Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (2012) presents an alternate story of Chicana music through a collection of case studies in Chicana/o music history centering on Chicana/Tejana musicians active between the early decades of the 20th century to the present. Vargas assembles a mix of archival documents, interviews, images, songs, recordings, performances, ephemera, fragments, memories and engages intersectional feminist theory and queer of color critique to trace the music scenes her subjects inhabit.
A feminist oral historian, Chicano/Latino cultural studies scholar, and Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, Vargas’s research overlaps these disciplines and facilitates a conversation between popular music and sound studies that significantly considers gender, sexuality, and racialization in the construction of borderlands imaginaries. With Dissonant Divas Vargas makes an intervention both theoretical and methodological that greatly expands the Chicana/o musical archive and as well as the audiences for sound studies research. Furthermore, Vargas’s reflective writing voice locates her own Tejana/Chicana story in relation to her project and offers helpful insights into her research process at key moments. [The brief essay titled “Selena, Jenni Rivera, Eva Garza—meditations on an author’s soundtrack” published on the Minnesota Press webpages for Dissonant Divas is a generous methodology piece that should be read along with this comprehensive, satisfying, highly readable and often riveting text.]
Vargas defines the term, la onda, in a general sense as “an umbrella term for Mexican American/Chicano/Tejano music (x).” More critically, la onda also “operates to represent musics that have been prominent in academic and cultural sites that have produced dominant discourses of sexuality, gender, class, race, geography, and language in the constructions of Chicano music.” “Dissonance” can be understood variously as “chaos, cacophany, disharmony, static” and “out-of-tuneness” that draws attention to “the power of music with regard to Chicana gender and sexuality (xiv).” Vargas’s main critique notes how the “limits of la onda” reveals the heteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings that construct dominant narratives of Chicano music historiography. She argues that the force of these narratives have naturalized a way of thinking about Chicano music in terms of the various “fathers” of Chicano rock, conjunto music, and of the field of borderland studies itself. The distortions produced by the assimilating cultural nationalist logic of “la onda” have not only suppressed Chicana music histories and/or enabled their mishearing, but they also hide the complex ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality converge to produce Chicana subjectivities within and against the Chicano musical canon. In theorizing “dissonance,” Vargas thus productively sounds the Chicana histories in Dissonant Divas as alternatively gendered and/or queered against the heteromasculine concord of la onda.
The chapter “Borders, Bullets, Besos: The Ballad of Chelo Silva” contains perhaps the most provocative pages, detailing Chelo Silva, a bolero singer with a distinct repertoire of songs that are still performed and kept alive by a diverse lineage of performers and audiences, yet whose renown is seemingly inseparable with her former marriage to Américo Paredes. Ubiquitous in borderlands studies, Paredes’s name and legacy are defined largely by his study of the corrido, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1970). Vargas strategically positions Silva and Paredes as “embodied representations” of the bolero and the border ballad, respectively, taking up Sonia Salídvar-Hull’s proposal to “imagine new corridos” by proposing Silva’s boleros as “feminist border ballads.” Vargas parses the constructions, aesthetics, and values carried in each song form, exploring how the border ballad has been the primary counter-site for narrating the injustice of Tejano/Anglo conflict (bullets) while the bolero, whose constant subject is love, luxuriates in all its jouissance (besos). Vargas reveals that the border ballad “has allowed its authors, singers, and scholars to sound the borderlands imaginary into being,” illuminating how the contest over historical representation is tied to musical representation. Silva’s story cannot be found within this articulation of la onda without, in part, redefining the border ballad (54).
Vargas innovates and meticulously crafts an alternative archive better suited to narrating and hearing Silva’s fragmented story, what Vargas felicitously calls her archisme of knowledge. Engaging the silences in Silva’s story, the archisme sounds her presence in the recorded memories of her fans which include testaments to her unique vocal qualities, her powerful and evocative performances, her improvisations in music and in life,,along with a healthy amount of the chisme or gossip surrounding Silva. Proposing the archisme as a “feminist project for historicizing nonnormative Chicana/o genders and desires” Vargas extends both Sonia Saldivar-Hull’s directive for Chicana scholars to look in nontraditional places for theory and Lisa Lowe’s theorization of gossip as a destructuring site of knowledge production (Saldivar-Hull, 1998; Lowe, 1996).
