This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last week, Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture) introduced us to the sonic ratchetness of Baddie Bey; the week before you heard our Beyoncé roundtable podcast featuring our first two writers, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) and Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers)–as well as Courtney Marshall (English, University of New Hampshire) and Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), who will close out our series next week. Today, madison moore gives us not only great face but killer hair choreo. Mic drop. Hair flip.–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
“Which Beyoncé are you trying to do?,” a sale associate at Beauty Full, the largest beauty supply house in Richmond, Virginia, asked me. It was a good question, because the shop had whole rows of wigs and ponytails that conjured Beyoncé enough for what I needed to do. Choosing just one would be tough.
“This one is very Beyoncé,” he said, pointing to a style reminiscent of the huge, teased out curly Afro Beyoncé worked in the early 2000s. I wasn’t really feeling this particular style but I could tell my sales guy was living it. “It’s not fierce enough!” I told him. “I need something that really moves!” I’d been invited to give an hour-long lecture on Beyoncé at a university, one of my first gigs, and I was out at the last minute shopping for a wig to wear during my talk so that I could give the children a little sip of Beyoncé. That’s when I saw it: a long, black and dark brown two-toned wig with curls for eternity that I knew would look great on stage. Come on, wig!
I wanted to wear a wig “that really moves!” during this talk to demonstrate what I feel is the creative genius of Beyoncé’s performance persona: what I call “hair choreography.” Not unlike dance moves intended for the body, “hair choreography” is a mode of performance that uses hair to add visual drama to the overall texture of sound and it’s the special genius of Beyoncé’s stagecraft. On one occasion some friends and I were drinking wine and downing live Beyoncé videos on YouTube when one of us was like “I am living for her hair choreography!” I’m not sure we invented the concept but the phrase “hair choreography” has certainly stuck with me. Hair choreography is one of the secret weapons of the pop diva, those places in a live performance where she flips and whips her hair in exactly the right point, using “haircrobatics” to punctuate a moment, a feeling, raising the stakes, the sex appeal, and even the energy in the audience.
Hair choreography is exciting because it tells a story, but even more than telling a good story in performance “hair choreography” punctuates everything else happening on stage: the lights, the dance moves, the glitter, the sequins, the music. In this way, “hair choreography” becomes part of the spectacular offering of stage presence; a type of magnetism that, despite everything else happening on stage, draws us into a single performer – the star – whose single energy needs fill up the whole space. “Hair choreography” occurs in those moments of a live performance where the hair is flipped, whipped, dipped, spun and amplified during the most exciting, emotion-filled sounds and dance moves.
Even though many scholars still often approach them as separate practices, sound and motion are so fluidly entangled, as Jennifer Stoever has revealed. In this way, “hair choreography” builds on performance studies scholar Imani Kai Johnson’s call for the “aural-kinesthetic.” The “aural-kinesthetic” is not a method or a theory but simply a way for scholars to think about how music and movement happen at the same time. “Hair choreography” is about the relationship between sound, body and movement, and how each of those comes together to leave a visceral impact on an audience.
One video that shows the importance of hair choreography to Beyoncé’s package is her medley “If I Were A Boy/You Oughta Know,” a mélange of the soft hard rock her own track coupled up with the aggressive rock of Alanis Morissette’s iconic break-up jam of the same title. In the clip, as Beyoncé segues from “If I Were A Boy” into “You Oughta Know” the wind machines appear to blow her hair faster, and with every emotional note or beat she knocks her head to the side with attitude, forcing her straight hair with it. By the time Beyoncé sings “And I’m here, to remind you…,” the most emotional (and recognizable) transition of the song, the hair is already going full blast. Guitars and drums go off while strobe lights engulf the stage in a frenzy of chaos.
At “You, you, you oughta know” she falls to her knees and performs a choreographed head bang while sliding across the floor using only her knees. It’s important to note here that the singing has stopped because this is a moment of “hair choreography,” a transition indicating an impending change in mood.
