“How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?”: DJ Irene, Sonic Interpellations of Dissent and Queer Latinidad in ’90s Los Angeles
How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House? –DJ Irene
At the Arena Nightclub in Hollywood, California, the sounds of DJ Irene could be heard on any given Friday in the 1990s. Arena, a 4000-foot former ice factory, was a haven for club kids, ravers, rebels, kids from LA exurbs, youth of color, and drag queens throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The now-defunct nightclub was one of my hang outs when I was coming of age. Like other Latinx youth who came into their own at Arena, I remember fondly the fashion, the music, the drama, and the freedom. It was a home away from home. Many of us were underage, and this was one of the only clubs that would let us in.
Arena was a cacophony of sounds that were part of the multi-sensorial experience of going to the club. There would be deep house or hip-hop music blasting from the cars in the parking lot, and then, once inside: the stomping of feet, the sirens, the whistles, the Arena clap—when dancers would clap fast and in unison—and of course the remixes and the shout outs and laughter of DJ Irene, particularly her trademark call and response: “How Many Motherfucking Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?,” immortalized now on CDs and You-Tube videos.
Irene M. Gutierrez, famously known as DJ Irene, is one of the most successful queer Latina DJs and she was a staple at Arena. Growing up in Montebello, a city in the southeast region of LA county, Irene overcame a difficult childhood, homelessness, and addiction to break through a male-dominated industry and become an award-winning, internationally-known DJ. A single mother who started her career at Circus and then Arena, Irene was named as one of the “twenty greatest gay DJs of all time” by THUMP in 2014, along with Chicago house music godfather, Frankie Knuckles. Since her Arena days, DJ Irene has performed all over the world and has returned to school and received a master’s degree. In addition to continuing to DJ festivals and clubs, she is currently a music instructor at various colleges in Los Angeles. Speaking to her relevance, Nightclub&Bar music industry website reports, “her DJ and life dramas played out publicly on the dance floor and through her performing. This only made people love her more and helped her to see how she could give back by leading a positive life through music.”
DJ Irene’s shout-out– one of the most recognizable sounds from Arena–was a familiar Friday night hailing that interpellated us, a shout out that rallied the crowd, and a rhetorical question. The club-goers were usually and regularly predominately Latin@, although other kids of color and white kids also attended. We were celebrating queer brown life, desire, love in the midst of much suffering outside the walls of the club like anti-immigrant sentiment, conservative backlash against Latinos, HIV and AIDS, intertwined with teen depression and substance abuse.
From my vantage today, I hear the traces of Arena’s sounds as embodied forms of knowledge about a queer past which has become trivialized or erased in both mainstream narratives of Los Angeles and queer histories of the city. I argue that the sonic memories of Arena–in particular Irene’s sets and shout outs–provide a rich archive of queer Latinx life. After the physical site of memories are torn down (Arena was demolished in 2016), our senses serve as a conduit for memories.
As one former patron of Arena recalls, “I remember the lights, the smell, the loud music, and the most interesting people I had ever seen.” As her comment reveals, senses are archival, and they activate memories of transitory and liminal moments in queer LA Latinx histories. DJ Irene’s recognizable shout-out at the beginning of her sets– “How Many Latinos are in this House?”–allowed queer Latinx dancers to be seen and heard in an otherwise hostile historical moment of exclusion and demonization outside the walls of the club. The songs of Arena, in particular, function as a sonic epistemology, inviting readers (and dancers) into a specific world of memories and providing entry into corporeal sites of knowledge.
Both my recollections and the memories of Arena goers whom I have interviewed allow us to register the cultural and political relevance of these sonic epistemologies. Irene’s shout-outs function as what I call “dissident sonic interpolations”: sounds enabling us to be seen, heard, and celebrated in opposition to official narratives of queerness and Latinidad in the 1990s. Following José Anguiano, Dolores Inés Casillas, Yessica García Hernandez, Marci McMahon, Jennifer L. Stoever, Karen Tongson, Deborah R. Vargas, Yvon Bonenfant, and other sound and cultural studies scholars, I argue that the sounds surrounding youth at Arena shaped them as they “listened queerly” to race, gender and sexuality. Maria Chaves-Daza reminds us that “queer listening, takes seriously the power that bodies have to make sounds that reach out of the body to touch queer people and queer people’s ability to feel them.” At Arena, DJ Irene’s vocalic sounds reached us, touching our souls as we danced the night away.
