On Monday, I discussed some of the TV show music cues I liked from this year. Today I’m providing a list of my favorite albums. I’m not really one for hierarchies. There is a top three (kinda), but after that it’s unranked because what does it mean to be the seventh-best record of the year really? That said, it’s no accident that many of these entries interrogate citizenship in a year profoundly defined by malevolent structures and forces that unequally restrict and allocate who gets to be a citizen and under what conditions. It’s also quite deliberate that many of these albums were self-produced by women resisting the pressure to justify themselves. It’s not a comprehensive list, as undoubtedly soon I’ll unearth a treasure or someone will recommend something. Year-end lists are comforting narratives we craft about our own tastes to cope with the passage of time and I always like returning to the past and finding things I missed in order to challenge canon-making’s ossification. Your music may be part of that unceasing process of discovery, and I look forward to hearing it later.
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq)
Last month Badu released this mixtape, which she co-produced with Zach Witness. End of the year, and just in time. Badu always sounds warm even when what she’s saying is cold, and peerlessly scribbles in the margins of song form. That’s how she’s able to turn Drake’s “Hotline Bling” into a revision of her 1997 hit “Tyrone” and a character study of the woman on the other end of that booty call. But what resonates most is Caint’s aching heart. Badu pursues a thematic interest in mobile technology through the lens of nostalgia, as though she wants to return to a time when we didn’t constantly use our phones to broadcast out and look in. Smartphones give us the ability to connect, whether we’re touching base with old friends or documenting instances of social injustice that have always been there but social media can differently illuminate. But you can’t unsee Eric Garner getting the life wrung out of him. However, you can channel the anger that comes with that realization into art and community and try to keep who you have and grow with them. That’s probably why she’s a doula. And it may be why so many of her albums’ final songs—“Green Eyes,” “Out My Mind (Just in Time)”—are about Andre or him in relation to other partnerships that fell apart or shifted. And that’s also why their reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me,” which concludes Caint, is lovely and bittersweet like divorced parents sharing a slow dance at their kid’s wedding reception. This year Badu came on silly like a LOL cat meme, flirty like a dirty joke told in emojis, weary like a 2 a.m. Facebook lurk, and contrarian like a flip phone or documenting a hate crime in vertical mode. Says the artist in another song that’s hot and cold: “that’s so me.”
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Rock has a lot of folk heroes. Often successful execution determines heroism, whether it’s getting strangers to chant a chorus with total sincerity or smashing a guitar with balletic force for a photographer. Heroes don’t miss, because men get to be heroes and we often make excuses when they do. We also make exceptions of women when they try, which is why Broad City’s Ilana Glazer offered a great corrective to the “all-girl band” questions that haunt this band by asking them in a recent interview “does rocking hard mean gender equality to you?” But in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein celebrates the virtue of near-misses, which goes hand in glove with the memoir’s other major contribution: fandom’s equalizing potential to the creative process (or: why so many of Sleater-Kinney’s songs are about making music).
Earlier this year, I saw Sleater-Kinney perform at Riverside Theatre. My adolescence did not make room for Sleater-Kinney because I couldn’t hear the electric guitar’s feminist potential or entertain sexist assumptions from boys at shows about my fandom. Our paths finally crossed with No Cities to Love, an “electric” record in every sense, but particularly in how Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss wield their instruments, voices, and words to convey the spark and heat of idealism sharpening into wisdom. One of riot grrrl’s biggest contributions to contemporary feminism was how it prioritized young women’s equal participation in music’s production and reception. “Girls to the front” wasn’t a slogan. Stopping a set to teach fans how to play your song wasn’t a gimmick. It rearranged space to put young women in the middle. Even though I had a birds-eye view of the set, they sounded so close that it felt like I was on stage with them. But the girls in the front—campers from Milwaukee’s chapter of Girls Rock Camp—could make out their chord and drum patterns, sweat, and discarded pics, and take notes. That’s heroism.
Lizzo – Big GRRRL, Small World (Totally Gross National Product)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
At a recent speaking engagement, a UW-Madison student asked Ta-Nehesi Coates what he thought about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, prefacing his question with the explanation that it was one of the first hip-hop albums to deal with race. Coates countered this statement by name-checking Public Enemy before admitting that he hadn’t listened to Lamar’s record, which came out a few weeks before the event. In the back of the hall, this question seemed like a missed opportunity on three fronts. First, shoulda asked Coates about comic books dude. Second, why assume that one of race relations’ most vital critical thinkers has listened to your new favorite hip-hop record? Third, check the footnotes. Butterfly’s sound and collaborators situate Lamar’s flow within G-Funk’s grammar, one of his hometown’s major innovations and a sub-genre heavily indebted to 70s funk’s radical streak as a way to turn living in a police state into art. How do you process Rodney King? Your auntie’s record collection may have answers.
