Tag Archive | Carl Wilson

Poptimism and Popular Feminism

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.

“Tricoteuse” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Public Domain

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.

“Jennifer Lopez | Pop Music Festival | 23.06.2012” by Flickr user Ana Carolina Kley Vita, CC BY 2.0. A Google image search of the word “pop music” listed this image as one of the top images.

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.

“Rock Hard Open Air 2009” by Flickr user Elena, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

Screenshot from Beyoncé’s 2014 VMAs performance.

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.

Screenshot of Kesha’s performance of “Praying” at the 2018 Grammys.

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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In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”–Elizabeth Newton

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

Pushing Play: What Makes the Portable Cassette Recorder Interesting?–Gus Stadler

How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence

With the premier last month of Lemonade, her second visual album, Beyoncé didn’t make the world stop so much as she make it revolve: around her, around her work, around black women. For all of the limitations of pop music as a medium (it’s inherently capitalist, for one) and Lemonade’s various feminist strategies (“Formation,” with its “Black Bill Gates” language, can be heard as a black parallel public to white corporate feminism), the album nevertheless re-centered mainstream media attention on black women’s cultural and creative work.

As the conversation about Lemonade revolved around black women and black feminism, two white men pop critics writing for major publications responded with “So What About The Music?” articles. The description to Carl Wilson’s Slate piece asks “But how is it as strictly music?,” and Kevin Fallon’s Daily Beast piece asks both “But is the music any good?” in the title  and “But is the music worth listening to?” in the dec. Each time, the “but” sounds like the antecedent to its implied mansplainy consequent “actually…” And just as “but actually” recenters men as authorities and experts, these three questions decenter features prioritized in black women’s pop performance traditions, and in Lemonade itself. As posed in these two articles, the “so what about the music?” question frames “music” so narrowly that it both obscures or at best trivializes what the album does musically. Wilson and Fallon’s essays are good examples of how not to listen to Lemonade.

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Borrowed from “Let’s Talk About Sex(ism)” from Twin Geeks

I want to read Wilson and Fallon carefully so we can think about when this question makes for both technically correct and ethically/politically responsible theory and criticism, and when it makes for technically incorrect and ethically/politically irresponsible theory and criticism. My aim here isn’t to argue that Wilson and Fallon are bad people. My focus is the definition or concept of “music” that’s at the heart of the method they use in these two articles (and methods are bigger than individual writers). In more academic terms, I’m asking about research ethics. If, as Wilson’s and Fallon’s articles prove, the “so what about the music?” question can be a power move that establishes the critic’s or theorist’s authority, how can we–especially the mainstream we–ask about the music parts of pop music without making that power move?

maxresdefaultFirstly, both articles apply fairly conventional European fine art aesthetics to the album. Wilson invokes pre-Enlightenment European aesthetics to argue that the “reality show aspect” of the album is somehow aesthetically inconsistent with great pop music. Prior to the 17th century, it was commonly thought that the status of a work’s form or medium ought to correspond to the status of its representational content: painting, the most highly regarded art form, should have subject matter of equal stature–gods and royalty. Wilson’s claim that “the other distraction is the way that the album’s central suite of music interacts with tabloid-style gossip (and a certain elevator video clip) about Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z” echoes that centuries-old sentiment, a sentiment which is about as alien to Lemonade’s aesthetic as, well, Boethius is.

Fallon begins his article with a genuflection to Prince (as does Wilson), scrunches its nose at the gossipy lyrical and narrative content, and then twice scoffs at the very idea of a visual album, “whatever that is,” as though we in the West don’t have precedents for this sort of Gesamtkunstwerky (the total artwork combining music, visuals, and lyrics) thing going back to Wagner and the Florentine Camerata (the collective attributed with inventing opera in the 17th century). He does talk more extensively about the sounds and music than Wilson does, but given the rapid turnaround he also faced, there’s not a lot of close listening to specific musical figures, performances, or compositional techniques, mostly just a survey of the different genres on the album.

