As pundits increasingly speculate about the likelihood and character of another recession, I’m thinking about the one from which we’re still recovering. Specifically, I’m thinking about a certain strain of American pop music—or a certain sentiment within pop music—that it seems to me accelerated and concentrated just after the 2008 financial collapse. This strain, which obviously co-existed with many other developments in popular music at the time, takes party songs and adds to them two interconnected narrative elements: on the one hand, partying is cranked up, escalated in one or multiple ways, moving the music beyond a party anthem and into something new. On the other hand, the rationale for such a move consistently derives from an attitude of compulsory presentism, in which the future is characterized as unknown, irrelevant, or is otherwise disavowed.
In the American context, the popular (and, I argue, misguided) take on the music of the great recession is that we didn’t have any—in other words, because no one was directly singing about the crisis, there was no music that responded to it. But this is an extremely limited way of understanding how music and socio-political life interact. In this post, I consider specifically American notions of mainstream party culture to argue that the strain of party music described above and below is the music of the crash, not because it literally speaks about it but because it reflects a certain attitude expressed and experienced by those at the front of both popular music listening at the time and the collapse itself: the graduating classes of 2008-2012.
By “party music” I do not mean (exclusively) music to which people party; rather, I am trying to trace what happens to music that is about partying during the crash. When I say that these songs transform from being party anthems into “something new,” what I mean is that in their extremeness, both the represented parties and the organizing affect of these parties reflect an urgency, a crisis, or a lack of choice condition. In short, what I’m calling “Post-Crash Party Music” (PCPP) responds to the 2008 financial collapse and the broader context of climate devastation by instituting a compulsory presentism that manifests through a frenetic, extreme, nihilistic celebration, a never-ending party that is also the last party (before the end of the world).
I’ll briefly mention two prime examples, both from what might be the peak year of this trend, 2010. First, Ke$ha’s single “(and #1 on Billboard’s Year-end Hot 100), “TiK ToK” sees Ke$ha brushing her teeth with a bottle of whiskey, while the last line in the chorus reveals why this is happening: Ke$ha sings, “The party don’t stop, no,” implying that the song’s narration picks up in a moment that could be any moment, an eternal present that is non-distinguishable from any other moment.
This line captures both of the defining characteristics of PCPP: 1) the party is extreme because 2) it never ends, or is always presently occurring. Although there are multiple ways of creating the eternal present that the party represents, each song in this category is invested in denying both past and future in a way that makes the presentist attitude of the partygoers a mandatory condition. This requirement is what makes PCPP more extreme, narratively, than party pop of previous eras.
As a second example, take The Black Eyed Peas’ quintessential party anthem “I Gotta Feeling.” Throughout most of the song, listeners are set up to experience what sounds like a fairly typical party jam: although the Black Eyed Peas render this joyous, optimistic track as perhaps more formally ‘perfect’ or effective than many of its competitors, it still follows a standard EDM format and a fairly conventional sentiment.
However, near the end of the track, as if responding to the pop-culture/post-crash landscape by afterthought, the Black Eyed Peas very casually disclose that the night that has all along been referenced as “tonight” is in fact every night: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday/Friday, Saturday, Saturday to Sunday/Get, get, get, get, get with us, you know what we say, say/Party every day, p-p-p/Party every day, p-p-p [repeat 10x]…”
Party anthems of one kind or another have been with us for a long time. But I would argue that something else is going on here. The traditional ambition to party until the sun comes up or to party all night has been eclipsed by a more extreme goal, which is to never stop partying at all. In this new space, the time of day or the day of the week is irrelevant; time itself evaporates in the indistinguishable space of an everlasting present.
My argument here is that this music–specifically in its insistence on a party’s ceaselessness–represents almost the complete opposite of its expressed sentiments: that is, rather than rapturous or celebratory moods, PCPP reflects widespread existential and economic anxiety that is shared among the entire millennial generation, but which was acutely present for the classes that graduated college between 2008 and 2012. Its insistence on partying forever is indicative of this generation’s awareness that the future is bleak.
