Feminista Music Scholarship understands music production and listening as a collective site of engagement that sometimes produces and sometimes challenges social structures of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation. It is a method and practice that pushes on narrative frameworks that naturalize the absence of women of color and Chicanx subjects in music scholarship. It is always about imagining and practicing life, as the old-saying/ dicho goes says, to the beat of a different drum, to an alternative, more just reality and experience of time, built on the knowledge of buen vivir or sumak kawsay (a kichwe concept and practice that understands the good life cannot be attained without living right with others in convivencia, in mutual respect of marginalized communities, knowledges, cyclical non-linear time, and of La Pachama/mother earth, one that aligns with knowledge practices of many indigenous communities across Las Americas).
This Chicana Soundscapes/Feminista Music Scholarship Forum is inspired by the “Sounds Like Home: Mapping Chicana Mexicana/Indigena Epistemologies in Sonic Spaces” presented at the annual American Studies Association (ASA) Annual Conference, Denver 2017. Thanks to the roundtable organizers Yessica Garcia Hernandez and Iris Viveros Avendaño for inviting me to chair the panel and to ASA Sound Caucus committee for sponsoring the panel and putting a spotlight on this much-needed research. Many have worked tirelessly for over 25 years to make space at the ASA for such a panel–one that is focused on feminista music scholarship, robustly composed of emerging feminista scholars from different localities. It is truly a collective endeavor. That is took this long says much about the way such knowledge has been valued. That is finally happened says much about what’s coming next!
— Sounding Out! (@soundingoutblog) November 19, 2016
The forum’s inspiring research by scholars/practioners Wanda Alarcón, Yessica Garcia Hernandez, Marlen Rios-Hernandez, Susana Sepulveda, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño, understands music in its local, translocal and transnational context, and insists upon open new scholarly imaginaries. Not only does each scholar’s research point to the exciting present and future of music studies, it points to the work of feminista scholars and music practicioners who’ve pushed the frames of music studies, from inside and outside of ethnomusicology and musicology, scholars such as: Deborah Wong, Deborah Vargas, Sherrie Tucker, our own mentor Angela Davis, Maureen Mahon, Daphne Brooks, Andreana Clay, Martha Gonzalez, and others. Feminista scholars like Inés Casillas, Jennifer Stoever, Roshanak Kheshti, Monica De La Torre, and others, have made way for for feminista music studies in Sound Studies. And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Susan McClary shocked the music studies world by insisting that gender mattered in music analysis. We still face constant pushback on that assertion, in particular subfields, especially now. Current times require us to bridge intersectional, decolonial, and gender analysis. Music, and our relationship to it, has much to reveal about how power operates within a context of inequality. And it will teach us how to get through this moment.
For the last 13 years my research for Chicanxfuturism manuscript has engaged the following question: What practices compose Feminista Music Scholarship? As a practitioner in dialogue with scholars and practitioners, I identify Feminista Music Scholarship as:
- a fluid practice of collective listening and producing music attentive to power relations
- an examination of power-flows through music via epistemologies birthed from feminist of color and indigenista theorizing and practice
- approaching all genres
- troubling the notion of home
- responding to community displacement & social alienation
- networked (through digital archive, social media, etc…; collaborative and collective; and social justice oriented
- recognizing the reciprocal exchange of knowledge and labor between community and scholarly collaborations
- a collective endeavor
Feminista Music Scholarship is what the participants of this forum are doing (among their many important interventions)!
Indeed, Feminist Music Scholarship disrupts what Daphne Brooks describes in “The Write to Rock: Racial Mythologies, Feminist Theory, and the Pleasures of Rock Music Criticism” as “the imagined subaltern sphere of independent rock culture (dubbed “indie-rock”) [that] depends on a narrow discourse of shared knowledge that largely marginalizes (if not altogether erases) the presence of women and particularly women of color in alternative music culture” (61). The conceptualization and development of recent pop music exhibits, scholarship by emerging scholars, and community music dialogues, decidedly influenced by Feminista Music Scholarship is one of many possible answers to Brooks’s serious question, “How do we break outside of these tightly policed spheres?” The scholars/music practitioners in this issue respond to the burning question, “how does Chicana feminist music criticism break out of these spheres and serve as a home for new methods for writing about punk, banda, and new wave, son jarocho and participatory community music production?”
During the ASA roundtable, Alarcón, Garcia Hernandez, Rios-Hernandez, Sepulveda, and Viveros Avendaño presented six-minute flash presentations and then opened the floor to a discussion that is wide-ranging yet grounded in the material practices of sound, music, feminism, and home. They continue that important discussion there. More than ever we need panels, forums, dissertations, articles and other forms scholarship that spotlight the ways vulnerable populations have found ways to disrupt systemic oppression through their raucous listening, producing and community practices. This permits us to remember that this fight is not over, that we are deep in it and we have much strategy to share.
Rock on forum readers, rock on!
Michelle Habell-Pallán, associate professor of performance culture of the Americas in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, and adjunct associate professor in the School of Music and Department of Communication, at the University of Washington (UW), is currently the Director of the Certificate for Public Scholarship. For her fifteen years plus of community engagement and the arts, she recently received the Barclay Simpson Prize for Scholarship in Public, which recognizes her efforts to foster the humanities as a public good. Her research examines music, performance, and theater as communal forms of expression that archive alternative histories used to imagine new futures. In tandem, her research also reflects on the way developing media platforms compel new methods of cultural expression, research, archiving and delivery. Her most current research considers dialogues between feminista movements and hip hop feminista musics in Ecuador and its relationship to indigenous social movements rooted in Andean concepts of Sumak Kawsai (Right-living). She is the Co-Director of the UW Honors Quito, Ecuador Study Abroad Program.
Habell-Pallán authored Loca Motion: The Travels of Chicana/Latina Popular Culture (NYU Press). Her most recent book is the bilingual American Sabor: Latinos and Latinas in US Popular Music: Latinos y Latinas en La Música Popular Estadounidense co-authored with Marisol Berrios-Miranda and Shannon Dudley, published by University of Washington Press (Autumn January 2017). Her single-authored book Chicanxfuturism: Punk’s Beat Migration and the Sounds of Buen Vivir is in-progress.
Habell-Pallán guest-curated the award-winning bilingual traveling exhibit American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music hosted by Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). As a digital feminista she transforms digital humanities, through community engagement, as co-director of University of Washington Libraries Women Who Rock (WWR): Making Scenes, Building Communities Oral History Archive.
A former UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Habell-Pallán is recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Research Award, Woodrow Wilson Foundation Research Award, UW Royal Research Fund Award, and UW Simpson Center Digital Commons Faculty Fellowship (underwritten by the Mellon Foundation).
Habell-Pallán makes community & music with the Seattle Fandango Project, and is a member of the Fembot Collective|Gender, New Media & Technology. She collaborates with a range of local community partners to direct the Women Who Rock: Making Scenes, Building Communities Collective, whose free and family-friendly Seattle unConference/Encuentro takes place annually.
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Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms–Monica De La Torre
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.
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