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Sound The Alarm
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “Night Rally”—Jeremy Braddock
J. Ballin and Carla Morrison, “Mi Gente”—Liana Silva
Snap!, “I’ve Got the Power!”—Robin James
Diana Gordon, “Woman”—Allie Young
The Raincoats, “No One’s Little Girl”—Gina Arnold
Sam Cooke, “This Little Light of Mine (Live)”—Shakira Holt
The Ergs, “Books About Miles Davis”—Aaron Trammell
Descendents, “Parents”—Marlen Rios-Hernandez
Guerrilla Toss, “Betty Dreams of Green Men”—James T Tlsty
Shabazz Palaces, “Shine a Light w/ Thaddillac”—Nabeel Zuberi
Amali Dhumali, “DHOOM3”—Monika Mehta
Rhianna, “Man Down”—Justin Burton
Dr. Dre, “Keep Their Heads Ringing”—Karen Cook
Analog Tara, “Percolation”—Tara Rodgers
Princess Nokia, “Kitana”—Jennifer Stoever
Rina Sawayama, “Ordinary Superstar”—Shauna Bahssin
Nina Diaz, “January 9th”—Wanda Alarcon
***Click here to read our Blog-o-versary year-in-review by Ed. in Chief JS
In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”
Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:
I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) January 29, 2018
I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?
The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:
Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.
He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.
Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it. He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.
The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:
In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.
He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.
In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.
As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.
In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.
That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.
Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:
Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?
Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.
That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.
Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.
All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.
Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.
Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:
What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.
But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.
The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.
In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.
I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?
Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”
“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.
Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Reads: Jace Clayton’s Uproot–Elizabeth Newton
Re: Chuck Klosterman – “Tomorrow Rarely Knows”–Aaron Trammell
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all include assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, and let’s listen to Shakira Holt‘s playlists, compiled by three of her high school graduates. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
This past school year, in my roles as a high school teacher who likes what music can do for the classroom environment and as a Link Crew Coordinator who oversees student leaders as they host a mixture of freshman-only and schoolwide events, I frequently found myself sternly censoring black female student contributions to musical playlists. Although I emphasized the criterion of “clean” with increasing exasperation, my students just did not seem to get it. Strangely overlooking “ni**a,” “f***,” and “s**t,” they brought me songs, which, if played, would have gotten me called into the principal’s office, literally. When they triumphantly approached me with “clean” versions, they typically cast not a moment’s thought towards the lyrical content of drugging, drinking, fighting, and sexing, topics no less hazardous for campus play. Clearly, my students and I were working from battling notions of “clean.”For them, “clean” was a concept fully bound up in and therefore fully resolved by language alone; in their view of things, to excise the problematic language was to expel the problem. For me, however, “clean” also included ideas such as “not sipping, smoking, popping, or shooting anything,” “not beating, kicking, hitting, shooting, or stabbing anyone,” as well as “not offering a play-by-play of actual or desired intimate activity.” Then there were some of the songs’ seemingly innocuous but just as troubling projections of sad, turbulent, co-dependent visions of love which often turn on the most toxic, tired iterations of normative gender expectations and almost always wound me up to deliver long, moralistic speeches on relationships.
Feeling every bit the forty-year old school marm that I am, I remain abundantly clear on my objections to these songs for general classroom and campus use. However, I confess that my effectual silencing of these young women never sat quite right with me. It nagged me with worries over what I was really refusing to hear, to make space for by shutting off the voices of these young black women in this way.
However outré, daring, or trouble-making I may fancy myself as a scholar and thinker, when placed within the K-12 context, I am, it turns out, your average, workaday campus censor. I hypocritically feign alarm at cussing. I fake-clear my throat with loud ahems whenever that blue talk ventures into the X-rated. While I fully respect the creativity and naughtiness of student-to-student speech and spend a good bit of time pretending not to hear what is meant to be conversation among peers, there is a limit I feel compelled to enforce. Whenever the volume grows too loud for me to pretend not to have heard or when the word choice becomes spectacularly adventurous, the expectations of the classroom/campus setting demand my intervention. Dutifully, I step in as judge and censor.