Before you could even see the parade of styles in the parking lot, you could hear Arena and/or feel its pulse. The rhythmic stomping of feet, for example, an influence from African-American stepping, was a popular club movement that brought people together in a collective choreography of Latin@ comunitas and dissent. We felt, heard, and saw these embodied sounds in unison. The sounds of profanity–“motherfucking house”–from a Latina empowered us. Irene’s reference to “the house,” of course, makes spatial and cultural reference to Black culture, house music and drag ball scenes where “houses” were sites of community formation. Some songs that called out to “the house” that DJ Irene, or other DJs might have played were Frank Ski’s “There’s Some Whores in this House,” “In My House” by the Mary Jane Girls, and “In the House” by the LA Dream Team.
Then, the bold and profane language hit our ears and we felt pride hearing a “bad woman” (Alicia Gaspar de Alba) and one of “the girls our mothers warned us about” (Carla Trujillo). By being “bad” “like bad ass bitch,” DJ Irene through her language and corporeality, was refusing to cooperate with patriarchal dictates about what constitutes a “good woman.” Through her DJing and weekly performances at Arena, Irene contested heteronormative histories and “unframed” herself from patriarchal structures. Through her shout outs we too felt “unframed” (Gaspar de Alba).
Dissident sonic interpellation summons queer brown Latinx youth–demonized and made invisible and inaudible in the spatial and cultural politics of 1990s Los Angeles—and ensures they are seen and heard. Adopting Marie “Keta” Miranda’s use of the Althusserian concept of interpellation in her analysis of Chicana youth and mod culture of the 60s, I go beyond the notion that interpellation offers only subjugation through ideological state apparatus, arguing that DJ Irene’s shout-outs politicized the Latinx dancers or “bailadorxs” (Micaela Diaz-Sanchez) at Arena and offered them a collective identity, reassuring the Latinxs she is calling on of their visibility, audibility, and their community cohesiveness.
Perhaps this was the only time these communities heard themselves be named. As Casillas reminds us “sound has power to shape the lived experiences of Latina/o communities” and that for Latinos listening to the radio in Spanish for example, and talking about their situation, was critical. While DJ Irene’s hailing did not take place on the radio but in a club, a similar process was taking place. In my reading, supported by the memories of many who attended, the hailing was a “dissident interpolation” that served as recognition of community cohesiveness and perhaps was the only time these youth heard themselves publicly affirmed, especially due to the racial and political climate of 1990s Los Angeles.
The 1990s were racially and politically tense time in Los Angeles and in California which were under conservative Republican leadership. At the start of the nineties George Deukmejian was finishing his last term from 1990-1991; Pete Wilson’s tenure was from 1991-1999. Richard Riordan was mayor of Los Angeles for the majority of the decade, from 1993- 2001. The riots that erupted in 1992 after the not guilty verdict for the police officers indicted in the Rodney King beating case and the polarizing effect of the OJ Simpson trial in 1995 were indicative of anti-black and anti-Latinx racism and its impacts across the city. In addition to these tensions, gang warfare and the 1994 earthquake brought on its own set of economic and political circumstances. Anti-immigrant sentiment had been building since the 1980s when economic and political refugees from Mexico and Central American entered the US in large numbers and with the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, what is known as Reagan’s “Amnesty program.” On a national level, Bill Clinton ushered in the implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, which barred openly LGB people from service. In 1991, Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court due to his ongoing sexual harassment of her at work; the U.S. Senate ultimately browbeat Hill and ignored her testimony, confirming Thomas anyway.
In the midst of all this, queer and minoritized youth in LA tried to find a place for themselves, finding particular solace in “the motherfucking house”: musical and artistic scenes. The club served a “house” or home to many of us and the lyrical references to houses were invitations into temporary and ephemeral sonic homes. Counting mattered. Who did the counting mattered. How many of us were there mattered. An ongoing unofficial census was unfolding in the club through Irene’s question/shout-out, answered by our collective cheers, whistles, and claps in response. In this case, as Marci McMahon reminds us, “Sound demarcates whose lives matter” (2017, 211) or as the Depeche Mode song goes, “everything counts in large amounts.”
