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 As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself.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.
Back in late January, I revisited “Making Plans for Nigel.” In a blog post on the best musical moments of 2012, a post-doc in my program compared Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” to the XTC single. Point taken. The riff and the hook are strikingly similar. But knowing that the final semester of course work was fast approaching, and especially knowing that I was putting together an independent study on gender and labor, I kept reflecting on the lyrics.
As a kid, I liked this song. But it wasn’t until I was fresh out of undergrad, editing training courses at an e-learning company, that I began to think of this song as a possible critique on labor (or parenting, but often biological and corporate parentage uphold and recirculate the same ideals). Eight hours under fluorescent lights can do that to you. The song is told (with tongue in cheek) from the perspective of Nigel’s masters, who believe that selfless diligence and deference to management will guarantee their charge’s happiness. Yet as I was preparing for the semester–pulling books from the library, writing reading notes, drafting pre-lims reading lists, revising writing and teaching materials–I kept returning to the line “Nigel is happy in his work.”
Nigel’s masters are speaking for him. They’re assuming he’s happy in his work. But what if he is actually happy in his work? Happy the way Peggy Olson is happy when she’s stumbling out of her office after 6 p.m. to stretch and steal a cigarette from the typing pool. Happy the way I am happy when I’m writing and completely lose track of time. Sure, happiness is a moving target when it comes to labor. Those of us who tend to overwork ourselves must advocate equitable treatment and insist against self-exploitation, especially if we are women and there are gendered expectations that we’ll overextend ourselves. Self-care is real, y’all. As a feminist media scholar who studies gender and labor–mainly because I think the ways in which women’s labor is valued in the media industries needs to be studied, but also to some extent because I’m a woman who is never not working–I keep thinking through the negotiation between loving your work and making a commitment to learning to love yourself.
In many ways, I’ve been thinking about this well before I went back to grad school. Those who have followed this blog from the beginning (i.e., April 2009) know that I came into the MCS PhD program with a very clear idea of what dissertation I wanted to write. Because I was writing it into this blog. While maintaining this space, I reflected quite a bit on my memories of my experiences in college radio. I worked for four years at UT’s station, 91.7 KVRX. During this time, I was simultaneously developing my feminist politics. It was through my involvement with Alliance for a Feminist Option, a campus feminist sorority, that I read Gloria Anzaldúa and Patricia Hill Collins and became friends with brilliant women who were thinking through a lot of the same stuff I was processing. Working at KVRX allowed me to apply my feminist education. Because while I eventually thought of the station as home, I also saw a lot of sexist bullshit go down.
I was one of many of the women on staff could (and did) trade cautionary tales about listener harassment. The most common offense female deejays confronted was the unidentified, disembodied male voice who would call in to inform us—often accompanied by grunting and/or contemptuous laughter—that we sounded sexy. Speaking for myself, I went on the air because I had records to play. I was trying to share knowledge. The amount of research that went into my shows was comparable to the research I do as an academic. Many of the songs I played were from records that were out of print, released on labels that no longer existed, and were recorded by artists—many of whom were women, many of whom identified as queer—relegated to the footnotes of history, if they were even granted such a citation. To reduce my work to the assumed seductive properties of my voice was insulting, and it was an insult waged upon many female deejays. This resulted in me taking down my email address. I stopped giving out the station phone number as frequently during my broadcasts. And I got good at hanging up on rude callers. But each time I did, I wondered if I lost an opportunity to chat with a female listener. Rarely did women call in during my show (at least not women who were not my AFO grrrlfriends). When they did, they usually wanted to talk about who I was playing.
These were not problems my male contemporaries (including my partner, who hosted the blues program and served as music director) seemed to have to deal with. We certainly had allies. But male deejays did not seem to need to engage in the same tactical maneuvers as their female counterparts. It was common for women to serve as co-hosts and/or bring friends and partners to the station for protection. It was less common for women to agree to do a radio show alone and/or in the late evening and early morning when public transportation was unreliable and the streets were empty. Yet amid all that nonsense, I still lived for programming a radio show. I still lived for reviewing albums and going to shows. And I wasn’t alone. So on the one hand, there’s a negotiation for self-worth and equitable treatment. On the other hand, there’s the distinct pleasure of being happy in one’s work, despite (and sometimes because of) this sexist bullshit.