Nor is this a singular feature of schools. Places and spaces of all kinds depend heavily upon the extent to which both occupants and itinerants adhere to place-based expected modes of behavior and speech. It is important to note that even when enforced and observed by people of color, these behavior and speech norms remain overwhelmingly middle-class and white in origin and character, which can lead to interesting, sometimes alarming, and even deadly implications for people of color who enter “allegedly public” spaces without observing these norms, as Jennifer Lynn Stoever points out. In the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line: Race & the Cultural Politics of Listening, Stoever argues that in failing to act or speak in ways that reflect the place-based expected modes of behavior and speech governing such spaces, people of color frequently run the risk of falling prey to what she calls “white Americans’…implicit, sometimes violent, control over…an ostensibly ‘free,’ ‘open,’ and ‘public’ space” (2). This risk, as Stoever illustrates, often exposes non-compliant people of color to condemnation, confrontation, and even bodily harm.
The collision of place/space, race, and gender is a natural element of life in the U.S. and has become a regular and needful facet of contemporary national discourse. In a brilliant analysis of this collision as it took place in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Regina Bradley explores how the presence of Rachel Jeantel laid bare the way in which enforcement of place-based norms is often racialized and gendered. Rachel Jeantel is the young black woman whose body, comportment, and speech set off waves of derision and controversy as she testified in court regarding the last living moments of her close friend, Trayvon Martin. Bradley recalls how critics ignored Jeantel’s anguish, her grief, and her trauma in order to train excessive focus on her “refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom.” The courtroom’s “cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood” demand overt demonstrations of respect, if not outright intimidation, passivity, and general humility in tone and demeanor which would typically compensate for any deviations from Standard American English speech norms. Jeantel’s speech played only by the rules of what Brittney Cooper has called “her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom” as created by her “Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages—Haitian Kreyol…Spanish, and English—that she speaks,” and not by the rules of SAE. Thus lacking both the gentle mien expected of black women in court and an acceptable mainstream speech pattern, Jeantel suffered a broad range of brutal racist, classist, and sizeist critiques centering not only on her attitude and her speech, but also on her weight, her skin tone, her hair, and her general unfitness for public consumption.
Like the courtroom, the K-12 classroom and campus are place-based contexts that possess their own “expected cultural and aural scripts.” These scripts prescribe and police such speech elements as volume, tone, syntax, diction, and content. Like courtrooms and other spaces, the K-12 classroom and campus can easily become oppositional, and sometimes downright antagonistic, towards the young black female people who occupy these spaces while speaking their “own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom[s].” The idiosyncrasies of their idioms can so completely transgress the K-12 cultural and aural script that these young black female people often lose the right of being heard altogether, of achieving any attention at all beyond opprobrium for their transgressiveness. Bradley writes pointedly of Jeantel, “Her emotionally charged question ‘are you listening?’ jolted not only [George Zimmerman’s attorney, Don] West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?” I find overwhelming resonance here because when I reframe my students’ playlists and song choices as alternative types of “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” I must also reframe myself as an agent of what Bradley calls “hyper-respectability,” a source of censure and scorn. I must then answer Jeantel and Bradley’s questions honestly: For most of the year, I was not listening to my black female students. Too preoccupied with listening for speech that matched the cultural and aural scripts of the K-12 classroom and campus, I repeatedly silenced idiosyncratic black girl idiom, enacting an all too-frequent response to black female voices.
This sin against my students becomes even clearer when I consider it in the context of terms set forth by Robin James in “How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence.” James discusses at length how music criticism can inflict great violence upon “black women’s cultural and creative work” by “recentering [white] men as authorities and experts.” When white men are recentered as omniscient, innately generic, and consummately universal arbiters of culture and artistry, cultural and creative work emerging from outside of their personal and cultural frames of reference become subjected to filters, demands, and expectations often inapplicable or inappropriate to the work but especially to the black female experiences and vantage points from which that work arises. Hence the “epistemic violence” of which James’ title speaks. Without difficulty, I can replace James’ “black women’s cultural and creative work” with Cooper’s “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” or even have my own go at it with “black female vision and voice.” I can then also substitute James’ “recenter[ed white] men with “recentered elder/teacher/agent of hyper-respectability.” Having done so, I arrive once again at the epistemic and ontological violence I enacted upon my students—for good reason, of course, but to the same unfortunate end.