Numbers mattered at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant, spawning white conservative sponsored legislation such as Prop 187 the so-called “Save Our State” initiative (which banned “undocumented Immigrant Public Benefits”), Prop 209 (the ban on Affirmative Action), and Prop 227 “English in Public Schools” (the Bilingual Education ban). Through these propositions, legislators, business people, and politicians such as Pete Wilson and his ilk demonized our parents and our families. Many can remember Wilson’s virulently anti-immigrant 1994 re-election campaign advertisement depicting people running across the freeway as the voiceover says “They keep coming” and then Wilson saying “enough is enough.” This ad is an example of the images used to represent immigrants as animals, invaders and as dangerous (Otto Santa Ana). As Daniel Martinez HoSang reminds us, these “racial propositions” were a manifestation of race-based hierarchies and reinforced segregation and inequity (2010, 8).
While all of this was happening— attempts to make us invisible, state-sponsored refusals of the humanity of our families—the space of the club, Irene’s interpellation, and the sounds of Arena offered a way to be visible. To be seen and heard was, and remains, political. As Casillas, Stoever, and Anguiano and remind us in their work on the sounds of Spanish language radio, SB 1070 in Arizona, and janitorial laborers in Los Angeles, respectively, to be heard is a sign of being human and to listen collectively is powerful.
Listening collectively to Irene’s shout out was powerful as a proclamation of life and a celebratory interpellation into the space of community, a space where as one participant in my project remembers, “friendships were built.” For DJ Irene to ask how many Latinos were in the house mattered also because the AIDS prevalence among Latinos increased by 130% from 1993 to 2001. This meant our community was experiencing social and physical death. Who stood up, who showed up, and who danced at the club mattered; even though we were very young, some of us and some of the older folks around us were dying. Like the ball culture scene discussed in Marlon M. Bailey’s scholarship or represented in the new FX hit show Pose, the corporeal attendance at these sites was testament to survival but also to the possibility for fabulosity. While invisibility, stigma and death loomed outside of the club, Arena became a space where we mattered.
For Black, brown and other minoritized groups, the space of the queer nightclub provided solace and was an experiment in self-making and self-discovery despite the odds. Madison Moore reminds us that “Fabulousness is an embrace of yourself through style when the world around you is saying you don’t deserve to be here” (New York Times). As Louis Campos–club kid extraordinaire and one half of Arena’s fixtures the Fabulous Wonder Twins–remembers,
besides from the great exposure to dance music, it [Arena] allowed the real-life exposure to several others whom, sadly, became casualties of the AIDS epidemic. The very first people we knew who died of AIDS happened to be some of the people we socialized with at Arena. Those who made it a goal to survive the incurable epidemic continued dancing.
The Fabulous Wonder Twins
Collectively, scholarship by queer of color scholars on queer nightlife allows us entryway into gaps in these queer histories that have been erased or whitewashed by mainstream gay and lesbian historiography. Whether queering reggaetón (Ramón Rivera-Servera), the multi-Latin@ genders and dance moves at San Francisco’s Pan Dulce (Horacio Roque-Ramirez), Kemi Adeyemi’s research on Chicago nightlife and the “mobilization of black sound as a theory and method” in gentrifying neighborhoods, or Luis-Manuel García’s work on the tactility and embodied intimacy of electronic dance music events, these works provide context for Louis’ remark above about the knowledges and affective ties and kinships produced in these spaces, and the importance of nightlife for queer communities of color.
When I interview people about their memories, other Arena clubgoers from this time period recall a certain type of collective listening and response—as in “that’s us! Irene is talking about us! We are being seen and heard!” At Arena, we heard DJ Irene as making subversive aesthetic moves through fashion, sound and gestures; Irene was “misbehaving” unlike the respectable woman she was supposed to be. Another queer Latinx dancer asserts: “I could fuck with gender, wear whatever I wanted, be a puta and I didn’t feel judged.”
DJ Irene’s “How many motherfucking Latinos in the motherfucking house,” or other versions of it, is a sonic accompaniment to and a sign of, queer brown youth misbehaving, and the response of the crowd was an affirmation that we were being recognized as queer and Latin@ youth. For example, J, one queer Chicano whom I interviewed says:
We would be so excited when she would say “How Many Latinos in the Motherfucking House?” Latinidad wasn’t what it is now, you know? There was still shame around our identities. I came from a family and a generation that was shamed for speaking Spanish. We weren’t yet having the conversation about being the majority. Arena spoke to our identities.
For J, Arena was a place that spoke to first generation youth coming of age in LA, whose experiences were different than our parents and to the experiences of queer Latinxs before us. In her shout-outs, DJ Irene was calling into the house those like J and myself, people who felt deviant outside of Arena and/or were then able to more freely perform deviance or defiance within the walls of the club.
