What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music
The lyrics to Beyoncé’s 2008 song “Radio” treats listening pleasure as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sexual pleasure. For example, they describe how turning up a car stereo transforms it into a sex toy: “And the bassline be rattlin’ through my see-eat, ee-eats/Then that crazy feeling starts happeni-ing- i-ing OH!” Earlier in the song, the lyrics suggest that this is a way for the narrator to get off without arousing any attempts to police her sexuality: “You’re the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room/…And mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom.” Because her parents wouldn’t let her be alone in her bedroom with anyone or anything that they recognized as sexual, “Radio”’s narrator finds sexual pleasure in a practice that isn’t usually legible as sex. In her iconic essay “On A Lesbian Relationship With Music,” musicologist Suzanne Cusick argues that if we “suppose that sexuality isn’t necessarily linked to genital pleasure” and instead “a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given” (70), we can understand the physical pleasures of listening to music, music making, and music performance as kinds of sexual pleasure.
Though Cusick’s piece overlooks the fact that sexual deviance has been, since the invention of the idea of sexuality in the late 19th century, thoroughly racialized, her argument can be a good jumping-off point for thinking about black women’s negotiations of post-feminist ideas of sexual respectability; it focuses our attention on musical sound as a technique for producing queer pleasures that bend the circuits connecting whiteness, cispatriarchal gender, and hetero/homonormative sexuality. In an earlier SO! Piece on post-feminism and post-feminist pop, I defined post-feminism as the view that “the problems liberal feminism identified are things in…our past.” Such problems include silencing, passivity, poor body image, and sexual objectification. I also argued that post-feminist pop used sonic markers of black sexuality as representations of the “past” that (mostly) white post-feminists and their allies have overcome. It does this, for example, by “tak[ing] a “ratchet” sound and translat[ing] it into very respectable, traditional R&B rhythmic terms.” In this two-part post, I want to approach this issue from another angle. I argue that black femme musicians use sounds to negotiate post-feminist norms about sexual respectability, norms that consistently present black sexuality as regressive and pre-feminist.
Black women musicians’ use of sound to negotiate gender norms and respectability politics is a centuries-old tradition. Angela Davis discusses the negotiations of Blues women in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism (1998), and Shana Redmond’s recent article “This Safer Space: Janelle Monae’s ‘Cold War’” reviews these traditions as they are relevant for black women pop musicians in the US. While there are many black femme musicians doing this work in queer subcultures and subgenres, I want to focus here on how this work appears within the Top 40, right alongside all these white post-feminist pop songs I talked about in my earlier post because such musical performances illustrate how black women negotiate hegemonic femininities in mainstream spaces.
As America’s post-identity white supremacist patriarchy conditionally and instrumentally includes people of color in privileged spaces, it demands “normal” gender and sexuality performances for the most legibly feminine women of color as the price of admission. As long as black women don’t express or evoke any ratchetness–any potential for blackness to destabilize cisbinary gender and hetero/homonormativity, to make gender and sexuality transitional–their expressions of sexuality and sexual agency fit with multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.
It is in this complicated context that I situate Nicki Minaj’s (and in my next post Beyoncé’s and Missy Elliott’s) recent uses of sound and their bodies as instruments to generate sounds. If, as I argued in my previous post, the verbal and visual content of post-feminist pop songs and videos is thought to “politically” (i.e., formally, before the law) emancipate women while the sounds perform the ongoing work of white supremacist patriarchy, the songs I will discuss use sounds to perform alternative practices of emancipation. I’m arguing that white bourgeois post-feminism presents black women musicians with new variations on well-worn ideas and practices designed to oppress black women by placing them in racialized, gendered double-binds.
For example, post-feminism transforms the well-worn virgin/whore dichotomy, which traditionally frames sexual respectability as a matter of chastity and purity (which, as Richard Dyer and others have argued, connotes racial whiteness), into a subject/object dichotomy. This dichotomy frames sexual respectability as a matter of agency and self-ownership (“good” women have agency over their sexuality; “bad” women are mere objects for others). As Cheryl Harris argues, ownership both discursively connotes and legally denotes racial whiteness. Combine the whiteness of self-ownership with well-established stereotypes about black women’s hypersexuality, and the post-feminist demand for sexual self-ownership puts black women in a catch-22: meeting the new post-feminist gender norm for femininity also means embodying old derogatory stereotypes.
I think of the three songs (“Anaconda,” “WTF,” and “Drunk in Love”) as adapting performance traditions to contemporary contexts. First, they are part of what both Ashton Crawley and Shakira Holt identify as the shouting tradition, which, as Holt explains, is a worship practice that “can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning.” She continues, arguing that “shouting…is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them.” These vocal performances apply the shouting tradition’s combination of the choreographic and the sonic and binary-confounding tactics to queer listening and vocal performance strategies.
