Christmas pop songs tend to revolve around just a few basic topics: 1) Jesus, 2) Santa, 3) Did you notice it’s winter?, and 4) Love. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories, of course. For instance, the overlap between the second and fourth category produce a sub-genre I’d call Santa Kink, exemplified by “Santa Baby” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And the overlap between the first and fourth categories—between Jesus songs and Love songs—is, I would argue, complete overlap. The dominance of Christian ideology in the United States means that even when Christmas pop songs don’t explicitly say anything about Christianity, they are reenforcing dominant Christian ideology all the same. That’s how hegemonies work: hegemonic ideas are always already implicit in a variety of discourses whether those discourses are closely or remotely related to that ideology. So while pop stars may shy away from Christmas songs about Jesus because they don’t want to seem too religious, any song with Christmas as its theme will inherently fold back onto Christian ideology regardless of an artist’s intentions.
So, what does it mean when Love and Jesus overlap in Christmas songs? It’s quintessentially heteronormative: a man, a woman, and a baby who will rescue humanity’s future. But hegemonies aren’t totalizing, so while they dominate discourse, it is possible to craft ontologies that map out other ways of being. Here, I’m going to engage the queerness of “Last Christmas”—the original Wham! version (1984)—and a 2008 Benny Bennasi remix of the original song. What each have in common is a failure to achieve heteronormativity that, in turn, undermines the Love/Jesus trope of Christmas pop songs; this failure orients us toward queer relationalities that plot alternatives to Christian heteronorms.
Looking back at those four categories of Christmas pop songs, three of them make lots of sense for a Christmas song topic: Jesus, Santa, and winter. But why love? In part, it’s because most pop music boils down to love in some way. Beyond that, though, a love song in the context of Christian heteronormative ideology yields what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurity”:
terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.
In other words, the heteronormative imperative of reproducing and then protecting (white) Children is embedded so deeply in politics that it isn’t even up for debate. It is, instead, the societal framework within which debate happens, and anything outside that framework resonates as queer.
Pivoting back to Christmas, it’s instructive to contemplate the nativity scene. It can be built with a variety of details, but at its center every time is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—baby, mom, and dad. In a reproductive futurist society, recurring images like the nativity scene underscore the normalcy of the nuclear family, regardless of how utterly abnormal the details of the story surrounding the nativity scene might be. The heteronormativity of the nativity scene “impose[s] an ideological limit” on the discourse of Christmas love songs: every cuddle next to the fireplace, each spark under the mistletoe, all coercive “Baby, it’s cold outside”s are a reproduction of the christian Holy Family (baby, mom, and dad). What on the surface is simply Mariah Carey’s confession that all she wants for Christmas is you becomes miraculously pregnant with a dominant religio-political ideology that delimits queerness and manufactures White Children. That’s why pop stars sing Christmas love songs when they don’t want to sing about Jesus or Santa or winter; it’s because the love songs buttress a Christian ideology that squares comfortably with dominant political discourse even when they don’t explicitly mention religion.
The texture of my “Last Christmas” analysis is woven from a few theoretical strands. Jack Halberstam’s queer failure and Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomonology each orient us to queer relationalities that emerge from getting heteronormativity wrong. Hortense Spillers’ vestibular flesh and Jayna Brown’s utopian impulses tune us to the vibrations of alterity buzzing just beyond hegemony’s earshot. Taken together, these theories open space for hearing how a Christmas pop song about love might resonate queerly even in the midst of heteronormative dominance. Instead of rehearsing the nativity scene, a queer Christmas pop song might undo, sidestep, detonate, or otherwise fail to recreate the nativity. A queer analysis of Christmas pop songs looks and listens for moments of potential disruption in the norm.
In a reproductive futurist world, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is a nightmare: heartbreak, disillusionment, and loneliness. Lyrically, the hook tells us that this year our singer has found someone special, but the verses betray the truth: he’s still hung up on last year’s heartbreak and has already started hoping that, actually, maybe next year will be the one that works out for him. I think we can push deeper than this lyrical message of hope (strained though it is) and find something a little Scroogier in the structure of the song, a denial of fulfilled desire that projects a queer, non-reproductive future:
Intro (8 measures) (0:00)
Chorus (16 measures) (0:15)
Post-Chorus (8 measures) (0:53)
Verse 1 (16 measures) (1:11)
Verse 2 (2:41)
Post-Chorus (with partial lyrics from Verse 2) (3:53)
There’s a reason we all know the chorus so well: it’s a double chorus that happens three times. That is, from “Last Christmas” to “someone special” is only 8 measures long, but that quatrain is repeated twice for a 16 measure chorus. So that’s six different times we hear George Michael summarize what happened last Christmas, and it becomes easy to recognize that this is less a celebration of having someone special than it is an attempt to convince oneself of something that isn’t true. When we compound the double chorus with the percussion part, which hits a syncopated turnaround every four measures (the turnaround signifies moving on to a new part; by repeating the same one every four measures in the middle of lyrical monotony, the song suggests a failure to really move on), the effect is one of extreme repetition. We rehearse, over and again, the failure of last Christmas, the failure to hetero-love, the failure to reproduce anything but, well, failure.
What I’ve labeled the Post-Chorus is a bit of an oddity here, a musical interlude played on festive bells that separates Chorus from Verse. The work it performs is best understood in conjunction with the music video. In the video, a group of friends meet to enjoy a getaway at a ski lodge; the character played by George Michael is here with this year’s girlfriend, and last Christmas’s girlfriend brings this year’s boyfriend. Intrigue! The visual narrative matches the song. In the same way the jolly instrumental seems largely unaware of Michael’s downer lyrics, the group of friends seem oblivious to the furtive, hurt glances between last Christmas’s lovers. This structural oddity, the Post-Chorus, proves key to the visual narrative. There’s a Scrooge in this story, and the Post-Chorus will visit him in the night.