Our responses are dissident sonic interpellations in that they refuse the mainstream narrative. If to be a dissident is to be against official policy, then to be sonically dissident is to protest or refuse through the sounds we make or via our response to sounds. In my reading, dissident sonic interpellation is both about Irene’s shout out and about how it moved us towards and through visibility and resistance and about how we, the interpellated, responded kinetically through our dance moves and our own shout outs: screaming, enthusiastic “yeahhhhs,” clapping, and stomping. We were celebrating queer brown life, desire, love in the midst of much suffering outside the walls of the club. Arena enabled us to make sounds of resistance against these violences, sounds that not everyone hears, but as Stoever reminds us, even sounds we cannot all hear are essential, and how we hear them, even more so.
Even though many of us didn’t know Irene personally (although many of the club kids did!) we knew and felt her music and her laughter and the way she interpellated us sonically in all our complexity every Friday. Irene’s laughter and her interpellation of dissent were sounds of celebration and recognition, particularly in a city bent on our erasure, in a state trying to legislate us out of existence, on indigenous land that was first our ancestors.
In the present, listening to these sounds and remembering the way they interpellated us is urgent at a time when gentrification is eliminating physical traces of this queer history, when face-to face personal encounters and community building are being replaced by social media “likes,” and when we are engaging in a historical project that is “lacking in archival footage” to quote Juan Fernandez, who has also written about Arena. When lacking the evidence Fernandez writes, the sonic archive whether as audio recording or as a memory, importantly, becomes a form of footage. When queer life is dependent on what David Eng calls “queer liberalism” or “the empowerment of certain gay and lesbian U.S. citizens economically through an increasingly visible and mass-mediated consumer lifestyle, and politically through the legal protection of rights to privacy and intimacy,” spaces like Arena–accessed via the memories and the sonic archive that remains– becomes ever so critical.
Voice recordings can be echoes of a past that announce and heralds a future of possibility. In their Sounding Out! essay Chaves-Daza writes about her experience listening to a 1991 recording of Gloria Anzaldúa speaking at the University of Arizona, which they encountered in the archives at UT Austin. Reflecting on the impact of Anzaldúa’s recorded voice and laughter as she spoke to a room full of queer folks, Chaves-Daza notes the timbre and tone, the ways Anzaldúa’s voice makes space for queer brown possibility. “Listening to Anzaldúa at home, regenerates my belief in the impossible, in our ability to be in intimate spaces without homophobia,” they write.
Queer Latinxs coming across or queerly listening to Irene’s shout out is similar to Chaves-Daza’s affective connection to Anzaldúa’s recording. Such listening similarly invites us into the memory of the possibility, comfort, complexity we felt at Arena in the nineties, but also a collective futurity gestured in Chaves-Daza’s words:. “Her nervous, silly laugh–echoed in the laughs of her audience–reaches out to bring me into that space, that time. Her smooth, slow and raspy voice–her vocalic body–touches me as I listen.” She writes, “Her voice in the recording and in her writing sparks a recognition and validation of my being.” Here, Anzaldúa’s laughter, like Irene’s shout-out, is a vocal choreography and creates a “somatic bond,” one I also see in other aspects of dancers, bailadorxs, remembering about and through sound and listening to each other’s memories of Arena. Chaves-Daza writes, “sound builds affective connections between myself and other queers of color- strikes a chord in me that resonates without the need for language, across space and time.”
In unearthing these queer Latin@ sonic histories of the city, my hopes are that others listen intently before these spaces disappear but also that we collectively unearth others. At Arena we weren’t just dancing and stomping through history, but we were making history, our bodies sweaty and styled up and our feet in unison with the beats and the music of DJ Irene.“ How Many Latinos in the Mutherfucking House?”, then, as a practice of cultural citizenship, is about affective connections (and what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacies”), “across, space and time.” The musics and sounds in the archive of Arena activates the refusals, connections, world-making, and embodied knowledge in our somatic archives, powerful fugitive affects that continue to call Latinx divas to the dancefloor, to cheer, stomp and be counted in the motherfucking house: right here, right now.