Francesca Royster identifies such strategies in both Michael Jackson’s work and her audition of it. According to Royster, Jackson’s use of non-verbal sounds produces an erotics that exceeds the cisheteronormative bounds of his songs’ lyrics. They were what allowed her, as a queer teenager, to identify with a love song that otherwise excluded her:
in the moments when he didn’t use words, ‘ch ch huhs,’ the ‘oohs,’ and the ‘hee hee hee hee hees’…I ignored the romantic stories of the lyrics and focused on the sounds, the timbre of his voice and the pauses in between. listening to those nonverbal moments–the murmured opening of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” or his sobbed breakdown at the end of “She’s Out of My Life,’ I discovered the erotic (117).
Royster references a black sexual politics in line with Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic in “The Uses of the Erotic,” which is bodily pleasure informed by the implicit and explicit knowledges learned through lived experience on the margins of the “European-American male tradition” (54), and best expressed in the phrase “it feels right to me” (54). Lorde’s erotic is a script for knowing and feeling that doesn’t require us to adopt white supremacist gender and sexual identities to play along. Royster calls on this idea when she argues that Jackson’s non-verbal sounds–his use of timbre, rhythm, articulation, pitch–impart erotic experiences and gendered performances that can veer off the trite boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl stories in his lyrics. “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119). Like shouting, “erotic” self-listening confounds several binaries designed specifically to oppress black women, including subject/object binaries and binary cisheterogender categories.
Nicki Minaj uses extra-verbal sounds as opportunities to feel her singing, rapping, vocalizing body as a source of what Holt calls “sonophilic” pleasure, pleasure that “provide[s] stimulation and identification in the listener” and invites the listener to sing (or shout) along. Minaj is praised for her self-possession when it comes to business or artistry, but such self-possession is condemned or erased entirely when discussing her performances of sexuality. As Treva B. Lindsey argues, “the frequency that Nicki works on is not the easiest frequency for us to wrestle with, because it’s about…whether we can actually tell the difference between self-objectification and self-gratification.’’ Though this frequency may be difficult to parse for ears tempered to rationalize post-feminist assumptions about subjectivity and gender, Minaj uses her signature wide sonic pallette to shift the conversation about subjectivity and gender to frequencies that rationalize alternative assumptions.
In her 2014 hit “Anaconda,” she makes a lot of noises: she laughs, snorts, trills her tongue, inhales with a low creaky sound in the back of her throat, percussively “chyeah”s from her diaphragm,among other sounds. The song’s coda finds her making most of the extraverbal sounds. This segment kicks off with her quasi-sarcastic cackle, which goes from her throat and chest up to resonate in her nasal and sinus cavities. She then ends her verse with a trademark “chyeah,” followed by another cackle. Then Minaj gives a gristly, creaky exhale and inhale, trilling her tongue and then finishing with a few more “chyeah”s. While these sounds do percussive and musical work within the song, we can’t discount the fact that they’re also, well…fun to make. They feel good, freeing even. And given the prominent role the enjoyment of one’s own and other women’s bodies plays in “Anaconda” and throughout Minaj’s ouevre, it makes sense that these sounds are, well, ways that she can go about feelin herself.
Listening to and feeling sonophilic pleasure in sounds she performs, Minaj both complicates post-feminism’s subject/object binaries and rescripts cishetero narratives about sexual pleasure. “Anaconda” flips the script on the misogyny of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” by sampling the track and rearticulating cishertero male desire as Nicki’s own erotic. First, instead of accompanying a video about the male gaze, that bass hook now accompanies a video of Nicki’s pleasure in her femme body and the bodies of other black femmes, playing as she touches and admires other women working out with her. Second, Nicki re-scripts the bass line as a syllabification: “dun-da-da-dun-da-dun-da-dun-dun,” which keeps the pattern of accents on 1 and 4, while altering the melody’s pitch and rhythm.
Just as “Anaconda”’s lyrics re-script Mix-A-Lot’s male gaze, so do her sounds. If the original hook sonically orients listeners as cishetero “men” and “women,” Nicki’s vocal performance reorients listeners to create and experience bodily pleasure beyond the “legible” and the scripted. Though the lyrics are clearly about sexual pleasure, the sonic expression or representation of that pleasure–i.e., the performer’s pleasure in hearing/feeling herself make all these extraverbal sounds–makes it physically manifest in ways that aren’t conventionally understood as sexual or gendered. Because it veers off white ciseterogendered scripts about both gender and agency, Minaj’s performance of sonophilia is an instance of what L.H. Stallings calls hip hop’s “ratchet imagination.” This imagination is ignited by black women’s dance aesthetics, wherein “black women with various gender performances and sexual identities within the club, on stage and off, whose bodies and actions elicit new performances of black masculinity” renders both gender and subject/object binaries “transitional” (138).
