Soon after Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile‘s theatrical release, my friend Jamie compared me to Julia Roberts’ protagonist Katherine Watson, a firebrand Wellesley art history professor who demands that her female students see themselves as more than just potential wives and mothers. The film takes place in 1953 and the main character is a career feminist. In late 2003, I was a college junior coming into my own as a feminist and debating whether to pursue a career in the academy. It was a flattering comparison, an affirmation of what Jamie saw in me. But I was weary of the comparison. For one, I was circumspect about the film’s politics. How was feminism being defined, or was it even considered at all? How might Mona Lisa Smile reaffirm formative texts like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and suggest that equity should only be achieved for upwardly mobile, college-educated, straight white women?
These concerns were magnified on Oprah when Julia Roberts, accompanied by many of the film’s younger cast members, asked why women should choose between families and career when they can have both. Certain kinds of women, Julia. Usually women who are born into at least some kind of privilege. Many women, including single mothers, mothers seeking higher education, women working multiple jobs, disabled women, queer women, and working class women, might not consider the roles of motherhood, wifehood, and professional fulfillment simply as a matter of choice. Julia Roberts was speaking from a place of excessive privilege. Thus, speaking for multiple groups of women who occupy a panoply of privileged and marginalized positions as one monolith who can simply choose family and career registered to me as smug and clueless. It was almost as disingenuous as the scene in Erin Brockovich where a firegrand legal assistant informs a family that they will be getting part of a settlement from a lawsuit against PG&E. The family receives around a million dollars. According to the titular heroine, this is apparently more than her clients’ children and children’s children will ever need. Roberts, the actress who delivered those lines, reportedly collected a $12 million paycheck and was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at the time.
I finally watched Mona Lisa Smile over the weekend. I was in the middle of grading and putting together delivery and listening exercises for the public speaking course I’m teaching this year. Earlier that day, I conducted a music history workshop for Ladies Rock Camp in Madison and continue to struggle with how to reconcile to issues related to age, gender, and racial disparities between campers and subject matter. I always try to assert a feminist identity as an instructor. I believe in putting theory into practice. If teaching is in fact a performance, it is important to model certain kinds of behavior for your students. I’m instructing 26 students this semester. All but two are freshmen, six of them are male, and two of them are black girls. The delivery exercise involves reading pop songs and poems in certain styles, and I spent a lot of time determining what material I’d use. They can choose from the riot grrrl manifesto, a Gossip song, a Langston Hughes poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and Taylor Swift lyrics, among others. The listening exercises will incorporate speeches from Mean Girls, Rushmore, and Wattstax. My hope is to embed a certain politic without calling attention to it. At least not yet. I intend to drop the “f” bomb during the persuasive unit.
Theoretically, this is a part-time job. I am also in course work and on two editorial boards. I am also involved with undertakings related to my school work, including some writing opportunities and a collaborative event I’m in the process of putting together. Friends require attention, as well as sleep, doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and regimented social time. All of these moments present opportunities to reinvest in my politics in both small gestures and larger projects. A discussion of Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon in my film score class requires addressing the filmic and cultural functions of Audrey Hepburn and her character’s relationship to music in some way, and may require a post since class discussion focused almost entirely on formal elements without any real effort on my part to reroute the conversation. These aren’t complaints. These are responsibilities.
I didn’t hate Mona Lisa Smile as I thought I might. It’s a good “gateway” movie for folks who are receptive to mainstream feminist ideology, even if the f-word isn’t used explicitly. Given that Kirsten Dunst was dating Jake Gyllenhaal at the time but cut her hair to look exactly like then-BFF Maggie, I wonder what queer dimensions we might find in certain friendships within and outside of the film. I’m also curious about how marriage is challenged as an institution in the film, alongside sexist, condescending perceptions against housewifery and motherhood. I’m also interested in the ways in which the film sought to hail an audience and contemporize the period in some way. Tori Amos’ musical cameo is one such example. Yet at the same time, I’m bothered by the song selection. Amos appears as a jazz singer performs “You Belong to Me.” Originally written by Pee Wee King, Chilton Price, and Redd Stewart from the perspective of woman missing her lover while he is stationed overseas during World War II, the pop standard ultimately became about a wayward traveler devoted to his or her partner, regardless of how exotic locales might create distance. Listening to Amos deliver the line “See the marketplace in old Algiers” during a WASPy wedding reception in a film that takes place a year before the launch of the Algierian War bothers me.