Featured Image: DJ Irene, Image by Flickr User Eric Hamilton (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr. came of age in the 1990s, raised in North Hollywood, California by his Mexican mother and Cuban father. A a first generation college student, he received his a BA and MA in Spanish from California State University, Northridge and his PhD in Chicana and Chicano Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. A former grade school teacher, after graduate school, he spent three years teaching Latinx Studies in upstate New York before moving to Oregon where he is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and University Studies at Portland State University. His scholarly and creative works have been published in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Revista Bilingue/Bilingual Review, and Pedagogy Notebook among other journals, edited books, and blogs. Currently, he is working on a book manuscript titled Finding Sequins in the Rubble: Mapping Queer Latinx Los Angeles. He is on the board of the Association for Jotería Arts, Activism, and Scholarship (AJAAS) and Friends of AfroChicano Press.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
“Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz”-Johannes Brandis
On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice-Yvon Bonenfant
Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic– Imani Kai Johnson
Unapologetic Paisa Chingona-ness: Listening to Fans’ Sonic Identities–Yessica Garcia Hernandez
The Theremin’s Voice: Amplifying the Inaudibility of Whiteness through an Early Interracial Electronic Music Collaboration
On an October evening in 1934, Clara Rockmore made her debut performance with the theremin, a then-new electronic instrument played without touch, in New York City’s historic Town Hall. Attended by critics from every major newspaper in the city, the performance not only marked the beginning of Rockmore’s illustrious career as a thereminist, it also featured the first known interracial collaboration in electronic music history. A sextet of Black male vocalists from the famous Hall Johnson choir performed a group of spirituals arranged by Johnson with Rockmore, whom the press—apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage—considered white. The collaboration was an anomaly: no other record exists of Black musicians performing with Rockmore (she toured with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, but no evidence has surfaced showing the two ever on stage together).
Though the Johnson Sextet’s performance with Rockmore is of intense interest to me as a historian, at the time the white press mostly ignored the collaboration. This is surprising given Johnson’s fame: his choir and work were critically acclaimed in productions including the 1930 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Green Pastures and the 1933 musical Run Little Chillun’. The Sextet’s spirituals were prominently featured in Rockmore’s debut, with four songs closing the program (“Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Water Boy,” and “O Lord Have Mercy On Me”) and “Old Man River” likely serving as an encore. Yet only two writers—one Black, one white—discussed the spirituals in any detail. Though brief, these two reviews can help us understand why most critics ignored the spirituals at Rockmore’s debut, and illuminate the role that race played in the reception of Rockmore’s career, the theremin, and electronic musical sound.
One of these reviews was by an anonymous critic writing for the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s highly influential weekly African-American newspaper. Though unidentified, the author was likely Black, given the source. The critic described Rockmore and the Sextet’s rendition of the song “Water Boy” as “particularly effective,” ascribing the theremin’s expressive power to its sonority: “the deep ’cello tone of the instrument was more than faintly reminiscent of the throaty humming of a Negro singer.” The white critic who wrote about the collaboration—Paul Harrison, in his syndicated column, “In New York,” that ran in several newspapers across New York State—seemed to corroborate the Amsterdam reviewer’s hearing, writing that the theremin had been “improved so that it now can be made to sound like the choral humming of a hundred Negro voices.” Remarkably, Harrison made the comparison without so much as mentioning the presence of the Johnson Sextet or the spirituals, erasing the very real presence of Black musicians in the performance.
These reviewers agreed that the theremin sounded like a Black voice during the spirituals. Yet Harrison used the comparison to disparage. His use of the word “improved” was clearly ironic, and the overall tone of his review was mocking (he described twenty-three-year-old Rockmore as “a lovely and graceful girl, but too serious about her new art”). The Amsterdam critic, meanwhile, compared the theremin’s tone to that of a Black voice to communicate the instrument’s expressivity—its beauty, emotion, and humanity. They validated their own hearing of the powerful performance by noting that the capacity crowd “hailed Miss Rockmore’s mastery of the theremin and demanded several encores.” Despite the contrasts, these pieces share something absent from nearly every contemporary theremin review: an explicit discussion of race and the theremin’s timbre. These seemingly anomalous takes, when understood in the context of the theremin’s broader contemporary reception history among (mostly white, mostly male) critics, can amplify what Jennifer Stoever identified in The Sonic Color Line as the “inaudibility of whiteness” in the history of the theremin and electronic musical sound (12).
When Rockmore performed as a soloist, critics tended to describe the theremin’s timbre in the context of western art music sonorities, making comparisons to the cello, violin, and classical voices. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers, describing its tone as warm and rich, and writing of its “vivid expressiveness” and “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone. Many attributed the instrument’s expressivity to Rockmore’s skill as a trained classical performer, praising her repertory choices, musicianship, and technique.