Nicki isn’t the only black woman rapper to use extra-verbal vocal sounds to re-script gendered bodily pleasure. In my next post, I’ll look at Beyoncé and Missy Elliot’s use of extra-vocal sounds to stretch beyond post-feminism pop’s boundaries.
Featured image: screenshot from “Anaconda” music video
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt
Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely
Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs
Marginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?
Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience. I opened the series by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach. Last week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooowed thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so to hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Next week, Justyna Stasiowska brings the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, Maria P. Chaves Daza explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp
In October 1991 at the University of Arizona fall reading series, Gloria Anzaldúa read several poems and short stories–work now held at the UT-Austin Collection. Recently, I sat in my living room listening to the recording, feeling the buzz of her presence, the audible excitement in the Modern Languages Auditorium that Gloria Anzaldúa is about to speak. After some welcoming statements and a poem by Rita Magdaleno, inspired by Magdaleno’s reading of Borderlands, Anzaldúa takes the stage.
As part of her praxis, Anzaldúa makes space for queer people, both through her words and vocal tone. She begins with a joke about her relationship with mics and takes the time to thank the organizers, especially for her cozy writer’s cottage. Anzaldúa dedicates the reading to Yolanda Leyva, her old roommate, telling Leyva she hasn’t forgotten her. Then, she announces her involvement in Sinister Wisdom and encourages women of color in the audience to contribute to this all-lesbian journal. She proceeds to laugh as she says, “lesbians of color only, sorry. [laughs]” Similarly, as she announces a collection she is editing with Francisco Alarcon about Chicana dykes and Chicano gay men, she says, “so if anybody is a Chicana dyke or a Chicano gay man, sorry about the rest of you” [laughs]. In the future she will also edit a book called Chicana Theory “Chicanas only (laughs), sorry.” Last, she acknowledges Chuck Tatum for changing the title of his annual from “New Chicano Writings” to “New Chicana/o Writings” and for allowing for Spanish and Spanglish Tex-Mex when he first wanted pieces in English. Anzaldúa takes the opportunity to recognize and promote the work of Chicana/o lesbian and gay writers by demarcating several publications exclusive to their work. This exclusivity is softened with giggles and laughs, affects, which help work through the tension(s) of recognition and exclusion caused by this explicit circumscription.
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.
In their introduction to The Affect Reader, Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg assert affect’s “immanent capacity for extending […] both into and out of the interstices of the inorganic and non-living, intracellular divulgences of sinew, tissue and gut economies and the vaporous evanescenses of the incorporeal (events, atmospheres, feeling-tones)” (2).This sound recording of Anzaldúa’s poetry reading is an example of the immanent capacity this “incorporeal” event has to resonate and “sometimes stick to bodies and worlds” for listening audiences (1). Affect in its simplest form is “the name we give to those forces […] that serve to drive us to movement, towards thought and extension” and is “synonymous with force or forces of encounter (2).” My encounter with Anzaldúa’s (incorporeal) recording and the affect created through listening to her work lead me to ponder an answer to Seigworth and Gregg’s question:
How does a body marked in its duration by these various encounters with mixed forces, come to shift its affections (its being affected) into action (capacity to affect)? (2)
Toward an answer to this question, this post explores my relationship between Anzaldúa’s voice and my pedagogy, both her speaking voice as well as the interior voice she offers her audience, the way in which she opens spaces for queer women of color, and the resonances I find in both. As a queer woman of color who once felt isolated, Anzaldúa’s work has in many ways liberated me as a scholar, providing me with access to a voice for my own experiences. But Anzaldúa’s voice–its tactile material aspects and the way its 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. Her voice in the recording and in her writing sparks a recognition and validation of my being.
Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” highlights a practice of visibility and exclusivity that enables Anzaldúa’s vocalic body to reach out to the queer community, and for us to “listen out” in return. In “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres,” Bonenfant identifies the vocalic body as central to listening experience. He defines the vocalic body as an instrument producing vibrations that touch others, and a socially produced body positioned by environmental factors in a set of relations of power that produce identity. From these constitutive power relations the queer body listens for other queer bodies since “queer is a doing, not a being;” and listening is an active process of identifying the elements reaching out to queer people (78). Thus, Bonenfant, elaborates queer listening as
a listening out for, reach[ing] towards, the disoriented or differently oriented other […] listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. […] since hearing is feeling touch, this act of finding requires attunement to the touch of the vocalic bodies that caress queer. Sometimes, one has to listen very carefully to find them (78).
