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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Next month may mark the 30th Anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but chances are that if you are going to a Halloween dance party this year –or have since 1982–the musical highpoint of the night will still be when they play the title track. While thematically and sonically appropriate for Halloween getting down, there is more to the song’s sonic exploration of fear, both its “scary sounds” and the lyrical references to sound–the stolen scream, the creeping from behind–in the role of scaring an audience. There is startling disconnect between the scariness the song describes (and the stock sounds of classic Hollywood horror films it samples) and its ability to make something potentially scary palatable to a pop mainstream. It is not so much the elements of horror themselves that Michael Jackson’s song makes acceptable, but the potential scariness of sexuality for which it is a metaphor.
There is a long tradition of horror movies as metaphors for sexuality, in particular adolescent sexuality. Iconic examples include Michael Landon’s untrustworthy violent tendencies in 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (a film clearly being referenced in the opening to the John Landis-directed video for “Thriller”) or more recent incarnations like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where sleeping with your boyfriend can literally lead to the loss of his soul.
While written by Rod Temperton, a white Briton, “Thriller,” as performed by Michael Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones, takes on the horrors of emergent sexuality via a racial lens. The pop song becomes self-referential, metaphorically about the very taboo thrills that have made young white people seek out black music, and their parents fear for the consequences. And while 1983 was a far cry from the 1950s-era outrage over white kids listening to and making their own “black” rock n’ roll, we also can’t forget that it was an era of a newly-launched MTV almost completely devoid of black artists (before hip hop’s explosion among young white males). It was largely Jackson’s popularity, in fact, that prompted MTV to finally include more black artists in its programming.
While references to race in “Thriller” may be oblique, the lyrical references to sex are fairly obvious. The menace of the sexual encounter is present throughout the song as it is in the genre—sex itself is thrilling, desirous despite its potential physical, emotional or even social dangers.The scariness of the late night creature feature on television becomes an excuse to “cuddle close together.” This comforting occurs “all through the night” and the singer “can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try” (and the use of “ghost” to make a distinction between it and the singer reverberates with racial meaning). There is a dichotomy present in the song, in that the speaker is both the comfort from the fear of violence, and potentially “the beast about to strike.” Of course “nothing can save you” from that beast, when it is also the figure you are counting on to save you to begin with.
Similarly, at the height of his popularity, Michael Jackson embodied a safe version of black male sexuality. (In contrast, consider Prince, who in the early 80s was putting it all out there with albums like Dirty Mind (1980) and Controversy (1981), and would not get anything remotely like Thriller success until 1984’s Purple Rain). Despite Jackson’s pelvic thrusts or his videos featuring dark alleyway dancing, he represented a form of sexless sexiness, as emasculated in the eyes of the public as his doll (as famously demonstrated by Eddie Murphy on SNL). Perhaps most indicative of that position was Jackson’s bringing Brooke Shields as his date to the 1984 Grammy awards, while having Emmanuel Lewis accompany them. At the time MJ’s Peter Pan latency meant that Brooke was safe from predation and Emmanuel Lewis was an innocent child-friend to the child-like entertainer. Michael Jackson’s persona would not be undone by the accusations of monstrous pedophiliac tendencies for another nine years. Like the Thriller-themed doll pictured, Jackson was safe for both children and mainstream America, despite his ability to be transformed into something ostensibly terrifying.
The song is arranged and produced by Jones to echo this dichotomy of safe danger. The bass groove is a creeping disco loop never arriving, but suggestive of the warning music of the slasher genre. The hook is introduced with a sudden and shocking chords on a synthesizer, like the title screen music of an old monster movie. The high-pitched synthesizer whine that warbles during Vincent Price’s rap emulates the sci-fi spookiness of a theremin. The availability of Vincent Price was a coup for Jones and Jackson—a well-known figure of the genre, but even by 1980s, he was already a throwback to an older and out-of-date notion of horror—known for his low-budget work in Roger Corman films like Masque of the Red Death (1964) and appearances on Scooby-Doo. Furthermore, the song is marked by stock creaks, footsteps, thunderclap, slamming doors, wind and howls, sounds that enter the realm of kitsch. The sound effects are so exaggerated and artificial as to undercut the sense of the scariness the song describes and potentially represents. It disguises the supposed threat of black sexuality so successfully that it is now performed at many a white American wedding.