Everyone loves Beyoncé’s hair. In her will the late comedian Joan Rivers requested “a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyoncé’s.” There are countless YouTube tutorials showing young girls how they too can achieve that Beyoncé look with weaves, wigs and lace fronts. Even the comedian Sommore, who stared in the 2001 film Queens of Comedy , had something to say about Beyoncé’s hair:
Beyoncé is a bad motherfucker. Oh this bitch bad. Let me tell ya’ll how bad this bitch is. I went to see her concert in Atlantic City after she had her baby. I sat in the second row – this bitch was flawless. I mean I’m talking about the bitch was flawless. Only problem I had with Beyoncé…she had on too much hair! This bitch came out she had at least 18 packs of hair on. She came out I thought the bitch was the cowardly lion from The Wiz. I’m sitting there in awe of this bitch neck, I’m like, “This bitch neck is strong as a motherfucker!”
All jokes aside, the mystery of Beyoncé’s hair-–and all of the technologies involved in keeping it moving–is part of the genius of her brand image, particularly because it works to make her ethnically ambiguous.. Having various types of hairstyles allows her creole body to infinitely play with race, and this makes her marketable to nearly everyone. Is she black? Is she Spanish? Is she biracial? Could she be Brazilian or from Latin America? Yes. In this way, her hair choreography not only punctuates her sound, but it shapes the very way it is heard, enabling her to morph into more personalities and fit into more demographics than even Lady Gaga or Madonna. It’s why she’s able to sound sexy or inspirational, “hood” or “classy,” vampy or masculine, vocal or dance-y. Look at a video like “XO,” to me the most mass-marketable song on BEYONCE. First of all she looks fabulous, but I think it’s hard to watch that video and not feel like it’s specifically pitched to 15-year-old white girls in Connecticut. Everything about the video, especially her sweeping hair flourishes, positions Beyoncé as relatable to teenage girls all over the US.
As dance studies scholar Melissa Blanco Borelli sees it the mulatta body engages with a practice she calls “Hip(g)nosis,” or a type of hypnosis enacted by the yellow-bodied performer on fascinated audiences. This type of hypnotics, via the hips, “exposes the male gaze” by thinking through the “pleasure and consumption of the mulatta…” (She Is Cuba, forthcoming, Oxford University Press). Through hip(g)nosis Beyoncé has learned to use her ambiguous skin color and hair optics to her (monetary) advantage as a way to slide in and out of ethnic categories. Indeed, what does the fact that she is the lightest member of Destiny’s Child and also the groups’ most successful member have to do with her celebrity? The irony in all of this race play is that she was recently awarded the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award after her jaw-dropping 15-minute performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, and she is one of the few contemporary black pop singers who can play with race in the same way Michael Jackson did.
When I watched her recent MTV VMA performance I screamed a lot during her show, but the one moment I remember specifically, and still keep rewinding back to, happened right at the end of “Mine,” to me the best track on BEYONCE. She vamps “MTV, Welcome to My World,” and quickly spins and flips that hair back around baby, giving face to the camera, making millions of queens all over America scream YAASSS!!! at the top of their lungs. Beyoncé herself nodded back to queer performance and performers during a performance of “XO” this year on February 28th 2014 at the O2 Arena in London, after one overzealous fan threw a wig at Beyoncé as she sauntered off the stage and into the crowd (3:17).
When she turned around to pick the wig up she ad libbed “You got me snatching wigs, snatching wigs” into her microphone, knowing perfectly well that “Beyoncé snatching wigs” is one of the most popular fan-created Internet memes. In black gay male performance culture people often talk about “snatching wigs” or “coming for your wig,” and to this end scholars like E. Patrick Johnson and Marlon Bailey have done important work in theorizing the interplay between black gay colloquialisms and performance. If you’re “snatching wigs” then you’re performing better than everybody else while completely eradicating the competition. You’re seemingly indefatigable. Snatching a wig means a particular performance was highly effective or unique, and a snatched wig implies how an audience might surrender itself to a strong performer, as was the case with the aforementioned wig thrower. Beyoncé definitely understands the power of stage presence; a type of magnetism that, despite everything else happening on stage, draws us into a single performer – the star – whose single energy needs fill up the whole space. Filling up an empty stage with a single body is a lot of space to fill if you think about it. And making an audience focus on you when there are 10,000 other things are happening around you is an even more challenging task.
