An Evening with Three Legendary Rebel Women at Le Poisson Rouge, January 27, 2017: Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today we feature Elizabeth Keenan, documenting an evening with three of punk’s legendary Rebel Women at a time of political crisis.
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
This is not normal/let’s not pretend.
–Alice Bag, “Reign of Fear”
Since November 8, nothing has felt normal in the United States. Instead, every day brings new concerns about what the Trump administration might dismantle, destroy, or defund. The first two months have brought two attempts at an executive order barring immigrants to the US from predominantly Muslim countries and re-introduced the nation to the following cast of characters: a billionaire with no public education experience placed in charge of the Department of Education seeking to push a religious agenda; a man who once vowed to abolish the Department of Energy nominated to helm it; a white supremacist, Breitbart-editor consigliere; and a conspiracy-theorist National Security Advisor with suspicious ties to Russia.
This is not normal.
Let’s not pretend.
But in her song, “Reign of Fear,” Bag counters with defiance: “We’ll resist you/We won’t stand by.”
“Reign of Fear,” which Bag performed last at “Rebel Woman,” an event at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City, encapsulated the evening’s message of resistance. Hosted by Three Rooms Press, “Rebel Women” featured readings from Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag, all of whom have crafted careers that blend music and literary performance. Olavarria is the founding bass player for the Go-Go’s; she later played bass for post-punk experimental band Brian Brain, and holds a PhD in political science. Hansen, an actress, artist and musician, grew up in New York City’s art world. As a teen, she worked with Andy Warhol and played music with Jan Kerouac. Later, she co-founded the ironic Black Flag tribute band, Black Fag, with “terrorist drag artist” Vaginal Creme Davis (who also played with Alice Bag in Cholita). As lead singer and co-founder of the Bags, Alice Bag emerged as one of the most influential Chicana voices in the punk rock scene in Los Angeles in the 1970s (She later documented the women of this scene on her website). Since then, her musical career has included groundbreaking bands Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres, as well as her self-titled solo debut in 2016. Her memoirs Violence Girl (2011) and Pipe Bomb for the Soul (2015) document her music and activism, from L.A. to Nicaragua.
“Rebel Women,” held just two days after the Women’s March on Washington, D.C.—and the satellite marches across the country and internationally—offered an opportunity to reflect on approaches to resistance, whether through music, words, or direct action. Although the Women’s March came under criticism for an initial lack of diversity, it became a protest led by activist women of color, with speakers and performers pushing back against the normalizing of misogyny from a pussy-grabbing president. Both Bag and Olavarria had attended the march in Washington, D.C.; many in the audience had marched there or in the crowd of 500,000 in New York City, which gave “Rebel Woman” a particularly urgent charge.
And our present moment calls for such urgency; among many other necessary actions, we need popular music scholars to rethink how resistance continues to be a productive idea for musicians and protesters, especially those with marginalized identities. In the past few months, “resistance” has experienced a resurgence in political circles. Many of the most popular posters at the Women’s march picked up on the idea of resistance, including one featuring Star Wars’ Princess Leia and the slogan, “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.” #Resist has become a buzzword for organizing against the Trump administration, whether for women’s rights or against the administration’s racism, for health care or against various cabinet nominations. As a hashtag, #resist is remarkably open, allowing social media users to make connections between causes. This is what the performances of “Rebel Women” did so well for the audience at Le Poisson Rouge.
Calling an event “rebel women” positions Bag, Hansen, and Olavarria as “resistance” fighters. The title “Rebel Women” conjures Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and the punk-rock feminism of Riot Grrrl, a generation of feminism after Bag and Olivarria participated in the L.A. punk scene and nearly two decades after Hansen starred in a Warhol film based on her own life. Bag and Olavarria, first active as musicians during the 1980s, connected the present moment to the time when punk rock positioned itself against the policies of the Reagan administration. Situating their resistance in their Latina identities (Bag is Chicana, Olavarria is Chilean, both are Angelenos), they conveyed to the mostly white, mostly middle-class New York audience an urgent, intersectional politics. Hansen, who said she wasn’t “given the memo” to connect her reading to politics, read what she called a “time capsule.”