Economically, we know that this cohort will live with repercussions of the financial collapse for the rest of their lives. (See for instance: “Bad News for the Class of 2008”; “This Is What the Recession Did to Millennials”; “A Decade Later Many college grads from the Great Recession are still trying to catch up”; “2008 was a terrible year to graduate college”; “2008: Ten Years After the Crash, We Are Still Living in the World It Brutally Remade”; and the pithily-titled but quite thorough “Millennials are Screwed”.) Existentially, while the millennials were not the first to cognize and politically articulate the stakes of the unfolding climate crisis, they are, as a “young generation,” perhaps the first identifiable group who will most certainly face its longterm consequences. Rather than simply distract us from these realities, PCPP is predicated on our understanding of those realities. In the face of these circumstances and more, is it any wonder that the affective (if not conscious) response was to live it up while there was still time?
I am not arguing that PCPP harbors any ambitions to address any such anxieties; on the contrary, this music is, on its face, also an example of the much broader genre of neoliberal corporate pop music, a commodity that aims to utilize listener sentiments to maximize profit. That is why PCPP cuts across or includes such racial and gender diversity in its performers, and why it also corresponds to broader trends in pop that elevate and glamorize conspicuous, over-the-top consumption, the kinds of caricatured displays of spending-power that are hallmarks of PCPP as well as other mainstream genres. The discourse of an endless party is also a really good one in which to promote consumption―especially consumption that is taken to the extreme, or is justified through the logic of embracing “life” while we can.
No, from the perspective of the music industry, this music is not about anxiety but is, like all corporate music, still about including as many listener-customers as possible in the cross-branded spectacle of neoliberal pop. Instead, my claim is that this music, however inadvertently, resonates with listeners in a particular, affective way, and in the encounter between neoliberal pop music and a group of anxious American listeners, an accelerated sentiment emerges and spins itself out. We are still consuming, but endlessly so; and that very ceaselessness speaks to a deeper existential dread at the heart of our voracious appetites.
Emerging from this resonance between extreme party music and extreme anxiety are several traceable tropes, each expressing the ambition to party forever. For instance, the “don’t stop” imperative is often paired with the seemingly paradoxical sentiment that “we only have tonight”; but insofar as the end of that night heralds a return to reality (the post-crash landscape) one solution is to simply refuse to stop the party. In this way, the night can “last forever” within the space of the music. Taken together, the PCPP ethos can be summarized by the phrase, as a colleague recently put it, “right now forever.”
There is a specific construction at work here that allows PCPP to impose its presentist timespace: the forever-now is not extended out of joy, but rather out of necessity. By acknowledging that our time (out there) is limited, it constructs a space (in here) that resists normative flows of temporality. PCPP simply disallows temporality into its consciousness–it refuses to acknowledge the existence of a past and especially not a future. Here the “compulsory” element of its presentism emerges: it is compulsory both because within the affective space of the music, the rules do not allow temporality to exist, and because, when our futures have been irrevocably damaged, the present is, in effect, all that we will be allowed to experience.
There are many more examples from this period, all riffing on the same nihilistic affect: “Tomorrow doesn’t matter when you’re moving your feet” (Pixie Lott, “All About Tonight”); “This is how we live/every single night/take that bottle to the head and let me see you fly” (Far East Movement, “Like a G6”, 2010); “Still feelin’ myself I’m like outta control/Can’t stop now more shots let’s go” (Flo Rida, “Club Can’t Handle Me”, 2010). In this context, assurances from Lady Gaga that “It’s gonna be ok” if we “Just Dance” seem less hopeful and more ironic, as if born from denial.
Surely, some of these songs take up the “don’t stop” imperative simply by virtue of its ubiquitous circulation through a pop-culture economy (Junior Senior’s 2003 “Move Your Feet” comes to mind here). I am not arguing that any song that expresses such a generic utterance be considered a part of this post-crash formation; what it takes to qualify, it seems to me, is a distortion whereby the generic affect is pumped so full that it breaks something, a process that sometimes introduces a dark subtext into the music, but which no matter what displays elements of excess that go beyond the pale of a celebratory dance tune. Eddie Murphy’s “girl” wants to “Party All the Time”, but this alone doesn’t qualify the tune as an anxiety anthem because it is a source of hurt and stress for the speaker’s character—ceaseless partying here is sublimated into a narrative about a certain romantic relationship. What distinguishes PCPP, on the other hand, is the sense (however vague) that the “don’t stop” imperative is urgent, and meant to protect us from the world that is waiting outside the club.