The campiness of the song’s excess, both sonically and lyrically, takes the edge off the sexual desire—the very thrill the song is meant to evoke. Even John Landis’s vision of the song in his 14-minute long video that remixes the album track for cinematic effect, mixes its film-quality monster effects with a playfulness evident in Jackson’s multiple incarnations in the video. In the movie inside the dream inside the video narrative, he seems more concerned with teasing his date about how easily she is scared (and scaring her some more) than sleeping with her—but his mischievous grin signals an unspoken desire that comes alive in his date’s alternating desire and fear of him. The dangers of werewolves and zombies are always arrested to reveal a level of artifice, a gotcha moment for his date–and for the audience–that undermines any real risk.
The title track on what remains one of the best selling albums in history, “Thriller” evinces the ways in which Jackson and Jones figured out how to perfectly package and promote this tamed sexuality through their manipulation of sound. Sonically, the song (and other songs on Thriller such as “Beat It,” Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”) evokes the tantalizingly forbidden and yet makes it accessible. The infectiousness of “Thriller”‘s groove, along with the appeal of pop hook sung by Jackson’s unmistakable voice, threatens possession of the listener but always allows for her to “change that number on your dial.” Part of what made this music broadly appealing (aside from Jackson’s obvious talent) is its success at dissembling, avoiding the backlash against the figure of “the black beast” rapist while subconsciously evoking the fear of it.
But there is a price to be paid for this sonic disconnection. There was certainly something horrific in Jackson’s physical transformation in the years that followed his Thriller apogee. Could it be that MJ’s desire to further improve on this formula led to what Richard Middleton describes in his book, Voicing the Popular (2006): a change from black child star to a “simulacrum of white middle-class woman” (128)? The extremity of such camp collapsed on itself, allowing that sexual anxiety to flow back through the disconnect his “safe” persona was supposed to shore up. Whatever fear that the sexless sexiness of Michael Jackson was actually a cover for queerness was brought to the fore because he stood accused of molesting little boys, allowing for a depiction of monstrousness that works across both gender and racial lines (and also highlighting a difference in attitude from when girls are the victims).
Jackson’s fall from grace may have come in the form of molestation accusations, but it still provides insight into the long history of fear of black America and black music that still lingers, proving that the mainstream’s love can turn to suspicion, even hate, in a heartbeat. Jackson’s broad appeal narrowed significantly when there was even a chance he wasn’t the sexless figure he appeared to be. As James Baldwin, whose writing and social criticism was always focused on the intersection of race and sexuality in America, wrote in 1985’s “Here Be Dragons” in regards to the hysteria of Michael Jackson’s popularity:
The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. . . Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated–in the main, abominably–because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
I knew Whitney Houston’s voice before I knew her face. She was a constant record on deck in my house, setting off a family get together or a typical Saturday night at home where I begged to stay up a little bit longer to listen to records—for-real records, vinyl—like the grown folks. Houston’s voice represented ‘grown folks talking’ but had enough effervescence that I could relate to as girlish charm. Houston’s vocal range relayed feelings and representations of sugary sweet to straight, no chaser. She could sing about loving a married man—definitely grown folks’ business—but still maintain the innocence of a school girl crush. My mom and I would dance around our great room lip synching her songs, her asking me who I loved, me declaring my name was not Susan. It was Gina and Whitney Houston’s voice was magic. Alongside Michael Jackson, she was the playlist of my childhood.
Sadly, it was my mom and me again as we listened to Houston’s funeral on the radio. We were stuck in traffic. It had to be fate, me listening to Houston one last time in the same way we were introduced: through the radio. Listening to the funeral instead of watching it on television or as it streamed across the internet triggered a nostalgic ache for Houston in the pit of my stomach, returning me to the same place as a five-year-old child who fell in love with the pretty voice from those Saturday nights.