As I read through the first three chapters, a question that kept coming up concerned why we should not consider this study on more specific regional terms, or why this book isn’t titled, “Tejana Divas”? Vargas finds the overdetermination of these Chicana/Tejana musicians as “regional” subjects a problem not typically encountered by musicians from a city like Los Angeles, for example, because of its construction as a global metropolis. I cannot dispute Los Angeles’s status as a world center and I wondered how to earnestly engage Vargas on this point. What are the stakes of locating this study of Tejana/Chicana musicians within a broader Chicano/a musical context?
The final two chapters make the case for remapping Chicana music, advanced in part by the capacious notion of queer “diva-scapes.” In “Sonido de las Americas: Crossing South-South Borders with Eva Garza,” Vargas employs what she calls a “transfrontera musical compass,” a feminist methodology deftly juxtaposing the notion of a “musical scale” with the concept of “geographic scale.” Eva Garza’s career begins in her San Antonio hometown but she eventually came to embody the “la vóz de las Américas” in a hemispheric sense via her participation in early Spanish language radio, recordings, and live performances in nightclubs and films that took her to Mexico City and Havana for significant periods; her genre-crossing repertoire mirrored her travels. Garza began as a singer of the appropriately feminine bolero, but through her contact with Cuban musicians, the Afro-Caribbean guaracha song–decidedly phallocentric and risqué in its subject matter–also became part of her repertoire. The song she was most known for, “Sabor de Engaño” adds a sensual register to her transfrontera compass, a lingering sabor or taste exceeding regional, national, formal, and gendered limits. This is most evident in the repeated examples of impromptu performances of a song verse or refrain of “Sabor de Engaño” by many Cubanos Vargas encountered in her research travels. Vargas employs the transfrontera musical compass as a “listening instrument” to trace Garza’s musical trajectory through spatial-temporal moments disrupting rigid and normative notions of community, nation, and Chicano music (147).
In “Giving Us That Brown Soul: Selena’s Departures and Arrivals,” Vargas addresses the multiple problems in the mainstream media’s designation of “crossover star” to narrate Selena’s story as a spectacular rise in fame marked by her violent death in 1995. Vargas seeks to correct the assimilationist narratives of Selena’s musical history that, in addition to figuring her as a marginalized Latina on the verge of “legitimate” status, problematically narrates a south-north trajectory “devoid of blackness and queerness.” Vargas both critiques how “brown soul” has been musically deployed to stand in for cultural nationalist “brown power” and extends previous work focusing on blackness in Chicano/Latino music that includes R&B and Afro-Caribbean influences but not necessarily the Afro-diasporic. Cumbia, an Afro-Columbian dance form popularized in Mexico in the 1940’s – 50’s is central to Selena’s Tejano sound as are 70’s era disco and 80’s freestyle, particularly in the cultivation of her iconic diva look which together resonate a queer of color musical legacy on the sonic and visual planes.
Selena’s “brown soul” and style moves Tex-Mex cumbias in what Vargas calls “queer misdirections” by traveling north-south, for example, while sounding counterhegemonic femininities that continue to reverberate in the many tribute drag performances to Selena in and beyond the borderlands of Tejas. In these ways, Vargas traces the “topography of Selena’s transformations and remappings of Chicano music (205). Just as audio technologies have been key in circulating Eva Garza’s and Selena’s music in multiple directions, so are the memories, repeated performances, and queer embodiments of their music by their diverse audiences. For both of the these artists, sound expands Vargas’s engagement with spatialization theories so that we may hear these productive dissonances and in these ways begin to imagine alternative borderlands imaginaries.