PCPP differs in this way from other genres that consciously articulate a dissatisfaction (of whatever kind) with contemporary conditions. The millennial nihilism of an everlasting party is not the same as Gen X’s cynical malaise, which had more to do with resistance to meaningless corporate employment than it did the prospects of no employment at all. PCPP is not punk-rock anarchism nor grunge’s serious grappling with the consequences of capitalism on people’s mental health. PCPP is purely affective, a manic/cathartic punishment-therapy that does not need to denotatively speak of what’s happening in the world because that world is always already experienced in an extreme way. PCPP responds by dialing up the party to a degree of fervor that is correspondingly intense, able to drown out the noise, and it achieves this effect by turning parties into a paradox that is both time-limited and never-ending.
It is true that I have mostly focused on lyrics in this argument. But first of all, other factors also contribute to the sense of PCPP as existential: see for instance the music video for Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” (2011), which literalizes the argument I’m making by representing people dancing as the planet crumbles. Likewise, the music video for LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” (2011) casts the band’s beat as a contagion that has afflicted the “whole world,” compelling them to dance ceaselessly in a way that resonates appropriately with post-apocalyptic genres.
Second of all, the “music itself” never exists in isolation from the lyrics or indeed from any other element of a tune. What I would argue that the sounds and formal elements of these songs contributes to the PCPP ethos is a sense of tension and paradox: namely, the paradox between the stated dream of an unending party, and the reality that underlies said dream. It is, physically and otherwise, impossible to keep dancing indefinitely, a fact reflected in the form of this music, which still follows EDM rules of build-up and release, those forms that give one’s body time to rest and appropriate places to feel the natural climax of a song. The tension between the music (which corresponds to the body) and the lyrics (which aim into the afterlife) is the central contradiction that makes PCPP so e/affective.
Thus, the PCPP genre or sentiment, which flashes brightly from 2009-2012, meets its death in and through the track that most comprehensively embodies it: Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” (2013). In this deeply melancholic hit, PCPP is followed to its logical conclusion: those who at first refused to stop partying are now entirely incapable of doing so even if they wanted. This is the most extreme version of the PCPP worldview, so extreme that it spread into the music, inverting the entire affect from pumped-up party jam to down-tempo lament, a lament with almost no temporality even in its form.
Although my reading of “We Can’t Stop” differs from Robin James’s, her description perfectly captures the way that song’s form finally achieves the same presentism that PCPP’s lyrics always established, a closed world of “now”. In her 2015 book Resilience and Melancholy, James writes,
Just as the lyrics suggest that the ‘we’ is caught in a feedback loop it can’t stop, the music keeps spuriously cycling through verses and choruses without moving forward or backward…In other words, time isn’t a line, it’s Zeno’s paradox; not a pro- or re-gress but involution (177-178).
If anything, this formal stagnation or inverted affect brings “We Can’t Stop” into the space of the trap music it plays at, and constitutes one of the many ways in which the song cannot sustain its contradictions. As Kemi Adeyemi makes clear, trap music certainly has to do with partying; but its intersections with neoliberal capitalism are particular to Black lives in a way that is wholly different from Cyrus’ attempted deployment. Thus, reaching to trap for a PCPP affect has the devastating effect of exploding the entire sentiment.
In other words, “We Can’t Stop” exposes all the lies that PCPP, in its heyday, furthered: the idea that the party could continue indefinitely, and (by extension) so too could the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” and the supposed post-racial utopia opened up by neoliberal capitalism. “We Can’t Stop” gives sound to these fictions, through its own form and in various ways: from its well-documented appropriation of Black culture, to the untenable contradiction at the heart of its sentiments. “We can do what we want” but we also “can’t stop.”
