage space. Recording space. Tour bus space. Meeting space. Promotional space. Publishers’ credit space. I see some evidence of that in both bands. In the film and in the commentary tracks, McCabe and former BJM member Miranda Lee Richards own their contributions to their bands. So I wonder what we do with Taylor-Taylor essentially casting McCabe for the Dandys upon seeing her working at a coffee shop. She had no musical experience at the time. Was he casting her because she looked so much like the archetypical alt-rock pin-up, the kind of girl whose features would take to piercings and hair dye? Does this then inform McCabe’s reception, as she was infamous in early Dandys live performances for playing topless? The same questions could be asked of former BJM guest player Sophie Guenan, initially cast as a Nico-type presence in the band due to her foreign-ness and willingness to play the cello. And of course we can’t overlook that the film was made by a woman working with two men who run their own production company and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. The film itself makes no explicit comment on gender, but we could.
Based on the documentary and the commentary, gender seems most operative in the BJM when it calls the group’s hippie machismo into question. Percussionist Joel Gion is most often deployed for these purposes. Outfitted in oversize sunglasses and a DIY mod hairdo, Gion mugs and vogues through most of Dig! He delivers wry commentary and wordless asides throughout the film. When guitarist/bassist Matt Hollywood concludes a tour anecdote about being accosted by Southern homophobes with “Say what you want, redneck. I’m heading over to your girlfriend’s house,” Gion counters with “The embarrassing thing was, we were sucking each other’s dicks at the time.” Yet even he cannot escape such macho posturing, claiming in a deleted scene that there’s nothing wrong with going to a meeting with a female label executive smelling like another woman’s pussy. The Dandys fare better. McCabe is able to perform, record, and tour alongside guitarist and ex-boyfriend Pete Holmström without comment. Yet Taylor-Taylor still wonders excitedly if McCabe is going to flash Matt Pinfield for a taping at MTV.
Finally, I return to this line because I would like a clearer sense of what being productive means. Does it have to do with making products? Does it have to do with feeling as though you are effectively managing your professional time? Does it mean that you feel good about your work? Does feeling good about your work mean that you’ve made a commitment to not self-exploit? I wonder what it means to the Dandys and the BJM. I wonder what it means to Matt Stahl, whose chapter on Dig! in Unfree Masters prompted me to revisit the documentary. I wonder for my pre-liminary exams, which I take at the end of the summer (I have made my reading list available through my profile on Academia.edu and I’m also updating my progress on Twitter). I wonder for my dissertation, which will focus on the identity politics of music-based intermediary labor in the post-network era. As I saw Annie Petersen do with her blog the summer she took her exams, I plan on using this blog as a space to work through some big ideas for this larger project. One of those big ideas, reignited by McCabe’s line in Dig!, is puzzling through being productive in relation to positing distinctions between labor and work.
In Bodies That Matter Judith Butler uses the concept of the heterosexual matrix to aver that materiality is a product of discourse. This supports her intervening argument that sex is a product of gender. This inverts the perceived biological paradigm that gender is the product of sex. Butler claims instead that gender enacts the processes by which we understand sex as such (Butler 1993; if you’re lost, here’s a link that explains this argument with cats). With Butler’s identity-based furniture rearrangement project in mind, I maintain that the material conditions that allow for deskilling and affect to serve as products of labor are the result of gender, which leads to the ongoing historical practices of invisibility and inaudibility. My intervention will be to theorize the relationship between invisibility and inaudibility through considering the labor roles and relations of supervisors, licensors, booking agents, and promoters. By holding visual and sonic metaphors in tension, I hope to advocate for their industrial and textual audibility through considering their contributions as labor.
It is my belief that better scholarly attention is required to understand the shaping of music-based intermediary labor in relation to an intersectional approach to understanding gender—one that is operative with race, sexuality, class, and age—at this particular historical moment. In order to successfully prepare a pre-liminary response and dissertation on this topic, I also need to historicize these changes in labor practices alongside post-network convergence and post-feminist ideology and their influence on the shaping and contextualization of media texts, intertextual relations, and definitions of power and identity. Greater emphasis is placed on branding in order to differentiate between a host of competing networks, channels, user technologies, and reception practices. Much of this is also reflected in the cultural move toward post-feminism following the feminist backlash of the 1980s. Greater emphasis began to be placed on some tenets of feminism—particularly autonomy, agency, and choice—while trading away the movement’s collaborative, anti-capitalist inclinations in order to emphasize material wealth and individual achievement.
