Tag Archive | pop music

Benefit Concerts and the Sound of Self-Care in Pop Music

Less than two weeks after a suicide bombing killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert, the singer was back on stage in the city. She capped her three-hour One Love Manchester benefit concert with the 2015 single, “One Last Time,” which had found its way back into the UK Singles chart in the days following the blast. It was technically a solo performance, but Grande was joined on stage by the many artists who had already held the mic that day. At one point she was too overwhelmed to sing, and the audience took over for her. Grande’s occasional loss of voice is moving to watch. Throughout the concert, she would frequently struggle to speak, mostly sticking to short introductions of singers and a variation of “Thanks for being here; I love you so much,” her voice often cracking or sounding uncharacteristically pinched, the tears barely held at bay. Until “One Last Time,” she could always find her full voice through song, but as dusk settled on the city and the concert drew to a close, Grande could no longer sing through the weight of the moment, so the community she’d called together so she could “see and hold and uplift” them lifted her.

Benefit concerts and the products surrounding them—as well as the critiques that target them—have become familiar fare since the 1984 Band Aid recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” spun off to form 1985’s Live Aid, a multi-site concert event complete with commemorative souvenirs and the performance of the USA For Africa single, “We Are the World.” Skeptical accounts of benefit concerts fall like crumbs from Marx’s beard: they’re capitalism deployed as band-aids on problems capitalism created; they’re opportunities for celebrities to enhance their brands; they’re colonial; they’re neo-colonial; they’re exaggerated performances of wokeness intended to absolve people of their complicity in systems of violence. As communal rituals in response to tragedy, though, benefit concerts also function as metaphorical keystones that hold the tension of competing emotions, politics, and sounds. Listening to music emerges as a form of self-care, but that act may not sound the same for different people. Looking at the case of Grande’s One Love Manchester, I will map self care in the context of this contemporary moment by filtering the Manchester concert through Cheryl Lousley’s feminist analysis of benefit concerts (2014). Specifically, in order to highlight what’s different about One Love Manchester, I’ll start with Lousley’s attention to the way feminized compassion is performed through benefit concerts as an outward-facing love. Here, Grande performs the same kind of feminized compassion but shifts the focus of the benefit to an inward self-care. But not all selves experience care or self-care the same way. I’ll end by listening to Grande’s “One Last Time” alongside Solange Knowles’s “Borderline” (2016) in an effort to situate those sounds in contemporary politics that shape who has access to what kind of care.

Screenshot from 1984’s Band Aid song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Cheryl Lousley, in “With Love from Band Aid: Sentimental Exchange, Affective Economies, and Popular Globalism,” grants that benefit concerts aren’t just about fake feeling, but she doesn’t lose sight of capitalist and imperialist critiques. For her, benefit concerts are events “where feeling is validated, where space is made for feeling.” For her, if we allow that participants (whether organizers, performers, audiences) can be aware of the capitalism-fueled problems of benefit concerts but choose to be involved with them anyway, then we can access further dimensions of cultural analysis. In Lousley’s case, that includes gender and emotion, as she keys in on how the performance of feminized compassion and love creates an “affective economy” of “feeling too much.” When confronted with tragedy enormous enough to press the limits of the social imaginary, society looks for somewhere to put their big feelings and turn them into some kind of action. Benefit concerts like Live Aid invoke a moral imperative to give of one’s own wealth to someone who needs it, a public moral activism Lousley grounds in feminized emotional labor, a gendered compassion that extends to the entire nation. She demonstrates that public Anglophone discourse surrounding the Ethiopian famine leading up to Live Aid revolved around domestic scenes of feminized affect performed across gender boundaries. The affect of Live Aid, then, included a gendered performance of love and compassion turned outward, and this has been the template for numerous benefit concerts since, including Farm Aid (1985), Concert for New York City (2001), and Hope for Haiti Now (2010), among others.

The announcement of Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester echoes Lousley’s idea of the benefit concert as a gendered performance of love and compassion. A skim of her Twitter post (which is a picture of a message longer than 140 characters) announcing the event reveals emotive terms and phrases throughout. Grande offers sympathy, compassion, admiration, solidarity, and, importantly, music, the latter in the form of a concert where she and her fans can feel too much together. What’s different about Grande’s benefit concert, though, is that it’s pitched not as an outward demonstration of compassion for others, but as an inward compassion for one’s self, what I call here “self-care”:

From the day we started putting the Dangerous Woman tour together, I said that this show, more than anything else, was intended to be a safe space for my fans. A place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves…[The bombing] will not change that.