Rather than hearing this tune as “painfully dull” (180), this song has always been morbidly fascinating to me, a bleak statement about our inability to move past the moment in which we’re caught. In other words, our presentism is now also compulsory because we’ve gotten so used to it that we can no longer imagine a future at all, or at least not one in which catastrophe doesn’t occur; nor can we imagine the solutions that would help us when it does. Instead, we have the iPhone 11 and self-driving cars. Instead, we have an inverted yield curve and predictions of another (perpetually recurring) market crisis. Instead, we have billionaires doubling down, grabbing every last resource they can from the planet in order to insulate themselves from the effects they have created, a final and pathological shopping spree. Seen from that perspective, while it marked the end of PCPP as a trend, “We Can’t Stop” remains striking as both indictment and prophecy.
Dan DiPiero is a musician and Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at Miami University of Ohio, where he teaches American popular culture and music history. His current book project investigates the relationship between improvisation in music and in everyday life through a series of nested comparisons, including case studies on the music of Eric Dolphy, John Cage, and contemporary Norwegian free improvisers, Mr. K. His work has appeared in Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation, the collection Rancière and Music (forthcoming, Edinburgh University Press), and boundary 2 online. He plays the drums.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Poptimism and Popular Feminism–Robin James
Benefit Concerts and the Sound of Self-Care in Pop Music–Justin Adams Burton
Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear are often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but, more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta
For the full introduction to the forum, click here.
To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.
The late 1990s was a pivotal time for activism around queerness in India. The violent response of the Hindu right to Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1998), a film portraying a romantic and sexual relationship between two women, prompted widespread debate on the question of censorship generally and of sexual-minority rights in particular. By rendering homosexuality explicit in its visuals and dialogues, and charting a linear trajectory of queerness—the protagonists move from unhappiness to happiness, denial to acceptance—Fire valorizes “coming out.” In the film, as in liberal strands of LGBT activism, it matters not only that one is out, but that one is seen as such. The premium placed on visibility in this formulation is undercut by the “queer” figure of Falguni Pathak. A tomboyish singer with a high-pitched voice, Pathak shot to fame with her debut album Yaad Piya Ki Aane Lage in the same year that Fire was released in India. Her performances mobilize disparate, even contradictory, signs of gender and sexuality at once, inviting us to examine the relationship between visuality and aurality in constructing queerness.
Falguni Pathak’s stardom is typically understood in the context of economic liberalization and the reconfiguration of Indian public culture that followed. The 1990s boom in the music industry was facilitated by the spread of satellite television, which gave non-film singers a new platform and a new set of audiences. Pathak’s “cute” and catchy love songs circulated endlessly on television countdown shows, turning her into an unlikely sensation. I say “unlikely” because Pathak’s apparent tomboyishness seemed at odds with the hyper-femininity and heteronormativity of the narratives in her music videos. Romantic quests, schoolgirls giddy with love, feminine bonding over make-up and men—these are standard features of Pathak’s videos, as is her own smiling presence as the singer-narrator. Through her gestures and lyrics, she comments on the lovesick teen’s plight and steps in occasionally to comfort or help the young girl, as in her first hit, “Chudi.”
For instance, in “Maine payal hai chhankai” (“The tinkling of my anklets,” 1999) she cheers on a group putting on a dance and puppet show for a school function. In songs like “Chudi/Yaad piya ki aane lagi” (“Bangles/I remember my lover,” 1998), “O piya” (“O beloved,” 2001), and “Rut ne jo bansi bajai” (“The music of the weather,” 2012) she is portrayed as a pop star.
The singer-as-pop-star was a common trope in early Indipop music videos (Kvetko). But Pathak dressed very differently than other pop stars. Whether on or off screen, she was (and is) always in men’s clothing, with a short, unfussy haircut and little make-up. Pathak’s style was mirrored on occasion by a minor character in her music videos. (“Chudi” includes a tomboyish school girl who struggles with the dance moves her friends choreograph.) Thus, Pathak’s visible presence in her videos brushed against the pitch, timbre, and style of her singing, which together articulated a hyper-feminine pop sensibility.