But young people often turn to their immediate context to figure out how to become adults. A necessary part of that process is realizing that some people get to go to college while others end up in prison or profiled or killed, confront the profound injustice at the root of this realization, and do something transformative with that knowledge. And it’s also why listening to records isn’t in itself a political act, but can be a resource for social change. Two records offered that kind of equipment for living this year. In April, Lamar released his third album. Eight months later, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo reached the same milestone at the tail end of the year after many year-end lists were drafted. Both are kaleidoscopic, ambitious efforts that impressively demonstrate the range and personality of the talent at their center. Both quote liberally from hip-hop’s past, as well as nod to its proximity to other genres (Lamar has jazz, Lizzo has dance). One rapper productively tests the commercial recording industry’s artistic limits, while the other demonstrates her entrepreneurial acumen by shirking interest from the majors to run her own label. Lamar struggles with hip-hop’s entrenched misogyny, while Lizzo applies an intersectional feminist critical lens to the genre and in doing so opens it up as a productive space for commentary and women’s artistic collaboration. Oh, and they’re both fun, immersive listening experiences. Lamar’s music evokes night-driving as a way to clear an unquiet mind and defy racial profiling. Lizzo’s music sees beyond #SquadGoals to observe how the giddy female energy of slumber parties and their rituals—dance routines, beauty and masturbation life hacks, gossip that chips at hegemony—resemble consciousness-raising sessions. Blast these albums in the dorms, kids. And learn their lessons. You are the future, and there’s work to do.
Empress Of – Me (XL Recordings)
Lorely Rodriguez makes music that sounds like a woman throwing a jewelry box against the wall, or my kind of pop. Me is Rodriguez’s follow-up to 2013’s Systems and her proper full-length debut. Its title may double as a form of clarification. Rodriguez produced this album and released it in a year when Jessica Hopper’s interview with Björk (a kindred spirit, if not a direct influence) spawned a Tumblr archive of images of female musicians, producers, and engineers to demonstrate that, indeed, women make music and authorship cannot be dead until it is equally applied to them. What follows is one of the most exquisitely textured and assured debut efforts of the year, propelled by Rodriguez’s clear, insistent voice. “What do you see in the mirror when you’re feeling restless? Do you see a man who isn’t there?” she asks on the breathtaking “Standard,” negotiating a distorted 4/4 beat pattern before catapulting over it. “Living for the sake of living, I can promise you no one cares,” she concludes on the other side of the chorus. That may be true, and pictures of women working behind mixing desks cannot change that for some people. But I care, and this music sounds like the future.
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Oscar Isaac said in a recent Details profile that “[i]n order to be a leading actor everyone has to be an action star, to a certain extent.” Female pop stars have known this for generations (see also: LaBelle’s intergalactic girl gang drag, Kate Bush in the “Army Dreamers” video, Madonna’s biceps, Beyoncé standing fifty feet tall like Gene Simmons in front of the word “FEMINIST” at the VMAs). To follow up her 2012 breakthrough Visions, Claire Boucher emerged from playing video games in her basement and found the end of world. More accurately, she scrapped an album’s worth of songs that didn’t interest her and commandeered Pro Tools like Imperator Furiosa steering the War Rig and circled back to find that Art Angels’ apocalyptic Jock Jams sound was always there. Extending the Fury Road comparison to geopolitics, I haven’t settled my opinion on Boucher’s cultural omnivorousness. But the decision to work with Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes suggests coalition-building over colonization. And I would’ve left “REALiTi” alone, but sometimes we must destroy what’s beautiful to taste Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Here’s something Courtney Barnett revealed about herself in a recent conversation with Kim Deal: Sometimes shy people have so much to say and they don’t talk often because they’re forever turning over phrases in their heads and searching for the right words so they say them all at once. And sometimes they just sit. Barnett shreds too. If these masterfully written songs sound pear-shaped, you may need to lay down because she’s approaching them sideways.
Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
“Sons of Bob Dylan” appears in the middle of novelty folk singer Wally Pleasant’s 1994 album, Houses of the Holy Moly. Its argument is simple: every singer-songwriter (Lou, Bruce, Neil, etc.) is derivative of Bob Dylan, who was himself billed as the next Woody Guthrie, and the recording industry is always willing to commodify their constructed authenticity. That they’re all dudes is no accident. Toward the end of The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna muses “I just think there’s this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth and when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.” As someone who is often written off as twee because of her harp, brittle voice, and decorously feminine self-presentation, Joanna Newsom must feel this sentiment in her bones. That’s why it was so punk when she listed her wardrobe’s textures and fabrics to conclude her last album as a nod to the empty closet her lover would get back after their break-up. On this album, she ponders what it’s like to love someone so deeply that you’re willing to watch them die after a long life together through a collection of intricate, masterfully arranged compositions. There’s nothing less twee than spanning time and death do us part. Joanna Newsom is not the next Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Karen Dalton, or Kate Bush. She’s growing into something else: herself.
Shamir – Ratchet (XL)
Mickey Mouse croons to a lover he wants or doesn’t, reads yuh’ to filth, then sashays away. Most parties aren’t as fun as this record, including the records about parties, thanks to Shamir’s magnetic self-possession and Nick Sylvester’s buoyant production. In an alternate reality, Shamir rescues Alessia Cara from the party she’s withstanding in “Here” (an excellent rejoinder to Can’t Feel My Face-core, by the way) and they fire up the smoke machine at his house.