But “snatching wigs” can also mean you’re revealing someone’s deepest secrets, something you know they’re hiding. What’s underneath a wig but a secret – your real hair texture, a bald spot you don’t want anyone else to know about. A snatched wig can mean a break of the illusion. When I wore that wig during my Beyoncé talk to demonstrate hair choreography everyone knew it was fake – I put it on in front of them – but if the wig came off the illusion would have been broken nonetheless.
Part of Beyoncé’s monumental fame has to do with the fact that while she synchronizes, punctuates, captivates, and performs, she never lets us see underneath her wig. She just lets it whip.
madison moore (Ph.D., American Studies, Yale University, 2012) is a research associate in the Department of English at King’s College London. Trained in performance studies and popular culture, madison is a DJ, writer and pop culture scholar with expertise in nightlife culture, fashion, queer studies, contemporary art and performance, alternative subcultures and urban aesthetics. He is a staff writer at Thought Catalog, Splice Today, and his other writing has appeared in Vice, Interview magazine, Art in America, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, the Journal of Popular Music Studies and Theater magazine. He is the author of the Thought Catalog original e-book How to Be Beyoncé. His first book, The Theory of the Fabulous Class, will be published by Yale University Press.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences–Karen Tongson and Sarah Kessler
– Yvon Bonefant
“New Wave Saved My Life*”-Wanda Alarcon
This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last Monday, you heard from Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) who read Beyoncé’s track “No Angel” against the New York Times’ reference to Michael Brown as #noangel. You will also hear from Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé). Today, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) gives us full Beyoncé realness, from TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again,–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
Less than six months after Beyoncé released Beyoncé, she was momentarily silenced on the small screen when the gossip site TMZ released silent elevator security footage of a fight between her famous husband and sister. Doubly framed by the black and white of a surveillance video screen surreptitiously captured on a security guard’s camera-phone, the video’s silence left plenty of room for speculation. But the footage also revealed a woman conscious that her life is on record: Beyoncé’s body seemed to elude the camera’s full view and she emerged from the elevator with a camera-ready smile.
Like Kevin Allred in his powerful reading of “No Angel,” I could not help but rethink Beyoncé in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. I already read Beyoncé as a sophisticated response to the visual and aural policing of black female bodies, but the closed-circuit images of Beyoncé on TMZ (and in Beyoncé) made me reconsider silence as a damning convention of video surveillance; like Aaron Trammell in “Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance,” I questioned (the lack of) sound as a technique of control. When the camera-phone recording of Kajieme Powell’s murder, photographed and narrated by a community member in real-time, was released with silent surveillance footage of the alleged theft, my appreciation of Beyoncé—as a response to those silent damnations—took a new turn.
“Resounding Silence and Surveillance” argues that Beyoncé returns the media’s visual-aural gaze. Because of its pop package, the album’s artistic composition and socio-cultural merit are often underestimated. Like the silence of surveillance footage, omitting any one sensory element from Beyoncé distorts the holistic meaning. To untangle this critically complex interplay of audio and video, I analyze the visualized song “Haunted” and briefly address the single “***Flawless” to show how the artist’s triple consciousness anchors Beyoncé. She is on to us: Beyoncé is the culmination of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her. Temporarily silenced by footage that she could not control, Beyoncé resounds that “elevator incident”—and our sonic/optic perceptions of her feminism—with a flawless remix.
“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,” declares Beyoncé. Her voiceover runs over the black screen that opens the promotional video “Self-Titled.” Released the same day Beyoncé premiered on iTunes, “Self-Titled” directs audiences to “see the whole vision of the album.” By design, Beyoncé is an immersive experience—like watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a television event on MTV.
Because Beyoncé was born the same year the cable music channel MTV premiered, she has never known a world without the ability to “see music.” In many ways, her visual album reinvigorates the early spirit of MTV: after Beyoncé, we will “never look at music the same way again.” Though music videos exacerbate the pop single obsession that Beyoncé explicitly resists with Beyoncé, they also produce a unique kinetic connection with the listener-viewer, whose experience of sound is visually registered by the body as it processes shots and edits. This is especially true when strong imagery, rhythmic editing, and dance movements are expertly employed, as in Beyoncé.
