Feminist Music Geek Presents … WORK


It’s Monday and we’re all back to the grind. This playlist explores work as a dominant theme in popular music from several different angles. Fun fact: it originated from an independent study I did on gender and labor when I was preparing for preliminary exams!

Foremost, this set is concerned with the cultural value gender ascribes to labor. These songs also consider the role that affect plays in shaping workplace practices and environments, the pride people place in their work, the ways in which workers have to advocate for themselves within a capitalist system, concern over fatigue and exploitation, insistence upon equitable labor and a fulfilling personal life separate from workplace pressures, and even how the process of becoming is treated as work.

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Feminist Music Geek Presents … JOANIE

Joan and Peggy GIF

This playlist is inspired by and dedicated to the inimitable Joan Harris, Mad Men‘s most valuable player. The introduction–which explains Harris’ journey as a character–contains spoilers. If you’d like to hear me talk about Joan’s feminist evolution, yay! If not, skip ahead to 7:43 for the tunes.

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Feminist Music Geek Presents … REINTERPRETATIONS

I’m pretty obsessed with covers. It’s always interesting to hear how recording artists approach other people’s songs. Will they perform them “faithfully”? Will they adapt them to reflect other musical genres? Do they seem to disagree wildly with the source material or sing from the perspective of another character? And, particularly if we’re talking about female musicians, what do they do with that most curious grammatical unit–the gendered pronoun–if they’re covering songs first recorded by men? Will they change “she” to “he” if they’re addressing a lover? Will they queer a song by keeping the pronouns “pure”? Remember how Tori Amos went all Cindy Sherman with the album art for Strange Little Girls and posed for portraits based on her ideas about the female characters in the male artists’ songs she was interpreting? This playlist is assembled in that spirit.

Jane Lane: Starry Night (2000)

Jane Lane: Starry Night (2000)

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Feminist Music Geek Presents … SPECTRUM

Image: Leo Villareal, Big Bang (2008)

Image: Leo Villareal, Big Bang (2008)

In May 2014, I began hosting a weekly radio program on 91.7 WSUM called “Feminist Music Geek Presents…” The show is, in many respects, an extension of this blog. It prioritizes women and girls’ historical and contemporary contributions in popular music across a range of genres. Each episode is organized by theme. As a result, it became clear as I started programming FMGP that playlists allow music fans the opportunity to recontextualize recordings as expressions of critique or dissent. So I think of my sets as arguments and conversations between artists who may not have intended to be in dialogue with each other, but whose individual recordings can be reassembled thematically or intertextually.

FMGP is on hiatus until next fall. Over the course of the summer, I will be archiving episodes for streaming here. I’ll try to post at least once a week, though I hope I can upload all 41 of FMGP’s playlists so that listeners can enjoy them before the show returns to the airwaves in September.

I’m starting with the show’s inaugural episode. I chose “spectrum” as its theme for a few reasons. First, my idea of happiness is a box of crayons. On the first day of Kindergarten I told my classmates that my favorite colors were magenta and chartreuse–my parents ran a print shop–and that is still very much the case. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a big Rainbow Brite fan as a kid. I particularly identified with Shy Violet and wanted to be BFFs with Lala Orange and Indigo. Second, Madison had come out of a long, monochromatic winter of whites, greys, and browns and the city was in bloom. Third, I wanted to acknowledge what a spectrum of color means conceptually to my fellow queer brothers and sisters. Finally, the term was a useful metaphor for the show’s interest in placing women’s voices in a continuum rather than confine them to reductive binary distinctions of similarity and difference. ROYGBIV, y’all.

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Smells Like Proximity

Media’s relationship to fragrance is vast and prime for exploration. This is what I’ve discovered in the process of researching it since last winter. I originally intended to write about it during my first semester as a PhD student, but lucked into an opportunity to contribute to an anthology and shelved the idea. With some encouragement, I returned to the project. As I revised my dissertation proposal for defense, I imagined what I wanted to say about the subject.

I had modest ambitions for this project. Originally, I thought of it as a respite from various check points on the path to pushing a much larger boulder up a hill. Dissertating is a long game. If you’re fortunate, this unwieldy thing you’ve spent several years crafting as a graduate student will someday become a book, and thus require more crafting. As a result, dissertators are vulnerable to doubt, fatigue, and endless deferral. This was to be a pretty curio, something I could look at and turn over if I struggled to form an argument from the other thing I was writing.

What’s exhilarating and terrifying about research is its undertow. If you’re doing it right, you’ll end up in a different place from where you started. Last summer, I started to form my findings into an argument. I looked up and it was October. At this point in my studies, such lapses in time feel like indulgences I can’t afford. This project was designed to be small and contained. My dissertation analyzes the relations between television and recording industry labor in the post-network era in order to understand music’s functions in the cultural and industrial work of identity formation through a series of interlocking fields, televisual, and musical genres. There are loose thematic connections between the two projects—both consider how recording artists use licensing to extend the commercial life of their music—but there’s no overlap in case studies.