The stark contrast between these performances brought up questions of power and privilege around what types of memoir are available to different types of women. Bag and Olivarria performed the intersectional oppressions that shaped their lives and connected them to politics, while Bibbe got to be “herself” (that is, unmarked, apolitical, and white). Was this a sign of a tacit understanding white women aren’t going to be as affected by Trump’s policies? (after all, white women elected Trump). Are women of color always expected to perform the emotional labor of connecting their oppressions to political policy, while white women can merely tell stories? Because it is exhausting for women of color to perform this emotional labor–and it can often be exploitative–its all the more important to recognize that Bag and Olivarria chose to do so at Le Poisson Rouge, as I am certain they constructed their performances to speak to this audience (to think otherwise would deny some incredibly smart women their agency).
With those differences in mind, “Rebel Women” underscored for me that intersectional feminism has much to offer in terms of reframing studies of resistance within popular music and is key to ensuring the field’s continued viability in the face of multiple, destructive Trump policies. The concept of intersectionality, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the ways that multiple axes of identity—for example, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or class—affect people in multi-dimensional ways. Crenshaw’s work stresses the importance of seeing intersectionality as an expression of structural power, not just an individual’s conception of their personal identity. Drawing on these intersections can help add complexity to how we understand “resistance” (or even #resistance).
While the study of resistance used to be common in popular music studies—especially in the 1990s—the framework rightly came under criticism as too binary, a position of counterculture vs. mainstream that worked well for glossing 1960s antiwar protests and punk rock, but too simplistic for exploring the nuances of the late-capitalist marketplace. As a theory that emerged from Marxist scholars and examined mostly close-knit, male-dominated subcultures (with formative texts such as Resistance Through Rituals and Subculture: the Meaning of Style), “resistance” was never ideal for grappling with networks organized from a diverse population. An intersectional view, however, understands that the “resistance” group is not evenly or equally affected by the policies of the dominant group; that multiple oppressions shape the forms of resistance available to individual actors; that people facing multiple oppressions also face heightened stakes when they engage in political protest; and that responding to the dominant group requires a commitment to others whose oppressions you may not share.
Olavarria’s performance, which opened the evening, illustrated intersectional resistance by interweaving work from the past and present. Instead of feeling piecemeal, each fragment signaled how structural power and resistance intersected in her life. In the first vignette, she described how, shortly after Trump received the Republican nomination, she ducked into a bar in Florida to escape the rain. A man next to her began to praise Trump. So did another. Finally, one turned to her, to ask what she thought of Trump’s policies. She responded: “’No habla Inglés. Yo soy Mexicana.’ I’m not really Mexican. I’m from Chile, known for poetry and protest. But today we are all Mexican, all Muslims, all immigrants.” Of course, we aren’t all Mexican, Muslims, or immigrants—but we can show thoughtful solidarity. Olavarria’s act of resistance worked because she effectively deployed her Latina identity to make a powerful intersectional point.
Intersectionality offers an important understanding, that not all moments are prime for resistance from every body in the same way. Women of color, for example, face different stakes and consequences than white women at the airport and at border crossings. In an excerpt from her entry in the musician’s guide Tour Smart, Olavarria recalled her band Brian Brain being pulled over by the US border patrol in the late 1980s. Dressed head-to-toe in thrift-store plaid in honor of their record label, Plaid Records, Olavarria didn’t look the part of a stowaway. But that didn’t stop the border guards from questioning her although she had a valid driver’s license, and her English bandmate’s visa had expired: “I was quizzed on civics. Then it was where did you go to high school? Who was your kindergarten teacher?” As the questioning grew more in depth, Olavarria “started to imagine working in Juarez in plaid attire.”
Olavarria’s story cannot be separated from Latinx identity, nor can they be separated from the politics of race, borders, and national identity in the United States. Instead, she illustrates that proposals such as Trump’s proposed “wall” have deep roots in anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant policies, and they show dark possibilities about the eagerness with which ICE embraced Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” Her story also emphasizes that, although our current moment is certainly an intensification of such harassment, deportation, and incarceration, women of color have faced these dangers in the U.S. for a very long time. What’s new, beyond Trump’s policies, is increased white feminist attention to these issues, an opportunity for both increased resistance and wary skepticism. Olavarria ended her segment with six suggestions for resistance reminding the audience that in these dark times, “walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.” She certainly spoke to my struggle in that moment; the response in the room suggested I wasn’t alone.