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
Album title of the year, no question. And Hval’s ear for composition implies a steady diet of late 90s R&B—particularly the airy presence of Aaliyah’s dexterous soprano—and liturgical music. Its sense of the divine corresponds with its theoretical ambitions, a pursuit that Stuart Hall memorably compared to “wrestling with the angels.” Crafting a concept album about how ambivalence organizes feminists’ daily lives offers listeners few immediate rewards. Feminism is often co-opted to tell comforting narratives about progress and autonomy that privilege the concerns of middle-class white women; essentialize and condescend to women committed to leveling gender inequality without exploiting imperialism; and comply with capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources at work, home, and in public. In the West, its historical narrative is often organized in metaphorical waves, which justifies generational factions, misapprehends political gains’ uniform distribution, and ignores undertow. Finally feminism can bend toward dogma and splinter into contradiction, which often means to apply it is to misapply it. This might be why so many of these songs—“Why This?” the end of “That Battle Is Over”—sound like they are resisting their own disintegration. But this album is so alive with words and ideas—including the radical potential of “soft dick rock” and self-care—that it’s a pleasure to wrestle with it again and again.
fka twigs – M3LL155X EP (Young Turks)
Earlier this year I scrapped a comparative analysis of Under the Skin and Ex Machina, which put Mica Levi’s eerie score from the former in conversation with the pulsing sounds Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow produced for the latter. It never materialized, as the comparison praised Jonathan Glazer’s film to hang Alex Garland’s three-hander and that’s lazy criticism. Also, such comparisons reduce the individual merits of Scarlett Johansson’s and Alicia Vikander’s uncanny valley performances as an extraterrestrial seductress and an Edenic robot. Both offer incisive, particular critiques about what it means to have beautiful female bodies and grapple with men forcing their will upon them. In the real world women distance themselves from their bodies all the time to cope with this trauma, looming or endured. These actresses metaphorize that experience and demonstrate the thrill of sentience scaffolding resistance as their characters wonder: “what is my body if I can’t enjoy it?”
What does this have to do with M3LL15X? For one, the long-form video is a nice pairing. In particular, “I’m Your Doll” will be used in gender and media studies classes to talk about consent and objectification for as long as graduate programs hire hipsters to teach college students about feminism. Ultimately, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa,” perhaps the name of one of Ex Machina’s discarded prototypes) investigates how sexiness curdles into body horror out of twigs’s boredom and disgust with the commodification of the female form. And it offers an alternative to the post-racial implications of Ex Machina’s ending by imagining a future where black female pop stars rebel alongside artificial intelligence. As an EP, it trades songs for Concepts. But it’s also one of 2015’s best science fiction movies about technology’s fraught relationship with sexuality.
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (anticon.)
The best thing about part-singing is the moment when everyone breathes together and blends their voices to create a unified sound that vibrates like a beam of light you can hear. That’s way trippy, but Angel Deradoorian is clearly after this moment because she creates it time and again—most magically with her sister Arlene and Niki Randa–on this beautiful, unassuming record that breaks through the air like sun through windows after a rainstorm. It’s a sound she helped chase as a member of Dirty Projectors, who were basically choir nerds with psychedelic tendencies. But there’s a stabilizing force to part-singing on this record, which Deradoorian wrote largely as a manifestation of her doubt and loneliness as a Los Angeles transplant without a band. And a lesson too: good solo artists always find their way when they collaborate with other musicians.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION (Interscope/School Boy)
This album’s modest chart performance is baffling, but the music critics know about this one like they knew about Kylie Minogue in 2001. Pop music is ultimately about interpreting personal e*mo*tions with your voice that large audiences can immediately identify with and share. For female pop stars this often means “pretend that you like it.” This is why so many women (and Harmony Korine) have complicated feelings about Britney Spears. Such expectations also lay bare authenticity’s contradictory and unequal allocation between male and female artists (see also: Newsom, Joanna). What I like about this record—apart from how its airbrushed synths, resilient programmed drums, and neon-bright sax flourishes bullseye the pleasure center (kudos, production team)—is Jepsen’s embodied conviction as a singer. Listen to how she whispers “I’ll find your lips in the streetlight” on “Run Away With Me,” E*MO*TION’s launch pad. It’s a slyly sexy turn of phrase and an excellent line reading, because even if the song’s subject is undefined (you), Jepsen conjures a real person. As listeners we can only witness the ease of their intimacy within the ellipsis of a pop song, but we can also delight in finding our own specific people to fly with over the city, city. Which is where pop lives anyway.
It’s hard to write a tone poem to your favorite coffee mug, but you’re glad to hold it every morning. Here are some more great albums that found their way into this year’s dark corners and small moments, even though I couldn’t find clever words to describe their charms.
THEESatisfaction – EarthEE (Sub Pop)
Gavin Turek + TOKiMONSTA – You’re Invited (Young Art Records)
Noveller – Fantastic Planet (Fire Records)
Ibeyi – Ibeyi (XL)
Kelela – Hallucinogen EP (Warp/Cherry Coffee)
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (ATO Records)
Overcoats – Overcoats EP (self-released)
The Selecter – Subculture (Vocaphone Music)
Erase Errata – Lost Weekend (Under the Sun)
Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Interscope)
Demi Lovato – Confident (Universal)
Frankie Cosmos – Fit Me In (Bayonet)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD/Rvng Intl.)