Alongside celebrations of the theremin’s emotionally charged sonority was an opposing rhetoric of noisiness, one that critics employed to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. Early critics often complained about the “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento employed by thereminists, most of whom, like Rockmore, were (at least perceived as) white women. There is a practical explanation for this: if you’ve ever played a theremin, you know that without the use of these techniques, it is nearly impossible to locate pitches, or create even the impression of accurate intonation. Critics turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking copious chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. They compared the theremin’s timbre variously to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano one critic dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such reviews used bodies and instruments assumed to be white and female as points of comparison: sopranos, violins, mothers (who were racially unmarked and thus by default white). To critics, the theremin was objectionable, was “other,” in a specifically white, specifically feminine way.
Critics were especially concerned with the theremin’s timbre, projecting onto it their hopes and anxieties about the potential impact of technology on their musical world. Since the theremin’s 1929 arrival in New York, critics had been assessing the instrument’s potential, treating it as a bellwether for technology’s impact on the future of music. Rockmore stoked this interest by claiming that her debut would “prove that the [theremin] may be a medium for musical expression.” Critics centered their hopes and anxieties about the promise and threat of electronic music in analyses of the theremin’s timbre, where the instrument could either be exposed as a fraud—a poor substitute for “authentic” “living” music—or celebrated as a breakthrough.
Discussions among New York’s white critics about the theremin’s musical promise unfolded specifically and exclusively with regard to the white western classical tradition. Just as Toni Morrison noted in her book Playing in the Dark that “the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white,” whiteness was the default for writers and readers of music criticism on the theremin (xii). Though most white critics at Rockmore’s debut never mentioned race, their tacit dismissal of the spirituals she performed with the Johnson Sextet reveals that race was a central organizing force in their assessments of the instrument. The brief reception history of the spirituals Johnson arranged for voice and theremin, wherein writers—listening to the instrument perform with Black voices—clearly heard the theremin’s tone as Black, is the exception that proves the rule: white critics, by and large, heard the instrument as sounding white.
Just as Morrison asked: “how is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction,” we must explore the ramifications of the assumptions we’ve made about whiteness and electronic musical sound (xii). For it is not only critics of the 1930s who heard the theremin’s sound as white: most current histories continue to focus on and reify a predominantly white academic and avant-garde electronic music history canon. The Amsterdam critic’s hearing opens new possibilities for understanding the history of electronic musical sound. While popular perceptions often frame electronic musical sound as “lifeless” or emotionally “flat,” the Amsterdam critic’s comparison of the theremin to the voice opens our ears to alternative hearings of electronic musical sound as expressive, affective, even human. When we hear this aspect of electronic music’s sound, we can begin to account for histories that go beyond the white western cannon that dominates our understanding of electronic music history. We can populate such accountings with performers like Rockmore and composers like Johnson who worked and lived outside the boundaries we have traditionally drawn around electronic music history.
Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Angelo Moore) plays theremin in his band The Brand New Step, covering “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” Angelo Moore been playing theremin for over 20 years.
Featured Image: “Theremins are Dreamy” by Flickr User Gina Pina, (CC BY 2.0)
Kelly Hiser is co-founder and CEO of Rabble, a startup dedicated to empowering libraries to support and sustain their local creative communities. Kelly holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and embraces work at the intersections of arts, humanities, and the public good. She talks and writes regularly about music, technology, identity, and power.
Almost 20 years ago, 2 Many DJs and Freelance Hellraiser each released too-clever mashups that laid R&B pop diva vocals over indie rock instrumentals, revealing that the paired songs had exactly the same compositional structure. The former’s “Smells Like Booty” put Destiny’s Child together with Nirvana, and the latter’s “A Stroke of Genius” combined Christina Aguilera with The Strokes. The mashups were clever because they flouted supposedly commonsense views that these these pairings shouldn’t work: how could something as superficial, formulaic, and, frankly, girly as Destiny’s Child and Aguilera have anything in common with something as serious and aggressive as Nirvana and The Strokes? Writing in 2009, Dorian Lynskey explained that “A Stroke of Genius came out when many indie fans still believed that manufactured pop stank of evil and death, and the idea of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes in perfect harmony was strange.” Note Lynskey’s use of the past tense: by 2009, the gatekeepers of elite musical taste generally agreed that commercial, chart-oriented music whose fans were at least thought to be mainly teen girls and/or gay men could be just as artistically valuable as rock and hip hop.