To offer an example, I am currently working on a research project on the multiple functions of music licensing—the use of permitted copyrighted music—on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition-based reality show on Logo devoted to finding the next drag superstar. Music licensing has always been a part of reality programming, though only in recent years has it become integrated into the packaging and marketing beyond providing extradiegetic atmosphere for the purposes of narration and characterization. Drag Race has become a tent-pole program for the cable channel, which focuses its programming and brand on LGBT-themed content. In the project, I combine textual and discourse analysis to map out particularly illustrative instances of music licensing during the program’s run to make larger claims about the show’s use of music for the purposes of (often normative, though negotiated) queer identification and interpellation.
I am using the program to analyze the term “licensing” from two different angles. First, I will look at how host RuPaul serves as a licensor of her own music, a role facilitated as much by her role as producer as well as through her distribution deals with iTunes and Amazon. I am also interested in how RuPaul’s Drag Race serves as a licensee, particularly for its lip sync contests. Notably, the increasingly contemporary (and expensive) song selections and the cross-promotion of guest judges licensing their own music for these challenges serve to make the work of licensing audible, suggest the program’s increased wealth and success, and make legible the work of cross-promotion and interpellation. In analyzing the role of the licensor and licensee on this program, I consider the political of power built into giving license on a competition-based reality program for an identity-based niche cable channel, as well as music licensing’s possible queer potential for Logo and Drag Race’s intended audience.
Roughly defined, work seems to be the product that comes out of labor, which then can be understood as the myriad processes that shape the ultimate creation of work. Labor is then extracted from the worker that can produce exchange value. Thus it seems as though the two concepts might be differentiated between each other through temporality. Labor is the seemingly present conditions around which work is understood as a product that has been created. I believe that making such a distinction is important. But throughout the semester, it has been difficult to pin down a clear definition because a number of scholars use labor and work interchangeably, particular when applying such concepts to studies in popular culture.
In Being Rita Hayworth, Adrienne McLean claims to intervene on the field of star studies with a feminist investment in the construction of celebrity as labor. Yet much of her analysis focuses on work, or the final product of Hayworth’s labor—films, interviews, press, and fan discourse (McLean 2004). This speaks to a methodological issue. Obviously, McLean relied upon such primary sources because she had limited access to Hayworth’s labor. She could not visit film sets or conduct interviews. She could not enact ethnographic or participant action research to get a fuller picture of how each interpersonal professional exchange or utterance of personal obligation was pieced together to create the processural context for Hayworth’s labor. This is certainly a temporal issue. Yet it is also a concern that continues to vex production studies: the matter of access. In this regard, Joshua Gamson seems to offer a fuller picture of celebrity and image construction as labor (Gamson 1994). But Gamson had access to celebrities, publicists, agents, marketers, and journalists to help in his construction. McLean “only” had access to textual products, which took the form of archival material, as well as trade discourse and fan zines. I worry that a privileging of the always already present-ness afforded by certain methodologies (and industry connections) might place scholarship in a hierarchy based on perceptual differences around defining and re-enforcing such a rigid distinction between work and labor.
Thus there are some stakes to properly applying these terms or using them interchangeability. What is lost? What is the intellectual crime when we use labor instead of work and vice versa? What are we not capturing? What can we not capture? Do we presume a difference, particularly when many authors use them as if there is no difference or might have to reframe their work differently in ways that create hierarchal privileges of industry access? Importantly for my purposes, why is this distinction important to understand work in relation to gender and labor in terms of gender? Arguably, by conflating the two terms, we may not fully recognize what is being extracted from the body and the mind. If work is the action that we do and labor is what is taken or pulled out of the action, then we have to somehow access the people who are doing this. Can bodies be seen as labor and commodity, if commodity is produced solely for its exchange value? Such a question particularly seems important when talking about gender, femininity, and identity, as women and girls tend to be (de)valued socially and professionally in those terms. Does gender then function as an axis along which to articulate labor? Once we start talking about gender as work, can we then see labor as operative? If work as limited and reducible, then labor has to be about the sociocultural processes that make work possible.