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wildness (Domino)
Bouquet – In a Dream EP (Ulrike/Folktale)
In the first chapter to her book, The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed makes the following argument about the meanings that we put into the things we own:
If we arrive at objects with an expectation of how we will be affected by them, this affects how they affect us, even in the moment they fail to live up to our expectations. Happiness is an expectation of what follows, where the expectation differentiates between things, whether or not they exist as objects in the present (29).
This makes a lot of sense to me. Records are my happy object.
Objects accumulate meanings because of the associations and feelings we bring to them. On last week’s Mad Men, an engineer helps install an IBM 360 in the middle of SC&P and explains computers’ dark thrall to Don Draper: “It’s been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.” Conveniently, recent Mad Men episodes have been framed by promos for AMC’s new period drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which details the development of a fictional Texas-based computer company in the early 1980s. In the clip, a character states: “Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Ahmed would love that sentence’s circularity. Also, you could replace “computers” with just about any other word and the sentiment would still hold. In Ahmed’s mind, the thing we’re trying to get to is happiness, which we never completely arrive at and often only recognize in retrospect. I was reading Ahmed’s book during Record Store Day, which my partner and I observe every year. As I thumbed through the crates, posted images of my findings, pored over the covers, filed away my vinyl, and threw on my newly purchased copy of the Life Without Buildings reissue, I thought about what expectations collectors put into records. Technologies are often thick with possibility. We may think that a new gadget or toy will be “it.” Instead, we frequently integrate some of their features into our daily lives (load it, check it, quick – rewrite it). We only notice their object-ness when they don’t work (buy it, use it, break it, fix it).
I’m literalizing Ahmed’s use of the word “object.” She uses the term to express how individuals orient themselves within culture. According to Ahmed, people can be objects as well. When they congregate, they often objectify one another. Ahmed argues that this results in children becoming distinctly burdened as symbols for hope. That could explain why the dinner table is a volatile place for some families. But we often symbolize people and risk turning them into our happy objects. It also explains why making a mix for someone always means more than putting a sequence of songs together. The mix is the thing that gets us to the thing.
There’s a curatorial function to record collecting, but it doesn’t mean anything without people. Building a collection implies a sense of discernment, which is learned from living in the world and absorbing social norms. This ascribes unequal value to objects, which we should always question. You may ask yourself if a piece of music “deserves” to be on vinyl and folded into your collection. You may also get rid of things because of unfortunate associations. How often do break-ups forever alter your relationship to music? How often is that association shame? “Happiness is an expectation of what follows,” indeed. Because of a boy, I started college with three Blink-182 albums in my CD collection (including the yellow version of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, the one with “Fuck a Dog” on it). Other records—Björk’s Homogenic; PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea; The Dismemberment Plan’s Change—remind me of that time, but they made it to the other side and accumulated new meanings for me. But when I was ready to let it go, Dude Ranch didn’t even make it to a used record store. I flung it into a parking lot. Part of it was me being spiteful; it was a gift. Part of it was me applying feminism to music snobbery; I was done with pop-punk dick jokes. Part of it was me being a music snob; at 19, pop-punk was my bad object. A big part of it was shame; I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.
Sharing and combining record collections is an act of faith. What if you hate your partner’s records? What if you lose things? What if you end up having to divide everything back up into boxes and go your separate ways? I’ve merged my record collection with another’s exactly once. The ease with which we did it eight years ago was a good sign. We’ve schlepped our records to three homes and two states, but the process never bothered me. When I look at our records, I like being able to see what was him before me (The Aquabats), what was me before him (Depeche Mode), what we don’t share as a couple, what we brought to each other, and what became us.
You’ll never have enough records. There’s a beautiful sadness to that fact when you’re a collector. I’ll never hear all of the necessary sounds in the world and I’ll never have enough shelves to house them in one place and that is very comforting. Of course, technological progress has radically changed our perception of ownership and storage. Digitization has made just about anything available through both legal and illegal means and we can place that stuff in increasingly smaller, light-weight, and ephemeral spaces. Toward the end of a long, uncertain semester, I started to scan all of the paper I accumulated during course work and teaching. I did this to achieve a sense of control. I may not know what shape my dissertation will take or what its impact will be. But I imagine being happier and more at ease once the stacks on my desk and floor disappear. However, new stacks will probably spill over in their place. Happy objects are messy.
What I’m talking about is gathering. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed waxes poetic about tables and returns to them briefly in The Promise of Happiness. According to Ahmed, the table is a writing surface, a technology that bears the traces of its use, a gathering space, and an item that recedes into the background until certain interactions cause its presence to intensify (2006). Her meditation on tables reminds me of how scholars like David Morley, Lynn Spigel, and Ann Gray have theorized the television and the political significance of individuals and families’ interactions with it in the home. It also made me think about when Mary Kearney described television as something you need to dust during a class activity in her feminist television criticism graduate seminar. I never looked at another television set without thinking about dust, and I think about what else accumulates in my home full of objects. Records gather meaning in dust and in scuff marks. We put them there.