My interest in media’s relationship to fragrance actually originates from my sense memory of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. I encountered it as an object, which Nigel Thrift argues “must be understood as involved in multiple overlapping negotiations with human beings and not just as sets of passive and inanimate properties” (292). In an earlier post on record collecting, I cited Sara Ahmed’s claim that objects’ intentions are shaped by the expectations we place in them. Though Ahmed is specifically talking about family as a symbol for the uneven distribution of subjects’ sense of personal fulfillment, I was particularly struck by her assertion that happiness “can generate objects through proximity,” resulting from objects’ closeness to each other and to bodies (32-33).

I was five when Madonna’s fourth album came out in March 1989. So I probably didn’t encounter it at that age. In my mind, Madonna lives in my collapsed recollection of 1992, where A League of Their Own, Truth or Dare, the Sex book, Dick Tracy, and Erotica blurred together as context. I turned nine that summer and recognized that, apart from marrying my father, Like a Prayer was one of the few things my mom and stepmother had in common. My mom had it on cassette. My dad’s second wife had it on CD, along with Erotica and a VHS copy of Truth or Dare. So, my proximity to Like a Prayer was shaped by its presence in my mother and stepmother’s music collections, their shared fandom of it, my different connections to them (I love my mother and I never loved my stepmother), and my dawning awareness that the album in my hands was a thing.

I didn’t revere Madonna. I like many of her hits and the creative authority and strength she demonstrated in her innovative and collaborative video work. I thought her conceptual treatment of female sexuality was interesting. But her reckless attitude toward mentorship and racial appropriation—character flaws that bell hooks documented in real time—gave me pause. As a kid I felt like I had to pick a side, because culture teaches girls to form allegiances for and against other women. I chose Janet Jackson—and later TLC, Aaliyah, and Destiny’s Child—who used pop music and dance to express attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality that felt more nuanced and inclusive to me. Now, Erotica and janet. co-exist for me. But I remember gently pulling Like a Prayer’s liner notes from its jewel case. This was a struggle, because it was printed on thick cardstock and I was very nervous that I would get caught.

What I remember most about Like a Prayer—a memory I apparently share with film critic Wesley Morris—is its scent. Not only was Like a Prayer a thing, but unlike other albums I encountered, it smelled. Madonna wanted to perfume Like a Prayer’s packaging with patchouli, the fragrance she associated with her Catholic upbringing. Within her oeuvre, Like a Prayer is the singer’s most overtly confessional record. “Promise to Try” mourns the loss of her mother. “Dear Jessie” asks “what if” of maternity. “Oh Father” confronts the abuse she survived from her father. “Til Death Do Us Part” documents the disillusion of her physically and psychologically destructive marriage to Sean Penn, a relationship that Karina Longworth, host of “You Must Remember This,” documents in the first installment of a two-part Madonna episode that came out of research she did for a 33 1/3 book proposal on Like a Prayer I’d very much like to read. Such introspection even influenced the album’s packaging. Like a Prayer came with an insert educating consumers about safe sex, an overtly political gesture at the height of the AIDS epidemic and a tribute to some of the friends and fans Madonna lost to the crisis. As a result, the album’s thematic content and scented packaging form into something proximate to a sacrament. You know, like a prayer.

Yet there’s also the juxtaposition of Like a Prayer’s fragrance and its cover image, hinting at Madonna’s more profane qualities as a pop star. The cover art is a picture of the singer’s jean-clad pelvis, an image that recalls the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The group commissioned Andy Warhol to do the cover art for their ninth album. He worked with photographer Billy Name and designer Craig Braun to create its iconic image of a male figure in tight denim. The abundance of the subject’s bulge—and the presence of a working zipper and buckle to advance his denuding—gestures toward the synesthetic potential of music’s packaging. Like a Prayer’s album art presents the listener with similar possibilities, yet its tacit invitation to “smell” Madonna promises more a complex engagement with female sensuality. My memory of the proximity between patchouli, Madonna’s crotch, and my nose resulted in a life of asking questions about music culture, gender, and women’s work. These questions led me to consider what gender and media can teach us about fragrance. I can’t see exactly where it’ll lead me yet, but I can smell it in the air.

Upsetting the Order

Upon its release in early 2010, Joanna Newsom’s third full-length album, Have One on Me, received comparisons to frayed West Coast valentines like Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. Despite her travels as a performer and her association with Chicago-based indie label, Drag City, Newsom’s Californian-ness is foundational to her work, particularly on songs like “In California.” Such material may have doubled as an audition for her role as the narrator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Inherent Vice. Though Newsom hails from Nevada City and Anderson reps the Valley, they met in fictional Gordita Beach to retell Thomas Pynchon’s post-60s shaggy detective novel.