At the concert we can hear Grande model self-care for her audience as she struggles to maintain her composure and then gathers it through song, performing for herself the same kind of care she wants concert attendees to extend to themselves and their city.

Analyses and critiques of self-care generally start with Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” then contextualize how this quote functions for Lorde, a queer woman of color, differently than it does for the white women who have become the faces and consumers of #selfcare. Caring for one’s self when the world wishes to marginalize and destroy you is, indeed, warfare. And while white women suffer at the hands of the patriarchy, the long history of feminist movements also reveals that white women not only have access to privilege and resources unavailable to women of color, but also that they have wielded that privilege in ways that further marginalize and harm women of color. In other words, self-care means something different based on who the self is and—and Sara Ahmed has outlined this in characteristically brilliant termswho else will show up to care for you. Intersectionality shows us that queer people and women of color and people with disabilities often must perform self-care because the world is not organized to care for them. “For those who have to insist they matter to matter,” Ahmed writes, “self-care is warfare,” a necessity for survival. What I want to explore below is how self-care can sound different based on who the self is and whether that self must “insist they matter to matter.”

Ariana Grande’s performance of “One Last Time” at One Love Manchester presents self-care for a self who also receives support from others. Here, Grande mirrors the collaborative nature of Live Aid by performing alongside other pop stars whose presence—confirmed relatively last-minute, almost certainly with a degree of effort to rearrange busy schedules, and without the usual compensation for their performance—tells Manchester and those harmed by the bombing that they matter. For “One Last Time,” many voices join together to provide “a safe space for [Grande’s] fans” to take care of themselves, and they, in turn, are able to take care of Grande when her voice escapes her. The underlying theme of many critiques of white feminist self-care is that it is frivolous, a market-driven excuse to indulge, a selfish pursuit of happiness for happiness’s sake. And sure, as with benefit concerts, capitalism is a big problem here, and sometimes we call something self-care when it really is just self-indulgence. But I’d like to suggest we can make a finer distinction that doesn’t require the oversimplification that comes with divvying up some actions or products as care and others as indulgence (or: Schick’s self-care marketing of a razor may be exploitative at the very same time the razor actually functions as a form of self-care for some), and this is one reason I find the One Love Manchester concert compelling. Manchester and the survivors of the blast and Ariana Grande and her touring team could absolutely use the safe space the concert is trying to create. As Lousley reminds us, the performed compassion of benefits isn’t simply fake feeling; the trauma Grande and the city and her fans experienced was real, and it’s especially audible in the moments Grande’s voice is pinched off mid-lyric. Let’s consider others who could use the safe space One Love Manchester is trying to create: victims of bombings and terror throughout the world. The music industry isn’t as eager to remind them that they matter. Self-care, it turns out, is easier for some to perform because the world is literally willing to invest in the care of those selves.

By contrast, Solange Knowles’s “Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care)” (from her 2016 album A Seat At The Table) is lyrically rooted in the black feminist work of community organizing and activism. The  singer explains to her lover that she needs a night off so that she can have the resolve to go back out to the “borderline” and fight again. Self-care as warfare, indeed. The singer’s self-care has more than one purpose: it’s a time to remind herself that she matters, and it’s a time to restore the energy needed to go out and insist that her community matters. Instead of a bevy of pop stars lending their voices to create a safe space for her or an audience of adoring and grateful fans ready to take over if she can’t, Solange’s “Borderline” calls forth a more intimate setting. She multitracks her voice so that she collaborates and harmonizes with herself, with a faint doubling on the hook from Q-Tip, who is turned down in the mix and following Solange’s lead. “Borderline” is a mostly solo act of self-preservation that enables the singer to go out and create safe spaces for others.