My intention is not to intimate that I should have green lighted their every choice and let their music go blaring from the loud speaker at lunch while high school kids enjoyed our classic recess days, during which big kids actually had fun at lunch, dancing and tossing the football (girls, too!) and jumping double-dutch. In retrospect, I see now that there was a way to keep that aural space PG-13 AND to listen deeply to the songs that mattered most to these young women, to hear not only what the songs were saying to them but more importantly to hear what they were saying through the songs. I am saddened that I could have been generating ways throughout the year to center and amplify the very black female student voices I stifled and silenced far too often, for far too long.
This post is an attempt at redemption for all my huffy exasperation and my quickness to relieve them of the aux cord this school year. Enlisting the help of the three seniors (now graduates) who bore the brunt of all my aux cord snatching, I have set about putting things right. I asked them to compile playlists of their top five songs, along with the lyrics. I then asked these young women either to come in and speak with me about their songs or to submit written commentary about the music they chose. I took off all restrictions and encouraged them to select whatever songs their hearts desired.
When I first imagined the critical value of engaging in this project, I figured that I might be able to mine their playlists and commentaries for some Patricia Hill Collins-esque crystallization of black female thought as it exists at this moment, late in the second decade of the new millennium, among high school seniors on the cusp of black womanhood in a country which remains steadfastly anti-woman, anti-black, and anti-black woman. That is indeed a worthy project and one which deserves completion. For this post, however, I simply want to listen to my students at long last. I want to listen closely, and I want to listen deeply. I want others to listen to them, too.
Attending fully to the thoughts and words and feelings of black female people, is but one means of expressing a form of love I call philogynoir. Clearly, this term plays with and off of Moya Bailey’s misogynoir, which she defined upon its 2010 inception as a “the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture.” Philogynoir is my attempt to rise to the challenge of naming, which Bailey identified as essential to addressing social ills. She told Mic.com last year, “I think we have to refine language in a lot of different ways so we can actually come up with solutions that help the communities we want to address,” she said. “When you use language that’s generic or unspecific you can get at some of the problem, but not all of it.”
If misogynoir calls out racist-sexist hatred aimed squarely at black women so that that hatred can be challenged and ultimately eliminated, then the concept of philogynoir provides a name for conscious gestures of love towards those same people—words, acts, and artifacts of acknowledgement, admiration, and adoration which have the potential to neutralize and ultimately undo the effects of the hatred. Deep listening, as I imagine it, in its potential to affirm, to humanize, to dignify, and to amplify, can be activated as a powerful form of philogynoir.
Other than the chance to redress my teacherly wrongs, the greatest honor I experienced in this philogynoir project was the opportunity to attend to the hurts of my students by listening to their distress, their agony. To be sure, their playlists and commentaries demonstrate that the idiosyncratic black girl idiom is highly equipped to express a full range of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and yearnings, so I hesitate to make any move which might define and confine the black female experience or its idiosyncratic idiom only in terms of pain and trauma, especially when there is such little space for black girl pain beyond its most fetishized pop culture iterations. The pain and the trauma are there, however, and deserve witness and respect.
I call attention to the pain and the trauma in my students’ idiosyncratic black girl idiom because it is precious. These are sacred hurts, holy injuries—not because they were inflicted by a deity, but because where they touched the lives of these young women, they became creative forces, shaping the signs and symbols by which these young women will know and be known, by which they will call and be called. There is tragedy here, yes, and terrible misery—but there is also mystery and great, thrilling, healing power, as well. My fervent wish for these young women is that with time, they will come to embrace the mystery and to know healing in every hurting place. My prayer is that they will each, in time, wield that creative force of their own accord to make something beautiful and lasting in the genius of their own idiosyncratic black girl idiom.
What follows are the playlists, with commentary, of these three young black women (whose names I have changed), both bespeaking and spoken in the “idiosyncratic black girl idiom” of each individual young woman, articulating each unique voice and vision and innately honoring the experiences that have shaped them. I have included no critiques of the songs or even of their commentaries. For the time being, these playlists represent a sacred line in the sand across which I will not venture with critique.