Paul Thomas Anderson expanded the role of hippie minor character Sortilège for his adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel after discussing the writer’s work with Newsom at a dinner party. Perhaps he used the singer’s vocal fry, loose phrasing, and linguistic dexterity as guideposts for developing images and worlds that corresponded with Pynchon’s prose. As a musician, Newsom cuts a divisive figure. Like Pynchon and Anderson, the density of her work is at times mistaken for weirdness. Inherent Vice isn’t incoherent—it’s just that it’s about the illusion and the reality of the collapse of social order. Newsom plays the harp, which seems novel until one considers the expense and muscularity nested within its feminine gentility. It doesn’t transport itself to the parlor. She has that voice, an ember-like mezzosoprano, that has been bestowed with descriptors ranging from “lacy, shimmering” to “Lisa Simpson.” And she has an especially literary ear for language. She’s prone to construct rhyme schemes around words like “palanquin” and turn a phrase like “amazing tantric cougars” when profiled by journalists. In other words, Newsom can effectively play a character who says things like “these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers.”

At some point during production, I wonder if Anderson turned to Have One’s second disc, upon which “In California” appears. Many of Inherent Vice’s cinematic influences—Cheech and Chong, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, the Zucker Brothers—add up to slapstick. On songs like “Good Intentions Paving Company,” Newsom channels Randy Newman’s ability to commit jokes to a time signature. But disc two of Have One sustains a deceptive sadness that neatly mirrors Inherent Vice’s faded Polaroid palette of washed-out blues, browns, pinks, and whites. Underneath its silliness there’s a sun-shot melancholy to Inherent Vice. It knows that the ruling class—in this case, Silent Majority Southern Californian real estate developers—can co-opt and exploit countercultural practices, seizing upon the circuit between addiction and rehab as an opportunity for vertical integration. It’s aware that sunburns share a dangerous proximity with heroin, the Manson family, and murder. Its gumshoe protagonist entangles himself in a conspiracy by using his broken heart as a compass. At points it’s unclear whether Have One recounts a break-up or investigates a crime, a fitting ambiguity for a record that makes oblique references to thwarted motherhood and lost children and is speculated to detail the disillusion of Newsom’s relationship with Bill Callahan.

But who is Sortilège, exactly? In Anderson’s film, Newsom splits the difference between a close friend, a scenester, an inner monologue, and a mirage. She’s an omniscient yet transient presence. She offers counsel to private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), slipping in and out of a beach-side eatery, his car, the corners of his memory, and offering guidance in voiceover like a viewer warning the screen during a horror movie.

Inherent Vice isn’t interested in arias, so it doesn’t have the naked emotional resonance of Have One’s loftier moments. It’s biggest payoff is a couple’s tender reunion, and it’s seen from a distance. It’s not bittersweet like “Baby Birch.” There’s no anger in its loneliness to match “Go Long.” And no character is committed enough to deliver a devastating kiss-off like album closer “Does Not Suffice,” which borrows its melody from “In California.” Perhaps this would be different if Inherent Vice was told from the point of view of Sportello’s mysterious ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). But the protagonist cannot really know her, or at least chooses to see only certain parts of her (mainly the angel and the devil).

At face value, Sportello is not a chauvinist. But in his film, Sortilège is but one woman among many—informants, lovers, suspects—who appears periodically, reshaping his investigation with each encounter. If this film and its source material is about the death of the dream of the 60s, its promise of free love and radicalism was a hollow one for women. In one scene, Sportello tracks down a missing person he’s been hired to find at a happening for Vigilant California, an organization that obscures its support of Richard Nixon behind love beads. They’re staging a re-enactment of the Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples are eating pizzas their old ladies made. In “Go Long,” disc two’s operatic peak, Newsom bristles at “the loneliness of you mighty men, with your jaws, and fists, and guitars, and pens, and your sugarlip” rejecting the gender segregation that keeps her from “the firepits with you mighty men.” Can you call it a revolution if the men still sit at the table while the women mind the kitchen?

Sortilège’s presence in Inherent Vice hints at possible alternate histories and narratives beyond Sportello’s case. What potential connections could these women have with each other irrespective of Sportello, co-ops, and the LAPD? What if Sortilège did bong rips with Valley Girl massage therapist Jade (Hong Chau) and spacey waitress Chlorinda (Jillian Bell)? What if ex-junkie drug counselor Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) worked with lawyer Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on a patient’s rehabilitation? What if the story followed Sportello’s taciturn receptionist, Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph), and found Clancy Charlock (Michelle Sinclair) waiting in her apartment? The film crowds the frame and soundtrack with the distinct voices of interesting women. The Summer of Love could not dislodge the misogyny and sexism embedded in the American male psyche, but feminism would continue to trouble it in the decades ahead. Newsom’s narration dares us to imagine a present where women no longer lend their voices to recount men’s stories, but instead raise them to tell their own.

Playing Along with St. Vincent and EMA

In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.

On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.

St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.

Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.

In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.

I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.

Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.

At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.

Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.