Wilson says that the cheating story detracts from the album’s musical quality because it’s an unoriginal narrative:

a drama of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation, one of the most ancient and common of human experiences, and of songwriting fodder…that issue of thematic freshness may render some of the songs here less distinctive and invigorating than Beyoncé was.

I find this an odd criticism to level at a pop album, or even an artwork. Nobody would say that West Side Story or Romeo & Juliet were aesthetically diminished because they recycled that tired old theme of jealousy, betrayal, and (failed) reconciliation. Moreover, as Angela Davis argued in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, these themes of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation are the foundation of black feminist pop music aesthetics in a personal-is-political kind of way. Both articles force a contextually incorrect definition of “politics” onto the album, one which sees the most intimate details of relationships, sex, and kinship as merely personal and apolitical. Fallon, for example, says  “there’s no doubt that the music on the album is far more personal than it is political.” Both critics fail to consider it in terms established in black women’s pop performance traditions.

Even in Wilson’s attempt to focus strictly on the music, he spends most of the time talking about visuals and lyrics. He hears a wide range of sonic references in Lemonade, from Dolly Parton to Donna Summer to the Lomax recordings to calypso. But he thinks this makes it sound derivative: “as an aural album, Lemonade is a little less fascinatingly singular and eccentric than Beyoncé” (Wilson). Fallon makes an almost identical remark in his article: “Lemonade doesn’t hurl itself toward any genre in a statement of artistry. Instead it masters… um, all of them, but in turn doesn’t make the same powerful statement of Beyoncé’s artistic mission, like her last album did.” Contrast this with the way Jonathan Shecter talks about Diplo’s post-genre eclecticism as “fresh and cutting-edge,” part of an “ongoing artistic evolution.” As philosopher Christine Battersby has argued, the habit of thinking that flexibility is a sign of innovation when attributed to white men, but a sign of regression when attributed to anyone else, is a habit that goes back to the 19th century. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé gets dinged for the same thing that garners Diplo praise: in her case, what Fallon calls “the most daringly genre-hopping music she’s ever produced” is evidence of unoriginality, whereas in Diplo’s case post-genre eclecticism is evidence of his ability to distinctively transcend provincialism. Even when Wilson’s article does manage to talk about sounds and music, it trivializes Beyoncé’s other artistic achievements on the album.

Both articles rely on some gendered and racialized interpretive habits to address the song’s aesthetic value, lyrical content, and Beyoncé’s artistry. But what about their discussion of the music?

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“listen” by Flickr user Robyn Jay, CC BY-SA 2.0

These same racialized, gendered habits tune Wilson and Fallon’s listening and mask the sonic dimensions of Lemonade that don’t fit their narrow concept of music. Both critics make a conceptual move that separates musical practice from black feminist practice. Fallon uses some parentheses and a “but…?” question to put rhetorical and grammatical space between Lemonade’s black femininity and its musical and sonic features: “(By the way, it’s powerful, and feminist, and unapologetically black, and transfixing, and gorgeous, and assured, and weird, and confusing, and dumb, and groundbreaking.) But hey: Is the music any good?” This framing defines “the music” as something distinct and independent of the album’s black femininity, as though black women’s and black feminist musical traditions didn’t infuse the album’s music…or, to the extent they do, they don’t count as “music.”

Listening

“Listening” by Jens Schott Knudsen, CC BY-NC 2.0

Wilson makes an identical move. Following the white liberal feminist aesthetics that influence lots of contemporary post-feminist pop, Wilson’s piece locates treats the black feminist message primarily in the video. “In video form…it’s more evident that [Lemonade] is equally the cyclical story of generations of black women dealing with men and balancing their struggle for R-E-S-P-E-C-T (as well as S-E-X) against the violations and injustices of race and gender.” He sees the politics in the visuals, but doesn’t consider the sounds as having anything to say or do about that story and that struggle.

This approach isn’t limited to well-meaning but ignorant white men pop critics: even bell hooks’ now (in)famous essay on Lemonade looks at but doesn’t listen for its politics. She argues that it is a “visual extravaganza” whose “radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” Locating the politics entirely in Lemonade’s visuals, hooks’s essay treats black feminism as something contested solely in terms of images. (And divorcing the images from the sounds fails to consider the fact that the sounds impact how viewers interpret what they see.)