I wonder how the film could possibly feed into the project of historicizing women’s rights and social progress, something that has been taken up in efforts as diffuse as the American Girl book series, HBO’s recent documentary on Gloria Steinem, and the documentary on the women’s rights movement included in the second season DVD for Mad Men. Yet at the same time, I’m troubled that we, once again, focus on social progress through the eyes and experiences of privileged white women. I have yet to watch Pan Am or The Playboy Club, but I’m concerned that I will see this circulate once again. As a feminist who works with Girls Rock Camp and at a university with predominantly white students who live in a city that supports establishments with “color-blind” dress codes, I worry that these efforts are insufficient even if we consider the function of strategic marginalization. Mona Lisa Smile foregrounds white female privilege, not only focusing its attention on Wellesley MRS degree seekers, but by placing its young ensemble in an art history class. Such intellectual pursuits were, and to a certain extent remain, analogous to finishing school. Though the field of art history continues to be reinvigorated with scholarly assertions informed by feminist and queer ideologies, that type of education is often employed at dinner parties. Just ask Betty Draper. But I’m more interested in what Sheila, Carla, and my students have to say about a Jackson Pollack painting.
A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?” My reply was “That fucking guy.”
Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.
This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.
I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.
I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.
People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.
I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.
Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?
A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.
Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.
Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.
As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.
It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.
I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.
I’ve seen a lot of good shows. As I noted in an earlier post, I’ve seen Electrelane open for Le Tigre and TV on the Radio open for Zykos. I saw Yoko fucking Ono play with her son and his friends. I’ve seen Erika Anderson play on her own and with Gowns. I have part of a piñata from a Ponytail show that I need to encase. Wanda Jackson plugged in when I heard about Alex Chilton’s death. Os Mutantes closed out the Pitchfork festival. Jean Grae showed up the Roots. Hot Chip covered “You Make Loving Fun” at the Church of the Friendly Ghost before they got signed. The Juan MacLean threatened to cave in the floor to the Parish with their groove. Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki used plush toys to recreate the Milk Man cover, which would have been charming even I wasn’t stoned at the time. Dizzie Rascal freestyled in a makeshift studio. El Guincho made me forget about Fuck Buttons with just his voice, a floor tom, a sampler, and a woodblock. And on and on. You get the idea. “I was there.” I’m bragging.
But there are plenty of shows I didn’t see and more I’ll miss. I wasn’t there for the Boredoms’ drum circle, Kanye’s rooftop VMA performance, Sleater-Kinney’s final show, LCD Soundsystem’s farewell Madison Square Garden performance, Daft Punk’s light show, the FOC FEST, and plenty of other gigs. I also wish I could’ve been there for Our Concert Could Be Your Life in New York.
Taken from Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which documented certain “seminal” bands from the American underground music scene and thus sought to answer the question, “what happened between punk and Nirvana?,” the concert paired contemporary indie musicians with those acts. This book meant a lot to me when I first read it. Apart from it being important music history, it was zippy reading. It made me happy, even when folks like J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, Gibby Haynes, and all of the Replacements were demonstrating Herculean displays of dickishness.
Being happy felt triumphant at the time, as I withdrew from college midway through the first semester. My problems weren’t exactly Julie Taylor’s. I hadn’t slept with a married TA after getting drunk on white wine at a grad school mixer, because I don’t know anyone who did. No, I was just sad. I mean, the “just sad” part was substantial. That was and remains the darkest period of my life. Much like many first-year college students including Taylor, whose dalliances were mere plot contrivance, I was having an existential crisis. A therapist I went to once told me I was a spoiled little girl who was making myself miserable. Partial truth, but fuck off. Sure, we can pin it on loving a guy who didn’t reciprocate or an estranged father or the rapid physical deterioration of a beloved grandfather. But really I just didn’t know who to be. With some moral support, I grew up a little and got through it.