This inward-to-outward focus of self-care is evident in the instrumentation. After a smooth piano-and-bass duet in the introduction, the kick drum enters at the 0:28 mark, overblown and rough around the edges. The effect sounds like oversaturation, where the signal’s gain is driven so that we lose some of the fidelity of its lower frequencies. This effect gives the kick a brighter timbre as the higher frequency overtones shine through and also muddies the lower frequencies so that they sound as if you’ve blown your car speakers and are getting noise in the mix that isn’t supposed to be there. The drum kit also includes a white noise sound (think “tsshhh”) that hits on the upbeat of the first, third, and fourth beats of each measure, joining the kick drum in creating a generally rough texture. This texture stands out because it sounds imperfectly mixed, like a sound engineer who messed something up. I hear in this a sonification of what Solange describes in her lyrics – a world that has frayed her edges, a world at war with her, a world disinterested at its best and hostile at its worst to the idea of her preservation. Hence, she pleas to retreat and preserve her own self.

“Solange” by Flickr user Greg Chow, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The interlude that follows “Borderline” is the immediate payoff of this, as Solange sings with Kelly Rowland and Nia Andrews that she has “so much [magic], y’all, you can have it.” Then comes “Junie,” a fresh and energetic funk track that finds the singer back out on the activist grind after the night off that made it possible for her to return to the borderline.

As self-care proliferates in so many different practices performed by different selves, and as the term is emptied of meaning one hashtag at a time, one way we might track how power circulates through self-care is to listen to sonic representations of self-care. In Grande’s “One Last Time” performance at One Love Manchester we hear self-care staged and protected by cultural icons and government officials who assure attendees that their selves matter, while in Solange’s “Borderline” we hear self-care as an intimate, closed act that makes self- and community-preservation possible even when cultural icons and government officials refuse to participate in that preservation. In “One Last Time” we hear a community who shows up to help a singer when the world is hard, while in “Borderline,” we hear a singer having to reassure her own self that it’s okay to step away for a moment when the world is hard. By listening carefully in these moments, we can hear which selves are more readily recognizable as worthy of care—a chorus of voices surrounded and kept safe by heightened police presence—and which selves are more likely to have to perform care for themselves quietly or privately, for fear of retribution. Sound, in this instance, calls our attention to details that can let us more firmly hold onto a concept like self-care—a concept and series of practices that have been fundamental to the survival of black and queer women in a hostile world—that otherwise threatens to slip from our grasp. But hold on tight, and we just might make it back out to the borderline.

Featured image: Screenshot from Youtube video “Ariana Grande – One Last Time (One Love Manchester)” by user BBC Music

Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available for pre-order (it drops October 2). He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table-Kimberly Williams

Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics-Justin Burton

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

What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music

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).

“Michael Jackson” by Flickr user Daniele Dalledonne, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

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

“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt

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

Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music

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.

" " by Flickr user MadLab Manchester Digital Laboratory, CC BY-SA 2.0

“filming of the HTML music video” by Flickr user MadLab Manchester Digital Laboratory, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

"In Her World" by Flickr user Nana B Agyei, CC BY 2.0

“In Her World” by Flickr user Nana B Agyei, CC BY 2.0

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.

"Vintage Sindy Record Player" by Flickr user Tai O'Leary, CC BY 2.0

“Vintage Sindy Record Player” by Flickr user
Tai O’Leary, CC BY 2.0

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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How Svengali Lost His Jewish Accent

Diva as Svengali: Beyoncé by Lucas Lopez

The pop juggernaut Beyoncé recently made headlines when she confessed her plans for world pop domination to an AP reporter.  She said:

 “I am starting my company, my label. I want to create a boy band. I want to continue to produce and do documentaries and music videos. I eventually want to start directing for other artists.”

While Beyoncé’s business ambitions are hardly newsworthy—like many a multitasking pop idol, she helms several successful ventures, including a line of perfumes and a ready-to-wear fashion line—the announcement that she wants to be a musical impresario puts Beyoncé in more relatively selective company, especially as a woman. “Beyoncé as music industry boy band Svengali?” asked Amy Sciaretto, a tad incredulously, on PopCrush, “Yes, it’s true.”

Sunglassed Svengali: Cameron Grey portrait of Phil Spector, photo by Flickr user Lord Jim

In pop music writing, the idea of the Svengali pops up with regularity, usually to describe a man obsessively managing the careers of his younger, often vulnerable, charges. Classic examples include Phil Spector and the Ronettes. Berry Gordy and Diana Ross. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. Lou Pearlman and the Backstreet Boys. To call Beyoncé a Svengali is both to insert her into this overwhelmingly male trajectory and to associate her, rather unflatteringly, with a long tradition of the producer-control freak, officiously meddling while passing himself off as his protégé’s protective sponsor.