For me, listening to Houston’s records and funeral on the radio resituated Houston as a vocalist. Detached from Houston’s well-documented shortcomings, listening to her funeral removed the static of her life that filtered her mastery of song and sound. In the last years of her life, Houston’s image was far removed from her stellar singing career. Houston’s personal conflicts and battles situated her as a fallen celebrity, quickly associating her with ill fitting jokes of drug abuse and caricatures of her former glory. Removing Houston from her sonic legacy strips her of the complexities of her persona that she highlighted and acknowledged using her voice, or as Dr. Guthrie Ramsey points out, her “instrument.” It is important to note Houston attempted to make her way back to music, slowly creeping back into public spotlight as a vocalist instead of a wayside star. Celebrity overpowered Houston’s humanity and it is unfortunate that her funeral reclaimed it. Thus, sound provides a space for rehabilitating Houston’s bruised reputation, providing an alternative, nonparodic reading of her life.
While listening to Houston’s funeral, I realized the significance of her sonic legacy, a reaffirmation of Houston’s mastery of song and voice through unending playlists and funeral performances. The radio provided a sonic space of reconciliation between Houston and her fans, uninterrupted by the visual whirl and the busyness of pomp and circumstance of a televised celebrity funeral. By listening to Houston’s funeral, the radio became a discursive space of performance, simultaneously retaining and (re)shaping Houston’s iconicity using sound as favorable space of reflection. Strictly listening to the funeral situated the listener in a position to recontextualize Houston’s legacy within sonic discourse and think about her against a musical backdrop which she constructed.
In considering Houston as not only a music but cultural icon, one must understand the significance of her prominence as a singer. Her career maps the trajectory of a post-Civil Rights black (women’s) experience, framing struggles of seeking out and validating new black identity markers within situating herself as a ‘black voice.’ Her catalog blends the secular with the sacred, effortlessly moving between gospel and pop music, frequently collapsing and creating a complex humanity within sonic soundscapes often restricted by industry and consumers alike. It is around these hybrid sonic-scapes that Houston’s funeral revolved.
Also, Houston’s funeral negotiated reconsiderations of the black church in the current popular cultural imagination, personifying grief and healing through sound. In a word, Houston’s funeral “took folks to church.” On display were prominent tropes of black cultural and musical tradition, parlaying call and response between speakers and attendees and improvisation of performers. In particular, Kim Burrell’s redressing of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” caters on numerous levels to intersection of Houston’s narrative and the role of spirituality in her life. Burrell used her voice and spirituality as a reflection of Houston’s spirituality while dictating how Houston’s life and image are redirected through song. Burrell’s retelling of Houston’s life pivots off Cooke’s original song as an acknowledged site of struggle and redemption. She improvises Cooke’s song to align with Houston’s literal birth (“She was born in New Jersey”) and the understanding of spiritual rebirth and death (“a change gonna come”).
In similar fashion to a church revival, Burrell performs her rendition of “A Change Gonna Come” as a testimony, pulling from her audience’s familiarity with the intonations, vocal runs, and whines of Sam Cooke’s performance. Burrell’s ‘remixing’ of Cooke’s song is, to an extent, an innovative form of sampling. By borrowing the familiarity of Cooke’s sound, Burrell is able to create a new sonic accompaniment. Overarching tropes of faith and redemption hinged upon the black oral tradition are intensified through using them to aurally frame Houston’s funeral. By strictly hearing Houston’s funeral, the listener becomes privy to not only the intersections of the black church and oral traditions but the unique interventions of sound and identity frequently understated in visual culture and discourse.
A fitting close to Houston’s funeral was the recording of her popular rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Houston’s voice rang out in the perfect intonation that solidified her place in music and cultural history, situated as a fitting goodbye to fans and this world. The tenderness of Houston’s delivery personifies the somberness of her funeral, a self-eulogy that harnesses its power from not only the moment but the untimeliness of her death. Houston’s last performance of “I Will Always Love You” detaches her from the paparazzi and scandal that suffocated her life. It is through sound that Houston’s legacy is revived.
As my mother dabbed tears away from the corners of her eyes while listening to the funeral, I silently hoped she would ask me who I loved. I would tell her I wasn’t Susan. And that I loved Whitney.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).