Upon finishing, a question that remains in considering “diva dissonance” is the implied consonance of Vargas’s theorization of “la onda.” At times, the term becomes too totalizing, and I would argue for the presence of heterogeneity and other musical diversities even within what Vargas denotes as la onda. We must both make and leave room to imagine the possibility of many unrecorded, captured, or yet unsounded transgressions for Chicanas whose paths may appear to follow a heteronormative logic. For this reason I found the reiteration of such rich findings against la onda asomewhat repetitive distraction from the richer tales Vargas’s archival work tells. What would these histories sound like if they weren’t always positioned against la onda—if they were sounded instead more toward each other?
What Deborah R. Vargas richly accomplishes in Dissonant Divas responds to Alejandro Madrid’s call for musicologists to establish critical conversations beyond “the conservatory” and to engage larger intellectual dialogues (AMS Vol. 64, No. 3, 2011).Vargas’s intersectional feminist-of-color argument extends the body of feminist Chicana/o cultural studies scholarship and equally extends Chicano music histories that may engage gender to some degree but do not fully interrogate those categorical constructions. Her theorization of the title’s key term “dissonance” as “both a methodological and analytic device” and her construction of a differential archive combine to create “alternative sonic imaginaries of the borderlands (xii).” More broadly, Dissonant Divas is an intervention to the problems of conducting research in marginalized communities and the racialized subjects often left out of official archives, institutional records, and studies of sound (Trouillot, 1995; Taylor, 2003). Each chapter reveals and addresses various barriers to conducting research on Chicana musicians whose uneven historical representation lead Vargas to turn to other sites, methodologies, and embodied practices where Chicana voices resound across temporal and spatial lines. In these ways, Vargas’s sustained engagement of race, class, gender, and sexuality with Chicana/o borderlands music is thoroughly new.
Featured Image: Pauline Oliveros by Flickr user Horacio González Diéguez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Wanda Alarcón is a doctoral candidate of Comparative Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley where she is writing a dissertation titled: “Sounding Aztlán: Music, Literature, and the Chicana/o Sonic Imaginary”. Her research interests include Chicana/o cultural studies, U.S. ethnic literatures, popular music, sound studies, queer of color theory, and decolonial feminism. At Berkeley she has facilitated the working groups, “Decolonial Feminisms” and “Popular Music in Chicana/o Cultural Studies” at the Center for Race and Gender (CRG). Wanda is originally from Los Angeles and before starting graduate school she created the poetry zine, JOTA (2002 – 2006) and is updating that project by creating an archive for queer Chicana writing in cyberspace. She is a fan of radio genres and podcasts and writes micro radio plays while on the road. She is suspicious of the MP3 format yet enjoys curating party, tribute, and mood themed playlists on Spotify immensely. You can find her on Twitter depending on writing deadlines @esawanda.
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After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps giving you the good stuff, this week with SO! Regular Regina Bradley, making it rain. . . with some serious knowledge. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how might black women’s sexual freedom be manifested via sound? --JS, Editor-in-Chief
At fifteen, while in church service, I learned how to clutch pearls after hearing a woman moan during the altar call.
It was not a “Jesus done found and saved me” moan, either. A friend forgot to turn his cell phone off for church. As the church prayed, his phone started to ring. It was not the usual digital beeping or quick calypso ring tone. His phone calls were annotated by a woman’s moan during sex. She moaned from his cell phone to pick up the call. Each ring the woman moaned louder and adamant until she hollered like she was just saved. The kids in the back snickered as the ushers – including my grandmother – silently and angrily screened each pew to see who would pick up the phone. Quaking church ladies and my grandmother’s wide-eyed glare and heaving chest suggested they were about to pass out from embarrassment. Wringing their white gloved hands and grabbing at their pearl necklaces in angst, they looked everywhere but at each other: the back of a man’s head, the cross at the front of the church, the stain glass windows. A flush of warmth entered my cheeks and neck as I tried to contain my laughter and creeping embarrassment. I was embarrassed for my grandmother and the ladies of the church because I was aware of the unspoken rule that women – especially middle-class black women – don’t do sex. Being embarrassed of sex is proper and “ladylike.”