Beyoncé deftly critiques the beauty and music/media industries that have been central to her pop success. If taken piecemeal, these critiques can be easily dismissed: the sustained gloss of her image works all too well. There is much to say on a video-by-video basis, but I focus here on the specific aural elements of “Haunted” that articulate Beyoncé’s refusal of the music industry’s status quo. This visualized rejection reveals the layers of racism and sexism that nonwhite female artists (even Beyoncé, even today) must negotiate.
Because of my personal and professional interest in music videos, I consumed Beyoncé as she intended: a sequence of MPEG-4 videos rather than AAC audio files. But it was not until I solely listened to the album that I could discern Beyoncé’s maturation as a black female multimedia pop/culture artist. One refrain from “Haunted” was especially effective:
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you/ Onto you, you must be on to me
The song’s ethereal quality is amplified by Boots (Jordy Asher), one of Beyoncé’s (then-unknown) collaborators with whom she shares “Haunted”’s writing and producing credit. The track builds slowly, supporting Beyoncé’s “stream of consciousness” delivery with layers of reverberation and waves of synth sounds like “Soundtrack” or the Roland TR-808 kick drum. Punches of bass accelerate the beat until Beyoncé riffs her explicit desire to create something more than a product:
The music winds to a halt, but the song is not over. Breathy, reverberating vocals transition the track and a piano is delicately introduced:
It’s what you do, it’s what you see
I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me
It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you
Onto you, you must be on to me
At this point, the song “Haunted” is split into two videos: “Ghost” (directed by Pierre Debusschere) and “Haunted” (directed by Jonas Åkerlund). The videos’ visual differences exemplify the various points of view—from active subject to object of desire and back again—employed across Beyoncé. “Ghost”’s hypnotic visuals underscore the song’s sentiments: close-ups of Beyoncé’s immaculately lit visage soberly mouthing lyrics are intercut with medium shots of her still body swathed in floating fabric and wide shots of her athletic movements against sparse backgrounds. The ar/rhythmic cuts of “Ghost” enunciate an artistic dissatisfaction with the industry: visuals build against/with the synthetic beat, mixing Beyoncé’s kinetically intense movements with her deadpan delivery.
The fiery agency of “Ghost” sets up the chill of “Haunted,” a voyeuristic tour in which Beyoncé watches and is watched. The “knowing-ness” of her breathy refrain (“I know if I’m haunting you”) is heightened when the tempo accelerates in the song’s second half. There is much to say about “Haunted”—from the interracial family of atomic bomb mannequins to Beyoncé’s writhing boudoir choreography. Most significantly, she is the video’s voyeur and object of surveillance: her face appears on multiple television screens and her voyeur-character is regularly captured on closed-circuit footage. The “Haunted” video soundtrack features the foley and stinger sounds of a horror film, but these surveillance shots feature the low whirr of a film projector rather than silence. The silence of a moving image is so jarring that it compels us to watch differently, so much so that “silent” film scenes utilize a recorded sound of “nothing” (“room tone”) to focus the audience.
When Beyoncé finally resounded the silence of the “elevator incident,” she chose to do it through “***Flawless,” her explicit response to anti-feminist accusations. While the multifaceted anthem gained attention because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audio, the song is uniquely infused with a kind of docu-visuality thanks to Ed McMahon’s well-known voice and the Star Search jingle. These bookends cite a young Beyoncé losing to an all-male rock band, the kind heavily programmed during MTV’s early days. The clips reinforce the album’s critique of racial and gender hierarchies while questioning the double-edged “work ethic” required to surpass them. Of course, Beyoncé pre-emptively frames this discussion for us in “Self-Titled,” a necessary step that helps audiences appreciate the many moving parts of her tour de force, including her creative business mind.So when Beyoncé swapped the audio of Adichie and McMahon for Nicki Minaj, it was no less of a feminist move. Instead, Beyoncé silences TMZ gawkers:
She then offers herself as a medium of empowerment. Beyoncé may be part of a billion-dollar empire, but she willingly shares that pleasure with us:
I wake up looking this good
And I wouldn’t change it if I could
(If I could, if I, if I, could)
And you can say what you want, I’m the shit
(What you want I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
(I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
I want everyone to feel like this tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn!