This sense of a “mismatch” (Fleeger) continues in Pathak’s contemporary performances. She is the most sought-after vocalist for Navratri festivities in Mumbai each year. On each night of this nine-day long Hindu festival, the “Queen of Dandiya” appears on stage dressed in a brightly colored kurta, vest, and trousers, and sings traditional Gujarati songs and hymns. The women in her audience dress more conventionally and more elaborately, in saris, salwaar kameez, and ghaghra-cholis. They dance in circles, performing recognizable garba moves. Meanwhile, Falguni Pathak saunters around the stage, engaging cheerfully with her fellow musicians and fans. Neither Pathak’s clothes nor her unfeminine dance moves bother the revelers as they dance the night away. For example, note how Pathak sways and rocks to the beat 34 seconds into this lively 2012 stage performance of Suneeta Rao’s hit song “Pari hun mein.”
Falguni Pathak’s temple performances at other times of the year are similar. They draw huge crowds unconcerned with the apparent mismatch between sound and image in her star persona. She tends to be as immersed in the devotional songs she sings as her audience. But her movements, plain clothes, and floppy hair-style make her look more like the male percussionists who accompany her, rocking and whipping their heads from side to side as they keep the beat, than the middle-class women clapping and singing along.
Performative traditions of mimicry and cross-dressing abound in India. But Pathak’s gender performance does not align with those religious, folk, and filmic traditions (and tropes) because it never registers as masquerade. The very casualness of her look, the fact that she dresses in t-shirt and trousers in all of her public appearances, suggests that this is not a temporary or theatrical adoption of a gender role. When asked in interviews why she eschews traditionally feminine clothing, Pathak always responds that she never has worn anything other than pants and t-shirts and is comfortable as she is. There were certainly other pop stars in the 1990s whose musical performances had masculine elements to them. Recall, for instance, Shweta Shettty’s suited look in “Johnny Joker” (1993). But none of Pathak’s peers sported a butch look as consistently and nonchalantly as she did—and none of them sang in as saccharine a voice. After six decades of Lata Mangeshkar’s vocal hegemony in Hindi cinema, such a “sweet,” contained, and unadorned voice has come to represent ideal Indian femininity. Pathak sounds charming and benign in her songs and interviews, but she does not dress the part.
Pathak’s challenging of conventional gender norms through her appearance and through the fact that she has never been married raises the specter of queerness in public discourse. But even that is difficult to pin down. Popular commentators and fans sometimes suggest that she looks like Kiran Bedi, a high-ranking (retired) police officer who enjoys celebrity status, making it hard to read the masculine details of Pathak’s persona as “gay.” Even as she is a queer icon (Giani), Pathak never comments on her sexuality or love life. She either evades questions about relationships or simply states that she is single. Where some celebrities come out publicly or keep alive innuendoes about their sexuality (Singh), she treats it as a non-issue. All in all, what we get in Falguni Pathak’s music videos and star persona is a queerly gendered performance that seems both utterly “natural” (because it seems comfortable and casual) and profoundly mismatched.
To be clear, my argument is not so much that Falguni Pathak looks or sounds queer. The latter point is as hard to prove as the former is easy. If, for just a second, we manage to shut out of our mind’s eye the image of Pathak singing, her voice sounds thoroughly conventional. She sings in a traditional idiom, of traditional themes. No matter how intently I listen, no “queer timbre” (Bonenfant, Chaves Dasa), no “butch throat” (Glasberg) reaches out to touch me. Thus on the one hand, Pathak, like the other “mismatched women” Jennifer Fleeger writes about, confounds heteronormative expectations about gender and sexuality. On the other, her voice eludes “queer listening” (Bonenfant). What do we do with a queer figure who doesn’t sound queer? How might we understand her voice vis-à-vis queerness in Indian public culture? How do her live performances today continue to disrupt the emphasis on visibility in queer studies and politics—that is, the fixation on visual representations and “coming out” of the closet? Finally, how might Pathak’s “vocalic body” (Connor) help us conceive of the intersection of aurality and queerness in South Asian public culture?
Falguni Pathak intervened in a cultural field that was just beginning to deal with LGBT visibility. This becomes apparent when we remember that the 1990s was a period not just of economic liberalization but of vibrant queer activism as well. Pathak’s non-feminine image was startling for a pop star, but her voice was familiar and “good.” Her safe sound allowed her to push the boundaries of desire in televisual representations of the time. But it did more than that, too. The disjuncture between her feminine voice and butch look was critical to the complex landscape of desire her music videos evoked. It created space for ambiguity and incongruity amid charged debates about alternative sexual identities.