Margot Olivarria’s Tips for Resistance:
- Wear your safety pin. It is appropriate that a punk fashion accessory has become the symbol of political dissidents. It may also come in handy when militarized police tear your clothes.
- Enjoy yourself. Walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.
- If you have numb yourself, go ahead, as long as you don’t become addicted.
- Spread love. The only thing that will counter Trump’s hate is love.
- It may be that the only way we can say, “You’re fired!” to Trump is through the vote. Register as many progressive minded people as you can. Midterms will be crucial.
- If you see something, do something. Protest against all injustices we witness. Art mightier than the sword. Surround yourself with like-minded people and express outrage. As love Trumps hate, expression beats depression.
Hansen’s “time capsule” from 1964 described events leading to her starring in Andy Warhol’s film, Prison, based on her experiences in reform school. Hansen’s performance, told from behind her dark “reading sunglasses,” took on the tenor of a world-weary teenager.
She had run away from her parents—her father was Fluxus painter Al Hansen and her mother was poet and New York bon vivant Audrey Ostlin Hansen (who died at age 37 in 1968)—and was feeling stir-crazy at her friend Jeff’s apartment, because he only had “the same 40 books every hipster has.” So when her pal Janet Kerouac called with an invite of learning to cook spaghetti and taking acid for the first time, she jumped at the chance, even though she wasn’t sure about the acid part, because it was “too earnest.”
By ten that night, we’re rolling around, and spaghetti is everywhere. We’re dipping it in sauce, hurling it everywhere. We slither and roll across the floor like the first reptiles emerging from the primordial ooze. All the guys have hard-ons. I’m not really into orgies. They’re more like work, you know?
Hansen’s skill as an actor was on full display in her reading, as she vanished into her narration, capturing a unique combination of jadedness and enthusiasm. But every once in a while, a line like, “I may be a kid, but I’m also a freak,” would jump out. It was only toward the end of her reading, when Bibbe describes herself, still high, playing hopscotch with kids in the neighborhood that she reminds us: this is a child of twelve. The kids’ mom takes Bibbe in and gives her some cake, and she is astonished that this what normal parents do for kids.
The moment reveals the vulnerability of Bibbe, the runaway. She might have some agency in choosing to spend time with hipster boys and Jan Kerouac, but those come along with expectations of orgies and acid. It doesn’t leave much room for childhood, hopscotch, and cake. After this realization, Bibbe decides to call her father, who tells her, “I ain’t going to jail, so I guess you are.” In this powerlessness, Hansen found an upside: the day her father got her out of juvenile detention, he took her to lunch with Andy Warhol. Finding that upside does not mean that Hansen lacks self-awareness; instead, the moment read as one of acceptance. She cannot create a new girlhood for herself, just as she couldn’t escape her family by hiding with hipsters. “In the end,” she said, “you get what you get.”
Although Hansen’s reading felt disconnected from current politics, I heard her contribution to the evening as a moment of personal resistance. Hansen has often been defined by the men surrounding her: daughter Al Hansen, youngest of Andy Warhol’s Factory stars, mother of musician Beck. Instead of giving us Bibbe through her connections to her father, or to Warhol, she reframed her adolescent experiences so that they became side characters, opening up space for her unique, clear, adolescent voice, recast through a woman’s perspective.
Alice Bag, singer of The Bags, finished out the night with combined spoken word and live musical performance. After playing in many bands since, Bag released her first solo album in 2016 on the independent punk label Don Giovanni Records. In the intervening years, she worked as an activist and teacher, both in the United States and in Central America. Her combination of readings from her memoirs and musical performance with Tanya Pearson evoked a lifetime of resistance. As the only performer to combine spoken word and live musical performance, Bag situated her songs in the readings she selected from her memoirs. Although the songs are relatively new, they drew on her rich experience with Latinx activism and education.