Beyoncé’s last word is an image. She and her creative team remixed the visuals of the “elevator incident”: the remix single website features black and white photos of Beyoncé and Minaj, simultaneously evoking surveillance footage and the photo booth images of a girls’ night out. Beyoncé is the work of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her: this minor moment exemplifies Beyoncé’s multimedia resonance as an artist whose power is visible and audible across iTunes and TMZ screens alike.
Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson, Charise Cheney, Loren Kajikawa, André Sirois and Jennifer Stoever for providing research and intellectual support for this essay
Priscilla Peña Ovalle is the Associate Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. After studying film and interactive media production at Emerson College, she received her PhD from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television while collaborating with the Labyrinth Project at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She has written on MTV, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyoncé. Her book, Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2011), addresses the symbolic connection between dance and the racialized sexuality of Latinas in popular culture. Her next research project explores the historical, industrial, and cultural function of hair in mainstream film and television. You can find her work in American Quarterly, Theatre Journal, and Women & Performance.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of “Latina-ness”-Priscilla Peña Ovalle
Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences–Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson
*The title of this piece is inspired by the short story, “Minnie Riperton Saved My Life,” by the poet & playwright, Luis Alfaro.
I watch you breathe,
I cannot sleep,
I touch your hair,
I kiss your skin,
And hope the morning sun won’t wake you too soon.
For when you wake,
and look at me,
You never know,
you just might see,
Another boy who crept in your room…
Take your time…(that’s what you told me),
Take your time…
But I fell head first, and I just don’t know what to do
—“Nothing Looks the Same in the Light,” Wham!
I was a teenager in the 80’s. I grew up in South East Los Angeles, Huntington Park, to be exact, H.P. for short—home of the Huntington Park Senior High Spartans and the local after game hangout, Spartan Burgers. In those years, almost everyone in my school was Mexican and most kids were either preppy or cholos or Florentine Gardens disco-types—almost no one was “alternative.” That is, until we caught our first glimpse of Boy George on Video One with Richard Blade – that MTV style video show that came before MTV. If you remember, or have YouTubed it recently, a key scene in the video for Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” begins with Boy George stepping out of a swimming pool, fully clothed and dry (a lo-tech effect even by 80’s standards), wearing a flowing tunic, white-boy dreadlocks, and expertly applied makeup. I remember being instantly fascinated watching him dance to a reggae beat and hearing him sing so longingly about a mysterious “you.” I had never seen anyone who looked or sounded like that before, and I went from listening to my brothers’ heavy metal records, my mom’s cumbias, and my grandpa’s Beethovens to listening to Culture Club, Eurythmics, Wham!, and Bow Wow Wow almost overnight.
Soon after, I started noticing in my neighborhood sprinklings of pink, purple and green hair, spikey egg white mohawks, brown boys in skirts and makeup, and the girls from St. Mathias High wearing black chunky combat boots with their proper, pleated, Catholic school uniforms–my personal favorite look. And when I bought my very own first pair of 8-hole lace-up Doc Marten’s, I was forever transformed. I sensed that crossing fashion lines somehow meant crossing other lines too, although, I was perhaps I bit too young to really cross anything. As a questioning adolescent, I embraced the freedom that music, fashion, and expression represented. It’s strange to think about how such a global phenomenon took shape in my little eastside town. That time of 80’s new wave, the “Second British Invasion,” told me something about who I would become. I learned fearlessness from the bold and transgressive acts of fashion and wit my favorite gender bending pop stars regularly deployed on American network TV. And I learned to “tune in” to the sexually ambiguous language of songs like “Time Clock of the Heart” or “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light.” All of those blurred lines felt “normal” to me. And it meant later on that I didn’t have to have an identity crisis when I was coming out. And I really didn’t. I didn’t really think about “identity” in this way again until much later.