Just before I withdrew, I attended a KVRX meeting because I loved Pump Up the Volume. But I felt too removed to sign up to canvas or whatever. The copy of Our Band I received for Christmas helped get me over the hump. What moved me about Our Band at the time was the its championing of the bands’ DIY spirit. I knew DIY was important to riot grrrl and that punk pretended to value this ethos. I also knew the majority of the bands in Our Band signed with major labels in the 90s. But college radio was an essential supporting player in Our Band, as those stations were (and remain, in however diminished a capacity) a conduit for circulating this music. I was too scared to pick up an instrument and form a band, but I always wanted to have a radio show. I made a promise to get one when I got back to college and after I completed my first semester, I did. This book, my abiding love for KTRU, and my friend Brooke’s KANM show “Weakdays” proved I could. Our Band gave me a larger purpose. If that sounds silly, it probably is. Though shortly after 9/11, in some ways, this was a much more innocent time. The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World was in heavy personal rotation, well before keyboardist Marty Crandall was arrested for beating up his girlfriend.
Our Concert sounded like a helluva lot of fun. Ted Leo taking on Minor Threat is intuitive, but Buke and Gass tapped into Fugazi’s austerity in surprising ways. Yellow Ostrich made Beat Happening anthemic, which they always were. Wye Oak didn’t dazzle with Dinosaur Jr., but I became slightly more receptive to a band that only inspires me to fix my posture and do my laundry. As a fan of the Judgement Night soundtrack, I love a good pairing. Dan Deacon taking on the Butthole Surfers’ psychopathic hedonism is smart. St. Vincent drilling through Big Black’s misanthropy with dexterous guitar noise is even more inspired. It might be my favorite performance.
In context, St. Vincent’s performance sounds like progress. Annie Clark was joined by tUnE-yArDs’ front woman Merrill Garbus, Titus Andronicus’ Amy Klein, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Callers’ Sara Lucas, and Buke and Gass’ Arone Dyer. Women’s integration into rock bands is a minor theme in Our Band. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Black Flag’s Kira Roessler, and Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis all made vital contributions. I don’t want to dismiss the first two as “just” bassists, because they were integral. However, we’ve clearly moved past the chick bassist stigma. Garbus is a percussionist. Klein wails on guitar and violin. Wasner shreds on lead guitar. Dyer plays a baritone ukulele, providing nuance and texture instead of trading on quirky novelty. And of course Clark is a classically trained musician who politely lashes people with her guitar.
However, if female musicians signal progress, they also connote privilege. College is a hub for indie rock because that’s where many bands form and deejays champion them (though, as liberal arts funding and training is under threat, my generation may have to continue to find new, creative ways to earn a living). Then as now, America’s indie scene and its coverage are both blinded by the white. I’m not sure if Kill Whitey parties are still prevalent in Brooklyn. I sincerely hope they aren’t. But Kreayshawn’s recent ascendance feels like the same thing, which means the Cocker Spaniels’ “The Only Black Guy at the Indie Rock Show” is still relevant to the conversation. Given Our Band‘s optimistic message, I hope indie rock will continue to expand and be more inclusive.
Followers of this blog probably know that I’m a fan of fellow Houstonian Beyoncé. To my mind, Slate music critic Jody Rosen is right to call the last decade in popular music the Beyoncés. In a recent column for Bitch, Sarah Jaffe trumpeted her praises and recalled Sara Stroo’s Bitch Tapes mix organized around songs about getting dressed, which included “Freakum Dress.” I’ve written a bit on her myself, most notably a response to Dayo Olopade’s piece in The Root about whether the pop star is the heir(ess) to Michael Jackson’s legacy.
All this Beyoncé chatter got me thinking about two music videos in particular. Though the (de)racialized dimensions of constructing gender performance define her work, these two clips are especially noteworthy.
The first is “Freakum Dress,” which takes its name from a slang term that refers to a tight, short number. A freakum dress is a companion to fuck-me pumps, though I think cheap material and guady design are purposely employed for effect and would note that this is yet another instance where B brings urban black vocabulary into the mainstream. I don’t like the message of the song, which advises women with roving-eyed male partners to objectify themselves to ensure fidelity. The two effeminate male attendants who dress B give me pause as well, as they obviously abide by the stereotype of the gay man as his female friends’ accessory and mediator for heterosexual courtship. But I think the racial and ethnic diversity and costuming on this one is interesting, particularly when B dons professorial bifocals at the end. Plus her lipgloss applicator lights up, which is pretty rad.