Her first excerpt, from Violence Girl, described the march for the National Chicano Moratorium on March 29, 1970, the largest anti-Vietnam protest by a minority group. Bag went to the march with her father. Until that moment, she said, “I had never realized I was part of a minority. Our enemies were not afraid to throw bottles at us, or shoot us.” The moment inspired a song that Bag performed, “White Justice.” Framed from a child’s perspective, “White Justice” explores the dawning realization that a march is not a parade, and that it may have dangerous consequences, even violence. At first filled with vivid colors of “blue skies/brown berets,” “green lawns,” and “yellow corn,” the mood turns when the police arrive, with “black gloves/blue collars/blood red/silver dollars,” a moment she connected to the present day: “Our struggle then was here at home/And it’s still going on.”
Bag encouraged the audience to sing along at the chorus of “White Justice”—and many members of the mostly white audience did. This eager participation stood in stark contrast to an incident I witnessed at the Women’s March in New York City, when a man tried to get a “Black Lives Matter” chant going during the New York City march and it was slow going.
Bag’s next story, from Pipe Bomb for the Soul, illustrated that, while she was a member of an oppressed minority in the United States, she brought privilege with her as a teacher in Nicaragua. In her words, “I discovered a lot of things, mostly my own ignorance.” She returned to the United States and taught for over 20 years. Her next song, “Programmed,” expressed her frustration at the post-Leave No Child Behind state of education. At a certain point, she said, “The kids were asked to bubble in Scantrons. We need to teach kids to think for themselves, to value their heritage and experience.”
Finally, Bag ended with the song that began this blog post: “Reign of
Fear.” Inspired by the election, the song acknowledges both fear and
resistance. It is fear that elected Trump; it’s fear that now
motivates some of thethe resistance against him is a stance against
that fear. The fears that elected Trump are fears that treat rights as
a zero-sum game—that if women, or people of color, or queer people, or
Muslims, or Mexicans, or anyone else should gain rights or power, then
white men will lose theirs. In rejecting this view, Bag offers an
intersectional resistance in a punk song, noting “the future comes in
all colors and creeds.” Women of color have been leaders of the
resistance since Trump was elected, but they have also laid a
groundwork for intersectional feminist activism over decades of work.
This is not normal. Let’s not pretend.
But, in resistance lies hope.
In the small space below Le Poisson Rouge, Bag’s voice and Pearson’s guitar swelled to fill the room with that hope:
We reject your/Reign of fear. The future is female/the future is queer. Look out, man/’Cause the future is here.
Featured Image of Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag by Christine Tottenham, Used here with permission of the Women of Rock Oral History Project.
Elizabeth K. Keenan completed her doctorate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in 2008.She is currently reworking her academic work on popular music and feminism since 1990 into a book for normal humans. She has published in Women and Music, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Archivaria, and Current Musicology, as well as two chapters in Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to the Modern (2012). Her proudest moment is finally getting to interview Carrie Brownstein, for NYLON, more than ten years after she tried to interview Brownstein for her dissertation. She sometimes writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website, and her occasional blogging can be found at badcoverversion.wordpress.com.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
G.L.O.S.S., Hardcore, and the Righteous White Voice – Chris Chien
If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag– Marlen Ríos-Hernández
Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid
On January 10th, 2017, A24 + AFROPUNK + Wordless Music + Spaceland presented Moonlight at the historic Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles with the Wordless Music orchestra as live accompaniment. The oldest and once-largest theater in LA, The Million Dollar has a capacity of around 2000 people. Reviewers Shakira Holt and Chris Chien attended separately, but were brought together on Facebook via SO! editorial magic for a discussion on the sonic valences of the film and the entire event experience.
Shakira Holt is a Southern Cali-based high school lit teacher with a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California. She’s deeply interested in the intersections of race, religion, sexuality, class, and politics. This is her second piece for SO!; Her first, “‘I Love to Praise His Name’: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure,” was published five years ago. Moonlight was on her winter break to-do list in December 2016, but the SO! call for a reviewer of the LA showing intrigued and excited her. Jenkins’s film was taking critics and general audiences by storm and already meant so much to so many people. She approached the screening with a healthy respect and desire to do it justice, walking into the Million Dollar Theatre the night of January 10th completely “fresh,” with scarcely more than trailers and the film’s sponsored social media posts as background.
Chris Chien is an American Studies and Ethnicity graduate student at the University of Southern California, and is doing research on early Asian gay and lesbian organizing in North America, and these social movements’ place within contemporary transpacific, diasporic narratives of a liberalizing Asia, particularly Hong Kong. He has previously written on Sounding Out! about the sonic materiality of diasporic feeling through the relic of the cassette tape, and has an upcoming article on righteous white violence in the music of trans-hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. He hadn’t seen Moonlight or even a trailer before this screening, but heard from many people he respects that it was magical. When SO! ed-in-chief JS reached out after seeing him post about attending on FB, he immediately embraced the idea of a conversation with Shakira.
The special screening of Moonlight in Los Angeles was an enjoyable and important, though mixed, experience. The live music, engineered to perfection, formed a seamless auditory union with the film’s other music; the live orchestra was much more of a visual cue for those attendees who could see the pit than a sonic one. However, the exclusion from live performance of non-orchestral music, especially those genres hailing from African American and Latin American creative spheres, detracted from the event, setting it somewhat amiss. Certainly, the screening paid fitting tribute to classical musicians who make those lush swells and accents happen in film. In truth, however, the screening succeeded most where it would have in a typical screening—in the story itself and in its manifold deep and broad significances.
Chris Chien: Just to start off: this was an event. It was drizzling that day, which, let’s be real, felt a little magical in Los Angeles. Seeing the lineup that snaked around the block full of stylish folks dressed in their finest, freshest outfits made it seem like postmodern opera. I had never watched a film in the presence of so many other people but I can say that a collective viewing experience of that scale contributed to the filmic magic.
Shakira Holt: Agreed. Walking through that soft Los Angeles rain up to and then through the crowds made the screening feel momentous and special.
CC: Inside, it was thrilling to soak in the collective affect: ecstatic applause that filled the cavernous space as well as sniffles, sobs, and laughter during certain scenes but looking back, I would’ve preferred a more intimate viewing experience. The attendees around us came in late, talked, and checked their social media throughout the movie (yes, actually). Director Barry Jenkins did say during the Q&A afterwards that it was the largest viewing audience in North America, so perhaps a little chaos is to be expected! Of course, the major selling point of the event for my group was the live orchestral accompaniment to the film. We were up in the nose-bleeds, though, so we struggled to notice when the orchestra kicked in. We also couldn’t see the pit from our seats, and tended to just assume they were playing when there were strings in the film score. So to us, the orchestra was a bit of a non-event.
SH: I was down on the floor with the orchestra and could see the pit fairly well, but I completely get your point. Taken with a scene, I would often forget about the live music until movement in the pit would attract my eye, which was always slightly jarring in a really meaningful way. We forget about the work of folks whose labor provides the musical idiom of film we simply expect to be there. Frankly, it was always with a bit of guilt that I would be brought to remembrance of the presence of the musicians who were that critical contribution to the experience I was having.
CC: You’re so right! It’s interesting that to get the effect, there had to be a visual accompaniment, which speaks to both our ocular-centrism and how we’ve been conditioned to take (sound) labor in film for granted. I also recall Jenkins giving a shoutout to the sound engineer for rigging a custom sound system in the theater space in order for the film sound and orchestral sound to work together properly. He was really gracious in pointing out the unseen labor that you mentioned.
SH: So I’d like your thoughts on that opening scene which features extended Liberty City street dialect.
CC: KPCC’s John Horn, the host of the post-screening discussion with the cast and crew (Barry Jenkins, Nicholas Britell, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), asked a question about the “Liberty City dialect” in the opening scene of the film. His question assumed that “we” couldn’t understand the dialect of that scene, when clearly, his use of “we” assumes a lot about the audience—I’m sure there were folks in the crowd that could understand perfectly what was going on!
I wasn’t one of them, unfortunately, but I was drawn to the politics of that move. The refusal to translate, and the insistence on the authenticity of that voice, which necessarily separates a particular portion of the audience because of knowledge they don’t have, and often are comfortable having. Jenkins also talked at length about the specificity of time and place too. He insisted on representing Liberty City in all its particularities and refused the notion of Moonlight’s wide or universal intelligibility or relatability.
SH: Right. He was very clear about his determination to tell one specific story. Now, on one level, I see it, I get it, and I applaud it. However, on another level, I know that narratives are successful only to the degree that they mine a set of specifics to unearth truths that are universal. I think I’d be hard put to find anyone who would argue against the statement that even in the specificity which Jenkins rightly champions, Moonlight is deeply informed by a powerful universal quality.
CC: And both Ali and Sanders said during the discussion that they felt their embodiment of their respective characters was meant to be relatable to a wide audience. At the same time, Jenkins added that he hoped his method of narrative specificity would inspire other marginalized people to go out and do the same for their own stories, so perhaps he’s more concerned with universal methods than narrative details.
I’m only realizing now that the film just does so damn much, based on how the actors and director imagine their art reaching out to various audiences. One of the most immediate ways is through the use of diverse musical signposts. Others have commented on the gorgeous Barbara Lewis track “Hello Stranger” that Kevin plays on the diner jukebox, (and we could certainly spend all day jumping into the rabbit holes that all the disparate songs on the soundtrack take us to), but I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts on the use of the classic Mexican huapango song “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”
SH: Yes, I did. In a rather convoluted way, I connected that song to the character of Juan, so I’ll back my way into my thinking. The character of Juan is a very special character for me. I don’t think I’ve come across another like him; in fact, I see him as a new type: a trans-American father figure of the African diaspora. Juan is a Cuban native and thus functions as a reach-out to–a gesture towards, a signifier of—Cuba, of course, and, by extension, the rest of the Caribbean, which are American locations not typically identified by their Americanness. I see that Mexican track, “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” as an extension, not of Juan precisely, but of his function. This song is a reach-out to Mexico as another American location that is typically not acknowledged as American. In all truth, it is often imagined and imaged as distinctly anti-American. Through these reach-outs, both characterological and musical, this film initiates a conversation between the U.S. and other parts of the Americas which have been figuratively lopped off from their American identities simply because they fall outside of the United States, which is now almost singularly synonymous with America.
Another layer to this, of course, is that the film makes these reach-outs to different parts of the Americas in the specific context of New World blackness, which automatically invokes the slavery which once covered the Americas and produced the enduringly racist economic and social structures from which Juan, Black, and entire communities like Liberty City are largely excluded.
CC: The film is definitely able to telescope some of most intimate and specific concerns into the widest transnational frames. It’s also interesting that we took different things from Jenkins’ use of that song. I didn’t recognize it during the film, but there was a familiarity to the subdued arrangement. My friend mentioned after that it was the same version by the Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso that Wong Kar-Wai uses in Happy Together (1997) (Jenkins has elsewhere talked at length about the influence of Wong), a film about the fraught relationship between two gay Hong Kong Chinese men living in Argentina.
For Wong, the song, mixed with the sound of crashing water from Iguazu Falls in Argentina, signals characters in the midst of a crumbling relationship reaching back to happier times. In Moonlight, it works in a parallel manner, as an affective and sonic cue that envelops Black and Kevin in the very moment of living a future happy memory: the act of reuniting as adults and cruising around their hometown. The sonic touchstone of “Cucurrucucú Paloma” injects a sense of cosmopolitanism in Happy Together, which opens with shots of the lovers’ passports, but does so referentially in Moonlight through its gesture to global cinema.
SH: Precisely. The reach-outs, as we’re calling them, add such depth and such complex meaning to this film in so many different directions. They are in large measure directly responsible for this film’s richness and importance and intellectual and emotional heft. The film redounds with the boundary-shattering cosmopolitanism you mention because it is obsessed with the ways in which entities and forms which don’t typically speak to one another can be placed in conversation with one another and thus enabled to reach conversance with one of another.
Cinematically, as you mention, this U.S. film, overarching in its Americanness, speaks directly to those of Wong Kar-wai musically, visually, thematically, narratively. This thread of conversation and conversance, operative in so many ways and on so many levels, cannot be overstated.
Characterologically, this happens in all of the film’s main relationships but most significantly between Black and Kevin, whose relationship is always characterized by both speech and silence, which serve as conduits for the conversance, or intimacy, they share.
CC: Yes! I love your reading of silence as a form of intimate conversance. It’s such a great way to think about how both people and cultures, putatively “worlds apart,” are in fact always talking to one another. I’ve also seen some writing on the prominent use of classical music, some of which suggested its “incongruousness” to the story, which I’m sure are based in part on problematic assumptions and associations.
SH: Right. There is a decidedly poignant conversation between this black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music, which is a noteworthy choice. And yes, there are other musical genres represented in the film, but Jenkins seems especially to venerate orchestral music above the other genres. I mean, he did single it out for the live music screening, which necessarily raises its profile above the hip-hop, the R&B, the huapango.
In fact, in the wake of the special screening, those other genres, though important, might be interpreted as intervening on or interrupting the ongoing, and seemingly more important, conversation underway between the black, male, gay, urban narrative and orchestral music. In this context, we might see the prominence of the classical music as a rhetorical bid for the inclusion of this black, male, gay story in a distinctly white, Western cultural canon—not as a quest for whiteness per se but rather as a quest for the ontological normativity which whiteness has long enjoyed.
Perfectly supporting, perhaps even enabling, this conversation between this narrative and classical music is the very telling–quite political, really–application of the “chopped-and- screwed” mixing technique to the classical music in the score. That orchestral music, which is generally perceived as the music of the white elite classes–music, which, even when it is composed and produced in the US, still reads as distinctly European in origin and orientation–should be handled in the same way as the chopped-and-screwed masterpieces of people such as DJ Screw, OG Ron C, and Swishahouse, is more than just a little funny. It is deliciously subversive and, given the political moment, downright democratic and egalitarian.
In a piece for SO, Kemi Adeyemi discusses how the technique was created in Houston by the late DJ Screw in the latter years of the 20th century as a sonic representation of the “loosened, detached body-feeling” of the (black male) body under the influence of the substance lean. Adeyemi explains how lean, a mixture of codeine and sweet soda or juice, has become a chief coping mechanism especially of hip-hop-identified black males trapped in their unrelenting contention with aggressive racist assault that is usually directly responsible for their premature deaths via what Adeyemi identifies as the “discursive entanglements of race, labor, and drugs…in the neoliberal state.”
The “chop” part of chopping and screwing involves adding rhythmic breaks of repetition into a song, hearkening back to the turntable mixing of classic hip-hop. Playing off of Adeyemi’s analysis, I read this chopping as auditory representation of the inescapability of the pace of modern life, particularly the beat of life in a lethally racist context that will not be denied. The “screw” aspect involves the slowing of the song’s overall tempo, which transmogrifies the original track into a plea for more time just to be and for more space to be unmoored from all the dangers poised to assail the black body.
Dave Tomkins, in a piece for mtv.com, quotes composer Nicholas Britell who wonders at the seeming magic of chopping and screwing to “open up all these new harmonics and textures…[and also to] stretch and widen out” phrases and words, enabling the listener to “marinate in the words more.” Britell notes that chopping and screwing the orchestral music of Moonlight’s score produced similar effects, explaining, “The same thing happens for the music, when it goes into those lower-frequency ranges. The sound becomes a feeling.” Tomkins points out that the “feeling” is often one of dread or coming doom that is distinctly black, male and urban, which dovetails Adeyimi’s discussion of chopping and screwing’s origins and cultural context. The film, then, forces the Eurocentric elite into conversance with blackness that is also gay, urban, Southern, hip-hop-identified, and beset by a range of lethal pressures.
Moreover, the orchestral music, in its chopped-and-screwed state, becomes a critical conveyance of deep meaning of the narrative. In the January 10th post-screening discussion, Britell emphasized how chopping and screwing produced “those lower-frequency ranges” by dropping the pitches of each instrument so that each was made to sound like another, deeper, more resonant one. This sonic masking speaks directly to the film’s central issues of voice, true identity, and intimacy.
Discussion between director Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell discussing “chopping and screwing” the score of Moonlight (starts at 4:10).
CC: The selection and transformation of music in Moonlight is definitely doing something to challenge all sorts of normative assumptions. And not just cultural assumptions either but our understanding of the experience of music and film altogether. Jenkins said in a separate discussion that the insertion of silence/music reflects Chiron’s consciousness, what he calls the “cogno-dissonance” of being Chiron. The idea of turning inward in the face of trauma was important to Jenkins. He and the sound crew apparently used surround sound and played with mixing to unbalance the audience’s sonic perception as a way to simulate this experience of trauma, which I think may have been less apparent in this particular theater setup. The thoughtful play on the phenomenology of sound shows us that music, at least in the Moonlight universe, is the substance of life.
SH: Yes. Music in this film is of the utmost importance, making direct and often very strong comment on every aspect of modern life, even to the point of marking trauma by speaking the unspeakable. As we’ve discussed before, various musical genres are put to the task of translating, interpreting, expressing life and its traumas.
However, there is one genre that is quite noticeably absent from this film. The absolute avoidance of the black church and its music is striking and lands a deft blow to a site within African American culture that has been stridently anti-gay despite its own embrace of rich, abundant LGBTQ artistic and cultural contribution. The reproach is so fierce, the black church is not allowed to exist in the film even on the plane of the lamest obligatory church tropes with which we are all too familiar. There is no Sunday service, no booming, looming vestmented preacher, no hymn-humming, Scripture-quoting grandma—not even a religious crisis set to a chopped-and-screwed Mahalia Jackson or Clara Ward track. The closest we get to religion is the swimming lesson as Juan, the trans-American father of the African diaspora, baptizes Little in the waters of the Middle Passage and teaches him how to survive in them. The context here is much more cultural and historical than it is religious. This thoroughgoing circumvention of the black church and gospel music in a film that traffics in reach-outs connotes nothing less than obdurate, unreprievable censure.
CC: This avoidance is especially interesting in light of the long history of gospel influence in the artistry of founding Black queer artists like Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And the exclusion of the Black church and its sonic registers interacts provocatively with the foregrounding of hip hop in Black’s arc since that genre has been characterized in some quarters as homophobic (though that critique can be reductive and itself plagued by racialized stereotyping).
SH: And in some instances, it has been homophobic, though that seems to be changing with the times and their increasing embrace of both the black secularism and the openness towards diverse black sexualities which Moonlight celebrates.
CC: So, what do you think you will remember most about this night, and this singular performance?
SH: This night is one that I think I’ll always love and remember for many reasons–the moody weather, the dinner beforehand with my old friend, Dr. Ruth Blandon, the buzzing excitement of the crowds, our spotting the amazing Mahershala Ali seated just across the aisle from us, the tour de force film, the panel discussion afterwards–but perhaps one of the greatest reasons will be that sense of overwhelming connection I felt that night. It was simply electric. I don’t know about you, but I felt deeply connected to the city itself that night, to Los Angeles–especially old, historic, LA, the LA that my grandmother moved to as a five-year old back in 1940. My grandmother will be 82 this coming September, so she’s still very much here in the flesh, but I felt especially close to her, or really, to what I imagine was her five-year old self. Thinking about her precipitated a connection to that old theatre. I wondered how many times she had been there, or knowing her penchant for mischief, how many times she had snuck in.
And then, in a more diffuse but not less important way, I felt a kinship with all the strangers in the theatre, gathered there that evening for a single purpose. So it is fitting to me that an event celebrating a film which devotes itself so thoroughly to “reach-outs,” as we’ve called them here, to these critical, radical conversations in pursuit of conversance, would have also so generously provided me an opportunity to experience my own, very personal reach-outs and connections. What about you?
CC: Absolutely agreed. I don’t have as much of a connection to this city as you, being part of the dreaded transplant-class, but it speaks to the power of events such as this that I feel it more. There’s something to our exchange, too, that speaks not only to the importance of the film, but also, in this time of threatened funding to the arts, the critical nature of collective enjoyment and, indeed, production of daring new art by queer people of color.
The film reaches out and touches folks who don’t often get that experience and there’s no better example of this than the closing sequence. The film ends with Black talking to Kevin about the absence of intimate touch in his life and then a moment of the beautiful silent conversance that you pointed out earlier. The parting shot is of the most tender contact, over which we hear the sound of crashing waves. This visual-sonic collage suggests that the act of gay black men touching is elemental, almost tectonic—at once basal but also a force of nature; at once deeply individual (the actual final image is a dive inward, of young Chiron looking back at us from a darkened beach), but also an image of ceaseless, living tenderness, like the rolling waves on the Liberty City shores. I think the two thousand people in the room that night, both of us included, however differently we may all have perceived it, felt that touch.
Featured Image: Screen capture of Alex Hibbert as Little from Moonlight Trailer by JS
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