In “Main teri prem diwani/Indhana winva” (“I am madly in love with you,” 2001), Pathak stars as the neighbor to whom the protagonist turns for advice in matters of love. In an amazingly campy move, Pathak urges the young woman to seduce her lover by donning outfits inspired by Moulin Rouge (2001), specifically the song “Lady Marmalade” (00:36-00:55), and The Mummy Returns (2001) (1:59-2:03). Queerness is also writ large in “Meri chunnar udd udd jaye” (My scarf flies away, 2000), where Pathak appears as the beloved friend of a young girl in exile. The girl misses her friend intensely and attempts to recreate the dance moves and games she played with her older friend, this time with another mysterious woman who steps out of a painting.
Men’s roles in this and other Falguni Pathak music videos are ambiguous at best (Giani). Thus, despite the happy ending to the teen love stories, what lingers is Pathak’s simultaneous disruption and enabling of straight romance. This is why she is remembered fondly as a queer icon, even as the music scene in India has moved on from the “cuteness” of the 1990s. She offered LGBT audiences a way to read and revel in non-normative desires (Giani), without completely unseating “traditional” ways of living and loving.
The broader lesson in Falguni Pathak’s performances is that we cannot think of visuality apart from aurality, and vice versa. No matter how hard NBC’s “The Voice” tries to convince us (Tongson), we cannot in fact understand the sound of a singer’s voice as separate from the image of her as a performer and the contexts in which she emerges on the scene. It is not Pathak’s tomboyish appearance so much as the apparent disjuncture between that look and her voice that is key. What is queer about her voice is the look of it.
Featured Image: Falguni Pathak’s classic pose.
Pavitra Sundar is Assistant Professor of Literature at Hamilton College, where she teaches courses on global film and literature. Her scholarly interests span the fields of cinema studies, sound studies, postcolonial literary and cultural studies, and gender-sexuality studies. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the politics of Bollywood film sound and music. Her work has been published in journals such as Meridians, Jump Cut, South Asian Popular Culture, and Communication, Culture, and Critique, as well as in anthologies on South Asian and other cinematic traditions.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Ritual, Noise, and the Cut-up: The Art of Tara Transitory—Justyna Stasiowska
If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag–Marlen Rios-Hernández
The lyrics to Beyoncé’s 2008 song “Radio” treats listening pleasure as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sexual pleasure. For example, they describe how turning up a car stereo transforms it into a sex toy: “And the bassline be rattlin’ through my see-eat, ee-eats/Then that crazy feeling starts happeni-ing- i-ing OH!” Earlier in the song, the lyrics suggest that this is a way for the narrator to get off without arousing any attempts to police her sexuality: “You’re the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room/…And mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom.” Because her parents wouldn’t let her be alone in her bedroom with anyone or anything that they recognized as sexual, “Radio”’s narrator finds sexual pleasure in a practice that isn’t usually legible as sex. In her iconic essay “On A Lesbian Relationship With Music,” musicologist Suzanne Cusick argues that if we “suppose that sexuality isn’t necessarily linked to genital pleasure” and instead “a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given” (70), we can understand the physical pleasures of listening to music, music making, and music performance as kinds of sexual pleasure.
Though Cusick’s piece overlooks the fact that sexual deviance has been, since the invention of the idea of sexuality in the late 19th century, thoroughly racialized, her argument can be a good jumping-off point for thinking about black women’s negotiations of post-feminist ideas of sexual respectability; it focuses our attention on musical sound as a technique for producing queer pleasures that bend the circuits connecting whiteness, cispatriarchal gender, and hetero/homonormative sexuality. In an earlier SO! Piece on post-feminism and post-feminist pop, I defined post-feminism as the view that “the problems liberal feminism identified are things in…our past.” Such problems include silencing, passivity, poor body image, and sexual objectification. I also argued that post-feminist pop used sonic markers of black sexuality as representations of the “past” that (mostly) white post-feminists and their allies have overcome. It does this, for example, by “tak[ing] a “ratchet” sound and translat[ing] it into very respectable, traditional R&B rhythmic terms.” In this two-part post, I want to approach this issue from another angle. I argue that black femme musicians use sounds to negotiate post-feminist norms about sexual respectability, norms that consistently present black sexuality as regressive and pre-feminist.
Black women musicians’ use of sound to negotiate gender norms and respectability politics is a centuries-old tradition. Angela Davis discusses the negotiations of Blues women in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism (1998), and Shana Redmond’s recent article “This Safer Space: Janelle Monae’s ‘Cold War’” reviews these traditions as they are relevant for black women pop musicians in the US. While there are many black femme musicians doing this work in queer subcultures and subgenres, I want to focus here on how this work appears within the Top 40, right alongside all these white post-feminist pop songs I talked about in my earlier post because such musical performances illustrate how black women negotiate hegemonic femininities in mainstream spaces.
As America’s post-identity white supremacist patriarchy conditionally and instrumentally includes people of color in privileged spaces, it demands “normal” gender and sexuality performances for the most legibly feminine women of color as the price of admission. As long as black women don’t express or evoke any ratchetness–any potential for blackness to destabilize cisbinary gender and hetero/homonormativity, to make gender and sexuality transitional–their expressions of sexuality and sexual agency fit with multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.
It is in this complicated context that I situate Nicki Minaj’s (and in my next post Beyoncé’s and Missy Elliott’s) recent uses of sound and their bodies as instruments to generate sounds. If, as I argued in my previous post, the verbal and visual content of post-feminist pop songs and videos is thought to “politically” (i.e., formally, before the law) emancipate women while the sounds perform the ongoing work of white supremacist patriarchy, the songs I will discuss use sounds to perform alternative practices of emancipation. I’m arguing that white bourgeois post-feminism presents black women musicians with new variations on well-worn ideas and practices designed to oppress black women by placing them in racialized, gendered double-binds.
For example, post-feminism transforms the well-worn virgin/whore dichotomy, which traditionally frames sexual respectability as a matter of chastity and purity (which, as Richard Dyer and others have argued, connotes racial whiteness), into a subject/object dichotomy. This dichotomy frames sexual respectability as a matter of agency and self-ownership (“good” women have agency over their sexuality; “bad” women are mere objects for others). As Cheryl Harris argues, ownership both discursively connotes and legally denotes racial whiteness. Combine the whiteness of self-ownership with well-established stereotypes about black women’s hypersexuality, and the post-feminist demand for sexual self-ownership puts black women in a catch-22: meeting the new post-feminist gender norm for femininity also means embodying old derogatory stereotypes.
I think of the three songs (“Anaconda,” “WTF,” and “Drunk in Love”) as adapting performance traditions to contemporary contexts. First, they are part of what both Ashton Crawley and Shakira Holt identify as the shouting tradition, which, as Holt explains, is a worship practice that “can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning.” She continues, arguing that “shouting…is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them.” These vocal performances apply the shouting tradition’s combination of the choreographic and the sonic and binary-confounding tactics to queer listening and vocal performance strategies.
Francesca Royster identifies such strategies in both Michael Jackson’s work and her audition of it. According to Royster, Jackson’s use of non-verbal sounds produces an erotics that exceeds the cisheteronormative bounds of his songs’ lyrics. They were what allowed her, as a queer teenager, to identify with a love song that otherwise excluded her:
in the moments when he didn’t use words, ‘ch ch huhs,’ the ‘oohs,’ and the ‘hee hee hee hee hees’…I ignored the romantic stories of the lyrics and focused on the sounds, the timbre of his voice and the pauses in between. listening to those nonverbal moments–the murmured opening of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” or his sobbed breakdown at the end of “She’s Out of My Life,’ I discovered the erotic (117).
