Some of the most popular early 21st century feminist approaches to pop culture are rooted in a collapse of visual and aural representations. For example, though Disney princesses have become visibly more diverse and realistic, linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer have compiled data showing that women characters in Disney princess films speak less in films released between 1989-1999 than they did in films released in the 1930s-1950s. Writing in Noisey in 2015, Emma Garland wonders whether we “have created an environment in which female artists are being judged only on their feminism.” Both in her own analysis and in the thinkpieces she references, that judgment addresses the verbal content of song lyrics or artists’ public statements and the visual content of music videos. Noting that “a lengthy Google search will drag up hundreds of editorial pieces about the [Rihanna’s] ‘BBHMM’ video” (The Guardian alone hosts six), but barely any reviews of the actual song, Garland illustrates just how much feminist analysis of pop music skews to the visual and away from sound and music. Popular post-feminist analysis focuses on the visual and verbal because of the influence of law and legal theory on 20th century American feminism. However, in post-feminist pop, the sound lets in the very same problems the lyrics and visuals claim to have solved.
In her article “Liberal Feminism From Law To Art,” L. Ryan Musgrave argues, “many early feminist accounts of how art is political depend largely on a distinctly liberal version of politics” (214). This is a classical contractarian liberalism where “equality meant equality before the law…[and] democratic representation in a state” (214). Legally, these principles inform foundational liberal values like freedom of speech (e.g., the First Amendment to the US Constitution) and equality of opportunity (e.g., the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution). 20th century feminist artists and art scholars translated these legal principles into ideas about how art should be made and interpreted. According to Musgrave, the political principle of free speech is translated into an aesthetic principle of “free expression…we should celebrate in order to be inclusive, straightforward expressions of either one’s individual experience or one’s identity as a member of an historically disenfranchised group” (223). This type of feminist aesthetics sought to counter the tendency to silence, ignore, trivialize, and censor women’s art.
In pop music, liberal feminism informs discussions of the marginalization of women artists in a particular genre, or celebrations of women’s self-expression, like ‘90s “girl power” and “revolution girl style now” aesthetics. As an aesthetic principle, equality of opportunity manifests as a two-pronged commitment to non-exploitative modes of production and to representational accuracy: women should not be objectified by or excluded from artistic practice, and they should be truthfully, realistically depicted in art (Musgrave 220). Pop and hip hop feminisms often appeal to this type of feminism, generally in discussions of women’s bodies: were women objectified in the video-making process? Do they appear on screen only as objects? Do the images of women accurately depict “real” women, or are they unrealistic images of too-thin, too-blonde ideals?
With its commitments to free speech and equality of opportunity, mainstream Anglo-American feminist aesthetics translates liberalism’s concept of political representation into a concept of aesthetic representation. The outcome of this translation is a “realism focused on the content of artworks” (Musgrave 223; emphasis mine) and “the conviction that it is the job of art or creative work to get it right, to show how it ‘really’ is, to come clean of previously incorrect and ideologically weighted images” (226). A feminist aesthetics focused primarily on the representational content of artworks and the subjectivity (or objectification) of artists translates classical liberalism’s ideas of what politics, injustice, and equality are into artistic terms.
Meghan Trainor’s infamous “All About That Bass” and “Dear Future Husband,” Lilly Allen’s “Hard Out Here,” and even Usher’s “I Don’t Mind” are recent examples of songs that trade in equality of opportunity-style liberal feminism. For example, “All About That Bass” and “Hard Out Here” address a disjoint between how women are portrayed in the media and how they “really” look. “Dear Future Husband” and “I Don’t Mind” are about (partnered, heterosexual) women’s entitlement to work, even sex work. Both of these approaches share the underlying assumption, drawn from liberalism, that art re-presents reality in the same way a vote re-presents a citizen’s will or an elected representative re-presents the will of their constituents: accurately and truthfully, in the sense of truth as correspondence between statement and fact, signifier and signified.
Within a liberal feminist framework, sound can only be political if it has a representational content that depicts or expresses a subject’s voice or identity. This is why post-feminist approaches to pop music overlook sound and music: requiring attention to things like formal relationships, pattern repetition and development, the interaction among voices and timbres, and, well, structure, they don’t fit into liberalism’s understanding of what politics is and how it works. But because the music part of Anglo-American pop music always does more than this, it has political effects that this liberal feminist framework can’t perceive as political, or as having to do with gender (or race).
This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, this emphasis on the visual to the exclusion of sound opens a space for radical and subcultural politics within the mainstream. For example, as Regina Bradley has argued here at Sounding Out!, Beyoncé uses sound to move outside the politics of respectability that her visual image often reinforces. On the other hand, it creates a back door through which white supremacist patriarchy can sneak in. This is the same back door that all liberalisms have, the back door that lets substantive inequality pass as equality before the law and/or the market (Falguni Sheth, Charles Mills, and Carole Pateman talk extensively about this).
Popular post-feminist pop refers back to liberal aesthetics in order to establish its “post-”ness, that is, to show that the problems liberal feminism identified are things in its and our past. For example, inaccurate representation and objectification or silencing are precisely the things that the contemporary pop examples I cited claim to have fixed: Trainor and Allen accurately represent “real” women, and Usher’s song talks about a stripper as an empowered (near) equal rather than an object. However, the sounds in these songs tell different stories; they make white supremacist patriarchy entirely present.
