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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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps giving you the good stuff, this week with SO! Regular Regina Bradley, making it rain. . . with some serious knowledge. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how might black women’s sexual freedom be manifested via sound? –-JS, Editor-in-Chief
At fifteen, while in church service, I learned how to clutch pearls after hearing a woman moan during the altar call.
It was not a “Jesus done found and saved me” moan, either. A friend forgot to turn his cell phone off for church. As the church prayed, his phone started to ring. It was not the usual digital beeping or quick calypso ring tone. His phone calls were annotated by a woman’s moan during sex. She moaned from his cell phone to pick up the call. Each ring the woman moaned louder and adamant until she hollered like she was just saved. The kids in the back snickered as the ushers – including my grandmother – silently and angrily screened each pew to see who would pick up the phone. Quaking church ladies and my grandmother’s wide-eyed glare and heaving chest suggested they were about to pass out from embarrassment. Wringing their white gloved hands and grabbing at their pearl necklaces in angst, they looked everywhere but at each other: the back of a man’s head, the cross at the front of the church, the stain glass windows. A flush of warmth entered my cheeks and neck as I tried to contain my laughter and creeping embarrassment. I was embarrassed for my grandmother and the ladies of the church because I was aware of the unspoken rule that women – especially middle-class black women – don’t do sex. Being embarrassed of sex is proper and “ladylike.”
Ashon Crawley’s contextualization of the praise and worship in Black Pentecostal church as a sonic public zone is useful for using sound to complicate the church as an erotic space. Crawley’s suggestion of sound as a “vessel. . .for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics” collapses the more tangible notions of gender and respectability via physical displays –i.e. the quaking church ladies and clutching pearls – to recognize the overlap of moaning as a marker of sexual joy, moaning as a form of praise and worship, and moaning as an indicator of shame. Crawley’s observations bring to mind Helga Crane’s run in with the storefront church in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. It is not the physical aspect of the church and its embodiment of respectability that draws Helga into the space. Rather, it is the singing, weeping, and moaning – the sonic elements of praise and worship–that parallel her own suppressed sexual frustrations. Her weeping is not necessarily a “come to Jesus moment” but rather a sonic release acknowledging her sexual agency.
Looking back at when this dude’s phone went off in church, I realize the bulk of discomfort in acknowledging sexual pleasure exists in how it sounds. The woman’s moan highlighted an alarming reality for the women at my church: pleasure was being presented outside of its respectable physical and sonic boundaries. I wish to identify what I call sonic pleasure politics to address new developments in 21st century southern gender identity politics. Sonic manifestations of pleasure point to a younger generation’s rearticulation of sexuality as a site of agency and self-definition in an otherwise suppressed southern experience.
As a southern black woman, I’ve always been struck by the anxiety sex and pleasure invoked in the women in my life. Sex and pleasure were never articulated in the same breath, as sex was a wifely duty and responsibility for procreation. Pleasure was never synonymous with sexual joy, even when I snatched whispers of conversation about sex from my elders. Moreover, I was taught that sex (or even an interest in it) would plummet my stock as a good girl and put me in the ranks of “fast-tailed” girls who used sex as a desperate plea for attention. Nope, sex – pleasurable sex – was always for men’s gratification. Aside from the abstinence manifesto – “just don’t do it, chile” – for women, enjoying sex was the devil’s work. Respectable sex was quiet, for marriage, and never discussed outside of the house.
Sound as a signifier of sexual pleasure is considered by many to be counterintuitive because of the history of sexual trauma associated with black women’s bodies in the south. Reading sex as a genesis point of southern black women’s pleasure and empowerment is a difficult undertaking. The forced silence of slave women’s rapes and other physical violence that took place on southern soil parallels the silence that is deemed to be necessary for survival in a racist society. Further, the far-reaching residual effects of black women’s inferred lacking virtue lurk in how black folks navigate their southern experience and identities. Conservative attitudes towards sex in the southern black community are no doubt associated with the constructed attempts to humanize and validate blacks outside of hypersexual scripted blackness.
However, the sonic dimension of sex and pleasure in the south goes largely without analysis even though sound is a primary space in which recognition of sexual and nonsexual pleasure takes place. Consider blues women and, more recently, women in [southern] hip hop culture. The sounds of women’s giggles and moans as representative of sexual pleasure in bass music and the heavy use of moaning in the work of Trina, Jacki-O, Khia, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and Missy Elliott points to a need to recognize sound as a reservoir of pleasure, raunchiness, and sexual work—what I call “sonic pleasure politics.”
Studies of sonic pleasure including those of Robin James contextualize pleasure via the technical production of sound to induce a particular set of cultural and visceral responses. However, I ground my theorization of sonic pleasure politics in the growing body of scholarship offered by the “Pleasure Ninjas” collective consisting of Joan Morgan, Brittney Cooper, Treva Lindsey, Kaila Story, Yaba Blay, and Esther Armah. They utilize pleasure as a site of healing and reclamation of black women’s identities. Morgan’s interrogation of pleasure as a form of survival, for example, is especially useful in thinking about how southern women’s sexuality stems from the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade. She suggests pleasure’s palpability as an alternative space to reclaim slaves’ humanity. The Pleasure Ninjas’ construction of pleasure lends credence to my theorization sonic pleasure politics as a space for mediating the historical implications of abusive sexual power and the use of sexual pleasure as a form of resistance in the south.