Directed by Ray Kay and Beyoncé
Then we have “Why Don’t You Love Me?” which I think is one of the more interesting videos I’ve seen in recent memory. Around the time of its release, I remember my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman, made a characteristically astute observation I hope she elaborates on at some point. She commented on how B is ingratiating herself into the iconography of the post-war era white housewife, a role traditionally off limits to black women in media representations. To put it reductively, she’s Betty Draper instead of Carla. I get some Kenneth Anger in there as well, though perhaps without the gay misogyny film critic Pauline Kael accuses him and his peers of in an essay collected in I Lost It at the Movies.
“Why Don’t You Love Me?”
I Am . . . Sasha Fierce: Platinum Edition
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Yesterday, I gave a lecture with Kristen at Act Your Age, a friend and colleague since we got to know one another as masters students in the media studies program at UT. We actually didn’t become friends until our second semester with the program, as I was pretty shy during the first semester and was working full-time. But I knew I liked her from the moment we met at a department mixer when she said that she hoped grad school wouldn’t be like that scene in Ghost World where one of protagonist Enid’s classmates shows off her “found object” tampon in the teacup art piece. I’d estimate that our friendship really developed during the thesis process, as we shared an adviser and second reader. Of course, working at the same 9-to-5 keeps us close, as does working with Girls Rock Camp Austin.
I may never have admitted this to her before, but I heavily relied on her as motivation when we started collaborating. The first time we worked together on a project was for a Flow column we wrote about 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon and her negotiations with power. Earlier that summer, I was asked by a friend who worked at Latinitas to give a talk about how girl pop stars are represented in music videos. I accepted the offer, which I later bailed on when I had a bout of depression and felt like I couldn’t possibly put together a valuable educational resource. I’ve always been ashamed that I let my friend down and had such little faith in my abilities at the time. So I figured if I worked with Kristen, maybe we could maximize each other’s potential. I’d like to think we have.
I should note that we also work well separately, though I ask for her feedback on my projects and am available as a springboard for her. That said, I really like to work with her, less so now because I feel like I need her as motivation, but because 1) we like to model that women can successfully come together and share responsibilities on projects and 2) we like proving that “important” work doesn’t have to be done in isolation. Also, I just like her.
So we’ve worked together for a while, both on GRCA stuff and on other academic pursuits. We wrote a column together, moderated a roundtable discussion for the 2008 Flow conference, and put together a panel for SUNY Cortland’s Reimagining Girlhood conference this fall. Thus, when our friend Curran invited us to give a guest lecture for his race and media course at UT (a class that transformed me when I took it as an undergrad), we of course accepted.
This was a bit out of both of our comfort zones. Kristen never gave a college lecture before. I delivered one for my thesis adviser’s undergrad class on gender and rock culture when she was presenting at SCMS. But that was a very different set of circumstances, for even though I organized the screening materials, I lectured on a reading she assigned. Kristen and I created this lecture entirely on our own, picking the topic, readings, and presentation materials.
We selected the intersection of race and girlhood as our topic, paying particular attention to the exnomination of whiteness and the cultural construction of hipster girls and appropriations of girlhood in contemporary American film. Our case studies were Juno and (500) Days of Summer.
Curran (wearing a Shonen Knife shirt because he’s awesome) generously introduced us to his class, plugging our blogs and referring to us as experts. As humbling as it is to be called an expert by a friend whose academic work you admire tremendously, I recognized that we do know a lot about our topic. Kristen wrote about two of the films we discussed in the last chapter of her thesis. I wrote about a few of the films for conference papers. We’ve talked about many of these texts on our blogs and have seen most of them.
The lecture represented both of us well. Kristen studies mediated representations and sociological surveys of girlhood. I look at convergent music culture from a feminist perspective. Add to the fact that we’re both white women who were both white girls and heavily problematize white privilege and class in our work, and this lecture was basically as close to a scholastic mash-up as you can get. Add our PowerPoint to the mix and you can even listen to it like Girl Talk or The Hood Internet or play it like X-Men Vs. Street Fighter. Plus we call shit on patriarchy and white privilege. Here’s what I learned.