Ashon Crawley’s contextualization of the praise and worship in Black Pentecostal church as a sonic public zone is useful for using sound to complicate the church as an erotic space. Crawley’s suggestion of sound as a “vessel. . .for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics” collapses the more tangible notions of gender and respectability via physical displays –i.e. the quaking church ladies and clutching pearls – to recognize the overlap of moaning as a marker of sexual joy, moaning as a form of praise and worship, and moaning as an indicator of shame. Crawley’s observations bring to mind Helga Crane’s run in with the storefront church in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. It is not the physical aspect of the church and its embodiment of respectability that draws Helga into the space. Rather, it is the singing, weeping, and moaning – the sonic elements of praise and worship–that parallel her own suppressed sexual frustrations. Her weeping is not necessarily a “come to Jesus moment” but rather a sonic release acknowledging her sexual agency.
Looking back at when this dude’s phone went off in church, I realize the bulk of discomfort in acknowledging sexual pleasure exists in how it sounds. The woman’s moan highlighted an alarming reality for the women at my church: pleasure was being presented outside of its respectable physical and sonic boundaries. I wish to identify what I call sonic pleasure politics to address new developments in 21st century southern gender identity politics. Sonic manifestations of pleasure point to a younger generation’s rearticulation of sexuality as a site of agency and self-definition in an otherwise suppressed southern experience.
As a southern black woman, I’ve always been struck by the anxiety sex and pleasure invoked in the women in my life. Sex and pleasure were never articulated in the same breath, as sex was a wifely duty and responsibility for procreation. Pleasure was never synonymous with sexual joy, even when I snatched whispers of conversation about sex from my elders. Moreover, I was taught that sex (or even an interest in it) would plummet my stock as a good girl and put me in the ranks of “fast-tailed” girls who used sex as a desperate plea for attention. Nope, sex – pleasurable sex – was always for men’s gratification. Aside from the abstinence manifesto – “just don’t do it, chile” – for women, enjoying sex was the devil’s work. Respectable sex was quiet, for marriage, and never discussed outside of the house.
Sound as a signifier of sexual pleasure is considered by many to be counterintuitive because of the history of sexual trauma associated with black women’s bodies in the south. Reading sex as a genesis point of southern black women’s pleasure and empowerment is a difficult undertaking. The forced silence of slave women’s rapes and other physical violence that took place on southern soil parallels the silence that is deemed to be necessary for survival in a racist society. Further, the far-reaching residual effects of black women’s inferred lacking virtue lurk in how black folks navigate their southern experience and identities. Conservative attitudes towards sex in the southern black community are no doubt associated with the constructed attempts to humanize and validate blacks outside of hypersexual scripted blackness.
However, the sonic dimension of sex and pleasure in the south goes largely without analysis even though sound is a primary space in which recognition of sexual and nonsexual pleasure takes place. Consider blues women and, more recently, women in [southern] hip hop culture. The sounds of women’s giggles and moans as representative of sexual pleasure in bass music and the heavy use of moaning in the work of Trina, Jacki-O, Khia, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and Missy Elliott points to a need to recognize sound as a reservoir of pleasure, raunchiness, and sexual work—what I call “sonic pleasure politics.”
Studies of sonic pleasure including those of Robin James contextualize pleasure via the technical production of sound to induce a particular set of cultural and visceral responses. However, I ground my theorization of sonic pleasure politics in the growing body of scholarship offered by the “Pleasure Ninjas” collective consisting of Joan Morgan, Brittney Cooper, Treva Lindsey, Kaila Story, Yaba Blay, and Esther Armah. They utilize pleasure as a site of healing and reclamation of black women’s identities. Morgan’s interrogation of pleasure as a form of survival, for example, is especially useful in thinking about how southern women’s sexuality stems from the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade. She suggests pleasure’s palpability as an alternative space to reclaim slaves’ humanity. The Pleasure Ninjas’ construction of pleasure lends credence to my theorization sonic pleasure politics as a space for mediating the historical implications of abusive sexual power and the use of sexual pleasure as a form of resistance in the south.