Several months ago, I received a text from a friend. Like much of my correspondence with her, I turned over this statement like a message in a bottle that washed up at my feet.
“the only time I really understand jouissance is when I listen to pop.”
I liked this text for a few reasons. One, it came out of nowhere; I love when some idea or statement seizes a friend with such urgency that she or he has to share it. Two, she taps into what bugs people about this fizzy French word, which is its untranslatability. The word is a derivative of the French verb “jouir,” which roughly means “to enjoy,” and can be broadly applied. Following intellectual contributions from folks like French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, poststructuralists have argued that jouissance is such an intense feeling of joy that it forces the subject to split apart and dissolve with pleasure. This definition makes me think of the phrase “explode into colors,” which a once-promising Portland outfit claimed as a descriptor for its textured, makeshift sound. Three, she connects the word to pop music, which is where I have most frequently been in the presence of such joy. Finally, my attachments to women’s voices as a music fan make me think of Hélène Cixous’ claim that jouissance is a distinctly female experience.
Pop music is about as hard for me to define as jouissance. I’m guided here “purely” by my response to certain instances where female vocalists’ contributions gave me pleasure and what that pleasure might “mean.” For my purposes, I’ll draw upon a few examples of joyful moments in popular music, which will encompass rock, alternative, and R&B in this post. In different instances, it can also include commercial permutations of country, hip-hop, metal, and other musical genres.
In the season six episode, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mad Men featured Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as its end credit music. At its most basic level, the selection demonstrates how countercultural forms like psychedelic music, hippie fashion, and (the promise of) sexual revolution seeped into mainstream consciousness during the late 60s. Implicitly, it may also be gesturing toward advertising’s eventual reliance on music licensing over jingles and original compositions, a shift Timothy D. Taylor attributes to the industrial fervor over Boomer-era nostalgia, blockbuster soundtracks, and MTV. What struck me most about the song’s placement was to whom it was referring. “Two Cities” is primarily a place-setting episode designed to cap off a season with moments of profound darkness that were frequently diluted by scattershot storytelling (Pete particularly), underserved characters (Dawn especially), and an origin story for its protagonist’s bruised psychology that frequently relied upon caricature (Don, obviously).
In the context of the episode, “Piece” comments on Joan’s attempt at professional advancement and her tentative alliance with Peggy. Much of Joan’s storyline focuses on the aftermath of her fifth season arc, which culminated in a partnership at the agency that she acquired through prostitution and resulted in further subjugation because of her gender and management’s devaluing of administrative labor. Joan relies on subterfuge to acquire Avon as a client. With some considerable hesitation, Peggy becomes her ally and hopefully seeds a spin-off where the pair launch an agency and hire on Dr. Faye Miller to conduct their research.
I love that the cue suggests a relationship between Joan’s plight as a professional and Janis’ confrontational pleas of self-sacrifice. First, I would have thought that Janis’ scrappiness and unconventional beauty would more clearly resonate with Peggy (though really, she’s Carole King right down to the Brill Building pedigree). Second, Janis insists that she can prove that a woman’s femaleness is steel-girded. I can think of few figures who can withstand the harrowing cultural damage of women’s objectification better than Joan Holloway. Unfortunately, it’s conditioned her to ignore possible alliances, especially with other women. Joan uses fashion and professionalism as armor. In doing so, she projects to the world that she is confident and essential to the process. But because of the nature of her work and the terms of her partnership, only Peggy sees Joan’s strength. As a result, Joan has never been given entrée into the world of client lunches and social club networking because men like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell view her as a sex object and not as an equal.
The unstudied recklessness of Joan’s professional daring in “Two Cities” mirrors the strain Joplin puts on her voice. Rock critic Ellen Willis argues that, as an interpreter of other people’s songs, Joplin “did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them” going on to add that the singer’s pursuit of pleasure was driven by “a refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder—and the magic of extremes” (2011, 128-129). This provides resistance to Joplin’s voice, that crack when she commands “C’mon, come on, Come! On!, COME ON and TAKE IT” thrilling in its defiance and its cathartic release. If this is jouissance—and it sounds like it to me—the pleasure I get from her voice and that she seems to have gotten from singing as an articulation act comes from having to wrestle against such restraint.
In their necessary theoretical work on happiness and the technological and cultural histories of the orgasm, Sara Ahmed and Annamarie Jagose draw upon work from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Michel Foucault to remind us that pleasure is intensified by pain and objectionable behavior. In thinking about how this influences jouissance, I recall Björk’s “Hyperballad.” It’s hard to pick one song that effectively demonstrates the concept in her repertoire. The woman recorded “Violently Happy,” which may be a synonym for jouissance. But I’ve always been struck by how such an anthemic dance track can be built from such private, contradictory emotional impulses. The song details a morning ritual. A lover wakes up each morning and walks right up to a mountain cliff, taking in the scenery and imagining herself in free fall before she returns to life with her partner, who’s still asleep at home. She wonders what it would be like to surrender to the rocks underneath her, and whether she would greet death with open or closed eyes. The video poignantly demonstrates jouissance through division by representing three versions of the singer—as mountain range, as video game avatar, as playback image—as layers that comprise the (fractured) whole. And I have often felt the full weight of this song on the dance floor, feeling my eyes well up with tears as she screams “to be safe up here with you” as I surrender to rhythm and confession’s relentless build-up to pleasure’s edge.