That consensus has a name: poptimism. Poptimism upends the hierarchy between rock (and sometimes hip hop) and pop, which is a contemporary variation on a very old hierarchy that privileged fine art over craft. Back in the 18th century, philosophers like Immanuel Kant invented the idea of “fine art” by distinguishing it from craft: craft is subordinate to utility (you don’t want your coffee mug to leak), but art exists for its own sake (think of how unwearable some high fashion is, or of Rosemarie Trockel’s art sweaters). As many feminist art historians have argued, this art/craft hierarchy conveniently maps onto patriarchal gender hierarchies: art, like men, is autonomous, whereas craft, like women, are subordinate to daily needs; art is productive, craft is reproductive. For example, art historians Roziska Parker and Griselda Pollock have shown that there is an “intersection in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the development of an ideology of femininity…with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft.” The conceptual and institutional structures that confined women to reproductive labor and craft into the service of life’s reproductive needs were manifestations of the same underlying gender system.
This same system informs the traditional rock-over-pop hierarchy. In her 2001 article “Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular,” Susan Cook argues that “‘the popular’…has been so thoroughly feminized” and “carries with it a staggering cultural baggage, a trunk full of social codes that have been historically attached to womankind and underprivileged men.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, the distinction between rock and pop was largely grounded in the same gender system that organized the art/craft hierarchy: rock embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal masculinity, and that’s why it was superior, whereas pop embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal femininity, and that’s why it was inferior. In the early 2000s, poptimism revises this gender script, putting “thoroughly feminized” pop on an equal playing field with rock. However, instead of more-or-less uncritically cheerleading for pop and/or pop stars, we should be thinking about the institutions and conventions that dole out artistic status.
Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 article “The Rap Against Rockism” brought the fact of rock-conceived-as-art to the general public’s attention. “Rockism” is the idea that rock music is the only kind of commercial recorded music that has artistic merit. According to Sanneh,
rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices…The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.
Grounded in the idea that rock is superior because it is both made by and for white dudes and expresses the stereotypical features of elite white masculinity, rockism upgrades the gendered (and raced) logics of the fine art/craft distinction into 20th century terms. Meanwhile, poptimism revalues the aspects of pop music that were traditionally de-valued because of their association with stereotypical (often white) femininity: pop is hugely collaborative and rarely written by lone authors; it prioritizes pleasure over deep meaning, beauty and spectacle over substance; its music and its ideas are supposedly simple rather than complex…you get the idea. (Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos explains the gendered implications of poptimism in more depth in this piece about the role of misogyny in critiques of poptimism.)
Sanneh’s article kicked off this millennial round of poptimism, but poptimism’s basic ideas and values go all the way back to the 19th century (which is much later than Michael Kramer argues here). Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of German composer Richard Wagner uses the same basic framework we now call poptimism: Wagner, he argued, was too concerned with deep philosophical meaning and not enough with the beauty and pleasure of the sounds. Saying things like “music is a woman” and that Italian opera is superior to German opera because it’s prettier and more fun (see The Gay Science sections 77-80), Nietzsche also recognized the gender and race dynamics of poptimism: by 19th century standards Italians weren’t fully white, so his prioritization of Italian over German opera subordinates white highbrow culture to not-really-white middle-to-lowbrow culture. In Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he makes his preference for light, unserious art over high culture quite clear. There, he contrasts the “hubbub…with which the ‘cultured’ man and the man about town allow themselves to be forced through art, literature, music, and with the help of intoxicating liquor, to ‘intellectual enjoyments’” with the “nimble, volatile, divinely undisturbed, divinely artificial art, which blazes up like pure flame into a cloudless sky” (emphasis mine). This contrast flips fine art/craft hierarchies and argues that things traditionally devalued as feminine, such as superficiality or sensory pleasure, are artistically superior to all the values commonly attributed to fine art, such as intellectual depth. Though he called it “the joyful wisdom” (die frӧliche Wissenschaft, often translated as The Gay Science) instead of “poptimism,” the later Nietzsche’s music aesthetics articulates the same basic theoretical commitments that inform 21st century poptimism.