I am simply listening now. I’m listening to them, and I’m listening for them…in solidarity and in love.
- Long Song Away by Kevin Ross
This whole song is jazzy, especially the intro. It’s about a girl in the rush of it all. I connected to it because I had so many responsibilities at home. I never had time for fun. My life was joyless. I was like a robot. I finally had to have a conversation with my mom and let her know that she would have to let me live a little and be young. There had to be some kind of fun in my life. This song is about slowing down and just letting the record play.
- Confidently Lost by Sabrina Claudio
This song speaks to me. I’ve been lost before and I got to a place where I was comfortable with my lostness. I love the part about “I don’t need you to find me cuz I’m not hiding anything.” This is a good soul/R&B song about how hard it is to figure out what will bring you fulfillment but that’s not a bad place to be. Being lost is not necessarily anything negative. It means you’re going somewhere.
- Redbone by Childish Gambino
This song makes me want to put on some skates and roll-bounce to it. A lot of people like the groove on this song, but they miss the deeper meaning. It’s telling people to wake up and be known for who you are. It has a lot of references to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the dangers involved in being black. When he says “scandalous” and “creep up on you,” he’s talking about police brutality and racism, especially with the president we have now, and when he says “greenlight,” that’s a code for “wake up” as in “be woke.”
- Location by Khalid
This one is about early teenage love and it’s talking about how we are all too attached to our electronics, so when he says “send me your location,” he’s talking about using the electronics as a way to get to face-to-face communication.
- Put It On Me by Jah Rule feat. Lil Mo & Vita
I like this song maybe because I was born in them days. It’s about a thug and his ride-or-die chick. I like the part when he says, “Every thug needs a lady.” But this song actually means more to me than just the song. In my family, I have many family members who have ties to gangs. I’m looking out for my little brother and doing everything I can to keep him from that life. One of the things we do is perform in the house. We always do this song, like we act it out and everything. So I always think of my brother when I hear this song, especially the part where he says, “Where would I be without you?” I’m that person for my brother. If I wasn’t there for him, he’d be in a gang. I also have a close friend who used to be affiliated, but she’s not anymore. I think about her on the part where it says, “A tear for a tear,” because when she cries, I cry.
- Coming Out Strong by Future & The Weekend
I chose this song because it reminds me that no matter what, I can never give up on myself even if I’m in a bad position in life.
- Do For Love by TuPac
I like this song because it tells a story and the way TuPac loves the girl and never gave up on her….I wish someone could do the same for me.
I chose these two songs by this particular singer because she talks about love in a different aspect compared to everyone else these days. Her take on love is different, like it’s more thoughtful and more mature. It’s not just sex and drama.
- Candy by Cameo
I chose this song because I just have to have some funk in my life. LOL
- Ride of Your Life by Tinashe
I like the beat of this song and it’s kind of catchy in a way.
- Habits (Stay High) by Tove Lo
I chose this song because after my first love broke my heart, I developed bad habits because my heart was traumatized.
- Kiss It Better by Rihanna
I wish someone could kiss my heart better, but it seems like everyone is the same.
- Party Monster by The Weekend
After my bad habits formed like having sex with no love interest hoping it would make me feel better some type of way….This song talks about sex, drugs, and waking up next to someone and not really knowing them.
- The Letter by Kehlani
“‘The Letter’ by Kehlani is featured on her album You Should Be Here. It was released in April of 2015. The song speaks on a loved one who abandoned Kehlani at a young age. She references her mother, and it goes through the motions of abandonment and feeling unwanted. In the song, she says,
Why bring me into the light?
Must have done something
To make you want to run and hide
Why oh why didn’t you just live your life?
And every girl needs a mother, and dammit, I needed you.
I chose this song because it was the first time I felt like I could personally and truly relate to art. My mother left my life when I was 15. Similar to Kehlani in the song, I had so many things going on in my head for years. But then I heard the song…and it said everything I didn’t know how to say at the time. I blamed myself like she did for a while, and I questioned her motives every day. My mother left during a crucial stage of my childhood, and it’s something I still don’t know how to recover from. The experience in this song plays a role in my story because it showed me that I’m not the only one, and that I had a choice to let the loss make me or break me. I chose for it to make me stronger.”
- Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac
“Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac was featured on his album Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. which debuted in February of 1993. This song talks about a lot of issues in today’s society but particularly women’s roles. He speaks on rape culture and women’s rights.
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women — do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up
I chose this song because it relates to my womanhood. Tupac speaks on our lesser value in today’s society and our mistreatment. Women are allowed to be raped without any repercussions and we are constantly STILL fighting for our own rights, even today.
- 1st of Tha Month by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
“1st of Tha Month” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is featured on their 1999 Eternal album. The song centers around receiving welfare checks in lower income areas and how the community rejoices.
Wake up, wake up, wake up
It’s the 1st of the month
So get up, get up, get up
So cash your checks and come up
I chose this song because I know that feeling, of not having much to eat all month. Sometimes you could feel that emptiness and you resort to doing things you wouldn’t normally do if you weren’t put in that situation. Getting those checks brought solace to my household. That economic struggle made me who I am, and made me appreciate so much. But the 1st of the month… The whole hood would feel that deposit.
- Weary Blues by Louis Armstrong
“Weary Blues” by Louis Armstrong was released in the year of 1925 and is featured on his Jazz Collected album, collaborating with Hot Five and Hot Seven. The song feels like soul. With the rhythm, all the way to the emotion, you can feel celebration. I chose this song because it reminds me of Louisiana itself. It reminds me of Mardi Gras, the crawfish, the Southern lingo. It reminds me of my Southern culture which plays a huge role in my life.
- Wishing by Edo G feat. Masta Ace
“Wishing” by Edo G and Masta Ace is featured on Edo G’s album, My Own Worst Enemy, which released in 2004. The song speaks about problems reflected in the system, that need to be addressed. Being lied to by presidents, lack of healthcare, blacks being murdered, drugs, and many other issues. In the first verse Masta Ace says,
I wish the president would stop lying
Black babies would stop crying
And young brothers would stop dying
I wish the police would stop killing
Politicians stop stealing and acting like they not dealing
When they know they got bricks in the street
I’ve chosen this song, because it speaks about problems that often are ignored that go on within my community. It also speaks about political corruption, which is something I care about. These issues affect me as an American because they are American issues. Being black and low income, you are subjected to a lot of different deprivations. This song highlights them and throws up a red flag. For change.
Featured image: “Afro Punk Fest 2013” by Flickr user J-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Shakira Holt is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and teaches literature on the secondary level. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. o
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A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
The lyrics to Beyoncé’s 2008 song “Radio” treats listening pleasure as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sexual pleasure. For example, they describe how turning up a car stereo transforms it into a sex toy: “And the bassline be rattlin’ through my see-eat, ee-eats/Then that crazy feeling starts happeni-ing- i-ing OH!” Earlier in the song, the lyrics suggest that this is a way for the narrator to get off without arousing any attempts to police her sexuality: “You’re the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room/…And mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom.” Because her parents wouldn’t let her be alone in her bedroom with anyone or anything that they recognized as sexual, “Radio”’s narrator finds sexual pleasure in a practice that isn’t usually legible as sex. In her iconic essay “On A Lesbian Relationship With Music,” musicologist Suzanne Cusick argues that if we “suppose that sexuality isn’t necessarily linked to genital pleasure” and instead “a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given” (70), we can understand the physical pleasures of listening to music, music making, and music performance as kinds of sexual pleasure.
Though Cusick’s piece overlooks the fact that sexual deviance has been, since the invention of the idea of sexuality in the late 19th century, thoroughly racialized, her argument can be a good jumping-off point for thinking about black women’s negotiations of post-feminist ideas of sexual respectability; it focuses our attention on musical sound as a technique for producing queer pleasures that bend the circuits connecting whiteness, cispatriarchal gender, and hetero/homonormative sexuality. In an earlier SO! Piece on post-feminism and post-feminist pop, I defined post-feminism as the view that “the problems liberal feminism identified are things in…our past.” Such problems include silencing, passivity, poor body image, and sexual objectification. I also argued that post-feminist pop used sonic markers of black sexuality as representations of the “past” that (mostly) white post-feminists and their allies have overcome. It does this, for example, by “tak[ing] a “ratchet” sound and translat[ing] it into very respectable, traditional R&B rhythmic terms.” In this two-part post, I want to approach this issue from another angle. I argue that black femme musicians use sounds to negotiate post-feminist norms about sexual respectability, norms that consistently present black sexuality as regressive and pre-feminist.