My favorite moment in Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” is near the end when she breaks into a fit of laughter that compromises her singing quality. Her declaration that this love “feels so good” sounds as if her voice is trying to break free from poor breath control and strained vocal chords. As a result of her glee, she doesn’t give herself enough support to open up her throat and hit the note. Though I recognize its manufacture, this moment of the song sounds “genuine,” as though Jackson is so consumed by her own human joy that she must declare it, even if (and possibly because) this pleasure has left her breathless. But while I dance against the grain of Janis, Björk, and Janet’s voices, I don’t think jouissance is just about the resistances built into pleasure. Roland Barthes popularized the grain of the voice as a concept that could address the erotic materiality of the voice. But while grain is often audible in a singer’s vocal roughness, we cannot give undue emphasis to wailing, screeching, and moaning at the expense of articulations of pleasure with smoother textures. To understand Jackson’s vocal contributions to pop music, we have to understand instances where jouissance is not a site of friction but a moment where we gather together peaceably in its transformative release.
I love Jackson for many reasons. Foremost, I credit her for having as much to do with shaping my feminist politics by modeling a female sexuality defined by the erotics of consent, intimacy, and self-respect. In popular estimation, Madonna is credited with this shift in pop music’s sexual politics, but Jackson did as much in her work and also brought collectivism and black consciousness into her chosen idiom. But I also responded to the ease in her voice. Janet has a shy, small voice, and one that frequently radiates happiness. I often hear a smile when she sings, even in her more confessional or confrontational moments. Perhaps part of this happiness comes from her ability to connect singing and dancing as a circuit of performance rather than distinct professional activities. In her voice, and its signification of happiness, I hear something akin to what Ahmed identifies in the carefree protagonist of Mike Leigh’s film, Happy-Go-Lucky, that “freedom from care is also a freedom to care, to respond to the world, to what comes up, without defending oneself or one’s happiness against what comes up” (222).
I’ll close by offering some ways to challenge or add nuance to my consideration for how jouissance functions in pop music. First, I’d like to consider how pop music signifies jouissance in ways that do not privilege or overemphasize the erotic and take up other forms of pleasure. Second, I’d like to acknowledge that jouissance is not just registered in the voice but in its interplay. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Kelis perform “Breakfast” at NPR’s SXSW showcase last month and felt the full intensity of her joy as she sang and strutted amid her multi-part ensemble. Pleasure resides in the voice’s interaction with instrumentation, composition, and production aesthetics. It’s not just about the singer, but the singer’s voice as one interactive element in a larger compositional or performative space. Finally, jouissance is about listening as an embodied practice, which is how we are able to respond to pop music by singing along, dancing in and out of time, and wiping away tears, perhaps all at once.
Pop music can be part of a circuit for joy. Therefore, jouissance is about the promise of bodily and spiritual connection, however briefly. Ahmed identifies happiness as a series of moments that create texture and shared impressions, instances where we are “brought to life by the absurdity of being reminded of something, where a sideways glance can be enough to create a feeling that ripples through you” (219). Ultimately, Ahmed argues that these moments are ephemeral and are given undue burden as an ideal in a culture that occludes the transformative possibilities that “negative” feelings can allow us. To be happy is not an ideal but part of a spectrum of human existence. It’s fleeting and it’s a feeling we tend to recall (and distort) from memory. Pop music can transform a moment or take us back to it and let us bask in its afterglow or feel pleasure in its friction. It may deliver happiness in brief increments and through ephemeral means, but it can transform our relationship to the world. It’s a point in time that we can always discover or return to, often with as much ease as a needle finds its groove or a song finds its algorithm.
Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.
During my brief trip to Texas, I went to the video premiere for Christeene’s “African Mayonnaise” at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was pretty excited to see the final product, as I knew it was a tense shoot. I also heard it was Christeene’s best video to date. I can vouch for it. Given Christeene’s impressive videography, that’s saying something. It is an exhilarating video. It has dense, beautiful imagery that requires multiple viewings to unpack all the stuff that’s going on. It demands you watch it more than once. It’s a statement video, one that I might place alongside Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. But it’s a lot more fun to watch than most statement videos, particularly since they tend to be overlong yet short on ideas, Artistically Significant yet ultimately shallow, and include dialogue. Get to the hook already!
The song is about celebrity–the mutual dependence between star and fan, the malleability of image, the tricky business of turning a person into a constellation of symbols, the star’s contentious relationship with the camera, the acrid deliciousness of scandal. The video mirrors that concept in its attempts to create iconographic imagery and reveal that those images are made possible through surveillance. In addition to what PJ Raval and his crew shot and edited, the video also includes footage–mostly taken from smart phones–from fans and onlookers.