1. I like building PowerPoint presentations. As Kristen created the one we use for GRC, I wanted to give it a shot and it’s a really effective tool when used properly.
1A. Of course, it was not news to me that I would stay up until 2 a.m. futzing with layout design. I know myself.
2. It’s exciting and weird when people write down what you have to say.
2A. As a result, I’m always going to have to remember to slow down when I talk.
3. It’s great to watch a colleague be in total control of herself when presenting information. Kristen’s a clear, succinct conveyor of ideas. She’s also patient and calm and clearly has a lot of personal investment in the process, which will make her a great professor.
4. No bullshit, but I’m great at it too. It feels natural to me. I have much to learn, but I’ll be a great professor.
5. It’s fun to volley. I kinda knew this from GRC workshops, but sometimes I worry that she carries my weight when I blank or get flustered. This time, I feel like the back-and-forth was breezy and perfect.
5A. I need to be kinder to myself and recognize that we both share the work and bring out the best in each other. I definitely did that yesterday.
6. It’s delightful to apply complicated theories from the readings to the lecture topic, especially when the students nod along and seem to get it. It lets you know that you picked the right material and make sense explaining it.
7. Revisiting essays when selecting readings is fun, as well as a good yardstick for what you’ve learned during the interval between now and the last time you read the piece.
8. Clips and images really help illustrate points and trigger related ideas.
9. We forgot to talk about Ghost World! Oh well. Next time. We didn’t talk about TV at all, but have so many texts to discuss.
10. This was a quiet group, but I think a lot of the students were into the topic and got something out of the lecture. They may have, in fact, actually learned something. To be witness and have a part in that process is the best part of all.
Hello everyone. So, I’m giving a lecture on Friday with Kristen at Act Your Age for a friend’s class at UT on race and the media. We’ll be talking about whiteness and girlhood in contemporary American film, primarily because girls are often assumed or represented as white. We’re paying particular attention to Ellen Page and Zooey Deschanel’s turns in Juno and (500) Days of Summer, the latter text being held up as an instance of girlhood appropriation. After reading through Spin‘s 1997 Girl Issue and putting together clips and our PowerPoint presentation, apart from being overwhelmed by the whiteness, I was reminded of my girlhood.
In the interest of sharing, here are some clips from my youth, many of which we’ll be discussing. Please feel free to share. Also, as we’ll obviously be problematizing the exnomination of whiteness with regard to girlhood in our lecture, I’d also encourage people to challenge it themselves and offer mediated images of girls of color.
Recently, I had lunch with a fellow Austin-based feminist and pop culture critic. We were talking about blogs and Web sites we follow and at some point, she mentioned that she doesn’t really follow too many other music blogs because too many of them dwell on Joanna Newsom. Fair point. Tonight, however, I will completely disregard it in order to discuss Visions of Joanna Newson, an anthology about the singer-songwriter Roan Press released earlier this year.
As I’ve indicated a few times on this blog, I have harbored mixed feelings about Newsom. When her full-length debut The Milk-Eyed Mender was released on Drag City in 2004, the genius label was already affixed, most notably by white guy music geeks who seemed far too interested in casting her as their manic pixie dream girl. When I finally worked past the hype and actually heard her, I was instantly put off by a voice I dismissed as pretentiously twee. In short, I would not have been the ideal reader for Visions.
While I have no interest in being any text’s prefered audience, I came around a bit on Newsom. I warmed up to Ys and really liked Have One on Me. Much of my reappraisal of Newsom stems from how the artist talks about herself. I was pleased to find the person behind the guise of her generation’s fairy laureate is a talented, self-aware young woman who can take a joke and doesn’t much take to people calling her voice child-like. And when I finally got past her polarizing voice, I was stunned to find a devastating wordsmith with a keen sense of phrasing. Now that I’m used to it, I really don’t see what all the fuss was about.
So, much as with Newsom’s oeuvre, I attempt to come to this book with an open mind. I admit to having some reservations going in, principally that it would be nothing more than a collection of love letters to the miraculous god(dess)head that is Joanna Newsom, offering much fan boy frothing but little to no critical insight.