The first Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas present. As the friends crowd into a ski lift that will take them to their lodging, the first bell hits right as last year’s girlfriend is center screen (0:53 in the video above), and we watch as the friends arrive at their getaway, the final two measures playing over a wide-angle shot of a ridiculously large cabin. The second Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas past. Here, as everyone gathers around a feast, all holly and jolly, the bells (2:23) strike at the moment Michael catches sight of the brooch he gave last Christmas’s girlfriend. He broods. The payoff comes in the second half of Verse 2 (2:59), when we see a flashback to the happy couple the year before, when they frolicked in the snow, lounged by the fire, and exchanged fabulous 80s jewelry. Finally, the third Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas future. This time the bells strike as the group is hiking back to the ski lift, returning to the point where they began. We hear the Post-Chorus twice this time, and the first instance (3:53) is accompanied by lyrics pulled from the flashback section of Verse 2, where Michael describes himself and the heartless way he’s been treated. This time, though, instead of finishing the line with “now I’ve found a real love, you’ll never fool me again,” Michael can only offer a breathy “maybe…next year.” In this third Post-Chorus, we have future (maybe next year) overlapping with past (the flashback lyrics) accompanied by visuals that close the narrative circle – a return on the same ski lift we see during the first Post-Chorus. In other words, Michael’s character can sing about someone special all he wants, but the song knows last year’s failure to reproduce will repeat again and again. The fourth Post-Chorus hammers this repetition home: as the friends debark from the lift and the screen fades, we hear this Christmas ghost haunting, lingering at the edges, reproducing heteronormative failure ad infinitum (the fade in the music suggests there’s no definitive ending point).
George Michael, of course, was publicly closeted for a long time. It’s unsurprising that we see some horror motifs in this heterofest. The wide-angle shot of the isolated cabin, the close up of a brooding, tortured hero…There may well be a queerness in the absence of gendered pronouns and in the visual aesthetic of the music video. But the real disruption, I think, comes in the structural repetition, the rehearsal of the singer’s failure to reproduce each year at the moment that reproduction is most central. If Christmas love songs circulate in a framework of reproductive futurity, “Last Christmas” Scrooges its way onto the airwaves every year and projects an utter failure of a future.
Most Christmas pop songs come and go. The drive to fill the airwaves with a genre of music that is only functional for 6-8 weeks of the year yields heaps of treacly sonic detritus. Christmas pop songs are, by nature, ephemeral. A few of these songs, though, become classics that artists return to and cover or remix over and again. “Last Christmas” is one of these classics, settling onto November and December playlists in its original form and the myriad cover versions that have piled up over the years. Benny Benassi’s “Last Christmas” remixes the Wham! song in a way that maintains the original’s queerness even as it flips the idea of looping failures.
Benassi’s “Last Christmas” revolves around two main sections: a driving techno beat (A) and a reworking of Wham!’s chorus (B).
A (48 measures)
B (48 measures) (1:25)
A’ (24 measures) (2:22)
B’ (56 measures) (3:04)
A” (32 measures) (4:15)
The A sections include a voiceover from a computerized voice affected so that it sounds like some dystopic transmission. “We would like to know if something does not sound quite right,” the voice starts, and then preps the entry of section B with “to guarantee safety to your perfect celebration, be sure – when playing this tune at maximum volume level – to chant around like everybody else is.” It’s hard to be more on-the-nose than this: an android voice instructing us how to fit in at our reproductive futurist holiday gatherings. “You know, just…I don’t know, just do what the others are doing?”
The B sections are each a sequence of three “Last Christmas” choruses (B’ includes an extra eight measures of the third in the sequence). The first is a sped-up but otherwise unaltered Michael singing about last Christmas. It’s a jarring entry, as the cool machinery of Benassi’s beat suddenly gives way to shimmery 80s pop. The second time through that familiar double chorus, we can hear Benassi’s groove faintly in the background and growing louder and fuller toward the end. It’s a straightforward remix technique: here’s the thing, here’s the thing mixed with my beat, and now here’s what I’m really getting at.
It’s the third sequence (1:53), then, where Benassi really crafts his own “Last Christmas.” Here, the beat we heard when the android told us how to fit in combines with Michael’s chorus as Benassi stutters and clips not only the lyrics but the instrumental, too: nothing is stable. Michael can’t finish a sentence (“La-a-as-a-ast, I gave you my gave you my hear-. Thiii-i-i-i-is year to save me from save me from, I’ll give it to someone, I’ll give it to someo-o-one.”), and the beat can’t get a firm start. While Wham!’s “Last Christmas” uses the Post-Chorus to form a closed loop where past and future circle back around to each other, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” denies reproductive futurity by chopping off the beginnings and ends of phrases. Built on a simple two-measure loop that otherwise motors smoothly through the song, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” can’t loop in the third sequence of the B section because there’s nothing to latch onto.
While Wham! loops queer failures in their overarching forms, Benassi’s version of the song queerly fails to loop. Both versions of “Last Christmas” bah and humbug at reproductive futurism. They’re Scroogey reminders each year to listen for disruptions of nativity, refusals of politically delimited desires that are queerly vibrating through our earbuds.
Featured image: “GOOD BYE and THANK YOU” by Flickr user fernando butcher, CC BY 2.0
Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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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.
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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.
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