My blog changed with time. I used to update every day, chasing various news items and writing 300-word posts about videos I liked. I don’t do that anymore. I prioritize my time differently. As a grad student, I have to. More to the point, as a grad student I feel like I have to do research and piece together as much context as I can before I attempt to write anything. But I’m also trying to learn to listen to what I need, particularly because grad school provides a lot of opportunities for labor and leaves you with the task of determining whether that labor is beneficial to you. Grad school requires you to make time for things. But it doesn’t give you much time. It assumes that you’ll make these choices for yourself. This can be difficult, particularly if you internalize the ways in which labor expectations privilege masculinized norms of self-sacrifice and individual achievement.
So as this blog developed, I became interested in labor as a subject of study. Maintaining a blog to break up a work day can do that to you. In December 2009, I wrote a short post on music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. It would ultimately lead me to my dissertation topic. I am a feminist media scholar who studies the intersections of gender, labor, and music culture in a post-network era. I have come to these intersecting subjects of study through my own experiences, questions of identity (or, because intersectionality matters, identities) always come first for me. One reckless habit I have cultivated as a graduate student is not worrying about whether other research projects bear similarities to mine, thus occluding me from committing myself further to particular subjects and lines of inquiry. In point of fact, a number of people have already written on similar topics. I am preparing to write a dissertation about women’s intermediary labor between the music, television, and new media industries. Taking Vicki Mayer’s organizational schema from her book Below the Line, I will pay particular attention to positions such as booking, promotion, licensing, and music supervision.
The last area has already cultivated a sizable body of knowledge within media and film studies (see: Aslinger, 2008; Klein, 2009; Barnett, 2010; Lewanowski, 2010; Anderson, 2011). However, there is still more to explore. We can think through how this field of labor is intertextual and relies upon laborers’ accumulation of cultural capital, fluency in copyright law and business practices, negotiated knowledge of several industries and their distinct needs, and the sensitivity they must demonstrate to the ways in which certain musicians and affiliated genres are deployed to hail particular audiences. Furthermore, supervisors’ labor relies on and has been shaped by the industrial practices of licensing, promotion, and booking. Finally, greater attention must be paid to how labor identities and gendered assumptions about labor shapes this work.
Women contributed a largely ignored history of work in these areas that has only recently cultivated a (compromised) visibility. Women’s work seems to have been delegitimized in these fields for a few reasons. For one, these labor positions are historically perceived as catalysts for struggle to penetrate various barriers to entry. If industrially or culturally sanctioned “auteurs” like film director Wes Anderson and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner want to place a Beatles’ song in one of their projects and the music supervisor or licensor cannot negotiate a licensing fee that fits within the budget (Beatles’ songs are notoriously expensive to license), the burden of responsibility (or blame) tends to fall on the laborer who cannot ink the deal.
There is also an assumption that labor that relies upon technical skill and is organized by craft unions and guilds is not as valuable because it is perceived as dependent upon and subservient to “creative” labor like writing, directing, producing, and acting, thus “justifying” and reinforcing the industrial hierarchies of above- and below-the-line labor. Booking, supervision, licensing, and promotion all qualify as below-the-line labor and thus tend to be delegitimized. The line between work and fandom is often blurred for these particular laborers, which can cause further perceptual delegitimation within the media industries. Finally, pervasive sexist and misogynistic assumptions remain on what it means for women to enact these labor roles. Much of this work takes place in meetings with artists, label representatives, legal teams, and publishers. Many of these exchanges take place through electronic communication channels, in offices, or in conference rooms. There are gendered assumptions in place even in these exchanges.
However, a good bit of this work still takes place at industry festivals like SXSW or backstage at concerts. As scholars like Sara Cohen have noted, such cultural spaces are historically off-limits or available in a restricted capacity to women because of minimal concerns for individual safety to, from, and at a gig, which is usually booked after-hours in poorly-lit metropolitan areas with limited public transportation and parking accommodations that many of their male counterparts rarely had to consider (Cohen, 1997). Hence why a number of artists associated with the riot grrrl movement repurposed second-wave segregationist practices by holding female-only shows or insisting that male audience members stand in the back. Hence why more shows were all-ages events in repurposed performance spaces that took place earlier in the evening.
Because there remain pernicious assumptions that women and girls simply entering into a venue space must have heteronormative sex-based ulterior motives for contact, as the idea of women and girls who turn their music fandom into a livelihood (coupled with the cultural degradation of groupies’ labor and the sexist assumption that women and girls at a concert must be groupies) is unconscionably foreign to many people. What is more, there is an assumption that all people go to a concert to hear live music. As I’ve written (and will continue to write) since January 1, 2012, there are consequences for this not always being the case.