Situating women’s pleasure in southern hip hop is messy as it reflects both men’s investment in women as objects of pleasure – i.e. bass music – and women’s subversion of this expectation of their sexuality a way to express themselves. For example, Lil Wayne’s lyrical affirmation of his sexual prowess via cunnilingus in songs like “Pussy Monster,” “She Will,” and “Lollipop” parallels singer Joi’s demonstration of pleasure as a form of sexual consent via the use of (presumably her) moans and sounds of cunnilingus on her popular song “Lick.” Sonic pleasure politics become a workspace for bridging the south’s historical construction of [black] women’s sexuality-as-respectability and the recent, more fluid form of younger women’s embrace of sex-as-empowerment heard in southern popular culture.
Sonic Pleasure Politics and Strip Club Culture
A primary space for teasing out the multi-layered significance of sounds and sexuality in southern hip hop is the strip club. The production of sonic and visual representations of strip clubs are inextricably linked: bass heavy musical tracks keep time with the “clapping cheeks” of exotic dancers. Further, the loudness of the strip club denotes patrons’ attempts to drown out the world while pivoting off of the fantasy of sexy women dancing, moaning, and sexually gesturing for their entertainment. The dominance of strip clubs in southern hip hop contribute to the erotic map(s) of a younger generation of southern black women. My contextualization of strip clubs as a cartographic point of interest pivots off of Kaila Story’s description of erotic maps as an entry point for recognizing black women’s sexual agency. Erotic maps are the touchstones through which people address sexual pleasure. Story uses black women’s social-historical narratives to map out black women’s use of sexuality as a measure of self-definition. These maps are complex as they are intertwined with historical-cultural biases and cultural preferences frequently outside of black women’s experiences.
Strip club anthems, like Memphis rapper Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” riff on the sonic and physical components of strip club culture. The bass kicks complement what sounds like clapping hands, a signifier of strippers’ clapping butts. Juicy J talks at length about his love of the strip club, distinguishing between “real” and fake strip clubs by the amount of nakedness and strippers wrangling for high-paying patrons’ bands of money. The snapping sound of rubber bands holding wads of cash together authenticates the duality of the women’s sexual posturing as physically pleasurable for men and profitable – economically pleasurable – for women. “Bandz a Make Her Dance” is grounded in the appeal of strip clubs as spaces of empowerment for black men. From this perspective, the clapping heard across the track could also signify the snapping of rubber bands against money to sonically signify men’s power as a strip club patron. Yet the physical and sonic presence of black women’s bodies – i.e. grunting as they maneuver and climb the dancing pole – also makes strip club culture a useful space to pivot southernness and sonic pleasure.
An example of establishing black women’s sonic pleasure narratives in strip clubs is singer Rihanna’s panning of “Bandz a Make Her Dance” titled “Pour It Up.” Although Rihanna is a pop singer from the “Global” South, she sonically signifies if not subverts southern hip hop gender politics via sampling the instrumental from Juicy J’s record. The majority of “Pour It Up’s” instrumental accompaniment is a subdued if not washed out sample of “Bandz a Maker Dance” that helps highlight Rihanna’s voice. The clarity of Rihanna’s voice “garbles” the accompaniment in the sense it is background noise to her narrative of enjoying herself and taking pleasure in the bodies of other women present in the club. The accompaniment serves as a brief nod to Juicy J’s initial intentions of crafting the strip club as a sexual space but ultimately uses the track as a testament to her own pleasure narrative.
In particular, Rihanna’s sing-song holler before the chorus “All I see is signs…all I see is dollar signs,” points to a subversion of the hypermasculinity in strip club culture to establish her own pleasure in a similar space. Parallel to Juicy J’s indulging of exotic dancers via throwing bands of money, Rihanna enjoys herself at the strip club using other people’s money:
Strip clubs and dolla’ bills (Still got mo’ money)
Patron shots can I get a refill (Still got mo’ money)
Strippers going up and down that pole (Still got mo’ money)
4 o’clock and we ain’t going home (Still got mo’ money)
Bands make your girl go down (Still got mo’ money)
Lot more where that came from (Still got mo’ money)
In particular, Rihanna’s verse not only demonstrates an alternative viewpoint of black women’s bodies in the strip club but destabilizes the idea of the strip club – and intercedes on the understanding of southern hip hop – as a heternormative hypermasculine space. The line “bands make your girl go down” alludes to not only a possible sexual encounter by Rihanna or for the girl in question but doubly signifies upon the potential for pleasure via the strip club culture for women and the hypersexuality of Juicy J’s track. “Pour it Up” reflects the messiness of [southern] hip hop gender politics because it builds upon the reputation of the strip club as a site for men’s pleasure to excavate women’s dancing as pleasurable for their own purposes. In addition to Rihanna’s sonic signifying of strip club culture, the “Pour It Up” reveres pole dancing as an art form rather than an exploitative practice. Rihanna’s pleasure in watching the dancers perform parallels the exertion of joy – and consent – that the dancers exhibit in their movement.
Trekking back to the sexy moaning phone in church, the sonic cue of sexual pleasure and joy conflicted with the gender norms associated with southern black women’s identities. Consideration of sonic pleasure narratives stirs discussion of the unarticulated experiences of southern black womanhood that may be overlooked in favor or a larger, more conservative, and familiar narrative of sex as tool of victimization. Sonic pleasure politics makes room to remap the contemporary southern social-cultural landscape as a complex yet living space of cultural production and sexual freedom.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
As folks rightfully celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic album, I wanted to make sure space was made to equally celebrate and critically think about the stank that Outkast put on hip hop. I want to take the conversation outside of the academy into spaces where others could join the conversation. To do this, I set up a YouTube channel and sent out invitations to friends and colleagues I knew were vested in Outkast or whose work could be used to situate Outkast in creative and critical conversations. The response to the project thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. I have conversations scheduled to broadcast until the end of the year. Here’s episode #4, a teaser to bring the Sounding Out! crowd in on the conversation.
My Outkasted Conversations project started with a fleeting thought while speaking with a friend: “It’s the 20th anniversary of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik? Damn. It’s really been twenty years?!” I was ten years old when Southerplayalistic dropped and didn’t really understand or appreciate the brilliance of the album back in 1994. I was in the initial stages of becoming someone vested in music, let alone hip hop. My definition of music was still deeply attached to what I learned in my music class. I could play the hell out of a recorder. I did a recorder solo at my school’s spring concert and was applauded like a boss.
I flirted around with being a ‘Kast fan – I remember them on Martin and later wearing out the track “In Due Time” on the Soul Food soundtrack – but it wasn’t until 1998 that I really became “Outkasted.” I permanently moved to my grandparents’ house in Albany, GA. I was tall, lanky, and awkward. I was a black Keds white socks connoisseur because you never wear white shoes in red clay. I battled the teenaged pangs of wanting to be popular and visible. I wouldn’t consider myself ‘hip hop’ at the time but I knew the heavy hitters from days of listening to WKYS out of Washington, D.C. I could school anyone on the latest single from Busta Rhymes, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown and Go-Go-ed with the best of them. Down South, though, those artists were important but they weren’t folk. As I listened to the radio, the artists that I was familiar with got no play. I tried to wax (northern) hip hop philosophical at lunch and got some serious side-eyes. A classmate scolded, “those up north n— don’t matter down here. What you listening on from ‘round hea (here)?” Round hea? Nothing but a mix tape I made off of the radio before leaving Virginia, gospel cavalcade on Sunday morning rides to church, and Paw Paw’s juke joint blues on Saturday morning while cleaning up the house. If I wanted to survive, I needed to adapt. I recorded multiple radio mixtapes, meticulously blending the artists I heard kids at school talking about and my own musings after browsing the record store in the mall. Slowly, Wyclef Jean and Montell Jordan were replaced by Three Six Mafia, Goodie Mob, and Outkast. Aquemini and Still Standing held a chokehold on my playlist. I became a full-fledged member of the Dungeon Family Chuch of Modern Day (S)Aints.
The following episode of Outkasted Conversations is with Dr. Treva B. Lindsey, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. This conversation features discussion of how the sonic elements of women’s pleasure complicate gender and identity politics in Outkast’s body of work.
To subscribe to Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations via Youtube click here.
Featured Image: SO CLEAN PSP by Flicker User John Bracken
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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A Conversation Article in Chat with Irene Lusztig, Director of The Motherhood Archives and Sound Designer Maile Colbert
In 2011 filmmaker Irene Lusztig contacted me about designing sound and composing for her film project, The Motherhood Archives.
Irene had spent several years buying discarded educational films on eBay and working in historical archives to amass an unusual and fascinating collection of archival films aimed at teaching women how to be pregnant, give birth, and look after babies. The Motherhood Archives uses this extraordinary archival treasure trove to form a lyrical essay film excavating hidden histories of childbirth in the twentieth century, illuminating our changing narratives of maternal success and failure, and raising questions about our social and historical constructions of motherhood.
I was immediately intrigued by her concept and construction process as well as her desire to work with sound design in a very collaborative manner at an earlier stage in the project than most filmmakers would. Geographically distant, Irene and I mostly worked by “satellite,” using email, chat, Skype, phone, and file sharing software to communicate and send files. We did manage to have a few production weeks in New York and Santa Cruz, but the majority of the work was woven back and forth across an ocean and continent…California to Lisbon, Portugal, West Coast to West Coast. Rather than hindering, this method lent itself to an exquisite corpse nature to the work. In the creation of this article we followed much the same process, using an initial Gmail chat.
Maile Colbert (MC): So, I’m both shy and excited about asking this… why me, Irene?
Irene Lusztig (IL): I had heard your work in both Adele Horne’s film [The Tailenders, 2005] and Rebecca Baron’s [How Little We Know of Our Neighbors, 2005], both films with beautiful sound.
The sound in How Little We Know of Our Neighbors in particular does something with natural / unnatural that I was really interested in – field recordings that somehow become other kinds of things as they are layered, transformed, and processed. I think of myself as a documentary maker / artist who is invested in actuality, but not very invested in traditional documentary form, and I think your sound has similar investments and disinvestments. It begins with the sounds of the real world but takes those sounds to very unexpected places that are often quite far from their original context.
MC: I love that you brought up the “natural/unnatural.” It not only really describes well my work and approach in general, but also the experience we get in your film with mediated motherhood. We would often talk about certain sections being very science fiction…then you think, wow, this really happened, this is part of a history that led up to our experience now, and one I’m currently having, having recently become pregnant for the first time!
IL: I think there is a lot to say about science fiction and sound! First, there is a great tradition of feminist science fiction that I feel like our work is very connected to: Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, and even stuff like Shulamith Firestone’s futuristic vision of external uteruses. A lot of that work has in common a willingness to “make strange” or denaturalize aspects of female reproduction and mothering in ways that feel radical.
MC: I’m not sure if I was able to contain my excitement when you first mentioned a section felt sci-fi to you. This is something that I think has a root back in my childhood. My father was and is an obsessive science fiction film watcher: I grew up with a soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Lost in Space. These soundscapes that “weren’t” became such a part of what I wanted to listen to.
IL: I always thought I had no interest in science fiction when I was younger, but I think growing a human inside my own body probably shifted my relationship to that!
I think science fiction is almost always expressing our anxieties about the future, about our technologies, about things that we struggle to control. And of course questions and anxieties about trying and failing to control things are completely at the heart of our experiences with pregnancy, birth, and learning to be new mothers in the 21st century. As are questions around technological mediations that we feel ambivalent about, whether it’s fertility technologies, medicalized birth technologies, or things like baby monitors or worrying about whether the iPad is rewiring your baby’s brain. So science fiction feels like a sonic space that totally makes sense for negotiating these maternal anxieties.
MC: One of our biggest struggles was trying to make sure things weren’t too dark for the audience.
IL: People often respond with anxiety to the film and its sound design. I’ve never before made a film where the sound comes up so often in post-screening discussions, and generally the question is something like “why is the sound so dark / scary / anxiety-provoking?” It seems very specific to the subject of The Motherhood Archives – how anxious we are societally about the whole topic, and also how uncomfortable we are being open about these anxieties.
MC: I’m still shocked at how shocked I am when I realize how some people react to this film, how uncomfortable they are. U.S. society seems just as afraid of birth as death in this manner! We speak of each in such a similar way and we’re not allowed the complexity of, for example, being simultaneously anxious about how this will affect our careers and identity, and how in love we are when we hear that heartbeat!
IL: Do you think of yourself as a feminist artist? I ask because becoming a mother (and making art about motherhood) has made me much more aware of myself as a feminist artist.
MC: I absolutely consider myself a feminist– it’s woven into every part of my life and my work. I’m also beginning to feel this in a new way with the pregnancy: I recently lost a gig I was really looking forward to because there was an assumption that I couldn’t do it somehow because I was pregnant. A recent interviewer asked me about how I navigate motherhood and my work, and I couldn’t help consider that this question would never come up with a male artist.
My recent recordings of my future daughter growing and moving have been wonderful to listen to: watery and subdued, you still feel like you’re only getting a little of her sonic world, so mysterious. But it reminds me of when I was a child – in any body of water I loved to dive down to the bottom, let go of my breath and just rest there as long as I could…it was an ultimate peace. I loved the visual perspective of the world above me, but most loved the deep gentle filter of everything aural coming through this watery world. Some might argue that peace refers to our first soundscape experienced…and listening to my own active womb, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.
IL: There are a lot of watery sounds in the film! My friend Irene Gustafson made this great connection between all the water in the soundtrack and the voiceover passage in the twilight sleep section about how the “soothing sound of running water muffles newborn cries to prevent the formation of what are called islands of memory.” That description of water literally being used to erase memory allows all the water sounds throughout the film to become a metaphor for the erasure of historical memory… the fact that we no longer remember the historical moment where feminists were advocates for anesthetic drugs and medicalized childbirth, for instance…the many ways that the histories in the film are now forgotten.
MC: I think sounds are like cells in a way…they carry a memory, even though abstracted.
That’s why I love working with natural sources initially, something comes through from that palette, a shadow is carried from its initial source. As animals, we use sound for information, much processing and translation happens that we aren’t even aware of. So I do feel like when a sound is removed by processing, it still carries its source information with it, and we pick up on some of that.
IL: Talking about cellular memory makes me think about the section of the film that a friend described as “crispy cells:” the image is from a very early 20th century educational film about reproduction – sheep cells that are dividing and reproducing – and the sound is the sound of the magnetosphere, which I love!
MC: I find listening to the magnetosphere sort of grounds me. I use a VLF recorder very often when I travel. If there are lightening storms or space weather, like solar storms, you get these very beautiful and strange soundscapes. I often use the recordings in my work, but your film is the first that seemed to demand them as a sound source! That section just called out for them, in their “pure” form. When you placed them there and sent it to me, I was blown away…it seemed like that was the sound of the video itself somehow.
I’ve been collecting and working on my sound library for over a decade now, and I’ve never been in a situation where a client or collaborator was interested in it in such a hands-on way. It seemed so right to share it with you and build upon it together for this project. For each sound – some of them going way back – I still remember the source, recording conditions, what was surrounding it (or rather what it was surrounding usually!). They become symbols, but also memory triggers. Now some of them have changed and were saved with this project, so there are generations as well. And the historic archival sounds you added to it…they come with their own history and memory; your film and their use is then added to that.
IL: Speaking of archival sound, one of the most amazing (to me) moments in our collaboration was really close to the end when you sent me the end credit sound. We’ve actually never talked about this because as soon as you sent it I totally intuitively and immediately knew that it was perfect. The sound is a backwards transformation of the wax cylinder Chopin Waltz recording that is used earlier in the film during the pregnant ballet sequence. There’s something so brilliant about your instinct to bring back that very polite, restrained music at the end, but have it reversed – both because it turns something familiar and half-remembered on its head, but also because I think it says something about history that is so attuned to the way the film works. The film thinks about histories of childbirth, but the chronological structure is circular, not linear – which I think of as a kind of challenge to the conventional forward-marching progress narrative. History is always haunting the present, and history is always circular. It makes amazing and beautiful sense that this music that we’ve heard before returns at the end in this uncanny backwards form.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place– Maile Colbert
Sounds Like a Baby– Liana Silva-Ford