I’m only sad in a natural way
And I enjoy sometimes feeling this way
The gift you gave is desire
The match that started my fire
—“The Paris Match,” The Style Council
As I copy and sometimes re-purchase 25-year old lost albums for my new e-music library, I’ve started to wonder about some of my musical choices. Why did I still like what I liked? How do I trace my musical habitus? Culture Club, George Michael, The Style Council – they’re all on my iPod right now. And I ask myself, is my musical taste really so wrapped up in what I perceived to be my pop idols’ alternative sexuality so long ago? In this post-gender, post-queer, post-race (rhetorically speaking), trans-border era, is there even such a thing as “alternative” anymore?
Because when I listen to those old songs now, part of me still “hears” the skillful crossing of gender lines in every ambiguously phrased lyric, like the Pet Shop Boys’ clever line, “Which do you choose, a hard of soft option?” And I recall vivid images of Annie Lennox at once crossing and keeping those lines in the video for “Who’s That Girl?” which ends with an impossibly queer kiss. (She queered the Lacanian mirror long before Black Swan!) I still sense how all of these wildly public expressions of queer desire, with all of its spectacle and taboo, flowed into my childhood home through the sturdy Zenith television set that brought us together to “listen” to music anew. And this kind of hearing has to do with a particular way of remembering my adolescence – the memory of how felt for the first time to hear those songs and see the images of Boy George winking his long painted lashes at the video camera, seriously putting pressure on the word “Boy”; or seeing George Michael dancing with Andrew Ridgley in the macho ditty “Wham Rap”, their two beautiful and stylish female band mates conspicuously superfluous in that dance. And also remembering how the combined effect put something like the question about boys on hold for me in a really powerful way. There were options out there, is what I understood, and that was all I needed to survive – to save my queer soul.
Don’t make me feel any colder
Time is like a clock in my heart
Touch we touch, was the heat too much?
I felt I lost you from the start
In time it could have been so much more
The time is precious I know
In time it could have been so much more
The time has nothing to show because
Time won’t give me time
And time makes lovers feel like they’ve got something real
But you and me we know they’ve got nothing but time
–“Time Clock of the Heart,” Culture Club
But I also detect another kind of crossing, or rather, multiple crossings in those same songs. Somewhere between the funk inspired bass line of “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light” and the soulful oohs and ahs of Helen Terry’s backup vocals in “Time Clock of the Heart,” I sense this music also crossed a race and a class line, however precariously treaded. From the perspective of a young, working class Chicana, quickly interested in all things British and gay, it seemed to me that these young white British boys took up a mic and pen and left their own working class accents behind for the promise of America. Clearly raised on a diet of soul and R&B, their eventual collaborations with Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, and Mary J. Blige – American musical royalty – seemed only natural on the Grammy stage. And I wondered in my youthful, pop star fantasies, how did they feel when they learned they could sing like that? What did it mean to be queer and black at the same time? Musically speaking. What was the bigger transgression? Because the 80’s were deadly years for many of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, who were confronted with the authority of the lines drawn by Reagan, Thatcher, and AIDS. Maybe the transgression is to survive. And to remember.
Listening as an adult now to George Michael’s greatest hits collection Twenty Five, it is easy to see that there is no longer any doubt about his sexual orientation. In songs like “An Easier Affair,” he celebrates that he’s “dancing with the freaks now/I’m having so much fun/I do my dance with everyone.” So I wonder, when your pop idols sex lives stop being curiosities or taboo, what still fascinates? Even their notorious falls from grace, and their celebrated “come backs” didn’t really provoke the public imagination in the same way again. But I detect there are still clues in the music. In his brilliant cover of “Feeling Good,” George Michael pays humble homage to Nina Simone saying: “It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life, it’s a new low/Oh we all know it’s too much to expect a man, a white man, to do it like Nina” (my emphasis). That simple musical gesture, a crossing of many sorts, tells me something about what she means to him. And I think that it has ever been and ever will be music that will save our collective souls… I was seventeen when I left HP for a much larger Los Angeles. In some ways I was too young to leave home and sometimes I thought that I didn’t survive some things that came my way. But I always had a song to guide me and show me something new–a different way. I know I’ll never fully rebuild my archive on something like iTunes. But as I contemplate my growing digital library, I really do believe that new wave saved my life.