Usher’s “I Don’t Mind” uses sound to straighten out some of the ratchetness in hip hop sexuaility. L.H. Stallings’s “Hip Hop & the Black Ratchet Imagination” argues that
the strip club genre and the hip hop strip club also develop as a result of the unacknowledged presence of 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. Moreover, when woman is undone in this way, we note the potential for such undoing to temporarily queer men.” (138)
Though it’s conventional to see women strippers and their male rapper audience in terms of heterosexual desire and normativity, the dancers’ use of black dance performance traditions and aesthetics displace scripts of femininity and put their bodily gender performance in transition. And because “this is what rappers get caught up in–the fantasy of woman whose origin is in the female dancers’ undoing of woman,” (138), this fantasy also undoes them as “men.” The dancers’ performances are a type of “corporeal orature” (138) that puts outwardly heteropatriarchal gender and sexuality in transition, bending it away from respectability (the reproduction and transmission of wealth, property, and non-deviance qua whiteness) and toward ratchet.
The booty clap synth patch is one way this corporeal orature gets translated into sounds. It’s a particular variation on the hand-clap drum machine sound, and it translates the “booty clap” dance move and the rhythm of twerking into music. Following the dancers’ rhythm, the patch is usually used in a four-on-the-floor pattern, as for example in Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance.” Featuring Juicy J as the misogynist foil to Usher’s progressive nice guy, “I Don’t Mind” is easy to hear as a direct response to “Bandz.” Like “Bandz,” “I Don’t Mind” is a song about men’s desire for strippers. However, “I Don’t Mind” straightens that desire out and classes it up by rewriting–indeed, erasing–the corporeal orature translated into the 4/4 booty-clap synth rhythm. Throughout “I Don’t Mind” that same synth patch is used on beats 2 and 4; it takes a “ratchet” sound and translates it into very respectable, traditional R&B rhythmic terms. Sound is the back door that lets very traditional gender and sexual politics sneak in to undermine some nominally progressive, feminist lyrics.
Sound plays a similar role in much of Meghan Trainor’s work. In “Dear Future Husband,” she sings apparently feminist lyrics about economic and sexual empowerment over do-wop, a backing track that sounds straight out of an episode of Happy Days (a 1970s TV program about 1950s nostalgia). Similarly, “All About That Bass” puts lyrics about positive body image over a very retro bassline that has more in common with the bassline in the theme song to David Simon’s New Orleans series Treme than it does with the bass in either Iggy Azalea’s “Black Widow” or Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”—two of the other singles consistently in the top five slots during “All About That Bass’s” weeks-long dominance of the Billboard Hot 100 in fall 2014.
Especially after the success of 2014’s “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, this retromania isn’t unusual. But few pop songs look back as far as these post-feminist songs do, to the 1950s and even earlier. Appealing to pre-Civil Rights era sounds, these songs double down on the racialized sexual normalcy of white women’s performances of post-feminist empowerment. “Dear Future Husband,” “All About That Bass,” and “Marvin Gaye” (Trainor’s collaboration with Charlie Puth) all take rhythms, timbres, and genre conventions appropriated from black pop music, but which have, over half a century, been assimilated to bourgeois respectability. They recall Grease more so than Little Richard.
For example, James Shotwell describes “Marvin Gaye” as taking “an innocent approach to talking about sex, with accompaniment that is straight out of your grandma’s favorite sock hop memories…Just like how Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have made a mint in recent years with a revitalization of funk ethos, Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth are now doing the same for pop, only with less risk.” “Marvin Gaye” sounds less sexually risky because it recalls what, for whites, was a more racially “innocent” time, a pre-Civil Rights era when white ears could more easily avoid the sounds of black radical politics in either James Brown’s funk or Gaye’s soul. In “Marvin Gaye,” old-school sounds evoke a time when society was organized by the same sort of comparatively simple racial politics that organize the song itself. For example, its bridge follows the trap convention of using a male-chorus “Hey!” on the 2 and 4 of every measure. Its verses, however, put that same “Hey!” patch only on 4. Sounds evoke racial non-whiteness to generate tension, but then resolve that tension sonically. Definitive sonic resolution shuts down the transitional effect ratchet sounds, like those heard in the bridge, can have on sexuality and gender.
In “Marvin Gaye” and the other retromanical post-feminist pop songs, sounds do the white supremacist patriarchal work the lyrics and videos claim to have progressed past. Even though these women’s speech and appearance are outside the bounds of traditional femininity, the sounds reassure us that this newfangled gender performance isn’t racially and sexually deviant, that it isn’t “ratchet” in Stallings’ sense. Using liberalism to define the paramaters of political (in)justice, contemporary post-feminist aesthetics focus our attention and effort on verbal content and visual mimesis; this creates an opening for sound and music to either destabilize or double down on normative gender, sexual, and racial performance. As the “Marvin Gaye” example shows, this opening is an essential component of neoliberal post-feminism: sound recodes white women’s transgressions of traditional femininity as racially and sexually normal.
Featured image: “mannequin head on concrete with headphones” from Flickr user J E Theriot, (CC BY 2.0)
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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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.