What does this mean for my scholarship? By extension, what does this mean for this blog? Or what some of you might really be asking: where’s your post on Beyoncé? Good questions all. I’ve thought a lot about Beyoncé as a site for understanding race, gender, and labor. Beyoncé has always been known for fancy footwork. This is really just an extension of how closely she controls her own image. A friend asked why Beyoncé “let” Michelle Williams take the lead on their new single. My catty reply: “Beynevolence. That’s what her fifth album will be called” (I say this as a fan, B’Day 4 life). I keep thinking about the intense coordination of the Destiny’s Child reunion, the Super Bowl half-time show, the GQ cover story, the HBO documentary, and the announcement of her world tour. A lot of interesting discourse came out of this confluence of brand positioning. I thought Leah Carroll’s comparison of Life Is But a Dream and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning was especially interesting in terms of their particular evocations of “realness.” I also thought about Beyoncé advantageously comparing herself to an athlete in her GQ cover story (a connection photographer Terry Richardson extended because his dick has no imagination).
I like Beyoncé. A major part of what I like about her–aside from her voice, songs, performances, and music videos–is her insistence of control. However, some may argue that such a need for control keeps Life Is But a Dream, which she directed, from functioning as a proper documentary. It often shuts down moments where we might learn something about the subject. Beyoncé won’t offer much detail on her relationship with her father and the decisions she made to be her own manager. More to the point, for all of her insistence on female solidarity, professional agency, and sexual fulfillment, Beyoncé does not seem to have much of a relationship with anyone. We barely see her with Jay. We see her with her nephew, but not her sister Solange. We see footage of her singing “Lovefool” with Kelly and Michelle from their Destiny’s Child days, but then they’re clapping for her from a distance at an awards show. We see a few moments where she asserts her authority backstage, but many of those are dropped in with little context and quickly backed away from. These are ruptures that demand questions the documentary can’t or won’t answer.
As I was watching, I kept thinking about bell hooks’ critique of Madonna: Truth or Dare and the ways in which the Material Girl pathologizes her back-up dancers in terms of race and sexuality and elects herself as their white savior (hooks, 1999). No such intervention from Beyoncé. However, as someone who is especially excited about her all-female band, I was sad to see little connection between Beyoncé and the Sugar Mamas. Furthermore, I was flummoxed by the scene where choreographer Frank Gatson orders Beyoncé’s dancers to sew their hats into their hair. A friend noted that one of the women he yells at is Ashley Everett, one of the pop star’s choreographers and dance captains. This scene gave me pause for a few reasons. For one, it’s a rare scene where another woman’s labor is acknowledged. For another, it’s a tense scene between members of the touring company and the interplay of race and gender frames the tension. Furthermore, Beyoncé is not in this scene. This distances herself from the labor that also helps create “Beyoncé.” Yet at the same time, this scene was included in the film by either Beyoncé or her editing team. Thus there is an acknowledgement of the dancers’ labor, yet Beyoncé’s connection to that labor is unclear. Being able to make those connections would help us better understand the star’s labor, as well as the surrounding labor that makes her stardom possible. But speaking to those absences and ruptures is a start.
I’m taking an independent study on gender and labor for my pre-lims and dissertation. I haven’t come up with my pre-lims question, but I’m noticing many themes. Some include: the processes of deskilling through technological changes and historical materialism, the assumption that women’s wages are supplemental for a family income, the identity-based connections between production and consumption, the struggle to articulate worth, the contingent visibility and shaping of race and gender by work environment and industrial definitions, paternalistic labor practices and educational opportunities, unions’ sexist obstructions toward female laborer participation, women entering into identity-based competitions with other women, the expectations of motherhood, and the contingent coalitions female laborers form and continue to form despite various oppositional forces. I’m also noticing that not a lot of media studies scholarship deals directly with gender and labor, though this is changing. I’m putting together a mix CD for the indie study. The act of curating a mix is useful to me, and I might be able to pull out a question by thinking about gender and music as sites of labor. I’m struggling to find songs that don’t treat these subjects as inevitably vulnerable to exploitation and subjugation. I’m looking for music that gets at the nuances of negotiating a love for labor with an insistence not to self-exploit. Here are some songs I’ve chosen so far. I welcome other suggestions.