Screen_Shot_2016-04-24_at_11.26.25

Screenshot from Lemonade

This is the wrong method to use for thinking about Lemonade and Beyoncé’s work as a whole (and pop music in general). Sounds on this album don’t operate independently of black femininity, black women’s performance traditions, or individual artists’ black feminist politics. On the one hand, thinking with Daphne Brooks and Regina Bradley, it’s more accurate to say that Beyoncé’s sound game has generally led the way and been more politically cutting-edge than her visual game. On the other hand, sound can also be what does the heavy lifting for patriarchy and other systems of domination, as I argue here. Separating the music itself out from the political content misrepresents what music is and how it works. And it is a particularly gendered misrepresentation: critics are not so eager to separate Kendrick’s sounds from his politics. In both white and black philosophical traditions, dominant concepts of politics and the political are normatively masculine (just think about the gendered public/private distinction, for example), so from these perspectives feminine and feminized sounds don’t feel or seem “political.”

But in these two cases the divorce between music and politics is also what lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music. If they can distill Lemonade down to its “solely musical” aspects, then they can plausibly present themselves as experts over generic, depoliticized sound, sounds disconnected from knowledges and values tied to particular lived experiences and performance traditions. Problem is, in the same way that there is no generic ‘person’ without a race or a gender, there is no generic, depoliticized sound. As Jennifer Stoever has argued, even though Western modernity’s occularcentric epistemology obscures the sonic dimensions of white supremacist patriarchy and the subaltern knowledges developed under it, sounds nevertheless work politically. Digging deep into the music on Lemonade or any other pop song does not involve abstracting the music away from every other aspect of the work and its conditions of production. Digging deep into the music part of pop music means digging deeper into these factors, too.

When Regina Bradley, Dream Hampton, Laur M. Jackson, Zandria Robinson, and Joan Morgan talk about how Lemonade makes them feel, what affects and knowledges and emotions it communicates, they are talking about the music–they just work in a tradition that understands music as something other than ‘the music itself’ (that is, they don’t think music is abstracted away from visual and cultural elements, from structures of feeling common to black women with shared histories and phenomenological life-worlds). As I have tried to show in my own work, the sounds and musical performance are central to Beyoncé and Rihanna’s work because they engage traditions of black women’s and black feminist knowledges. Aesthetic practices develop and emerge as types of implicit (i.e., non-propositional or non-verbal) knowledge, knowledge created in response to lived experiences in a particular social location. Aesthetic practices can communicate and perform knowledges that reinforce systems of domination, and they can also communicate and perform subordinate knowledges that map out strategies for survival amid domination. Dominant institutions (like the music industry) and people from dominant groups (like Iggy Azalea or Eric Clapton) separate the aesthetic practice from the implicit knowledges that make it meaningful, and thus neutralize those knowledges and make the aesthetic practice fungible and co-optable. Talking about “the music itself” or “solely music” does the same thing: it is a form of what philosophers call epistemic violence.

Screenshot from Lemonade

Screenshot from Lemonade

So, asking “but what about the music?” is a way to dig into those implicit knowledges to show where much of this epistemic work is happening. And that’s good analysis that isn’t (necessarily) epistemically violent. It demonstrates what Stoever calls “an ethical responsibility to hear African American cultural production with…assumptions about value, agency and meaning” (31) that are appropriate to them. But you can also ask “but what about the music?” in a way that abstracts away from these implicit knowledges. That’s what Wilson’s and Fallon’s pieces do, and that’s why they’re both epistemically violent and objectively poor methods of musical interpretation. But we can and do better when we write about and theorize the music part of pop music. And, to riff on Mariana Ortega’s argument in her article on the type of epistemic violence she calls “loving, knowing ignorance,” doing better means listening to and with black women, black women’s music, and black feminist aesthetics. You can’t divorce music or listening from politics; listening better can and will follow from practicing more just politics.

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.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity-Regina Bradley

Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James

Of Resilience and Men: How Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo Play with Gender in “Where Are Ü Now”-Justin Burton

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