One of the major themes of the video–perhaps Christeene’s entire M.O.–is invasion. The video shows Christeene and her back-up dancers shimmying in front of the Austin Motel and sashaying through a food court, a supermarket, a barber shop, a hair salon, a gym, a patio bar, the UT South Mall, Starbucks, a Scientology center. Christeene also poses in front of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe and is displayed on a television monitor placed in a chicken coop apparently belonging to the artist. I don’t see malevolence behind these moments of invasion, though some of the men do look uncomfortable about receiving dances from Christeene and her minions. I even think there’s potential moments for community formation. Certainly the dance party at the end of the video celebrates Austin’s queer scene. But I see such gestures of good will and inclusion in Christeene high-fiving a woman at the gym and waving to a young girl at the grocery store. I think the collaborative nature of the video’s shoot reflects this spirit as well. In taking a piece of Christeene, many people are part of the process of constructing her.
But the charged moments–what made the film infamous in friend circles before its premiere–were the scuffles with authority. Police officers escorted Christeene and the crew off the premises during the shoot at various locations. In particular, staff members at the Church of Scientology of Texas locked their doors and confiscated equipment. Folks also harassed the star and crew with hate speech. At least one person cried godless and I like that this moment is reframed as a joke about the stupidity and destructiveness of queerphobia. I think such moments of brutality and intolerance, and the willingness to share them and package them as part of a music video, are what’s so powerful about this clip. Celebrity may have power over us, but it’s useless without people using that platform to challenge larger social and institutional problems. It’s thrilling to watch a queer artist, dressed in unconvincing drag, confront such phobia in public. Christeene does it through humor and an invitation of inclusion, but the stakes are fucking high in the war against individual freedom. Cops might rough you up. People might yell at you because you tucked in your dick and flaunted your ass in public. Cult practitioners may take your stuff and make threats. It happens off-camera.
Christeene also reclaims space as a star. Stars often accommodate the context they’re in, particularly at red carpet events and photo shoots. Teams of people make them into whatever they need to be for a film premiere, magazine interview, or concert. Even stars photographed without makeup is a construction no different from a band breaking out an acoustic guitar to do an “unplugged” performance. Stripping down is as much an act as wearing a safe Armani gown. I don’t know if many would label Christeene a star. She’s not starring in an action movie based on a board game, though I’d love her to play Queen Frosteene in Candyland: The Reckoning. She’s not performing for a televised award show, though she’d show up in an outfit at least as eye-catching as Björk’s swan dress. She doesn’t have a hit album, though I think that might come. Have you heard her music? The production’s really good and the singles are ready for the clubs.
But Christeene is a star to me, perhaps in the way that Courtney Love and Sinéad O’Connor insisted upon their own fame and found an audience with their outsize talent and personality. Christeene wasn’t groomed for celebrity. Quite frankly, I don’t think she has interest in grooming of any kind. Yet she has become a star for some on the basis of her formidable imagination and her total ownership of this invented persona. It continues to blow my mind that Christeene and Rebecca Havemeyer share Paul Soileau’s body. Frankly, I’m intimidated by the kind of creative person who can breathe these beings into existence even if I’m thrilled that such a person can take pop iconography and make something truly punk out of it. That’s probably why I write about it instead.
But actually, the challenge to write about Christeene is also exciting for me. Lokeilani Kaimana might attest that it’s hard to do. A friend of mine at school recently did a job talk about sketch comedy and used Funny or Die as a case study. I wondered how a figure like Christeene, who used the site as a distribution platform, might disrupt how we conceptualize FoD’s viewership and comedy more broadly. I attempted to explain Christeene to the speaker and the audience, grasping at words like “bad drag,” “gold tooth,” and “rectum.”
She’s especially difficult to talk about in terms of race. I believe this is deliberate on the part of the artist, but no less dicey in execution. “African Mayonnaise” refers to the mixture of cum and fecal matter on a spent penis after anal sex. The use of the term “African” to connote darkness and shit is … yikes. Many might say it’s outright racist, and I’m not sure I have an argument against such an appraisal. In a lot of ways, Christeene’s dangerous play with race as a white drag performer reminds me of Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent piece on CocoRosie and artistic risk. There are certainly perils and limits to playing with race, not the least of which is alienating an audience.
I don’t want to applaud these artists and call them brave or misunderstood simply for making people angry or uncomfortable. I know their work might play into rather than challenge other people’s racist assumptions. But I think there’s something valuable to not only acknowledging that such assumptions exist in the culture, but that they must be confronted, mutated, and roughed up in the process (working with a gay filmmaker of color who was a cinematographer on Trouble the Water doesn’t hurt either). Anyone can make millions from an anthem about individuality and perseverance that makes vague claims toward and cynically leaches off of a queer audience. But it takes something more to position yourself as a star and base such fame on the abjection of stardom.
Some may make comparisons between Lady Gaga’s crutches and Christeene becoming someone else’s (or her own) santorum. For one, what an uninspired comparison. For another, celebrating one’s own abjection, framing it as explicitly queer, and making angry, giddy, political, participatory art out it feels a lot more transgressive to me than some of the music passing as such these days. She may never win a Grammy, but I’m no less challenged, outraged, and awestruck. Sounds like pop to me.