I’ve been at a conference all day, listening to media scholars volley and bandy about ideas and concerns, as well as research and methodological questions related to television comedy. Though fascinating conversations were forming around me all day (I fumbled through a well-intended but unformed question too, because I make myself participate in these conversations), I was distracted by some sad news my partner imparted to me as I was waking up: Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are separating.
As someone who has no personal investment in marriage, it might be odd that I would react to news about the split in this way. Though I disavow the wedding industry and the societal privileging of married couples, nor treat monogamy as a sacrament, I do like to see couples make it. I was sad when the Gores announced their divorce and am pulling for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith to work it out.
Part of why this news hit me so hard has to do with projection. The move to Madison and transitioning into a life in the academy presents its own challenges. But my stepbrother was killed in a car accident this past summer, sloughing his mortal coil just shy of his 30th birthday and leaving behind a wife and baby daughter. I am still processing my grief over the loss, and keep returning to Avey Tare’s Down There for catharsis (a musical selection he would have hated). My mom’s best friend’s ex-husband passed away this month as well. In addition several friends back in Texas are planning weddings, returning to school, having children, and throwing birthday parties. I’m not lonely in Madison. I’m making friends. And between course work, class prep, administrative meetings, and writing and editing responsibilities, I don’t have time to be lonely. But while I love the work I’m doing, it’s hard to not have the time to reinvest in old friendships.
Recently, a few marriages dissolved within my friend group and, given the circumstances, I especially ache for the women in these partnerships. This causes me to reflect on my own partnership. My partner and I celebrate our eight-year anniversary next January. He is incredibly supportive of me and my professional aspirations. He also has his own projects, and I am incredibly proud of his contributions. But it’s hard to work through twelve-hour days and then come home and reconnect when you’re exhausted. It’s also challenging to expand our friend group beyond people in my program, which I hope doesn’t create any strain. But partnerships of any sort require tremendous attention and investment. Folks also change over time within them. In a 27-year marriage, both spouses evolve into different people. The challenge then becomes evolving with one another and not turning into enemies or more often strangers, which is precious and rare.
Gordon and Moore were married a year shy of my entire life. I will not speculate foul play, though I reserve the right to be disappointed in Moore if he takes up with Peaches Geldof. What most resonated with me about their union was that it was a demonstrably feminist marriage. Both partners voiced the importance of consensus, mutual respect, shared parenting responsibilities, equality, and balance. They also work together in a band, and thus constantly reconcile the band’s needs and their individual artistic inclinations. Gordon also had to deal with sexist assumptions about her husband’s instrumental prowess and routine dismissal of her musical contributions, even though she possesses one of rock’s most evocative voices. A few of my friends sustain romantic partnerships with professional colleagues. Such relationships are possible, but require compromise, attention, and negotiation.
Sonic Youth plan to finish their tour. For selfish reasons, I hope the band stays together. If they continue to create interesting, vital music, I want them to push on. There is some precedence for Gordon and Moore’s current position. The White Stripes, Quasi, Smashing Pumpkins, and Fleetwood Mac continued making music despite members’ romantic dissolution, though none of those groups had a high-profile couple with Gordon and Moore’s marital longevity. But I would be just as happy if the pair moved on to other endeavors. In 1988, artists Marina Abramović and Uwe Laysiepen ended their long-term relationship by meeting each other in front of the Great Wall of China after walking great distances. Once they saw each other, they said goodbye and continued their long journeys walking in opposite directions. Perhaps Gordon and Moore will do something similar in South America next month. If they do, it’s been a good run.
Yesterday, Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style posted an entry on Taylor Swift, which I read while waiting for her to unpack what’s going on with Demi Lovato in what I hope will be a future post. Given her interest in contemporary gossip culture, she focuses her attention on Swift’s success in cultivating her own celebrity through her music and savvy use of social media and the tabloids. As she has generously before, Annie linked an entry I wrote on Swift some months back. She also called me out as someone who didn’t like Swift.
Well, “call out” isn’t exactly the right term. It suggests I had something to hide. I’ll be clear. I dislike Swift’s music and persona to such a degree that I have to keep my misogynistic tendencies in check (yes, feminists can be lady-haters too). In fact, I recently asked Kristen at Act Your Age to redirect a foaming-at-the-mouth ALL CAPS rant I was launching into toward a more productive discussion. We shifted gears with a conversation about the Spark Summit “Girl Activists Speak Out” panel Shelby Knox moderated, which I recommend viewing.
My acrimony toward Swift hasn’t altered much, though it would give me much to talk about with Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess following their recent Swift-related exchange for Tiger Beatdown. I find her passive-aggressive revenge anthems against boys who wronged her and pious missives against sluts she takes upon herself to shame unbearable. I still take offense to celebrations of her guitar playing and songwriting as exceptional, interpreting it less as evidence that young women and girls are making tremendous in-roads in the music industry and more as condescending ignorance toward the perennial presence of young female musicians society chooses not to prioritize. Her constructed authenticity bothers me, a criticism I wage against the majority of contemporary country musicians and virtually every white man who plugged in an electric guitar in the 1960s. Her upper-middle-class family moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville and home-schooled their daughter in a Christian tradition so she could break into the industry.
As her star has risen, her lyrics gesture toward a keen, callous awareness of how gossip culture operates. It’s almost like she got linked to John Mayer in anticipation of writing a song about what she may have done in a hotel room with him so Jezebel could speculate over it. She’s also become more indulgent, further evidence that her false modesty belies a wicked sense of entitlement. Forgiving Kanye? Devoting nearly 7 minutes to John Mayer? Calling Camilla Belle a mattress gymnast? Speak Now? Ann Powers may be on to something when she says Swift has matured musically, but I’ve heard enough. It may get her magazine covers and move units. But I find her capitalizing on supposed victimhood to be as monstrous as her personal life is boring.
I take particular umbrage with Swift’s nerd drag. She may have endured hardships in her teen years. She may have felt uncool and threatened by weird girls with hip sensibilities and less normative interests, though I can imagine high school yearbook coverage distorts this perception, if not her recording contract. She may have been misunderstood and it may be manifested in her music videos where she wears thick glasses, but she gets to hand those back to wardrobe. Many of the nerd girls I know had prescriptions. Being a nerd was intrinsic. As a result, they were harassed by their peers. They endured homophobic epithets or having garbage thrown at them. The best they could hope for was to be ignored entirely, as if their existence didn’t matter. Some were queer. Most had little interest in extra-curricular activities, focusing instead on riot grrrl, comics, science fiction, or Anne Sexton, though one of them played softball and volleyball while distancing herself from the in crowd. They may not have been as calculated, but all of them were smarter than Swift ever play-acted at being.
What was especially funny for me when reading Annie’s post was my incidental soundtrack. Roughly twenty minutes before, I put on a no wave mix from the Free Music Archive while doing some office work. When I started Annie’s entry, I was about 14 minutes into a live recording of “Sweetness,” a song by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s side project Northampton Wools. For those familiar with a subgenre that formed as an extreme reaction against punk’s relatively tame dalliances with nihilism and (aural and physical) violence, it might come as little surprise that this is the section that sounds like a lead violinist is tuning to a test tone in the center of a beehive. A better juxtaposition couldn’t engineer itself.
I don’t bring this up to cast myself as some diving rod of subterranean cool. I hardly think of myself as any reliable barometer and would challenge such an impression if one exists. I may romanticize my discovery of college radio during high school. It was certainly informative of the sardonic feminist crank I’m proud to be today. But I didn’t form a band. I didn’t sneak out of the house to attend gigs at Fitzgerald’s or Mary Jane’s. While my interests in underground music developed (though not much deeper than Liz Phair’s Matador years), I didn’t harness it in any oppositional way. It didn’t even occur to me because I was too busy taking down the minutes at National Honor Society meetings. It was a curio I kept to myself, bringing it out of my bedroom on rare occasion. I still subscribed to Rolling Stone. I fancied myself an intellectual because I read rock anthologies I got at Barnes and Noble. Talk about nerd drag.
Rather, what crystallized in reading Annie’s post was that, in identifying with Swift, her descriptions of a relatively normal teenage existence weren’t dissimilar from my own. I had a sense of this from taking a girls’ studies class with her, wherein personal anecdotes of feminine adolescent experiences would seep into discussion. We grew up in small towns. We didn’t have animosity toward them but had ambitions beyond them that involved tending to a decorated résumé. Having read Anita Harris’ seminal piece on can-do and at-risk girls, we shared the sentiments held by much of the class when relating more closely with the former. We didn’t challenge this binary in our teen years with recreational drug use, shoplifting, or truancy. In our aggregate social interactions, I sense that our exchanges would be similar if we were in high school. I don’t think we’d be close friends, bifurcated by different social allegiances. However, we would be cordial in the hallways, respectable toward one another’s observations in Socratic seminars, and partner up for team research projects. We probably would’ve been in French Club together.
This is all prelude to why I was listening to this no wave mix when I read Annie’s post. I was revisiting Ut, a seminal no wave band that I didn’t hear until college. I did know about them in high school, but that’s because they were mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” For those following along, the band is nestled between Billie Jean King and DJ Kuttin Kandy. I learned about it in Spin, because it was supposedly hipper than the Boomer rockism Jann Wenner privileges in his publication.
Sally Young, Jacqui Ham, and Nina Canal of Ut deserve as much tribute as Lydia Lunch, Y Pants, or the Bush Tetras. Though I’m a fan of the Contortions and DNA and proselytize the contributions of their female members, no wave was introduced to me as a dude’s fetish toward dude music. You know, Swans’ fans who can’t get enough of Michael Gira’s pilot outfit pummeling them with purposefully grim songs about cops, slaves, and rape. It has a function, but I question its import. It’s also fairly tedious, as is usually the case when white men try to confront people with their definitions of ugliness.
Ut is a good way in. Like Young God founder Gira, they also ran their own label, Out. By committing to the sonic austerity and infusing it with feminist rage against personal and systemic oppression, Ut created well-crafted and truly terrifying music. Regrettably there’s little live footage and reissued material isn’t especially easy to come by, which I think make their contributions worth greater attention. I may not have listened to them in high school, but I embrace and aspire to learn from the kinds of girls who did and would. Taylor Swift fans are welcome at my lunch table too, so long as we can trade mixes.
Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.
For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.
I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.
However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.
But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1’s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters. What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.
I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.
In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.
Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.
In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.
Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.
I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.
Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.
I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.
Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.
I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
Last night, my friend Erik came over with a copy of Allison Anders’s 1996 feature Grace of My Heart. As it’s loosely based on Carole King’s life and I read Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us this past summer, I was eager to see it. I haven’t watched Anders’s Mi Vida Loca or Gas Food Lodging, but I have seen Border Radio, which she co-directed. While Border Radio lacked much of a story, it looked great and is a necessary document of the 80s East L.A. punk scene. Thus, I thought Anders could bring something to a music biopic.
I also miss Illeana Douglas, who I used to see in more things. Remember how rad she was as Nicole Kidman’s sister-in-law in To Die For? I skate on your grave, honey.
Erik told me that Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” was originally written for the movie and later added to Washing Machine. In fact, the movie’s songs were written and performed by then-contemporary artists channeling pop nostalgia to evoke the Brill Building, The Beach Boys, and King’s Tapestry. This was a 90s hallmark evident in tribute compilations to Saturday morning cartoons and The Carpenters, as well as with supergroups formed to accompany biopics on The Beatles and glam rock.
So how would the musical contributions and on-screen appearances of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, Red Kross, For Real, Jill Sobule, and Juned inform the viewer’s understanding of the period? Also, would they work with compositions written by Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, and Joni Mitchell?
As it turns out, the music is the movie’s best asset. The movie has considerable promise and starts off well in its documentation of Edna Buxton’s professional ascendancy as songwriter Denise Waverly at the Brill Building and her struggle to become a female solo artist at a time when female musicians were either singers or songwriters. Thus, sexism and shifting gender norms is at the fore of the movie, which is great, as is its uncommented-upon racial integration. There’s also special attention paid to female collaboration between Waverly and various female pop acts. The movie also foregrounds the kinship between Waverly and songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit), who tap into teen singer Kelly Porter’s (Bridget Fonda) closeted lesbianism — she’s clearly meant to stand in for Lesley Gore — when they write “My Secret Love” for her.
I also like that the movie ends on Waverly cutting her first solo record, Grace of My Heart, which becomes hugely successful and era-defining in much the same way that Tapestry was and continues to be.
The movie’s main problem is that it simply packs too much in and resorts to awkwardly executed high melodrama in the second half. And for some reason, the movie thinks it also needs to tackle Brian Wilson’s onerous pop genius and descent into madness, and thus marries its avatar Jay Phillips to Buxton. There’s the additional misfortune of casting Matt Dillon in the role, who operates on only two modes as an actor: dumb and really dumb.
I’m also not fond of Douglas’s faked singing. While part of this is the movie’s fault, as Kristen Vigard dubbed singing isn’t a convincing match for Douglas, I have a hard time buying the actress’s musical performances throughout.
But to Douglas’s credit, amidst all that goes on in this overstuffed movie, she does a great job conveying how Waverly’s resultant experiences age, jade, and strengthen her. It’s a shame that the movie can’t always rise to the occasion.