The recent New Year brought back some slightly embarrassing memories of past ball-droppings, 1999 in particular. That was the year, you’ll remember, when the world as we know it was to end due to all the clocks in all computers reading 0000 instead of 2000 – nuclear plants were to implode, bank accounts would be scrambled and a month later, the world would resemble some scene from The Road Warrior. I’ll fess up. I bought into the Y2K hype hook-line-and-sinker. I hunkered down in my living room with some old friends playing Risk that New Year’s Eve, I awaited an event of cataclysmic proportions. As the countdown droned on TV, it seemed every dice roll took me one step closer to the end . . . 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Upon zero, nothing changed and anxiety slowly began to leak from my body. Sting appeared on TV and introduced the new millennium with his jazzy “Brand New Day.” With lyrics about time and second chances, I grew to associate the song with a sense of profound relief. No matter how hokey Stings lyrics were (he uses the term “fuddy-duddy” at one point), “Brand New Day” will forever remind me of second-chances and possibility. Part of a clever advertising coup designed to reinvigorate Sting’s flagging career, the gospel tropes used in “Brand New Day” fit as a discursive response to the apocryphal (and apocalyptic) conversations circulating about Y2K at the time.
The history of technology is filled with utopian and dystopian visions of the future. Famously depicted in Apple’s “1984” commercial, the technocratic American narrative (Think Reaganomics) goes something like this: While developments in technology can allow for an increased sense of autonomy and individuality, they are unerringly used for evil. This evil strongly resembles a stereotypical Soviet culture where individuality is sacrificed for the good of the collective whole. Therefore, good technology promotes the individual while evil technology supports the collective.
If this seems a little heavy handed, it should be noted that the whole endeavor of mass computing has its roots in American Cold War history. After the atomic catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vannevar Bush, then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, predicted the Internet with the “memex machine” in his article to The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Written to an unassuming audience, Bush suggests the destructive potential of atomic weaponry heralded a concrete limit to traditional methods of warfare, because of this the next battlefronts would be informatic. Y2K is a dystopic variation on this theme, atomic blow up by-way-of nuclear power had even become incorporated into some of its myths. These myths were a fantasy, to be sure, but they were rooted in the collective fears of a confused and dysphoric America, an America which had recently overcome Communism and lauded its rapidly developing technological sector as a new source of economic capital on the world stage. Y2K was scary because it played on a cultural fear of technology, which was paradoxically one of America’s key exports at the time.
It is an interesting contrast between the cultural environment of post-Cold War America and the loose backup calls of “brand new day,” with its rhythmic pleas to “stand up!” increasing in frequency and intensity as the song continues. Though the song has nothing to do with Y2K, or even technology, its position as a televised event after the ball dropped December 31, 1999, had solidified it forever in my imagination as a spiritual reaction to the technological paranoia of the time. Sting conveys a baptism narrative; as a country we had mysteriously been absolved of our technocratic sins. I was (and am) a believer. As I sit writing this on my iMac, I consider the many marketing strategies Apple has used in the last decade to convince me of the ways their software and hardware could define me as an individual. Sting redeems the pursuit of individuality through the use of gospel tropes. Instead of an almighty passing the judgement of heaven or hell, a technocratic neoliberal economy threatened the wrath of Y2K to nonbelievers at the turn of the millennium. As the proverbial gates to a new era of prosperity opened, Sting climbed higher in falsetto, “Stand up and be counted every boy and girl/Stand up all you lovers in the world/We’re starting up a brand new day.”
This year, as I watched a web steam of the ball drop January 31, 2010, I was able to later navigate to the MTV website and enjoy a Flaming Lips concert in Oklahoma City live from my computer. In this transition, something struck me. The potentials of computing, particularly video and sound editing (iMovie, Garageband and their disseminatory middle-man YouTube) still rely on an earlier Cold-War rhetoric of individualism and creative innovation to express the potential strengths of technology. Meanwhile any sense of collective ritual is set to the whim of a mouse-click, from New York to Oklahoma in a heartbeat. These new rituals compete with the old in a new context of hyper-individuality; ironically “Brand New Day” has become stuck once more in my head, as it has been routinely on New Years for the past 10 years. From these changes in collective ritual, what will it mean to celebrate the new year in 2011?