Both associations, in fact, take us back to the origin of the term Svengali, from Trilby, an 1894 bestseller by the English writer and illustrator George Du Maurier. In that work, Trilby, a young Englishwoman of great likability but dubious honor (she is the daughter of a barmaid, and occasionally works as an artist’s model), is living la vie bohème in Paris, where she encounters Svengali, a sinister but charismatic musical genius who uses his mesmeric powers to turn her into the singing sensation of the European concert stage. Trilby can only sing, however, under Svengali’s spell—she must literally look at him while she performs—and so when one day he expires, mid-performance, of a weak heart, she loses her own vocal powers and later dies. The cause of her death is partly shock, but partly unrequited love. For although Svengali, a rather hideous Jew, had vainly sought Trilby’s affections, which she could only return when in hypnotic thrall to him, Trilby has long been in love with Little Billie, the handsome scion of a wealthy English family, who cannot marry her because she is tragically beneath him in rank.

Trilby, 1894. The cover illustration shows an angel’s heart caught in Svengali’s web.

First serialized in Harper’s, Trilby was a transatlantic sensation, igniting what the press at the time, neatly anticipating Beatlemania, dubbed “Trilbymania.” Trilby’s success—and Svengali’s emergence into our cultural lingua franca—is attributable to its canny marriage of late 19th-century sentimentalism (the plot of a heroine who desires the unattainable good man but succumbs to the ogling bad man) with contemporary anti-Semitism, particularly the Wagnerian stereotype of the cultured Jew as musical parasite. In Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), an 1850 pamphlet, Wagner infamously excoriated Jewish musicians, claiming their inherent artistic inferiority relative to Gentiles.

It is important here that although Wagner was partly responding to the influx of Polish and other Eastern European Jewish peasants in 19th-century Germany, his attack was primarily aimed at the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie. It was those Jews, as Wagner’s contemporary, the German music critic and journalist Franz Brendel put it, who “have fallen into a hopeless contradiction, i.e., of possessing our culture and yet remaining Jews, of wishing to be Jewish and Christian in one person.” Wagner’s Jew makes music in a tainted vernacular. Jews “can only imitate the speech of any European nation,” he wrote, “and because song is an extension of speech, … can never be great singers.”

Du Maurier’s Svengali, Polish-born but culturally German, enters late 19th-century Anglophone culture bearing the marks of the Wagnerian stereotype. In the novel he is introduced as a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister.

“He was very shabby and dirty… His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from under his eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent and humorous German twists and idiom, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.”

In short, Svengali is a prototypical Jew of late 19th-century anti-Semitic fantasy: Jewish in “aspect” and Jewish in nature: Jewish in his effeminacy and his indeterminate age and nationality; Jewish despite his ennobling Germanness and cultural accomplishment; Jewish even in his mysterious one-word appellation, Svengali, a name that renders his character both cosmopolitan and menacingly foreign, like the villain of a Donizetti opera. Like all embodiments of stereotype, Svengali exudes an embarrassing surfeit of Jewishness; at one point, Du Maurier’s narrator refers to him as “a dark black Hebrew sweep”; at another, as “an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew.” He is a bottom-feeder even in the 19th-century hierarchy of European and English Jews: dark, accented, coarse in his mannerisms and customs, a repellent mixture of East and West. 

Svengali hypnotizing Trilby as she prepares for a performance. Illustration by George Du Maurier, 1894

Although it was not the case in the late 19th century, when parents took to naming their daughters Trilby, ultimately Svengali would prove more culturally durable than Du Maurier’s heroine. Today, the term, if not the memory of its origins in a forgettable 19th-century fiction, persists as a prototype of the charismatic, driven, and authoritative male starmaker. Like Du Maurier’s Svengali, the Svengali of contemporary usage craves money, but is driven by something greater than wealth. Like the fictional character, he is often himself a gifted artist, and yet he can never be the frontman, only the guy behind the scenes. Above all, he excels at playing other performers, especially feminized ones, as his “instruments.” Like the Svengali who mesmerizes Trilby with his eyes, he is creepily alluring, exerting a mysterious power over his musical charges—at least until the spell wears off (which it inevitably does).

Svengali is one of three Jewish characters—the others are Shylock and Fagin—whose names have become archetypes in English. Yet whereas Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s characters name Jewish stereotypes—and one would think before calling, say, Lou Pearlman, impresario of the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, now serving a jail sentence at a federal penitentiary in Texarkana for his involvement in a Ponzi scheme, a “Shylock”—Svengali carries little trace of its specifically anti-Semitic provenance.