Black women musicians’ use of sound to negotiate gender norms and respectability politics is a centuries-old tradition. Angela Davis discusses the negotiations of Blues women in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism (1998), and Shana Redmond’s recent article “This Safer Space: Janelle Monae’s ‘Cold War’” reviews these traditions as they are relevant for black women pop musicians in the US. While there are many black femme musicians doing this work in queer subcultures and subgenres, I want to focus here on how this work appears within the Top 40, right alongside all these white post-feminist pop songs I talked about in my earlier post because such musical performances illustrate how black women negotiate hegemonic femininities in mainstream spaces.
As America’s post-identity white supremacist patriarchy conditionally and instrumentally includes people of color in privileged spaces, it demands “normal” gender and sexuality performances for the most legibly feminine women of color as the price of admission. As long as black women don’t express or evoke any ratchetness–any potential for blackness to destabilize cisbinary gender and hetero/homonormativity, to make gender and sexuality transitional–their expressions of sexuality and sexual agency fit with multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.
It is in this complicated context that I situate Nicki Minaj’s (and in my next post Beyoncé’s and Missy Elliott’s) recent uses of sound and their bodies as instruments to generate sounds. If, as I argued in my previous post, the verbal and visual content of post-feminist pop songs and videos is thought to “politically” (i.e., formally, before the law) emancipate women while the sounds perform the ongoing work of white supremacist patriarchy, the songs I will discuss use sounds to perform alternative practices of emancipation. I’m arguing that white bourgeois post-feminism presents black women musicians with new variations on well-worn ideas and practices designed to oppress black women by placing them in racialized, gendered double-binds.
For example, post-feminism transforms the well-worn virgin/whore dichotomy, which traditionally frames sexual respectability as a matter of chastity and purity (which, as Richard Dyer and others have argued, connotes racial whiteness), into a subject/object dichotomy. This dichotomy frames sexual respectability as a matter of agency and self-ownership (“good” women have agency over their sexuality; “bad” women are mere objects for others). As Cheryl Harris argues, ownership both discursively connotes and legally denotes racial whiteness. Combine the whiteness of self-ownership with well-established stereotypes about black women’s hypersexuality, and the post-feminist demand for sexual self-ownership puts black women in a catch-22: meeting the new post-feminist gender norm for femininity also means embodying old derogatory stereotypes.
I think of the three songs (“Anaconda,” “WTF,” and “Drunk in Love”) as adapting performance traditions to contemporary contexts. First, they are part of what both Ashton Crawley and Shakira Holt identify as the shouting tradition, which, as Holt explains, is a worship practice that “can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning.” She continues, arguing that “shouting…is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them.” These vocal performances apply the shouting tradition’s combination of the choreographic and the sonic and binary-confounding tactics to queer listening and vocal performance strategies.
Francesca Royster identifies such strategies in both Michael Jackson’s work and her audition of it. According to Royster, Jackson’s use of non-verbal sounds produces an erotics that exceeds the cisheteronormative bounds of his songs’ lyrics. They were what allowed her, as a queer teenager, to identify with a love song that otherwise excluded her:
in the moments when he didn’t use words, ‘ch ch huhs,’ the ‘oohs,’ and the ‘hee hee hee hee hees’…I ignored the romantic stories of the lyrics and focused on the sounds, the timbre of his voice and the pauses in between. listening to those nonverbal moments–the murmured opening of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” or his sobbed breakdown at the end of “She’s Out of My Life,’ I discovered the erotic (117).