I wonder about labor’s relationship to gender. While women are the subjects of these books, the authors are talking about gender in multiple ways that leave the concept of gender open and not bound by essentialist notions that equate gender to women. Instead of reducing “woman” to an essentialist category, it is important to think through the ways in which “femininity” can be theorized as discursive in relation to gender. However, we must also be conscious of how sex is a material product of gender through the ways in which gender and sex are marked on the body, how they are operative in the ways in which labor is organized and laborers engage in interpersonal professional relations at their jobs, and through the work they are responsible for performing and how that work is discursively defined. In other words, Zia McCabe’s breasts matter.
This makes me reflect on Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: The Case of Cagney and Lacey, one of the seminal works in the field of cultural studies. Many might unintentionally dismiss Defining Women as an extended case study about Cagney and Lacey. But the program seems better understood as a critical lens through which D’Acci interprets the ways that gender and feminism were defined through dialectic practices at a particular historical moment between the television industry, the critical and trade press, and the show’s audience(s). What seems particularly useful to feminist media scholars invested in a production studies approach to popular culture is D’Acci’s differentiation between femininity, woman, and women in her introduction. Applying Teresa de Laurentis’ definition of femininity as a “technology of gender” allows D’Acci to consider how institutions construct a subject of femininity, which provides space to consider how using “femininity” as a descriptor can become a site of struggle over what “woman” means (D’Acci, 7). She consider “woman” as the construction of that subjectivity, particularly defined as an essentialist category and perceived as a stabilized identity that the labor of production and consumption surrounding Cagney and Lacey allows her to problematize. Women, for D’Acci, seem to refer to people and their textual representations (D’Acci, 8-9).
Yet Defining Women differs from much of the media studies scholarship we have read on gender and labor because it is using a historical moment in television and media to map out a historical moment in feminism. Thus if Cagney and Lacey is used as a case study, it is mobilizing the program as a lens to say something broader about the negotiation of feminism at the level of textual representation, industry construction, and the discursive reception practices that gave it meaning as a result of advancements in liberal feminism in the second half of the 1970s and the resultant conservative backlash against feminism in the 1980s.
But it might be difficult to extrapolate labor from Defining Women. In my efforts to extend her definitions of femininity, woman, and women in relation to her application of Richard A. Peterson’s circuit of production model (production/text/reception/context), a series of questions emerge. Does “female” refer to the program’s production context? Does “feminine” refer to Cagney and Lacey as a text? Does “feminist” refer to the program’s intended audience? Can any of these terms be applied to the circuit of production model or would doing so essentialize these terms?
Part of the reason for the book’s difficulty might be its deceptive simplicity. D’Acci sets up a lot of the analytical work to be done by the reader. I perceive this as an opportunity. While she does not discuss labor directly, she does leave openings for possibilities for other scholars to talk about labor. For one, she offers her notes within the book as a possible model for doing similar research, as well as evidence that the book itself is a product of labor as a process. She also offers a number of examples that could be interpreted as labor. One of the central tensions in the book is executive Barney Rosenzweig’s turn toward developing this show. As D’Acci makes clear in her mobilization of meeting notes and interviews, Rosenzweig was clearly motivated by Cagney and Lacey’s commercially exploitable possibilities in an ephemeral cultural moment when liberal feminism was part of the zeitgeist.
However, this moment of inception and the commercial impulses undergirding the production have direct bearing over the productive negotiations that kept the show on the air during its run that are represented as labor through the work of letters and industry discourse left behind. The show was always under threat of cancellation and relied upon an active, vocal assemblage of fans who fought for its preservation while simultaneously challenging the show’s representation of working women and homosocial bonding within the constraints of both liberal feminism and prime-time broadcast television. We can see this through actress Tyne Daly’s continued resistance toward certain production and promotional decisions. Daly was vocal in wanting Cagney and Lacey to be more of an explicitly feminist show that caused her to feud constantly with Rosenzweig. However, because of Daly’s commitment to feminism, she was often at various promotional and political events that served to animate the show’s implicit feminist values through associating the program and its stars with people like Gloria Steinem, organizations like the National Organization of Women, and causes like reproductive choice. This identification with feminism became built into Daly’s labor. Such identity-based responsibilities recur in Candace Moore’s discussion of L Word cast members’ appearances at lesbian bars for screening nights hosted by Showtime and the Human Rights Council (Moore 2008). This is demonstrated by actresses Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey advocating for fans to support commercially appealing political causes like equal marriage while also mobilizing and interacting with their fan base in order to lobby for the show’s continued existence.
Finally, I continue to return to an archetype that D’Acci invokes numerous times in Cagney and Lacey (D’Acci 1994). What do we do with the “go-getter”? This is a feminine archetype that D’Acci attributes to emerge out of advertising during the turn from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Go-getters were defined as being productive, efficient, normatively feminine, and compliant with the ideological directives of capitalism in order to guarantee their own professional ascendancy and advancements. For D’Acci, the “go-getter” becomes an important model upon which liberal feminist narratives were built, including how programs like Cagney and Lacey represented professional women. For me, I wonder how the “go-getter” remains a model for how female industry professionals are expected to comport themselves in a post-feminist climate. This is particularly concerning because to my mind, the go-getter is a figure of accommodation. In this case, “getting” seems to imply fetching or acquiring something for someone else. Climbing up the corporate ladder suggests that what is being reached for is someone else’s approval and that mentorship and successorship conform to heteromasculine, patriarchal definitions of achievement. So is it a more feminist act to play the game or do we try to change the system by advocating for production practices and representations that do not reinforce patriarchal machinations?
Extending the go-getter archetype even further, how is interest created in a show like this? In the case of Cagney and Lacey, much of the promotion of the show centered on controversies mobilized by identity politics. Feminism and feminist viewership(s) were interpellated by a consistent focus on and representation of hot-button liberal feminist issues like partner abuse, incest, rape, and the glass ceiling. Rosenzweig appears to be stirring the pot in order to get people to pay attention in the first place. Is this exploitatively political or a legitimate feminist strategy? And what does it mean to center such concerns on liberal feminist ideology, embodied by archetypes like the go-getter, which seems to be more concerned with accommodating patriarchal definitions of professional success and social justice than other more resistive, radical models? As someone who studies how labor informs the popular music that is brought to television, negotiations with liberal feminism and post-feminism seem likely to extend beyond the visual realm of representation as well. For a start, such negotiations might help us to understand how and when gender is operative in Dig! both for the subjects in front of the camera and for the female documentarian behind it.
Like Frank Sinatra, Cat Power, and a number of beauty pageant contestants before and after her, Jessica Simpson is a covers artist.
In the states, Simpson has seven gold singles to her name since cresting on a blonde wave of virginal jailbait late last century. Three of those hits are from that era, one of them is her post-divorce anthem, and three of them were released during the height of Newlyweds‘ popularity. Two of the three songs in the final category are covers, in addition to a few more that didn’t chart. I’d cast a more critical eye toward two of her singles sampling pop standards–“I Think That I’m In Love With You” borrows the hook to John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane,” “A Public Affair” is built around Madonna’s “Holiday” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”–but hip hop has so revolutionized pop music that it seems unfair to call Simpson out for something Rihanna has done too. Though “SOS” and “Please Don’t Stop the Music” are masterful pop songs, in part because of how inventively they repurpose Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”. Simpson’s hits rely upon our familiarity with the sample–a Diddy hat trick–but never transcend the source material.
Upon her entree into pop stardom, Simpson was cast as a paler shade of Britney. Spears was the pop star, Christina Aguilera was the diva, Mandy Moore was the first one to go brunette, and Jessica was the one who actually obeyed the record label’s directive and married someone in a boy band. It’s terrifying how much these roles mean to us.
The callous dismissal of Simpson’s musical talent stung in part because she was almost cast opposite Spears and Christina Aguilera in the early 90s reboot of The Mickey Mouse Club. The legend is that Simpson was intimidated by the prospect of following up Aguilera in a singing audition and choked. I also think marketing four blonde teenage pop stars to the TRL crowd further suggests the music industry’s arrogance and disregard for people. “Maybe the Britneybot’s synapses will misfire after we ply it with diet pills. Good to have a backup.” Packaging young women as disposable commodities is sexist, even before we factor in their uniform physical attributes. But their male counterparts didn’t fare much better. Being cast as an archetype (the bad boy! the funny one!) in one of many interchangeable vocal groups is pretty dehumanizing too. Ask Du Jour.
The cultural rationalization that Simpson is good enough has hurt her career irrevocably, perhaps because she was trying so hard to live up to some ideal that, like Judith Butler and Kartina Richardson suggest, is a copy of an original that doesn’t exist. It was the cancer that infected her relationship with John Mayer too (actually, John Mayer is the cancer that infects all of his relationships). It impacted her voice, which lacked any distinct character. It functioned instead as an index of shouty melismas, breathy coos, and feigned erotic sighs that became hallmarks of contemporary pop vocal performance. Simpson didn’t sound like anyone in particular except maybe that girl you knew in high school who sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” at the talent show. But I never remembered her voice or how I felt when I heard her sing so much as recognized when the moment had passed. Often, her voice sounded like the pop equivalent of a fake orgasm.
So it’s interesting to me that where her career actually took off was in retail, which is all about recycling and mass reproduction. The prospect of dressing like (or smelling like) Jessica Simpson holds little appeal to me. With rare exception, celebrity personal style is a myth. She’s famous, which means she has an army of stylists. Of course, part of my response is based on is cast as Simpson’s inspiration. Her look is pure Farrah and–like Rachel Bilson–I’m a Jacqueline Smith kind of girl. But she’s made a fortune getting multiple generations of women–my mother, your college roommate–to buy her pumps. And she really seems to like her own clothes, to the point where she parlayed her success in retail into a gig judging Fashion Star. She also seems to like the body wearing them. So I’m interested in how, following that time she wore unflattering jeans for a concert and everyone decided she was fat, Simpson has embraced a new shape. She didn’t give up sugar. She didn’t crash diet. She didn’t will herself into her seventeen- or twenty-five-year old body.
Simpson also gave birth to her daughter last month. I don’t intend to scrutinize her post-pregnancy body, as no one should have the right to sanction what kinds of bodies are permissible and aberrant in a society. I also don’t intend for this post to blindly celebrate Simpson’s curvier figure or–by omission–throw shade at female celebrities who’ve slimmed down. Simpson’s not radical. She’s a rich celebrity who shifted an unremarkable singing career into an opportunity to put her name on some handbags. But she seems happy and I hope she’s content and can figure out how to help her daughter acquire peace of mind (Will and Jada have some pointers). If in fact we’re all copies of some ideal we can only perceive and never reach, we may as well enjoy who we are and who we’ll become.
At some point during the winter holidays, I found myself in an airport terminal checking my Twitter feed. Sarah Jaffe tweeted that she wakes up to Azealia Banks’ “212”. By the end of my first term at Madison, I integrated it into my morning routine. It’s forward-looking pop that’s brimming with attitude. Banks’ filthy mouth rivals her pop star’s ear. No wonder you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with the song’s oft-quoted lyric. I hope Karl Lagerfeld paid for one.
Mainly, “212” made me feel good. It made me feel 50 feet tall on my afternoon jogs. It made me feel invincible as I was wrapping up term papers and posting students’ grades. It made me feel good while drowning out crying babies or trying to wrap my head around Judith Butler’s “Contingent Foundations” on the bus. It still makes me feel like the pedestrian bridge is my runway when I’m heading over to Memorial Library from Vilas.
But I began to wonder why I felt good listening to “212”. Look, I’m not anti-pleasure. Let’s celebrate our bodies. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s play. But as a feminist, I think we have a responsibility to account for how our pleasures are constituted, what they mean, and if they harm or exclude others. So I could easily pull apart the elements that make it a great pop song. Any well-constructed pop song can withstand such deconstruction and usually does without its permission.
There’s Banks’ giddy delivery. She thrilled that she’s getting away with lines like “cock-a-licking in the water by the blue bayou.” There’s the beat, of course, coupled with passages of relentlessly inventive, unfolding, interlocking hooks. And there’s oh so much fun queer sex at play that I don’t even care or notice if I’m being dominated. Actually, I like it! The song’s deceptively simple melody and complex production design reveals itself gradually upon repeated listens. It is rich with “details and decisions that” according to Tom Ewing, “suggest a scary degree of pop talent.” And like any good piece of pop art, it’s projectable. It sounds like a dystopian rave remix to “Miss Mary Mack.” It sounds like a dance party at zero gravity. It sounds like tripping balls, making crank calls, and scissoring on the moon. It transcends all of these empty proclamations.
But as a feminist, I wondered how or if I could justify liking this song, or if that was missing the entire point. I couldn’t figure out how I felt about the song’s trash talk. Which of course made me think about all of the other female MCs I love who could teach graduate seminars on the subject. Trash talk is the foundation of battle rapping. Importantly, it’s something women in hip hop engage in with one another as well as with their male counterparts. Roxanne Shanté took on Sparky Dee and UTFO. It’s also integral to the process of star formation, uttering a self in opposition and from an elevated platform (at least seemingly) of her own making.
Does trash talk fit into feminist practice? This is a follow-up question to another issue I’ve posed on this blog: how does feminism account for feminists who don’t get along with each other? I don’t like to think of any feminist as my enemy, but I knew at least one in my early twenties who is no longer my friend. How does feminism account for that? Sisterhood is about collaboration, but collaboration is hardly utopian. Even people with the same goals will radically disagree and may even make each other angry. I try to be kind to myself and not negatively compare myself against “more successful” colleagues in my small moments. As a feminist, I feel it’s my duty to be supportive or, if I can’t be so noble, at least not petty. But I have as much “Imma ruin you, cunt” in me as I do “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”
But I’m stuck in a dead end. I wrote a term paper about anti-fan discourse around Zooey Deschanel last semester. One of my professor’s critiques was that I seemed unable to engage with my own anti-fandom. Which is true. I actively avoided engaging with it because I didn’t want to confuse my hatred of “Zooey Deschanel” (as sign, as image, as marketing tool) with my relative lack of knowledge about Zooey Deschanel, person. I know some infuriating things about her that suggest I would hate her as a person, but I’m not sure where to make the distinction. And I’m worried that the entire exercise might be misogynistic.
“212” uses the word “bitch” constantly, almost as a preposition. It also treats the n-word like a preposition, which is a different but related issue I don’t know how to address. I’m aware that I contribute to a publication that reclaimed “bitch” for feminist purposes. So long as Bitch continues to publish work by people like s.e. smith, Aymar Jean Christian, Alyssa Rosenberg, J. Victoria Saunders, and Audra Schroeder, I’ll remain proud of that. But I’m deeply ambivalent about such appropriation.
I get the tactical reasons behind it–steal and repurpose words that have been imposed on you. But on the one hand, I do not like and do not abide being called a “bitch,” “slut,” or “hoe” as an ironic term of endearment by girlfriends. I don’t think it’s cute. I think it’s oppressive. I feel the ground shift beneath me each time I hear it on a lunch date or at happy hour, as though the subtext beneath the sweetly delivered pejorative is “Imma ruin you, cunt.” All of the sudden an innocent meet-up is a game of chess and I lost my queen. Yet on the other hand, I can’t count how many times I’ve used those words on myself. 30 Rock fans, remember that cutaway gag where a dolled-up Liz Lemon looks in the mirror, yells at herself for sweating, and calls herself a bitch? I only laughed because I recognized an ugly side of myself in the joke.
I may (and do) mouth the words “Imma ruin you cunt” on the way to class and in the middle of the run. But the bridge to “212” is what gets me. It’s the only sung moment, and appropriately, the only truly vulnerable moment. Banks questions her own bravado, laziness, and expendibility. It’s a heavy moment, and one she cannot dwell on because the beat carries her away. As it should. These moments of self-doubt are necessary, transformative, and recurrent, but we can’t be paralyzed by them.
In some ways, “212” is a mirror image of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” There’s a major difference between the two songs, of course. “212” doesn’t end with a gong or indulge in Orientalist notions of Japanese women’s sense of style. Imagine my horror when I was rocking out to it for the fifth time and realized she wasn’t singing “Your hair is sure cute, girl. Damn, you’ve got some wicked style.” Stefani’s desire to “go back and do Japan, give me lots of brand new fans” should’ve been a clue. Or the video. That’s how pop gets you.
“What You Waiting For?” is about Stefani’s fear that she’s an imposter and can’t create new music as a solo artist after years of fronting No Doubt. It’s in the verses that she calls herself a stupid hoe. The bridge is where she imagines herself past the self-loathing and back on stage. Where the comparison doesn’t work is that Banks isn’t colonizing Asian women for personal gain (on that tack, I await her M.I.A. collaboration). But where the comparison does have some salience is in how Banks spends most of the song bragging, talking shit, acquiring sexual favors, and dominating people except in one instance where she’s not sure if she’s worth it. Banks and Stefani have to confirm for themselves that they matter so they can keep on dancing. So do we. Sometimes we need a pop song to help us move forward, even if the reasons why we dance are never innocent.