This isn’t a post-Holocaust occurrence. In the course of a few decades after the serialization of Trilby the figure of Svengali had been almost entirely stripped of his ethnic accent. Whereas an 1897 Viennese stage production of Trilby provoked anti-Semitic agitation—forebodingly, given what was to come, forcing the producers to recode Svengali as a Hungarian Gypsy—by 1902, the Kansas City, Kansas American Citizen records the usage of “Svengali” to name a man who mesmerizes respectable women. Caught up in the late Victorian vogue for hypnosis, early 20th-century Americans attributed to “real-life” Svengalis a range of moral infractions that could not be credited to the women who committed them. No reason save hypnotic enticement could be found to explain the 1905 case of a Michigan woman, the wife of a veterinarian, who ran away with a balding, middle-aged white man, before returning to him when the “hypnotic effect began to wear off.”

John Barrymore as Svengali (1931)

In the 1931 film Svengali, starring John Barrymore, which follows the novel very closely, Svengali is Semiticized (the actor speaks with an accent and wears a nose prosthesis) and yet, quite assiduously, not named as a Jew, although he is associated with the Orient.  By the time of the 1983 made-for-TV movie Svengali, starring Jodi Foster as the pop star Zoe Alexander, not only is the anti-Semitism excised, but also the character Svengali is missing. In this post-Helen Reddy world, moreover, Foster’s character eventually outgrows the need for her old teacher-manager (Peter O’Toole), who in the film’s end must go hunting for new students.

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It’s not particularly remarkable that we still use the term Svengali despite its reprehensible heritage. We still recite the schoolyard rhyme “eenie meenie miney moe,” with its roots in antebellum racial stereotype, and know well the minstrel stage song repertoire.

On the other hand, the fact that “svengali” has shed its associations with Jewish masculinity, all the while retaining something of the ambivalence of anti-Semitic stereotype, is noteworthy. Svengalis are useful in crafting modern pop mythologies. Where money is concerned, they deflect agency away from pop stars—who, notwithstanding the degree of commercialism of their music or the loudness of their boasts, are still not supposed to want wealth more than making art or pleasing their fans.  More generally, the Svengali figure intercedes to “manage” the excess of their desire, otherwise so often unbound in their musical performances and their excessive real-life behavior. In his delightful romp of a book Starmakers and Svengalis, the British music journalist Johnny Rogan recounts how Tam Paton, the manager of the Bay City Rollers, was ultimately unable to contend with the bad-boy shenanigans of the “tartan teen sensations” whose squeaky clean image he had carefully cultivated. It’s perhaps not incidental here that Paton was gay, inhabiting a public sexual identity associated with otherness and indeterminacy, and thus hearkening back to the archetype’s Jewish origins.

Du Maurier’s character drew from the notion of Jewish men as perversely sexually powerful, combining attractiveness and repulsiveness in one body. Sexual titillation in Trilbyis never far from the surface. Ultimately, the figure of the Svengali is a means of containing and deflecting expressions of desire in pop music. Through him, we can personify the larger predations of the music industry, its constant hunger for product and profit. By vilifying the powerful headmaster of the Motown “charm school” or the evil father figure behind the Jackson 5, for example, we can turn our attention away from our own complicity in the objectifying dynamic.

Svengali as spider. Illustration by George Du Maurier. The caption reads: “An Incubus.”

Here Svengali’s power of hypnosis—the quality that attached itself to the Svengali-figure in the early 20th century—is a potent metaphor for what pop music does to us, in making us listen despite (sometimes) our intellectual rejection of it.  In Du Maurier’s original illustration for his novel, Svengali is a spider who entraps Trilby in his web. Pop music is often like that spider and that web: supremely sticky and, once we are hooked, indifferent to our resistance.

Gayle Wald is Professor of English at George Washington University. She is author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Beacon, 2007) and working on a book about the TV show Soul!, which brought a black power sensibility to PBS circa 1968-73. Wald’s post is adapted from a “Keyword” talk she gave at the Experience Music Project POP Music Conference in Los Angeles in March 2011, where it caused quite a stir.  Peep these links to read some initial responses from music critic Bob Cristgau and Flavorwire.  

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