Frankly, some of my suspicions were confirmed here. The most discomforting example of idol worship was in Tim Kahl’s arch “Your Feyness,” which reveals that he possesses feelings for a collapsed sense of the artist’s persona and her work that make him feel like a Japanese businessman who buys schoolgirls’ soiled underpants from vending machines. I also bristled when reading Dave Eggers’ re-printed “And Now, a Less Informed Opinion,” wherein he intimates that he hasn’t seen what Joanna Newsom looks like and hope that she’s hideous because her quirkiness would be forgiven by a beautiful face (which, I’d argue, it has). I get that both authors are trying to call into question the sexist impulses of some men’s fan practices, but neither of them overcome it in my estimation.
I was also not fond of tendencies toward formless sprawl and indulgence here, particularly evident in Robert McKay’s “The Awakening of Desire in the Classic Musical Work: A Speculative Exegesis of Ys.” After wading through 42 pages that refer to Newsom as “the Bard,” don’t conclusively argue why we cannot consider the album as pop music, and much philosophical application of four of the album’s five songs, I’m still not sure of the essay’s point. Also, I completely disagree with the writer’s need to set value-based distinctions like high and low art, positioning Newsom as an exemplar of form and composition rather than as the bad object. The only thing I gleaned from it is that the protagonist or dominant theme of one song often makes a small but substantial appearance in the next consequtive track. Interesting point, though given that four of the songs are meant to represent life-changing events in one year of the singer’s life, overlap seems intuitive.
Apart from finding such commentary personally useless, it may speak to my interest in hoping for a more refined and disciplined approach toward criticism away from humanities-based tunnel vision. In addition to narrower focuses into Newsom’s contributions, I was also hoping for inquiries outside the text that consider the cultural and industrial factors that evince Newsom’s artistic relevance in this particular moment.
I will say that some close readings of Newsom’s work were quite valuable. I enjoyed editor Brad Buchanan’s meditation on how Newsom employs both affection and affectation toward similar ends. I appreciated Jo Collinson Scott’s insights on how music invites the process of becoming and inhabiting identities outside one’s personal experiences. I liked T.S. Miller’s essay on “Colleen,” which explores the cultural origins of the folk tale, the feminist implications of naming and transformation, and the etymology of the word “Colleen,” which originates from the word “cailin,” an Irish term for “girl.”
I also valued insights into who the artist was beyond the records and thus found childhood acquaintance Aniela Rodes-Ta’s recollection of coming of age in Nevada City with Newsom to be interesting. I was most invigorated by essays who thought outside the text, like Shayne Pepper’s essay on how The Milk-Eyed Mender critical success generated out of the emerging cultural viability of music blogs as tastemakers, which also created spaces to circulate Newsom covers by reknowned male indie musicians like Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and M. Ward.
I also enjoyed Lisa Fett’s piece on Benjamin Vierling’s cover art for Ys, which utilized applications of egg tempera in classic portraiture and wove various symbols associated with the artist and the album, while at the same time subtly positioning her in a contemporary context.
After reading, I wondered what insights I wanted included to enrich my understanding Newsom. An obvious absence is an interrogation on Newsom’s whiteness and Northern Californian roots. I wonder how her racial privilege informs her interests in West African polyrhythmic harp playing, Appalachian folk singing, and American hip hop. I’m also curious as to how Newsom negotiates art with commerce, at once diving headlong into recording challenging musical material on an independent American label while licensing many of her songs and becoming a recognized style icon. With so much weight placed on Newsom’s formidable prowess as a lyricist, I’d like more emphasis placed on how she uses humor in her work. While I appreciated the inclusion of poetry inspired by Newsom, I wanted more writers to explore various writing forms in their exploration of her work, perhaps asking the artist to talk about herself rather than observe and weave quotes. Finally, I hope folks avoid the impulse to argue Newsom as exceptional and make more of an effort to put her in a context with other contemporary female artists.
As Newsom evolves, it’ll be interesting to see if she continues to inspire future generations of writers and critics to make their own sense of her and her contemporaries. While at times uneven, the offerings of Visions of Joanna Newsom suggest there’s much left to discuss beyond mere fan boy conjecture.