Situating women’s pleasure in southern hip hop is messy as it reflects both men’s investment in women as objects of pleasure – i.e. bass music – and women’s subversion of this expectation of their sexuality a way to express themselves. For example, Lil Wayne’s lyrical affirmation of his sexual prowess via cunnilingus in songs like “Pussy Monster,” “She Will,” and “Lollipop” parallels singer Joi’s demonstration of pleasure as a form of sexual consent via the use of (presumably her) moans and sounds of cunnilingus on her popular song “Lick.” Sonic pleasure politics become a workspace for bridging the south’s historical construction of [black] women’s sexuality-as-respectability and the recent, more fluid form of younger women’s embrace of sex-as-empowerment heard in southern popular culture.
Sonic Pleasure Politics and Strip Club Culture
A primary space for teasing out the multi-layered significance of sounds and sexuality in southern hip hop is the strip club. The production of sonic and visual representations of strip clubs are inextricably linked: bass heavy musical tracks keep time with the “clapping cheeks” of exotic dancers. Further, the loudness of the strip club denotes patrons’ attempts to drown out the world while pivoting off of the fantasy of sexy women dancing, moaning, and sexually gesturing for their entertainment. The dominance of strip clubs in southern hip hop contribute to the erotic map(s) of a younger generation of southern black women. My contextualization of strip clubs as a cartographic point of interest pivots off of Kaila Story’s description of erotic maps as an entry point for recognizing black women’s sexual agency. Erotic maps are the touchstones through which people address sexual pleasure. Story uses black women’s social-historical narratives to map out black women’s use of sexuality as a measure of self-definition. These maps are complex as they are intertwined with historical-cultural biases and cultural preferences frequently outside of black women’s experiences.
Strip club anthems, like Memphis rapper Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” riff on the sonic and physical components of strip club culture. The bass kicks complement what sounds like clapping hands, a signifier of strippers’ clapping butts. Juicy J talks at length about his love of the strip club, distinguishing between “real” and fake strip clubs by the amount of nakedness and strippers wrangling for high-paying patrons’ bands of money. The snapping sound of rubber bands holding wads of cash together authenticates the duality of the women’s sexual posturing as physically pleasurable for men and profitable – economically pleasurable – for women. “Bandz a Make Her Dance” is grounded in the appeal of strip clubs as spaces of empowerment for black men. From this perspective, the clapping heard across the track could also signify the snapping of rubber bands against money to sonically signify men’s power as a strip club patron. Yet the physical and sonic presence of black women’s bodies – i.e. grunting as they maneuver and climb the dancing pole – also makes strip club culture a useful space to pivot southernness and sonic pleasure.
An example of establishing black women’s sonic pleasure narratives in strip clubs is singer Rihanna’s panning of “Bandz a Make Her Dance” titled “Pour It Up.” Although Rihanna is a pop singer from the “Global” South, she sonically signifies if not subverts southern hip hop gender politics via sampling the instrumental from Juicy J’s record. The majority of “Pour It Up’s” instrumental accompaniment is a subdued if not washed out sample of “Bandz a Maker Dance” that helps highlight Rihanna’s voice. The clarity of Rihanna’s voice “garbles” the accompaniment in the sense it is background noise to her narrative of enjoying herself and taking pleasure in the bodies of other women present in the club. The accompaniment serves as a brief nod to Juicy J’s initial intentions of crafting the strip club as a sexual space but ultimately uses the track as a testament to her own pleasure narrative.
In particular, Rihanna’s sing-song holler before the chorus “All I see is signs…all I see is dollar signs,” points to a subversion of the hypermasculinity in strip club culture to establish her own pleasure in a similar space. Parallel to Juicy J’s indulging of exotic dancers via throwing bands of money, Rihanna enjoys herself at the strip club using other people’s money:
Strip clubs and dolla’ bills (Still got mo’ money)
Patron shots can I get a refill (Still got mo’ money)
Strippers going up and down that pole (Still got mo’ money)
4 o’clock and we ain’t going home (Still got mo’ money)
Bands make your girl go down (Still got mo’ money)
Lot more where that came from (Still got mo’ money)
In particular, Rihanna’s verse not only demonstrates an alternative viewpoint of black women’s bodies in the strip club but destabilizes the idea of the strip club – and intercedes on the understanding of southern hip hop – as a heternormative hypermasculine space. The line “bands make your girl go down” alludes to not only a possible sexual encounter by Rihanna or for the girl in question but doubly signifies upon the potential for pleasure via the strip club culture for women and the hypersexuality of Juicy J’s track. “Pour it Up” reflects the messiness of [southern] hip hop gender politics because it builds upon the reputation of the strip club as a site for men’s pleasure to excavate women’s dancing as pleasurable for their own purposes. In addition to Rihanna’s sonic signifying of strip club culture, the “Pour It Up” reveres pole dancing as an art form rather than an exploitative practice. Rihanna’s pleasure in watching the dancers perform parallels the exertion of joy – and consent – that the dancers exhibit in their movement.
Trekking back to the sexy moaning phone in church, the sonic cue of sexual pleasure and joy conflicted with the gender norms associated with southern black women’s identities. Consideration of sonic pleasure narratives stirs discussion of the unarticulated experiences of southern black womanhood that may be overlooked in favor or a larger, more conservative, and familiar narrative of sex as tool of victimization. Sonic pleasure politics makes room to remap the contemporary southern social-cultural landscape as a complex yet living space of cultural production and sexual freedom.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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