Queer listening then, 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.
On the University of Arizona’s recording, I can hear in Anzaldúa’s laugh a relish in her ability to take up space, to have before her an audience of more lesbian, gay and queer writers to contribute to her several anthology projects. Her voice is filled with a nervous excitement; after all, there is always a danger in being queer. Her laugh resonates as a physical instantiation of the risk of her own existence and of the other queers in the room. It is also a soothing mechanism; her laugh momentarily takes the edge off of some of her words as it reaches out, touches, and brings together queer people of color.
It is in this same way, that Anzaldúa’s work creates the space to speak and listen to queer people of color in many contexts. I was first introduced to Anzaldúa in the classroom, specifically a feminist theory class. It was the first time I had heard a Chicana speak about being queer (or anyone who was mestiza for that matter); the classroom can be fraught with danger for students like me. Cindy Cruz, in “Notes on Immigration, Youth and Ethnographic Silence,” argues that the classroom needs to be a space aware of the political climate that silences LGBTQ immigrant students (68). In the classroom, writers such as Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks all contribute to the growing canon of “politically undesired” identities (68). Without these writers, the queer-identified person may never be given a reason or a chance to speak about their experience as brown/black transgressive sexual subject. For this reason, when I teach I always read Anzaldúa aloud or ask members of the class to do so. Her powerful language, when vocalized, creates what Bonenfant would call a somatic bond that inhabits the students themselves, the classroom, and demands that we discuss homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and racism from the perspective of the atravesadx: the immigrant queer person of color. Reading Anzaldúa aloud creates what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacy: a way of imagining our own spaces in connection to others.” This is almost a pirate bond, a way of connecting the undesired and marginalized.
I have experienced this affective bond on multiple occasions, but one instance stands out.
In a Critical Race Theory class during my fifth year grad school, a fellow student, an immigrant woman of color, came out to the class by way of a seminar paper. As she read the paper she was shaking, her voice cracked, and tears rolled down her face. She was terrified of the consequences of “coming out,” however she found the courage to write and share her experiences. I remember how this reading touched me, the student’s voice interlaced with quotes explaining Anzaldúa’s concept of “homophobia”—the fear of going home– moved through the classroom and classmates: people leaned in, shifted in their seats, began doodling, some shook their heads in agreement in relation to coming out. I don’t think the student would have felt this was possible or appropriate if we hadn’t read Anzaldúa; the only lesbian writer on the syllabus.
The sound of Anzaldúa’s text creates a vocalic body for queer listening available to people who yearn for its touch. Bonenfant posits this idea of yearning as inherently queer. Queer, as a form of doing, requires performative activity, always looking to find our own likenesses in others. Recognizing sound as touching the vocalic body, “queer listeners can perhaps catch some of the subtle variations in timbre that indicate a resonant ‘identity’ that wants to touch someone like us” (78). Anzaldúa’s various texts speak of concrete experience but the timbre of her voice–and the voice(s) reading her work–speaks to much more, a certain trembling that I feel in my own experience and that I wish to not only receive but to share with other queers of color also reaching out while also always receptive to the timbre of likeness.
Affective phenomena do not rely on textual or linguistic acts to communicate but instead are networked intensities of impulse that connect the individual body-mind to the bodies-minds of others. As Gregg and Seigworth explain,
Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. […] That is, affect is found in the intensities that pass body to body. In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed (2).
Anzaldúa incites in me a sense of intensity as the unnamable but unmistakable realities of my own experience resonate when I listen, while also lighting in me a force, an exertion of a “politically undesirable” self that I must assert in the world and in the classroom as a space of in- between-ness. Anzaldúa’s writing and the timbre of her voice are, to me, intensities and forces that go unnoticed, except by those who are yearning for them. Listening to Anzaldúa in the classroom proliferates the possibility of queer listening encounters; listening to Anzaldúa at home, in my living room, regenerates my belief in the impossible, in our ability to be in intimate spaces without homophobia: the fear of going home.
Featured Image: Used with the generous permissions of artist Alma Lopez. See more of her work at: http://almalopez.net/
JS and AB are grateful for the the editorial work of Tara Betts on early drafts.
Maria P. Chaves Daza is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at SUNY Binghamton University studying testimonios of undocumented women. They are a McNair Scholar and a Clifford D. Clark Fellow. They hold a B.A in Women’s Studies form NEIU in Chicago and a Master’s in Philosophy from the Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture (PIC) Program (SUNY Binghamton).
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
“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson
Could I Be Chicana Without Carlos Santana?-Wanda Alarcón
Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging-Nancy Morales