The basic idea of poptimism has been around since the late 1880s, but it took more than a century to really take off. In the decade after Sanneh’s article, there was a poptimism bubble: it rose to huge popularity, especially with the publication of Carl Wilson’s 2007 book on fans of cheesy pop music. That bubble started to burst about 9 or 10 years after that book appeared as critics began to sour on poptimism. Though it was initially understood as a radical upheaval of the powers that be, by 2017 poptimism had been co-opted by those powers. Instead of challenging patriarchal gender systems, poptimism reinforced them. Writing in The Quietus, Michael Hann argues that “Poptimism, in practice, has not meant championing those who do not get the acclaim they are due, so much as celebrating the position of artists who don’t need their genius proclaimed” such as Beyonce or Taylor Swift. The oft-noted death of the negative album review suggests that [p]optimism is now the orthodox practice among music critics. (This also coincides with recent trends in academic literary theory, which prize “reparative” readings over critical ones.) Such concerns have led Rob Harvilla to pose the rhetorical question “Have we reached the end of poptimism?” because what began as a feminist revolt now feels like an expectation or obligation to stan for the already powerful, such as corporations and megastars. Hann and Harvilla observe a change in poptimism, at least as it is practiced in the music media and industry: poptimism feels less like rooting for undervalued and underrepresented women and more like cheerleading for The Man. Harvilla speculates about poptimism’s end because this corporate poptimism betrays the movement’s original ideals and values.
Why did the poptimism bubble happen when it did? There were many contributing factors, such as the rise of what sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern call “omnivorous taste,” which is the idea that elites prefer both traditional highbrow culture and a range of lowbrow forms, a.k.a. “I like everything but [usually country or hip hop].” Evolutions in feminist media and activism are another central cause of the poptimist bubble. Because pop is an inherently gendered category defined by its feminization, poptimism’s evolution is closely tied to feminism’s. The poptimism bubble roughly coincides with the period when feminism broke the mainstream and mutated into popular feminism.
This is more than just a correlation or coincidence. “Pop” is a gendered category, so its evolution is inextricably tied to evolving gender norms and politics. Poptimism emerged at the dawn of a broader “woke” turn in popular media and pop culture. The first decades of the 21st century saw the rise of a proliferation of explicitly feminist web publications (Autostraddle, Broadly, Jezebel, etc.) and the circulation of feminist theory outside the academy on social media sites like tumblr. 2014, the year Beyonce brought the big pink “FEMINIST” sign to the VMAs, was the year that feminism broke the mainstream. As media studies scholar Sarah Banet-Wesier argues, around 2014 a variety of white liberal feminism focused primarily on individual economic (and sexual) empowerment; it “became a sort of product” that circulated both as a corporate and individual brand. “Feminism” sold us Tshirts, Spotify playlists, and a couple of Beyonce albums. Banet-Weiser’s term for this feminism as brand or business strategy is “popular feminism.” In 2018, poptimism works more or less like popular feminism: it turns the revaluation of things traditionally devalued because of their femininity into a way to make money.
Both popular feminism and corporate poptimism are the result of the same flawed thinking that believes inequality can be fixed just by empowering individuals and not by restructuring the institutions and conventions that structure our relations with one another. This thinking seeks to put formerly low-status things in high status places without reconfiguring the underlying fact that there is a status differential in the first place.
Banet-Weiser warns that popular feminism is only half of a two-sided coin: “popular misogyny…mimics the operation of popular feminism but flips and distorts the politics.” The incel movement is an example of popular misogyny: arguing that women oppress men by refusing to have sex with them, it takes the language of oppression developed by feminism and uses it to justify the idea of patriarchal sex-right. Similarly, the classical music blog “Slipped Disc” has been described as the “Breitbart of classical music” because its championing of the orthodox Western art music canon is “openly sexist, racist, and LGBT-phobic.” The 2018 Grammy Awards show presented both sides of this coin in stark clarity: as Maura Johnston noted, though the ceremony prominently featured a #MeToo performance from Kesha and other women artists, almost all the awards went exclusively to men.
Viewed in Banet-Weiser’s terms, the RIAA seems to be leveraging both sides of this coin to maximize its profits, practicing popular feminism in the streets but popular misogyny on the ballot. Like popular feminism, the RIAA’s poptimism values superficial markers of feminist progress because they obscure patriarchy’s retrenchment. For example, the two most definitive or canonical poptimist texts (the Sanneh article and Wilson book) are authored by cis men, so it may appear that poptimism hasn’t changed those institutions and conventions so much as conformed to them.
I agree with Banet-Weiser that though Feminism™ is certainly limited and insufficient, it can be a helpful gateway for beginners. Poptimism™ is similarly limited and insufficient, but we should think about how we can lead fans brimming with that kind of poptimism to a deeper engagement with the institutions and conventions that continue to value the same kinds of people and the music they make and like above others.
Featured image: “Pop” by Flickr user Andreas Andrews, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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.
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