Royster references a black sexual politics in line with Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic in “The Uses of the Erotic,” which is bodily pleasure informed by the implicit and explicit knowledges learned through lived experience on the margins of the “European-American male tradition” (54), and best expressed in the phrase “it feels right to me” (54). Lorde’s erotic is a script for knowing and feeling that doesn’t require us to adopt white supremacist gender and sexual identities to play along. Royster calls on this idea when she argues that Jackson’s non-verbal sounds–his use of timbre, rhythm, articulation, pitch–impart erotic experiences and gendered performances that can veer off the trite boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl stories in his lyrics. “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119). Like shouting, “erotic” self-listening confounds several binaries designed specifically to oppress black women, including subject/object binaries and binary cisheterogender categories.
Nicki Minaj uses extra-verbal sounds as opportunities to feel her singing, rapping, vocalizing body as a source of what Holt calls “sonophilic” pleasure, pleasure that “provide[s] stimulation and identification in the listener” and invites the listener to sing (or shout) along. Minaj is praised for her self-possession when it comes to business or artistry, but such self-possession is condemned or erased entirely when discussing her performances of sexuality. As Treva B. Lindsey argues, “the frequency that Nicki works on is not the easiest frequency for us to wrestle with, because it’s about…whether we can actually tell the difference between self-objectification and self-gratification.’’ Though this frequency may be difficult to parse for ears tempered to rationalize post-feminist assumptions about subjectivity and gender, Minaj uses her signature wide sonic pallette to shift the conversation about subjectivity and gender to frequencies that rationalize alternative assumptions.
In her 2014 hit “Anaconda,” she makes a lot of noises: she laughs, snorts, trills her tongue, inhales with a low creaky sound in the back of her throat, percussively “chyeah”s from her diaphragm,among other sounds. The song’s coda finds her making most of the extraverbal sounds. This segment kicks off with her quasi-sarcastic cackle, which goes from her throat and chest up to resonate in her nasal and sinus cavities. She then ends her verse with a trademark “chyeah,” followed by another cackle. Then Minaj gives a gristly, creaky exhale and inhale, trilling her tongue and then finishing with a few more “chyeah”s. While these sounds do percussive and musical work within the song, we can’t discount the fact that they’re also, well…fun to make. They feel good, freeing even. And given the prominent role the enjoyment of one’s own and other women’s bodies plays in “Anaconda” and throughout Minaj’s ouevre, it makes sense that these sounds are, well, ways that she can go about feelin herself.
Listening to and feeling sonophilic pleasure in sounds she performs, Minaj both complicates post-feminism’s subject/object binaries and rescripts cishetero narratives about sexual pleasure. “Anaconda” flips the script on the misogyny of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” by sampling the track and rearticulating cishertero male desire as Nicki’s own erotic. First, instead of accompanying a video about the male gaze, that bass hook now accompanies a video of Nicki’s pleasure in her femme body and the bodies of other black femmes, playing as she touches and admires other women working out with her. Second, Nicki re-scripts the bass line as a syllabification: “dun-da-da-dun-da-dun-da-dun-dun,” which keeps the pattern of accents on 1 and 4, while altering the melody’s pitch and rhythm.
Just as “Anaconda”’s lyrics re-script Mix-A-Lot’s male gaze, so do her sounds. If the original hook sonically orients listeners as cishetero “men” and “women,” Nicki’s vocal performance reorients listeners to create and experience bodily pleasure beyond the “legible” and the scripted. Though the lyrics are clearly about sexual pleasure, the sonic expression or representation of that pleasure–i.e., the performer’s pleasure in hearing/feeling herself make all these extraverbal sounds–makes it physically manifest in ways that aren’t conventionally understood as sexual or gendered. Because it veers off white ciseterogendered scripts about both gender and agency, Minaj’s performance of sonophilia is an instance of what L.H. Stallings calls hip hop’s “ratchet imagination.” This imagination is ignited by black women’s dance aesthetics, wherein “black women with various gender performances and sexual identities within the club, on stage and off, whose bodies and actions elicit new performances of black masculinity” renders both gender and subject/object binaries “transitional” (138).
Nicki isn’t the only black woman rapper to use extra-verbal vocal sounds to re-script gendered bodily pleasure. In my next post, I’ll look at Beyoncé and Missy Elliot’s use of extra-vocal sounds to stretch beyond post-feminism pop’s boundaries.
Featured image: screenshot from “Anaconda” music video
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson