Presenters matter to televised award shows. Their immediate function is to hand out prizes. But they often reflect how an industry uses ceremony to perceive of itself at a particular historical moment, whether they’re a bright young thing, an emblem, a legend in their own time, or willing participants in corporate synergy. Sometimes they let you know who’s going to win, as when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg welcomed Martin Scorsese to Mount Rushmore with a Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Sometimes, they fall on their sword and read bad jokes from a teleprompter to keep things moving. Other times, they kill. And sometimes, they signify the distance between the world and the future.
Like most award shows, the Grammys—which broadcast on Monday for the first time in its nearly 60-year history to accommodate Pacific Standard Time—are not always perceptive about the deeper significance of what awards presenters are assigned to distribute. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; critics’ year-end lists suffer from presentism’s biases too. While the institutions responsible for the show—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and CBS, respectively—may have longevity on its mind in other respects, an award show is ultimately a snapshot of an industry at a particular year, as determined by the compromises made while honoring constituents’ perceptions and advertisers’ immediate commercial directives.
Those two things can still tell us quite a bit of what the Grammys thinks it is in 2016. So it matters that Ariana Grande dorked out before the Weeknd’s live performance of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night,” singing puns as she introduced her duet partner on “Love Me Harder,” 2014’s filthiest house pastiche and a launch pad for the two shy nerds at its center. It matters that LL Cool J and James Corden set up a messy, ill-conceived Lionel Richie tribute in order to plug NCIS: Los Angeles and The Late Late Show while Stephen Colbert threw it to Hamilton on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s way to an EGOT. It matters that Ed Sheeran announced Lady Gaga’s David Bowie retrospective because NARAS rewards the British singer’s inoffensive blue-eyed soul but never nominated anything from the chameleon’s boundary-pushing 70s output, which Gaga and Nile Rodgers heavily showcased in their professional-grade “rock opera” eulogy. It matters that Rock Ambassador Dave Grohl honored Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister by introducing a bloated tribute from the Hollywood Vampires, which made a stronger case against white men grinding rock into obsolescence than both hours of Vinyl’s pilot. They made me long for an encore from the excellent Alabama Shakes, who immediately preceded them with a spacious, electrifying rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which won Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, along with Best Alternative Music Album (Sound and Color wasn’t nominated for Best Rock Album). It matters that Sam Smith handed out Best New Artist, that Meghan Trainor took her win very seriously, and that Courtney Barnett probably ducked out early. It matters that Beyoncé gave Record of the Year to Bruno Mars for “Uptown Funk” after they ran off with Maroon 5’s Coldplay’s Super Bowl half-time show, which broadcast a week and a day before on the same network.
And it certainly matters that three surviving members of 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients’ Earth, Wind & Fire presented Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 instead of to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As Taylor Swift accepted her award, I wondered what Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson—bassist Verdine in the middle, honoring his brother Maurice’s legacy by looking like he jumped off That’s The Way of the World by way of Katt Williams’s mood board in a green velvet tuxedo jacket—made of this moment and their place in history as musicians and black men. As category front-runners, 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly are both ostensibly about how artists are shaped by their current circumstances in relation to the music they listened to growing up. Those circumstances matter, and matter differently if you were born in 1989 as a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in a Pennsylvania borough or in 1987 as a black boy to parents endeavoring to raise their family in Compton.
The market is supposed to be the equalizer. Award shows puncture this myth. As a listener I struggle to give Swift the benefit of the doubt because her feminism often comes with an edge of entitled white girl vengeance that I distrust (yes Kanye West’s trolling on “Famous” is legit gross, but Yeezy is a post unto himself). But I appreciate 1989 as a well-crafted genre study. In particular the dazzling “Out of the Woods,” which opened the broadcast, fuses Swift’s Instagram poetry with Jack Antonoff’s fractured pop production to create the best song T’Pau never recorded. 1989 was favored to win because you don’t move that many units of any album at this moment in recording industry history without netting Album of the Year … unless you’re Beyoncé, I guess (Adele’s 25 will win next year when it’s eligible).1989 is also a testament to the album, and perhaps especially to the album on CD, which many record executives wish we still bought. It’s a streamlined, economical, blockbuster pop statement. Or, said differently, it sounds like an album that would win a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016 and in 1989.
Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes (a length of time a CD can store, giving it the advantage over other formats for a time), To Pimp a Butterfly is a glorious mess. The kind of mess you go through to get to nuance. The kind of mess where intersectionality dwells, overlaps, and spills over. What I find most exhilarating about To Pimp a Butterfly is how Lamar and its impressive team of musicians and producers positioned his flow within black musical history, thus connecting his feelings of double consciousness to the radical streak that energized G-Funk, 70s soul, and avant-garde jazz. Lamar led with eleven nominations, and kicked off the broadcast after Swift’s performance and host LL Cool J’s opening monologue by collecting his award for Best Rap Album, which was presented to him by rapper Ice Cube and his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who recently played his father in a biopic about his former group N.W.A (see—presenters matter). Of the five Grammys he won, this was the only award Lamar collected during the broadcast and thus the only opportunity Lamar had to give a speech on live television.
Lamar was also rewarded for “Alright,” a song that has rightly come to represent the resilient ache of #blacklivesmatter in the ongoing, uphill struggle for racial equality and social justice. Though it lost Song of the Year to Sheeran’s wedding reception jam “Thinking Out Loud,” it won Best Rap Performance. Such an accolade is meaningful for a number of reasons, not least of which because it was the first category NARAS established—in 1989, no less—to recognize significant work in hip-hop vocal performance. However its first recipients, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, staged a boycott because the presentation would not be televised. The award for Best Rap Performance—which was reintroduced in 2012—was not broadcast last night either, and Will Smith is still opting out of industry award shows because of systemic inequality.
Which is why it was exhilarating to see Lamar’s medley in the middle of the ceremony. One thing the Grammys are valued for, especially as networks attempt to use televised award shows as an opportunity to capitalize upon social media and second-screen viewing practices, is live musical performances. Over the years, more categories are getting pushed out of the television broadcast and being distributed in other venues and forums to make room for them. Thus it is incumbent upon artists to turn the stage into a platform, and smart performers think about what they want to use that space to say.
Last year, Beyoncé closed the Grammys with a solemn performance of gospel standard “Take My Hand Oh Precious Lord.” It was written by Reverend Thomas Dorsey, beloved by Martin Luther King Jr., and thus claimed by the Civil Rights Movement. It has also been extensively recorded by various singers. One of them was R&B singer Ledisi for the soundtrack to Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical film about the 1965 Voting Rights campaign that was underrepresented as a nominee for 2015’s Academy Awards. Beyoncé was flanked by a men’s chorus in white suits, barefoot with rolled pant legs meant to evoke slave auctions to make a critique about the devaluation of black people in the United States. My DVR cut off the performance. “Formation” may exist, in part, to correct this. You do not cut off Beyoncé.
As an astute musician who has come into his own as a very fine live TV performer (for me, the turning point was when he turned Imagine Dragons into his backing band during the 2014 ceremony), Lamar probably considered not only the importance of his message, but where it was placed in the broadcast (Grammy producer Ken Erlich spoke with Billboard about the segment prior to the ceremony). Introduced by actor Don Cheadle, whose Miles Davis biopic is scheduled for an April 2016 theatrical release with distribution from Sony Pictures Classics (presenters matter), Lamar chose to turn the Staples Center stage into a cell block, casting himself as a prisoner.
To stunned silence, Lamar wound his cuffed hands around the microphone and launched into “The Blacker the Berry.” He then turned the stage into a bonfire for “Alright” in order to expand the parameters of broadcast television by acknowledging the rich, joyous traditions of African dance, if only briefly. Lamar concluded with a unreleased new song—the closest the Grammys really got to acknowledging how digital distribution has bypassed traditional album releases beyond Drake’s nomination for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—which he performed directly for the camera. The crew captured it with a series of frenetic medium close-up shots before zooming out to reveal Lamar standing in silhouette before a projected image of Africa with “Compton” written across it in Old English font. In that brief moment, to thunderous applause, Lamar showed us the distance between the world the recording industry lives in now and the future we have yet to realize.
Last fall, I got around to watching Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. A friend recommended it based on my interests in female pop musicians and music video. Well, he didn’t recommend it. He predicted (correctly) that I would hate it. But he thought I might be able to make use out of it. For a little while, I thought about writing a term paper on it for my film score class. But then I watched the thing and decided that expanding my existent work on Kelly Reichardt’s use of sound and music would be the kinder, gentler option. I’m all about self-care. Final papers, grading, season affective disorder, and multiple Sucker Punch screenings would take their toll on even the steeliest individuals.
Is Sucker Punch that bad? Yes, particularly because it fails to live up to its potential. Snyder intended for his cinematic period comic about 60s-era female mental asylum patients to be a self-reflexive critique against fanboy culture’s leering, dehumanizing sexism. That may be true, but the critique gets lost in the execution. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a survivor of family abuse who is put in an institution by her own stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. To escape her present living condition, an impending lobotomy, and basically everything that’s ever happened to her, she uses fantasy as a retreat.
Unfortunately, Babydoll can only imagine herself as a sex slave, showgirl, or video game avatar. This is evidence of a damaged mind and the handiwork of self-reflexive fanboy screenwriters. Granted, all of Babydoll’s fantasies are about escape and vengeance, with a brothel pimp (Oscar Isaac) and madam (Carla Gugino) standing in for her stepfather, an orderly (Issac), and her psychiatrist (Gugino). Furthermore, Babydoll assembles a team of showgirls/patients (played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in order to enact collective revenge against their captors. This could be an attempt at female solidarity, though its potential is undercut by the presence of double agents within the ranks. The film does acknowledge that many survivors blame themselves and protect their abusers, as represented by the storyline for sisters Sweet Pea (Cornish) and Rocket (Malone). I suppose it would be disingenuous of the film to have Babydoll escape a lobotomy that assuredly would be performed on her in a mid-century mental institution. But even Babydoll’s fantasies seem constrictive, particularly because Babydoll and her co-hort’s bodies are diminished by music video objectification and CGI wizardry.
Where I find Sucker Punch especially hard to take is its use of pop music. Reflecting the (barely drawn) ensemble of female archetypes in the film’s main cast, the soundtrack is mainly comprised of well-known anthems and classic tracks by “empowered” female artists. Suspending any critique of historical accuracy—an argument I have little interest in with regard to period films if the music works—what troubles me is how the music is clearly supposed to aurally represent some notion of girl power. Björk, Annie Lennox, and Alison Mosshart are tough, resilient, iconic women who represent freedom, escape, and strength to many of their fans. But the film’s use of their music is as confusing as it is calculated. Having Browning cover “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is one thing. Having it play over the film’s opening montage of Babydoll’s institutionalization following her sister’s death is awful. Using Björk’s “Army of Me” in a scene where Babydoll kills a supernatural foe is meant to be empowering but feels hollow. The same could be said of the girls’ final showdown to Mosshart’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Nothing about Sucker Punch feels victorious, no matter how many girls you put on screen or in the soundtrack. For one, I can’t imagine girls kicking that much ass while wearing stilettos and skimpy leotards (live-action Aeon Flux couldn’t do it). For another, I hate that actresses are required to look normatively sexy while kicking ass (at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t wear heels in Machete). In her mind, Babydoll is a post-classic Hollywood Salome. But we never see Babydoll perform. Assuredly this is intentional. I seem to remember hearing that an alternate version of the film features Browning’s dancing, which left little to the imagination. Maybe this prevents us from objectifying her further. But I’d still like to see her claim ownership of her voice and body in those scenes. Unfortunately Babydoll and her girls are never people; this undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist intentions.
Snyder’s invocation of riot grrrl/girl power feminism resembles producer Max Martin’s deployment of feminist girl punk. Ann Powers observes that Martin harnesses the subgenre’s rebellious energy for anthems by artists like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift. Linking Martin’s collaborations to the recent political mistreatment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Powers concludes:
The complex and still unfolding story of the Russian collective can’t be summarized in a short essay, much less a paragraph. But it’s worth contemplating Swift’s latest move, not only because it’s so powerful, but because it demonstrates how consequential a serious act of talking back can be. Punk is a great flavor enhancer, and in small doses, it adds a kick to pop. Take it straight, however, and you could be utterly changed.
I recognize all of this results from (and predates) riot grrrl’s mainstream co-optation. Such appropriation is bound up in the politics of power and consent. These issues are Sucker Punch’s (disjointed, unformed) thematic center. And the stakes are high, both on- and off-screen. The politics of power and consent shape science and the prison industrial complex, both of which are regulated by government and corporate interests. When confronted with difference, these institutions often take power away from patients and prisoners. How else can we explain the mistreatment of people like Sara Kruzan and CeCe McDonald, since it can’t be justified? How else do elected officials like Todd Akin and Jan Brewer get to subjugate women and girls’ bodies with their hate speech and dangerously applied legislative authority?
Powers notes that punk is about community rather than the individualist bent of many of Martin’s confections. Totally. For me, punk is all about struggle and resistance outside of and within those communities. It’s about the transformative potential of making do and speaking to (and spitting at) power. It’s about rebelling against society’s imposition on its own citizenry. It’s also about rebelling against three-chord song structure and mosh pit misogyny.
I also recognize that when it comes to popular culture and art, feminist critics should be cautious about being proscriptive. Perhaps Sucker Punch and texts like it are empowering to people. Jessica Hopper advises against dismissing Taylor Swift’s radical potential for young girls, something I’ve always tried to do as a Girls Rock Camp instructor despite my well-documented, self-reflexive antipathy toward her. So I don’t want to take that potential away from anyone. But I personally can’t abide what I perceive to be the film’s disempowering political message. The stakes are too high.
Earlier this summer, I had Grimes’ Visions and THEESatisfaction’s awE naturalE on a loop. Though critics were generally favorable to both records, some even claiming them to be among the year’s best, I was struck by Jody Rosen’s conclusion that there was “an emptiness at the center” of Visions.
That emptiness is actually what I found most compelling about Visions. It’s something Lindsay Zoladz addresses more favorably in her review, unpacking the term “post-Internet” and attributing the artist’s self-professed short attention span as evidence of a pop architect’s young, fertile mind. I hear it in awE naturalE too. True, it’s hard to find the chorus—or at times a coherent train of thought—on either record. The former uses songs to gather crowded thoughts by a very loose thread. The latter doesn’t press on its own ideas, content to keep songs short and hovering somewhere between a fragment and an afterthought.
Both are invested in repurposing detritus. One is obsessed with clashing synth pop with early 90s R&B and new age; the other is invested in free jazz, funk, and hip hop. Both are, in some sense dealing with identity by using abstraction to think past it. Claire Boucher harnesses the studio and recording software to “be a body” of her own making through bursts of melody and sound that defy coherence for a deeply felt immediacy. For Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, words often curve past the margins of awE naturalE in a dense, textured prose delivered with an ease that belies its complexity. Both albums are unmistakably “female”, even if both acts are trying to blow up such categories.
Put simply, what I like about both records is that they lack a center entirely. Visions and awE naturalE are open texts. But how do we listen to open texts? Usually listeners require some kind of center—the hook, the bridge that links chorus to verse. This is not to suggest that a listener is unsophisticated for requiring a center or that a songwriter is pandering when s/he provides one. I don’t think Rosen is saying “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” in his appraisal of Visions. Nor am I suggesting that it’s so easy to provide a center. I recently sat in on a songwriting workshop for my local chapter of Girls Rock Camp. The instructor played The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and Taylor Swift’s “Mean” and asked the girls to identify compositional units like the intro, pre-verse, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, hook, bridge, and the outro. Among other things, this exercise proved that Swift is a more sophisticated songwriter than I realized.
Though I have argued the limitations of formalism in the past, there’s value in abiding by grammar and structure. Those restrictions aren’t inherently oppressive or indicative of creative stagnation. Nor does their limitations suggest that you can’t absorb the rules only to break them effectively. Listen to Azealia Banks. Joanna Newsom and Agnès Varda care very deeply about form. They couldn’t be able to undertake, much less complete, challenging work like Ys or Lions Love if they didn’t.
My medium is language. I work with words all the time but I think I’m only now starting to appreciate the rigor necessary to harness their power. When I started this blog, I was a bored archival aide trying to channel my restlessness into something productive. I didn’t care how my words fit together if the ideas were there. Actually, I fetishized the tangent. But after spending a year in course work and teaching college students the impact of effective communication and a summer spent editing Antenna and revising a book chapter, I really care about my words.
I don’t care about my words so much in terms of how they are received, discredited, or remixed as I do in how I present them in their final form. A friend noted that as he developed as a scholar, he placed less value in abstraction and began studying Richard Dyer’s compositional style in order to be a clearer writer. I get that. I want my work to be clear. I want to be able to spot the thesis rather than bury it with verbiage and equivocation. I want my sentences to be shorter. I want my argument to cohere. I want to be understood, even if I’m not.
Though I claim to listen for what I don’t recognize in music, it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim dance music as demonstrative of this. All music can be broken down into compositional units. New Order and the Pet Shop Boys care a great deal about form. Dance music requires an adherence it, as much of its effectiveness is tied to listener response. Music is a time-based medium, no more evident than when the Chemical Brothers deploy the eight count (pick a song) to pay it off with an epic climax or cathartic reintroduction of the theme (5, 6, 7, 8….).
One way that dance music engineers listener response is through repetition. This helps listeners locate the beat. It’s not uncommon for musicians or deejays to build or elaborate upon a theme or passage in order to keep listeners engaged. This is harder than it sounds, which makes deejaying—developing a playlist in real time to keep people’s bodies moving—a Herculean task you only notice when executed poorly or compromised by faulty technology. This is why I haven’t bothered to deejay for dance parties yet. Recognizing that Planningtorock’s “Patriarchy (Over and Out),” Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows,” and Purity Ring’s “Lofticries,” and Jimmy Ross’ “Fall Into a Trance” are great songs is one thing. Getting people to dance to them is another matter.
I still fetishize the tangent. And fragments that articulate or challenge the truth can land like bullets regardless of whether they’re missing a subject or a verb. Echoing Zoladz’s piece on failure and Nicki Minaj, I believe incoherence and misrecognition have value. They represent struggle. They recognize the value in not finding the center. As much as I see the value in declarative theses, I will always treasure records like Visions and awE naturalE which seek to bury or blow up the idea that one can ever come to such conclusions. Because in rejecting a center, they provide at least one listener with unlimited possibilities.
Critics are expected to make comparisons. The ability to recognize similarities between people, texts, and ideas is a skill expected of those who observe and write on culture. As music criticism continues to be transformed by post-structuralism, feminism, poptimism, and retromania, a number of writers are praised for articulating a profound connection that seems strained or completely unrelated upon first utterance. What does Taylor Swift have in common with Def Leppard, KISS, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj? Plenty, according to her. What would she have to talk about with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino? Plenty, according to me.
Putting forth these kinds of arguments speaks to contemporary culture’s continued indebtedness to the merging of high and low art that resulted from modernism accidentally rubbing elbows with postmodernism on the train after a sojourn to Warhol’s factory and kind of liking it. It speaks to why my friend Jen hates that Roy Lichtenstein stole from comic books to legitimate panels and pixels for gallery dwellers. It also speaks to why so many Americans are thrilled to see themselves through Mad Men‘s eyes, even if they don’t agree on whether or not the show actually feels like the past.
Music critics love to forge connections between artists across genres. For one, it’s a way for us to show off our eclecticism. Jody Rosen making a comparison between Justin Bieber and Frankie Lymon demonstrates his knowledge of pop history. Me arguing that the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a country song lets some folks know that I understand the group’s connection to Gene Vincent links them to proto-punk bands like Suicide as well as a larger songwriting tradition. It’s also a way for us to launch arguments with one another. But it’s also a way to challenge the definitions of what constitutes a genre by pretending the boundaries around it don’t exist. There’s privilege in trespassing and appropriating, of course. But there’s also the possibility of liberation, particularly from meaningless and oppressive words like “authenticity” and the segregated taste hierarchies they impose.
Paying attention to what songs musical acts decide to cover can be productive when we talk about hybridity, eclecticism, genre, and cultural assumptions. People still tend to be surprised by a cover by a “rock” artist interpreting a “pop” song outside of their genre–even American Idol judges who know Colton Dixon is just copying 30 Seconds to Mars’ take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I was embarrassed when I visited Travis Morrison’s old Web site and listened to his spirited, acoustic version of Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy,” but I knew the Dismemberment Plan well enough to not be surprised by it. I actually prefer Stars’ lounge-y cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” to the original.
When I originally encountered Lisa Robinson’s Vanity Fair cover story on Katy Perry, I rolled my eyes at her comparison between the singer and Dolly Parton. A small part of me was offended–I respect Dolly as a musician and regard Perry as a bad object. My initial response is telling, particularly in how I reverted back to objectification, binarism, and misogyny–feminists are never done unlearning. But I also thought the comparison was super-obvious. Both women became famous for their particular brands of winking hyperfemininity. …And?
Then I listened to Perry’s “The One That Got Away” while waiting in line at Subway one day and was mesmerized by it. What I found especially transfixing was that, if you dulled its electro sheen and slowed it down, I think you’d have a country song. My friend Sarah pointed out that you’d basically have a Taylor Swift song, which challenges my original position on both artists. Here’s what I think makes it feel like a country song.
. . . Actually, I’ll give you a moment to process the age makeup and Diego Luna first.
-The lyric about making out in a Mustang to Radiohead is at once a very specific reference to Perry’s former relationship yet holds universal appeal. It sets the tone for the entire song, which contains references to tattoos, Johnny Cash, and delinquent romance. A hallmark of country songwriting is incorporating minute character details that seem particular to the artist and to millions of listeners.
-The elegant, austere sadness of the song’s melody makes you drop a tear in your beer and gives you the forward momentum to get off your bar stool and sleep it off. The composition is at once simple, yet towering and opulent. It’s as if the song was plated with gold and girded with steel, an abstract description that sounds like a Parton lyric.
-Perry doesn’t have Linda Ronstadt’s vocal abilities. Few do. But the wounded quality to Perry’s voice makes me think of “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good”, particularly in the chorus. Listen to the twang she puts on “in another life” to deepen the song’s sense of urgency and romantic ache and her rueful, muted delivery on a lyric like “us against the world,” which is paired with a descending melodic line.
What I’m getting at here is country music is at once clearly defined and not one thing. So it makes sense that Perry performed this song last fall at the American Music Awards in a hot pink getup and matching guitar that looked like Jem landed at the Grand Ol’ Opry (BTW, I’d totally see Perry, Swift, Rihanna, and Jessie J play the Misfits in a live-action film adaptation of Jem and the Holograms). The genre’s defining characteristics are distinct, yet also malleable and permeable. That’s what makes listening to music so much fun, and thinking about it continuously rewarding.
I’ve never cared for Alicia Keys. “Fallin'” may be the song that launched her career and got butchered at countless American Idol auditions, but “frontin'” is the verb I associate with her. Yet articulating these feelings means checking any impulse to serve as the race police. Where does a white southern girl get off calling a New Yorker of mixed racial heritage a phony?
A few months ago, I was tipsy in my house. The Grammy nominations were announced, and I went on a rant about the Arcade Fire. Deeming them Grammy bait, this dovetailed into me yelling about Taylor Swift and then, as if the heavens parted, I announced that Alicia Keys is exactly like Swift. My reasoning was that they both project an air of authenticity that I think makes them even more artificial. They also let Grammy voters feel really progressive for championing young women and artists of color, even though both artists do very little to upset traditional notions of gender and race. Also, it don’t hurt that they’re pretty and align with conventional (re: white) beauty standards. Or something like that. You’d have to ask my partner what I actually said. He thought I had a point and should explore it in a post, but he probably also thought the drunk lady needed a nap.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a bachelorette party. Back at the hotel, one of the guests put on As I Am as we were getting ready to throw lingerie at our friend (I bought a gift card to a local fetish boutique; I’m liberated, but I’m not the friend who buys you drawers). “Superwoman” came on and one of my friends mused “I really like this song.” Given the proceedings, and that the honoree was a friend from the college feminist group I was involved in, it was somewhat in the spirit of the evening. I think I gave said friend a reassuring nod and poured myself a margarita.
In theory, I like “Superwoman.” It’s got a nice message. I thought it was cool when Keys performed it with Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle at the American Music Awards a few years back. As a feminist, I should like it. But I just can’t get into Keys. I’m bracketing off her film career, though I do want to see Smoking Aces and The Secret Life of Bees at some point. I do like one Keys song, which is also off As I Am. “Teenage Love Affair” is pretty catchy. But my enjoyment has much to do with “(Girl) I Love You” by the Temprees, which Keys’ hit generously samples from. The strings, groove, and backing beat all inform Keys’ track and make it irresistible. Keys’ vocals fluctuate between gleeful innocence and carnal grit. The lyrics, though trite, suggest expressions of teen female sexuality too complex and conflicted for the virgin/whore binary.
But I’m not fond of the video, which repurposes Spike Lee’s School Daze. The source material is a disquieting film about the political life and troubling race and gender relations at a historically black college. The clip is a sweet love story between two college students (played by Keys and Derek Luke). Luke’s character registers as sensitive because he leads demonstrations for AIDS relief in Africa (he also lines up with Keys’ charity work). Vaughn Dunlap’s anti-aparthied efforts in School Daze didn’t suggest he was an enlightened male. Like many progressive males, his activism often engendered deeply ingrained chauvinism, misogyny, and elitism.
People treat Keys like a Serious Artist when I think she’s silly. When the press dubs certain musicians as Serious Artists, I’m automatically incredulous and looking for threads to pull (I did come around on Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty, though). Molly Lambert recently compared Keys to fellow New Yorker Billy Joel in a write-up on “Un-thinkable,” which placed 64th on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks last year. I get the comparison–they’re piano-playing balladeers with an Empire state of mind. It’d be pretty cool if Keys had a defunct metal band in her closet, though I’ll take her Cosby Show cameo.
More than anything, Keys reminds me of world-class showboater Céline Dion, who is completely artless about how her big dumb feelings play out on stage. Keys’ scenery-chewing performance of “Adore” during the Prince medley at the BET Awards? Totally a Dion move. Actually, I’d really like to see Dion roll around on a piano. Wait, no I wouldn’t. Okay, yes I would. Keys doesn’t have Dion’s pipes, but she pumps love songs with such empty bombast that it becomes ridiculous. Maybe I just filter too many things through irony. Or maybe I think there’s something hollow about her performed earnestness. It’s probably both. Back me up, Maria Bamford.
Not that Billy Joel is above being a silly goose. What is boomer pablum like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if not dead serious and, thus, sublimely silly. Damn you, Cola wars!
There’s also something insidious about the racial politics of Keys’ critical success. Upon arrival, I was always suspicious that the press and music industry embraced Keys in response to Lauryn Hill’s rapid artistic decline. In 1999, Hill swept the Grammys. By 2002, Hill went into hiding and Keys was the lauded newcomer. Both dropped out of Columbia, won Best New Artist, and had the burden of model minority status to deal with. But Keys was the one with a steady career. She latched on to political causes that relied on institutional reform rather than radical action. Hill made one of the best records of the 90s and then promptly got branded as crazy, in part for questioning a racist music industry. One fit in, the other dropped out. Given her status, Keys was able to assert an urban black female identity, so long as it was diluted and palateble to a white audience. She did this largely through sartorial choices and in generic identification that could accomodate a mass audience.
I would imagine the presence of Keys’ white mother eased some people’s concerns. It certainly seemed to give her allowances. When she wed Swizz Beats, who was married when they got together, few raised an eyebrow. The rumor mill was not so kind to Fantasia Barrino. But I’m not making any pronouncements that Keys plays up her blackness or projects a studied black authenticity. I will say that I think it is a performance, and one I don’t particularly care for, but will leave it at that. Stronger claims are dangerous. I have no right to assume how Keys conceptualizes her identity.
Furthermore, I don’t know how one negotiates mixed heritage and issues of passing and representing. Having seen friends work through it, I can gather that it’s a fraught ongoing process but refuse to offer judgment over something I can never experience. Nor am I intending to blame Keys for benefiting from institutional racism, as I’m sure she could tell me some stories. What I am saying is that there’s something profoundly unsettling about a music industry that treats talented black women as replaceable. I am also saying Keys has benefited from this system. As has Beyoncé, an artist I like but gave me pause after she donned blackface and performed for Hannibal Gaddafi.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to offer. I’m still struggling with why I don’t like Alicia Keys and what racist underpinings might inform my disdain. I’m tempted to chalk it up to having little regard for a competent musician championing love one bland pop song at a time, but I know it’s never that simple.
Last summer, I helped teach a music history workshop for Girls Rock Camp Houston. At least one of the counselors was a fan–I think actually was wearing a Best Coast t-shirt at one point. As a music instructor to young girls, the band’s appeal makes sense. Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino writes catchy songs that are easy to teach young instrumentalists. “When I’m With You” employs four simple chords–G, E, C, and D. If you have a guitar, I could probably teach you how to play it in ten minutes and I’ve been playing for almost a year. Also, Cosentino’s a belter. If you’re trying to get pre-teen girls comfortable with their singing voices and help them project it to a crowd of strangers, she’s a good model.
Cosentino’s appeal translates beyond the pedagogical. I remember when one of my friends was single, she mentioned that she could relate to a lot of Best Coast songs. Often her songs are about going on dates with people you’re not really into while waiting for a phone call from the person you do like (ex: “The End,” my favorite song on the band’s debut album, Crazy For You). I’ve been with the same person for over seven years, so I never did the bar scene as a single woman. But I certainly think Best Coast songs are cathartic. Imagine bellowing “I hate sleeping alone!” to your empty studio apartment after last call. Feels good, right? It also leaves a lump in your throat.
Cosentino’s booming voice is also an interesting contrast to her stoner persona. I totally believe her conviction when she sings. I was mounting this comparison with a friend recently, who sensed detachment in Cosentino’s delivery that negates the persona I put forth. While her image and hipster following presumes a blasé attitude, her vocals suggest otherwise. I think she means it, the same way that Shangri-Las’ leader Mary Weiss means it when she sings that “nothing in this world can tear us apart” when she promises her boyfriend she’ll break up with an old love on “The Train From Kansas City.” Maybe the bangs, sunglasses, and bong smoke just hide the tears.
But as I’ve said before, I wish Cosentino would write more songs about getting high, having the munchies, and hanging out with her cat, Snacks, who she’s savvily positioned as an Internet personality. While I like singing these songs in my car, I’m always aware of how much boys–particularly boys who don’t reciprocate–inform her lyrics. Part of this is music snobbery. I liked Pocahaunted, her project with Amanda Brown that was heavy on the drone and drugs. But Cosentino possesses pop sensibilities and can write just as effectively in economic, commercial song form.
A bigger part of my weariness speaks to my protectionist feminist impulse toward young girls. Best Coast songs are easy to play. They probably also speak to pubescent romantic angst, and convey it with more brevity than the Twilight series. It’s not surprising the band get invited to play quinceanearas. I’m more comfortable with girls singing and playing along to songs about cats and weed than whining about boys. You know, switch the script. But I sang “Lovefool” to the yearbook photo of my junior high crush throughout eighth grade and I turned out fine. I even discovered that the Cardigans were a lot darker and cooler than their big hit. Maybe I should just have more faith in girls.
This is ultimately my ruling on Swift, who I think shares similarities with Cosentino. Sure, Swift is ultimately more alpha than Cosentino. As Molly Lambert brilliantly surmised, Swift is a Jack Nicholson who is a virgin who can’t drive. And frankly, maybe the reason I prefer Cosentino–apart from kneejerk, shallow indie identification–is because I have deeper empathy for beta females. Yet both women pen songs about unrequited love in blunt, conversational language bolstered by mammoth hooks. Their regard for other women isn’t always great, though Cosentino tends to just compare herself unfavorably toward the girl who’s got her honey. But this isn’t particular to them. Both women are informed in some way by the girl group tradition. As was Black Tambourine, a Slumberland act recently plucked from lo-fi obscurity by a great reissue of their narrow catalog. Their biggest hit proposed throwing a girl off a bridge so the singer could get the guy. Clearly that’s what Swift wanted to do to Camilla Belle.
Swift and Cosentino’s boyfriends have been factored into interpretations of their music and persona. Again, this isn’t particular to them, as this is how most female entertainers are (mis)understood. Read Sheila Weller‘s book on Carol King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which detractors could rename How We Felt About James Taylor. Like Carly Simon before them, Swift and Cosentino have a knack for making people wonder who their songs are about. Swift has gotten lots of publicity for speculation around which songs are about John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, or Joe Jonas and when she’ll dish the dirt about Jake Gyllenhaal. The press is interested in casting Cosentino’s on-off relationship with Wavves’ front man (and tour mate) Nathan Williams as this generation’s Sid and Nancy. Both retain some agency through cultivating their persona and marketing by demonstrating fluency with social media.
There’s also a backlash against both women, sometimes perpetuated by other women. I’m part of that number with Swift, though I side with Julie Zeilinger and hope that she’ll adopt feminism. Cosentino has gotten it from folks like Marnie Stern, though I’m more than a little suspicious about how competition is being ginned up by the press. Both are pathologized because of their gender, whether or not the issue is made implicit. Swift, a career woman at heart, gets derided for being ambitious. Cosentino gets mocked for being a cat lady.
So maybe comparing them is a pointless exercise. Maybe they need to stop whining about boys and come together for some huge crossover project. Both have the chops. I hope Swift’s not allergic to cats.
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.