As summer winds down, I thought I’d throw up a few videos by artists I can always rely on. Two of them–Björk and St. Vincent–have albums coming out next month. Jill Scott is the third artist featured here, and The Light of the Sun has been in personal rotation this summer. I’d include Rihanna’s Avril-sampling “Cheers (Drink to That),” but Rihanna slants her eyes at the 3:11 mark, bringing to mind Miley’s racial insensitivity incident, so I can’t endorse it without a lot more context.
Directed by Terri Timely
“Hear My Call”
The Light of the Sun
Co-directed by Jill Scott
Directed by Michel Gondry
I usually don’t like to begin posts by with defensive statements acknowledging relative inactivity. They tend to read or are intended to be understood as apologies, and as a woman I avoid offering concession for things that aren’t my fault. The cause of my recent lack of blog fodder is industriousness. I’ve been busy. This needs little justification. In addition to the girls’ studies conference I recently attended, I start another blog series for Bitch Magazine tomorrow. This one is called the Bechdel Test Canon and will focus on feminist responses to a selection of movies that pass the Bechdel Test. Thus, I have been marathoning a lot of features. I’m also working on a couple of other professional projects that I’d rather not elaborate upon at this juncture, but require considerable attention.
The unfortunate reality of being occupied while running a popular culture blog is that media texts generate regardless of your ability to keep up. For a little over a month, I’ve been lagging behind notable releases from Sufjan Stevens, Deerhunter, and Antony and the Johnsons. When releases are relevant, I try to link a preview like NPR’s First Listen, which usually demos a new release a week before it hits stores. However, I regrettably neglected to do so this time. This isn’t so much a concern for Stevens’ The Age of Adz, which for me recalls the petulant tone, Auto-Tune dalliances, and incoherent grandeur of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak except that its indulgences are boring and experimentations are predictable. However, it’s certainly a concern for the Johnsons’ consistently elegiac Swanlights. Frequent commenter Kathy recently brought up Hegarty, who I have mentioned previously. Thus, a long overdue post.
I will admit considerable initial hesitancy toward Antony and the Johnsons writ large, and chanteuse Antony Hegarty in particular. The band garnered much praise with 2005’s breakthrough, I Am a Bird Now. Later that same year, Hegarty provided vocals and piano to “Beautiful Boyz,” an ode to Jean Genet on CocoRosie’s maligned sophomore release, Noah’s Ark. The singer collaborated with Björk on Volta and covered Leonard Cohen songs in the documentary I’m Your Man. Several friends championed Hegarty with breathless comparisons to Nina Simone and invocations of cabaret.
Theoretically, this should have been enough to convince me. But it wasn’t until Hegarty channeled childhood heroine Alison Moyet on Hercules and Love Affair’s 2008 debut that I was moved. My hunch as to why forces me to confront some of my latent transphobia and homophobia. Unlearn, Alyx.
To be clear, I don’t have the hang-ups about transgender people that some feminists do. To me, top surgeries and sexual reassignment procedures don’t register as misogynistic or comparable to the plastic surgery some women receive. There’s a big difference between cisgender women getting breast implants and nose jobs in the name (under the guise?) of choice and transgender men and women wanting their bodies to reflect how they conceptualize their sex. Frankly, such comparisons are reductionist and insulting.
But I was initially resistant toward Hegarty’s output because it was so ponderous and heavy with tortured import, which I do think is linked to the singer’s orientation. Wither the happy? Why is everyone dying in all of these songs? Why are emotions so intense? Why does this sometimes negatively impact phrasing, as exhibited in the leaden Hegarty-Björk duet “Dull Flame of Desire”? Hegarty’s music sounded like a black hole where the corpses of Jean Genet, Candy Darling, and Kazuo Ohno rot eternally as mourners crowd and bawl over the loss. Even though it matters that they lived and important that we reflect on how and why they died, it was too overwhelming for me.
Now, I tend to like my music varied and complex in emotionality and not dwell on or engineer a limited range of emotions. This isn’t to say there isn’t variance in Hegarty’s funereal music. But I think my discomfort with it most likely stemmed from being more comfortable with queer chanteuses having conga lines tail behind. This makes me wonder if I had difficulty processing the pop song as lamentation, especially from a singer who identifies as trans and gay. After I embraced Hegarty’s dancier side and noted the wrenching lyrical content it belied, I felt it my duty to revisit the Johnsons’ previous efforts. I enjoy Swanlights, even if my loyalties are still with The Crying Light. I was astonished by their powerful, austere beauty. I’ve also been able to process more recent acts like the riveting Perfume Genius.
But could I only appreciate queer excess when it wasn’t steeped in profound sadness? Does this need for keeping private feelings at bay suggest my unconscious desire to put out musicians back in the closet? May it stem from privilege, residing in a cisgender white lady’s discomfort over being uncertain if male pronouns apply when addressing the musician? May it make me uncomfortable to face that seriousness is vital when the majority of queer people are not privy to all civic rights, risk mortal danger in quotidian situations straight people don’t have to negotiate, are targets of hate crimes, and in some cases are denied medical coverage and left to die because some hospitals won’t treat them?
Addressing those injustices are worth tearful, shaky, defiant encomium. It demands complete attention and re-education. As a result, the music can be too overwhelming to make it into steady personal rotation, but I welcome it when it presses its importance upon me.