Royster references a black sexual politics in line with Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic in “The Uses of the Erotic,” which is bodily pleasure informed by the implicit and explicit knowledges learned through lived experience on the margins of the “European-American male tradition” (54), and best expressed in the phrase “it feels right to me” (54). Lorde’s erotic is a script for knowing and feeling that doesn’t require us to adopt white supremacist gender and sexual identities to play along. Royster calls on this idea when she argues that Jackson’s non-verbal sounds–his use of timbre, rhythm, articulation, pitch–impart erotic experiences and gendered performances that can veer off the trite boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl stories in his lyrics. “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119). Like shouting, “erotic” self-listening confounds several binaries designed specifically to oppress black women, including subject/object binaries and binary cisheterogender categories.
Nicki Minaj uses extra-verbal sounds as opportunities to feel her singing, rapping, vocalizing body as a source of what Holt calls “sonophilic” pleasure, pleasure that “provide[s] stimulation and identification in the listener” and invites the listener to sing (or shout) along. Minaj is praised for her self-possession when it comes to business or artistry, but such self-possession is condemned or erased entirely when discussing her performances of sexuality. As Treva B. Lindsey argues, “the frequency that Nicki works on is not the easiest frequency for us to wrestle with, because it’s about…whether we can actually tell the difference between self-objectification and self-gratification.’’ Though this frequency may be difficult to parse for ears tempered to rationalize post-feminist assumptions about subjectivity and gender, Minaj uses her signature wide sonic pallette to shift the conversation about subjectivity and gender to frequencies that rationalize alternative assumptions.
In her 2014 hit “Anaconda,” she makes a lot of noises: she laughs, snorts, trills her tongue, inhales with a low creaky sound in the back of her throat, percussively “chyeah”s from her diaphragm,among other sounds. The song’s coda finds her making most of the extraverbal sounds. This segment kicks off with her quasi-sarcastic cackle, which goes from her throat and chest up to resonate in her nasal and sinus cavities. She then ends her verse with a trademark “chyeah,” followed by another cackle. Then Minaj gives a gristly, creaky exhale and inhale, trilling her tongue and then finishing with a few more “chyeah”s. While these sounds do percussive and musical work within the song, we can’t discount the fact that they’re also, well…fun to make. They feel good, freeing even. And given the prominent role the enjoyment of one’s own and other women’s bodies plays in “Anaconda” and throughout Minaj’s ouevre, it makes sense that these sounds are, well, ways that she can go about feelin herself.
Listening to and feeling sonophilic pleasure in sounds she performs, Minaj both complicates post-feminism’s subject/object binaries and rescripts cishetero narratives about sexual pleasure. “Anaconda” flips the script on the misogyny of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” by sampling the track and rearticulating cishertero male desire as Nicki’s own erotic. First, instead of accompanying a video about the male gaze, that bass hook now accompanies a video of Nicki’s pleasure in her femme body and the bodies of other black femmes, playing as she touches and admires other women working out with her. Second, Nicki re-scripts the bass line as a syllabification: “dun-da-da-dun-da-dun-da-dun-dun,” which keeps the pattern of accents on 1 and 4, while altering the melody’s pitch and rhythm.
Just as “Anaconda”’s lyrics re-script Mix-A-Lot’s male gaze, so do her sounds. If the original hook sonically orients listeners as cishetero “men” and “women,” Nicki’s vocal performance reorients listeners to create and experience bodily pleasure beyond the “legible” and the scripted. Though the lyrics are clearly about sexual pleasure, the sonic expression or representation of that pleasure–i.e., the performer’s pleasure in hearing/feeling herself make all these extraverbal sounds–makes it physically manifest in ways that aren’t conventionally understood as sexual or gendered. Because it veers off white ciseterogendered scripts about both gender and agency, Minaj’s performance of sonophilia is an instance of what L.H. Stallings calls hip hop’s “ratchet imagination.” This imagination is ignited by black women’s dance aesthetics, wherein “black women with various gender performances and sexual identities within the club, on stage and off, whose bodies and actions elicit new performances of black masculinity” renders both gender and subject/object binaries “transitional” (138).
Nicki isn’t the only black woman rapper to use extra-verbal vocal sounds to re-script gendered bodily pleasure. In my next post, I’ll look at Beyoncé and Missy Elliot’s use of extra-vocal sounds to stretch beyond post-feminism pop’s boundaries.
Featured image: screenshot from “Anaconda” music video
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson