The Emotional Viscerality of Getting Older

On the verge of my 30th birthday, I returned to Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan to see and hear Land of Talk touring their latest release, Life After Youth, in the company of a dear friend and birthday buddy.  Since seeing Tegan & Sara for my first show there in 2005, Bowery Ballroom has long been one of my favorite venues in any of the cities in which I’ve lived.  With a capacity of around 600, the venue is big enough to have a balcony yet small enough to feel intimate—making it perfect for Land of Talk.  Since 2006, this under-appreciated indie rock project built around the simultaneously urgent and inviting vocals and guitar chops of Elizabeth Powell has gathered an incredibly loyal fan base.  I have been a fan of the band since April 2007, when I heard the original lineup of Powell on guitar, Bucky Wheaton on drums, and Chris McCarron on bass for the first time across the river at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ.  Introducing myself to Powell immediately after the set, I felt a pull and sense of connection with the music (and with Powell, the heart and soul of the band) that my awkward 19-year-old/on the verge of turning 20 self could not yet fully articulate.  I would go to see and hear Land of Talk another five times in 2007 alone—and would continue to grow my 20s with them even after they went on hiatus in 2011.  Once you throw yourself into the immersive experience that is this band’s albums and live shows, Land of Talk are a band that inspire you to believe more both in yourself and in the possibility of something bigger than yourself (love, friendship, creativity).  Land of Talk stick with you even after the show ends—or they (temporarily) retreat into the distance.  They are a rare and special band that hold space for musical prowess and visceral emotionality within the same song.

The show on the 14th highlighted Life After Youth, with six of the eleven songs on the setlist coming from the band’s newest release.  The mood for the night generally hovered around the mid-tempo range, with things slipping down into slow jam (or perhaps slow sway) territory for “Inner Lover.”  As the first single shared with the public in advance of the new album’s release, the Inner Lover signaled a change in direction (in some senses) for Land of Talk since their previous album from 2010, Cloak and Cipher.  For the first ten seconds of the song, a beautiful and throbbing synth loop lays out the sonic backbone of the song before being joined by drums and a second layer of bass.  Veering away from Land of Talk’s tendency to instrumentally center the guitar(s) in each song, the ebbing and flowing synth clears out room for Powell’s vocals to enter at the 0:24 mark (of the recorded version) and burrow into the crevices carved out by the pulsating synth bass effects.  On stage at Bowery Ballroom, this allows Powell to stand and sing for large swarths of the song, a rarity during the previous Land of Talk sets that I’ve stood through.  In between jolts of creating extra effects with her renowned upper fret guitar playing, Powell stands with a hand on the microphone, singing with her eyes closed, gently rocking her body in tandem with the all the bass.  This is Powell at her most subdued but also her most vulnerable and powerful, a potentiality that media outlets such as Pitchfork seemed to miss by describing the latest LP as “muted.”  Seven years later, both Powell and those of us who have been along for the ride since at least Cloak and Cipher are seven years older—and seven years more wounded, tired, and, at times, hesitant and even skeptical.  Although I heard early versions of some of these songs at Land of Talk’s shows in NYC in May 2016, the combination of the new release and my looming 30th birthday amplifies the feelings that they activate in me.

The powerfulness of “Inner Lover”—and of many a song by Land of Talk—rests in how the band create an atmosphere with a song, leaving space for interpretation through Powell’s (intentionally?) vague lyrics.  Singing more for how her words fit with the instruments, Powell seems to write lyrics for how they will sound.  The beauty of such lyric-writing is that it also leaves room for tension.  In the chorus of “Inner Lover,” Powell sings, “You light it slowly/ Your light is lonely.”  Who is this “you” in the song?  Is it Powell/the narrator singing to herself?  Powell/the narrator addressing someone who has gotten through to her?  The end of the song brings no resolution, as Powell declares, “Feeling here is free” at its close.  In the audience as this song is being performed, I am feeling the here with her—and feeling present with myself.  During the six years that the band were on hiatus, I was (mostly) single and learning how to light up the fires of self love for myself after depending on a romantic relationship for three years.  Hearing this song live for the first time viscerally tapped into all those memories of loneliness of my mid- and late 20s—and the overarching loneliness of childhood and my teenage years that hangs over those more recent recollections.  But then, as happens in almost all Land of Talk songs, the hopefulness of Powell’s vocals cut through the remnants of past hurts and disappointments.  I think of my present, of how right when I was nearing acceptance that I just might be single for the indefinite future, I met someone amazing, a you with whom to share care and support—and who I thought of in that moment.

Bringing many good feelings from developments in various areas of my life to Bowery Ballroom that night, I stood at the Land of Talk show the happiest I have been in a very long time.  Near the end of the set, I was overjoyed when the band played my other favorite song from the new album, “Spiritual Intimidation,” which I heard for the first time at their show at Baby’s All Right one year previously.  Although it’s another synth-y one, Powell’s guitar is a sonic fixture in the song in a way it is not in “Inner Lover.”  Before the song’s chorus, Powell sings, “How you gonna live if you can’t love?”  As a band for lovers, this has, in many ways, always been the question for Land of Talk.  Built around the friendship of Powell and drummer Wheaton (back with the band since 2016), the band’s shows have, even when different drummers were cycling through, felt like an invitation to join the celebration.  In between songs, audience members vocally express their glee at the band’s return.  With the exception of some borderline patronizing and misogynistic offers by male audience members to help Powell tune her guitar, these are expressions of unyielding devotion.  “Welcome back!” I yell midway through the set, hoping to help shut down some of the more gawking comments towards Powell.  But the comment is just as much for myself—and is meant as an expression of how much of a void existed in my music listening life in Land of Talk’s absence.  Seeing Lizzie for the first time in years before the show in Brooklyn last May, I got to tell her that I was finally in grad school, doing what I love.  One year later, I got to see/hear her do what she loves yet again, in the company of a crowd that had her overcome with emotion by the encore of “It’s Okay.”  With the wisdom of being older and of knowing how rare it is to feel so moved by something or someone, I was crying in the end, too.

Synth Vulnerability at Moogfest 2017

I experienced so many amazing things at my first Moogfest: Found Sound Nation leading a collaborative sound-making workshop in an open dome, a durational performance in a dark room by Moor Mother, Omar Souleyman singing in Arabic over melodic music from his keyboardist at sunset, Elysia Crampton talking about oppression and later exploding a tiny room with sound later, Tasha the Amazon bringing the swagger to her DJ’s beats, Derrick May reminding us of how funky techno sounded before it underwent a massive transformation across the ocean in Britain, Suzanne fucking Ciani creating a beautiful aurality with wires (with a projection behind her showing us what she was doing), Octo Octa giving us a deep house set with images of cats whizzing around behind her, and Flying Lotus working his instrumental magic from in between two different projection screens.  With an overarching theme of protest, I have never before left a music festival feeling so inspired.

And then there was Zola Jesus on Friday night, playing a beautiful set at dusk accompanied by a violist and guitarist.  I hadn’t listened to Zola Jesus since 2011—so the rawness and emotionality of her set affected me in this very visceral and immediate way.  At more than one point in the set, I wondered how she could continue to make herself so emotionally vulnerable, flinging her body into motion alongside the expressionality in her voice.  Reflecting on it afterward, I could hear elements of some of my favorite artists in her set, particularly Austra, Lana Del Rey, and Björk.  Besides the shared sonic characteristics of soaring vocals, drum machine programming, use of strings, and cinematic feel, there is another connection: they are all white women.  What is it about white femaleness that most readily carves out space for partaking in this kind of vulnerability on the stage?  I ask this question because we still seem so surprised when white men (such as Perfume Genius) and black people of all genders (such as FKA twigs and Blood Orange) do the same.  Who gets to use digital music technology to be emotionally expressive?  Who gets to be vulnerable?  These are the big questions that I am left pondering after Zola Jesus’s set at Moogfest.

Speak Up, One Time, To The Beat

I was in Seattle a week and a half ago for my first EMP Pop Conference ever.  Pop Con is an amazing annual gathering of popular music scholars, music critics, musicians, and music nerds of all kinds.  Our theme for the long weekend was Sign O’ The Times, a tribute to Prince’s passing one year ago on April 21st and a recognition that his 1987 album of the same name—and the social and political issues that it addresses—continues to resonate 30 years later.  Panel after panel, we asked: What if we take popular music seriously as a repository for the affects (both emotions and literally felt experiences) of specific historical moments?  What does music offer us as complement to or in excess of the visual?  And how is it that music keeps us going during times of frustration and despair?  I am grateful beyond words to have joined this community at this particular moment in time and will carry the inspiration from the conference with me until we all meet again next year.

In lieu of a post this month, here is a playlist of sonic and affective protest songs:

She Don’t Give Up

The French Legation is one of the the oldest buildings in Austin.  Built in 1841 atop a hill about a mile north of the Colorado River and a mile east of the site of the eventual state Capitol, it offered a space of respite from the muggy river and the bustle of the city streets for the French delegates eager to recognize Texas as its own republic after its recent succession from Mexico.  The space and the area around it were not originally meant for black and brown people, but East Austin started to become a neighborhood for African American and Mexican American families from 1928 onward, as the city compelled people of color to relocate there from the downtown areas.  And then that changed.

The Pitchfork day party on the Thursday during SXSW inadvertently paid heed to the complicated histories of the surrounding area.  Since the late 1990s, the neighborhood had been gentrifying; by the time I first visited in 2012 and then moved there in 2014, the eastern parts of 11th and 12th Streets situated around the highways were largely devoid of the black families that once populated the space.  As I sat reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple for the first time in between sets, a stranger walked by me and commented, “It must be interesting to be reading that in this space.”  The ghosts of racism inherent in both America in particular and imperialism at large hover over the space.  Looking at the lineup for the day, I am almost shocked that there are no acts of only white men on the lineup for the Pitchfork party.  In its early days, Pitchfork came under heavy criticism for seeming to only cover music by white male (and sometimes female) rock acts—and in this way perpetuating the erasure of black people from the history of rock music. [These days, I am continuously pleased to find pieces about and/or written by queers and people of color on the website.]  Like the neighborhood of Central East Austin, Pitchfork must constantly grapple with the challenge of reinserting the people of color removed by the forces of capitalism and white hipsterdom.  “It’s white supremacy,” Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz will declare during the band’s set at the start of the Thursday party.  “[That] makes Pitchfork in the grasp of some bands more than others.”  For the day, Pitchfork seems intent on trying to challenge this.

After a beautiful songwriter/rock set from the people of color-heavy and genderqueer-appearing trio Vagabon, I wander back over to the main stage for Jamila Woods’s set.  For all the acts at the festival that I’ve yet to see/hear in person, this is the one for which I’m most excited.  Combining politically-charged yet soulful vocals with hip hop- and r&b-tinged guitar, bass, keys, and drums, Woods’s Heavn was easily one of my favorite albums from 2016.  Sharing members with fellow Chicago native Noname’s band, their set is the musically tightest of any that I experience at the festival this year.  Yet even in their excellence, a sense of isolation pervades their set.  Near the end of their thirty minutes, the faint keyboards and slow drumming signal the transition to Woods’s song “Lonely Lonely.”  

The performance at the Pitchfork day party is similar to the above one from the Stereogum showcase.  While the instrumentation in “Lonely Lonely” remains at a fairy steady pace and volume, Woods layers her vocals at the chorus for emphasis and extra volume.  At the start of the second verse, Woods sings, “I put a sun in my lamp/ I post-it note on my mirror/ So I may love myself/ So I may be enough today.”  The words mark a moment of simultaneously strength and vulnerability in the song—strength in admitting that she’s trying to overcome all the shit and vulnerability in admitting that she’s struggling.  These words have always sat heavily with me whenever I’ve heard them.  For extended periods of time during my three years in Austin, romantic and intellectual loneliness has been the thing I wake up and go to sleep with—and ultimately channel into my writing.  So, it is a lot to hear that sentiment reflected back at me through the power of Woods’s incredible vocals and the mood of the song’s instrumentation.

But this song isn’t necessarily for me—or at least not written with me as its top priority.  The other songs that Woods showcases during her set put the psyche and lived experiences of black women at center stage.  While her song “Blk Girl Soldier’ is lyrically, vocally, and musically intense, certain lines jump out more than others: “We go missing by the hundreds/ Ain’t nobody checking for us/ Ain’t nobody checking for us;” “They want us in kitchen/ Kill our sons with lynchings;” “Yeah she scares the gov’ment/ Deja Vu of Tubman.”  On stage at the French Legation, the loneliness of which Woods sings has many layers.  With references to “freedom fighters” Rosa [Parks], Ella [Baker], Audre [Lorde], Angela [Davis], Sojourner [Truth], and Assata [Shakur], Woods reinserts the black women who have been erased from mainstream versions of history.  On stage at the Pitchfork party, Woods is a rare black woman singing about the bitterness of black life with the sweetness traditional to the soul genre.  Her individualized loneliness that she experiences while staring at the mirror therefore has both historical and collective implications, including everything from histories of slavery, Jim Crow, and other kinds of anti-black oppression to the contemporary collective realities of black women being underrepresented across the board, particularly in music.  From my position of white privilege, I connect with this particular black woman’s loneliness, even as I recognize that I cannot ever completely understand what she is feeling.

~~~

I waited four hours at the SPIN day party at Empire Control Room on Friday for Kelela’s set.  After hearing her perform at Fader Fort on Saturday last SXSW, I wasn’t sure how this performance would go.  On Hallucinogen, Kelela’s voice soars over incredibly smooth (and some people would say 1990s-inspired) synthesizer and drum machine sounds with a loudness thats cut in and out of the EP’s equally smooth production.  At her performance at Fader Fort last SXSW, her vocals were often much lower than the instrumentation coming from her DJ’s setup, causing her voice to disappear into the air at some points in the set.  At a much smaller and more intimate space this time, Kelela’s vocals and the synth, etc. merge to create an affective atmosphere that encourages both attentive and immersed listeners.  With the help of soft read, blue, and yellow lights that flicker throughout the 40-minute-long performance, the mood is set.  We in the audience glide along the waves of sound and vibration until Kelela changes directions and lets her voice go higher and higher (which she typically doesn’t on her albums) during each song’s bridge or outro.  This is not just hearing the songs performed verbatim as they have been recorded on album; this is a sensory experiencing of her music in a emotionally present and embodied way.

Before transitioning into “Gomenasai,” Kelela pauses for her only monologue of the afternoon.  She begins, in the same style as at Fader Fort last SXSW, by saying, “Some of you don’t know who the fuck I am.”  She stops, lets this sink in, and then continues:

I have one mission today.  People think r&b is this simple genre.  I’m here to show you otherwise.  The range, breadth, depth that exists in [r&b] has fucked up every genre.

Her commentary is a short, yet profound, introduction to one of the most boundary-pushing songs on her EP: “Gomenasai.”  Interpreted by Stereogum as a song about, “The way sex can turn combative as relationships fall apart, as if the people involved are trying to break through whatever numbness they feel toward one another,” the song is a viscerally uncomfortable felt reminder for those of us in the audience who have been in that situation before.  But, as often happens in the live setting, the song also takes on a triumphant and transformative air as it signals towards a futurity beyond the numbness.

After Kelela sings, “I ain’t playing around,” the drum-clap beat amps up intensity with Kelela’s vocals.  As she sings, “Put your hands up” (trailing her voice on the “up”), the chorus launches into the song’s first major drop.  Out in the audience, I plunge along with it (into the memory of angry sex—and into the beat as sex), only to be pulled back out when all the instrumentation drops out as Kelela sings, “You’re my bitch… tonight.”  In this song and in this moment of the sexual encounter, she is the one in control—of herself, of the sexual encounter, and of the movements and emotions of the crowd.

In her track-by-track commentary of Hallucinogen for The Fader, Kelela shares that watching 20 Feet From Stardom, the documentary about black female backup singers, inspired her to writer “Gomenasai.”  Contrary to the feeling of it, Kelela actually wrote the song from a place of powerlessness.  She explains,

It’s so crazy how nameless and faceless [they are]. I’d never processed how many white men in popular music used black women’s vocals. I never noticed [it’s] the back-up part that I’m singing [along to] in the song, or the part that’s so recognizable. And all the dude is doing is yelling over it. It’s this literal representation of how I can feel sometimes. The American psyche can’t really process black women, especially without a major label behind them.

Through discussing the invisibility of black female singers in pop music, Kelela also indirectly addresses her own sense of isolation as a black female r&b singer on a small label dabbing heavily in electronic music.  In the age of an increasing blurry mainstream/indie divide, where does highly electronic r&b music fit in?  Where do black women fit?  Where is the female—and non-misogynist—version of The Weeknd?  Can we even imagine one?  While Tinashe and Kehlani are respectably powerhouses in their own right, the only black female artist doing something even remotely similar to what she is doing is Solange on A Seat at the Table (as evidenced by her collaboration with Kelela on “Scales,” buried all the way at track 20 and the near end of that album)  Like Jamila Woods, Kelela expresses that vulnerability through lyrics and vocals.  But unlike Jamila Woods, she does so through a vibrational narrative of domination and submission—and through the dynamic of loud-soft synths and pulsating drum machines.  She takes on loneliness—and racism—vibrationally.

~~~

During last SXSW, when the rise of Donald Trump still seemed a thing of fantasy, Kelela talked with The Fader before her set at the Fort about the state of both pop music and American culture at the moment.  It is chilling to read her words again one year later:

What Donald Trump represents to me is a sickness that we haven’t dealt with: the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all the other dumb shit that continues to exist… We have not dealt with racism on a global scale; we have not dealt with white privilege.

Although Kelela is not on the bill at the Thursday Pitchfork party at the French Legation, I feel the weight of her words there.  And as with BLM, black women are once again leaned upon to do a disproportionate amount of this labor.  Before Kelela’s set at the Friday Spin day party, Chicago hip hop artist (and friend of Jamila Woods) Saba performs a set to a crowd that sings and dances along without missing a beat.  In the VIP directly in front of my center stage spot as far as I can get in the GA audience section, throngs of white people imitate stereotypical notions of black dance and gestures to the sounds of Saba’s (very solid, for sure) set.  They all clear out once Kelela takes the stage.  Who wants to hear a black woman sing along to some intense synth and drum machine music and give a soliloquy on the radical potential of r&b near the end of that?  But when Kelela takes the stage, I notice that there are suddenly all people of color standing in front of me in the VIP section.  And I additionally notice that I am the only white (albeit also queer) person standing in the first row of the GA section, a reality that I quietly register before dancing along/with myself to every single song that Kelela gives us during those precious 40 minutes.

Throughout the day parties I attend at the festival (She Shreds, Fader Fort, Pitchfork, and SPIN), I notice a pattern of black women artists inserting themselves into a city where women of color have been increasingly pushed out.  Some would say that this is the story of any city in America—and of any tour that passes through it—right now.  In New Orleans for a few days before the music portion of SXSW begins, I take notice of where I see and hear black women taking the stage.  Under the care of friends/scholars who think about, write about, and breathe brass bands, I am brought to a neighborhood club in Treme to experience the all female and black brass band the Pinettes on Friday night and then back out there for my first second line parade out in on Sunday afternoon, where I watch black women dancing and marching along to the music of the seemingly all male brass bands.  At High Ho on Saturday night with my dear friend from Austin who has since relocated back to Louisiana, I dance through all of the feelings bubbling up inside of me to the sounds of DJ Soul Sistah.  While still in New Orleans, I begin to think about how black female singers (Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson, Donna Summer) were some of the first people in my life to make me feel less alone.  And then I realize that this has been part of my personal entrypoint into my dissertation project all along.  In a different way than my queerness or my having grown up surrounded by people of color, it’s experiencing these black female artists burst through the loneliness and create something beautiful that makes me passionate about my work.

I just hope that my writing can help bring attention to the amazing music they’re making.

I’m Looking for Something to Rise Up Above

In the middle of the night, the sound of familiar piano chords filled the atmosphere of a very cold (for February in Austin) night at Mohawk.  Austra were back in town for the first time in two and a half years, their first show since headlining the Stargayzer Festival at the now relocated Pine Street Station.  The song begins with Katie Stelmanis letting her voice soar over the piano, much as she does in the above clip.  With the commodified celebration of love looming in the air, Stelmanis sings, “What is it that keeps you there?  Keeping you occupied… from my heart.”  As she stretches “heart” out into “he-art,” the drums and percussion explode with a dance-y (what some would call a “world”) beat, followed by the bass and synthesizers.  At their show at the Mohawk, this is the point in the show where the band looks the most exuberant.  As all the instrumentation bursts into the song, drummer/percussionist Maya Postepski points at bassist/synth player Dorian Wolf and smiles.  They look so joyous—and the band ultimately carry that  joy into a jam extension at the song’s end that I’ve never heard before.  While “Home” is far from one of my favorite Austra songs, it gets new life in the heat of the moment.  That sentence could just as easily describe me at the moment, in the thick of my February/Valentine’s Day sads/mads, feeling all the feelings that I have ever felt for this band over the course of the past six years.

Austra are a deeply personal band for me.  When their first LP Feel It Break was released in May 2011, I jumped in head first, using the album to break away from a very long (3+ years) relationship turned sour and move towards applying to graduate school.  The band’s music became the soundtrack for me learning to define myself outside of the context of whoever I was dating.  Although I had started to listen to Metric and The Knife in college, listening to Austra was my first forray into adopting synthpop as an identity.  Two months after the break up, I would journey to the gay afterhours club Voyeur to see/hear Austra with my queer friends in Philly, reconnecting with a (now) dear friend that I knew from feminist organizing at the open bar before the show.  We would quite literally dance the night away, with the help of many free rum cocktails.  I would experience the band multiple times with this dear friend and my little sister, both in Philly and then NYC.  Most intensely, I would share Austra with a girlfriend that I thought I was going to date for the indefinite future at MHOW in Brooklyn in September 2012.  By June 2013, when Austra were next back in town, I returned to MHOW alone.  Still in love with her at that point, I would feel the ghost of this woman who was all but gone from my life, away in another city, for a postdoc, at the opposite end of the journey that I was just beginning.  From early on, the band would always be many things for me, a source for—and reminder of—self, sisterly, friend, collective, and romantic love.  In addition to the pushing on the boundaries of gender and sexuality for which the band is renowned, they would help me realize and work through this ever-present tension in my life between learning to love myself and wanting to share that with someone else/with other people.

At Mohawk, I was once again alone at an Austra show, missing my Middle Eastern Studies grad student friends with whom I had stood in front of the stage for Austra’s set at Stargayzer in 2015 and wondering if I would ever date anyone for more than a minute again.  But when I heard the flowy synth beginning and staggered drum programming of “We Were Alive,” I started to get out of my funk.  The band would continue onward to the next three songs from their new LP Future Politics (as I had a feeling they would), showcasing the most politicized lyrics that Katie Stelmanis has ever written—and some of my favorite that I have ever the band perform live.  “Rest assured, when I find it, I will take it,” Stelmanis powerfully emotes at the bridge of the title track.  The band will say close to nothing in between songs, letting we in the audience interpret and do with the songs what we will.  Given the explicitly political nature of many of the songs on the new album (plus all of the press that Stelmanis has done on the album as a political project), perhaps the band don’t want to overdo it with the political rhetoric.  But more likely than that, Austra are playing up their strength of creating beautifully atmospheric and affectively compelling music.  Their power comes from how the music fills up and makes a space—and, in this current political climate, sends out a strong reminder that we can still build another world.  As with the seven other Austra concerts I’ve attended, the space is by default mostly white.  But when Stelmanis declares, “Keep on fighting the good fight!” at the end of the show, she is encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones and do something for other people who are not exactly like them.

~~~

What many people don’t know about me is that I applied to master’s programs at NYU with writing samples about Austra.  Since I was using synthpop to reinvent myself, I wanted to pour myself into writing about the music providing the soundtrack for starting to actually like myself.  On my first day at NYU, the advisor whose work I already admired asked me how I planned to not reify the incredible whiteness of indie rock (and the ongoing whitewashing of black culture) in my research project.  That woke me the fuck up like nothing else in my life had before.  A performance studies scholar with a historian’s training, he challenged me to look behind the music, to look as far back as synthesizers had been used to make pop music.  I didn’t need to look very far.  For my first paper of grad school, I wrote about Light Asylum, the band I had discovered when they opened for Austra at their October 2011 show at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan.  Fronted by Shannon Funchess, a black and butch woman with a penchant from pulling from an impressive range of musical genres, (grunge, house, techno, synthpop, new wave, Krautrock…), Light Asylum were years ahead of bands making politicized synth albums in the 2010s.  In the most memorable song of Light Asylum’s set that night, “IPC,” Funchess screams, “Fight girls/ Get tough/ Fight cops/ Who want to rape us,” over and over again during the song’s bridge.  Musing over “IPC” would quickly send me down a rabbithole of writing about Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Sylvester, The Knife, Blood Orange, FKA twigs, Frankie Knuckles, and (currently) Grace Jones.

After the Austra show a few weeks ago, I stuck around Mohawk to see if I could talk with anyone from the band.  I was yearning to talk about music with musicians, something I don’t always get to enough of when I’m spending so much time at school.  After about 20 minutes, I saw Maya Postepski walk out.  Once the crowd around her cleared up, I went up and said hi.  I started telling her about my dissertation project on mid-80s black pop stars using digital synthesizers and drum machines, which led to us talking about how black artists are often the trailblazers in many kinds of popular music.  The conversation reignited my desire to interview people in contemporary synth-centric bands that I like and ask them questions about race, gender, sexuality, and technology.  I think that the affects, emotions, and feelings that these bands produce are so important and powerful (which is why I thought I wanted to write about contemporary (and still largely white) synthpop at the very beginning of grad school).  At the same time, I think it’s equally important that we’re having ongoing conversations about the influences driving the music that said artists create.  The erasure of people of color is relentless, not only obscuring their contributions in the present but also writing them out of history.  This is not a critique of Austra, as Katie Stelmanis has always done a better job than the majority of her peers of talking about her whiteness (and queerness) and inspirational people of color artists in her interviews.  Rather, this is a critique of the ways that house and techno are overshadowed by new wave and Krautrock in many people’s perceptions of contemporary synthpop.  Although my research (mostly) focuses on the 1980s, I am also extremely invested in how we chart this genealogy.

~~~

Back to the show.  After “Home,” the band transition into “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.”  The most heartfelt song on Future Politics, it originally felt very out of place to me during my first listens of the album (and perhaps also out of place in my heart that hasn’t loved anyone deeply in a romantic way since 2013).  But with repeated listens, the song has grown on me.  The choice to follow “Home” with “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” in the set is an interesting one.  In the moment, I try to search for different interpretations of both songs.  I pick out the words “home” and “love,” words that keep getting repeated in each of the songs, and rework them in my head.  What if we hear these two songs together as a call to build homes (plural, not singular) out of love?  What if we channelled the love from all the different kinds of relationships that we have into building new movements or collectivities?  What if we used desire as an organizing force, as a conduit for imagining the new worlds in which we want to live?  As all of my queer theory teachers have taught me and my friends constantly remind me, we can make so much if we just start from a point of shared desire and connection.  And as moving around so often for school has taught me, we can make—and stay connected to—many different sites of “home,” regardless of where we are currently living.  Both of these realizations give me hope for a different future.

As I thought and felt my way through this, I suddenly didn’t feel as alone anymore.

Life After the Women’s Marches

I hadn’t danced hard out in public in a long time before I went to the Lizzo show at Antone’s last Wednesday night with a close friend.  The last time I had done so was with my beloved group of Middle Eastern Studies friends for my birthday in June, before they all moved away throughout the summer—and before I plunged into focusing on clearing my oral exams and prospectus meeting at the first half of the fall semester.  After that, the election made it hard for me to want to dance (or attempt anything joyous), pushing me instead to spend a lot of November, December, and January huddled in quiet corners and emotionally recharging with the people to whom I really feel connected.  But then, as all dry spells eventually do, the desire to dance materialized in an embodied release as Lizzo and company took the stage.  We could not not dance; we could not not allow ourselves this kind of recharge anymore.  And so, when Lizzo got to “Scuse Me” a few songs into the set, I raised my hands in the air and let the music move through my hips.  By the time Lizzo was closing out the encore with “Faded,” I was jumping in the air in sync with the song’s amazing drops.

The Lizzo show was the first of two politically-charged concerts that I went to that week (the other was Austra).  I knew this would be the case going in; I knew from experiencing Lizzo, DJ Sophia Eris, and the Big Grrrls dancers live at Mercury Lounge in Manhattan in May (blog post here), where Lizzo started the show off with a shout out to the recently deceased Prince and continued to talk about anti-black racism, sexism in the music industry, and fatphobia throughout the show.  But this time, the vision was even bigger than that.  Near the end of the set, ahead of starting “My Skin,” Lizzo boldly declared,

Racism… does not exist in this space.  Homophobia… does not exist in this space.  Transphobia… does not exist in this space.  Xenophobia… does not exist in this space.  Class… does not exist in this space.  Misogyny… does not exist in this space.  We’re going to whoop your ass [if you exhibit any of these].

In 2017, let’s take it to the next level.  I want to activate you.  My music is activism.  My existence is activism.  We need to activate ourselves so that we can save and change the world.  We are all part of the same human race.  We can do it if we start together.

There are two things that I heard going on in this monologue.  The first is that art—and music specifically—is an important space where we can get a break from the hate and all the ism’s that plague us in the outside world.  As a self-identified big black woman, Lizzo has always had a vested interest in carving out space for blacks, women, and fat people, particularly those who occupy more than one of those categories.  But what sets Lizzo apart from other artists explicitly attempting to carve out space in this way is how she turns a specific invitation (i.e. for big and/or black women to love themselves) into a rallying call for everyone in the room to build themselves up both individually and collectively.

To call music activism is a brave endeavor.  While Lizzo has some very political lyrics, most of her songs are geared around telling stories about herself and women like her, the black and/or big women who still so often get left out of predominant narratives.  Accompanied by a DJ with a craft for amplifying some of her most poignant lines with a well-timed drop, the instrumentation further accentuates what Lizzo is singing or rapping.  On “Scuse Me,” a massive drop on the “feel” in the chorus line “Scuse me while I feel myself” sends the song into an entirely different affective universe.  At Antone’s, I hear Lizzo’s words as they leave her tongue—and then doubly feel the vibration of her vocals and the instrumentation as they hit my body.  In the case of “Scuse Me,” I quite literally feel the good feeling that she’s feeling.  This affective experience of music doesn’t have to be emotional but Lizzo pushes it there through firing up the crowd with stories and observations from her personal experiences.  Her music compels us into movement, with a thoughtfulness that clarifies why moving in community and towards collective action is never not political.  In the dark club, in the company of friends and people I’ve yet to meet, I feel that we are both recharging from all the protesting many of us have been doing lately and starting to take that next step.

~~~

At the show on Wednesday night, Lizzo didn’t specifically talk about the women’s marches from two weekends prior but she did talk about marches.  “We’re going to do a march now.  I’ve been doing a march every motherfucking night on tour.  We’re going to do one tonight,” she said before finally transitioning into the self-love anthem “My Skin.”  The music was the march for the night.  In the weeks since the record-setting marches across the country and the world, there have been endless think pieces analyzing what was productive—and also exclusive—about the women’s marches.  One of the most thoughtful pieces on the topic I read is “Pussy Don’t Fail Me Now: The Place of Vaginas in Black Feminist Theory & Organizing” over on Crunk Feminist Collective.  In this piece, CF crunktastic lays it out:

For cisgender Black women and girls, our vaginas constitute the material locus of our cisness. We are cis because we have vaginas and identify as femmes. Historically, our vaginas were the property of plantation owners upon our arrival. They were used as a vehicle through which to reproduce plantation slavery. Having autonomy of our vaginas and wombs has been central to how Black women articulate freedom…  

The world hate vaginas, and thinks that uteruses are property of men and the state, because it hates women. Hatred of body parts traditionally associated with feminine bodies cannot be understood outside of hatred for the historical category that has been called woman.

In summary, crunktastic argues that, even as our trans and GNC friends and lovers illustrate how genitalia is not gender-specific, plenty of us who identify as female do have vaginas—and are in varying amounts of danger for that due to our race, class, gender, and sexuality.  So while the pussy hats that many white women wore during the women’s marches were problematic on many levels, we can’t throw vaginas out the window when we’re thinking about (reproductive and other kinds of) violence against women.  To do so would especially risk ignoring the herstory of black women’s vaginas as property during slavery.

Lizzo is no stranger to taking on the topic of slavery in her music, dropping lines on the matter in both “Bloodlines” and “Ain’t I.”  And she is no stranger to showing skin, or to taking the time to explain to people why it is revolutionary for black women—and especially big black women—to do so.  Vaginas—and asses and thighs—still matter a hella lot to Lizzo and the narrators in her songs, a point that she and her dancers reinforce every time they take the stage.  The black female bodies to which these body parts belong are still stigmatized by so many people, at times unintentionally (such as when white feminists miss the complexity of black women’s experiences with their bodies and theorize and/or organize through the narrow locus of white women’s experiences).  As her audiences continue to have a strong white presence from her opening slot for Sleater-Kinney during their winter 2015 tour, Lizzo’s work is twofold: to speak and sound directly to black women/people about loving their bodies and themselves and to push white audience members towards a more intersectional feminism.  Racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, misogyny: these are the things that must go out the window to participate in Lizzo’s version of the march.  This is an upgrade on Sleater-Kinney’s version of the march from the Bush era; this is an open invitation to every person possible.  And for me, watching/listening to a black woman once again labor for a truly inclusive society, I leave the show with the reminder that I have to do more of that work with my white peers.  Because… it is not the responsibility of black people to cleanse white people’s racism.

On the verge of a new political movement, this is the kind of feminism that I want: actively intersectional, grounded in rhythm, embodied and visceral, and… ludic and pleasurable.  As when we marched to the Capitol for a candlelight vigil for Sandra Bland in July 2015, I am more than okay with moving to the back of the procession to listen to people of color and let people of color lead the way for a bit.  At the show on Wednesday night, Lizzo was the one leading the way.  Building on 40 years of black and brown queer and feminist women “officially” theorizing intersectionality through their life experiences from the Combahee River Collective statement onward (plus the recent momentum of the black queer women-founded Black Lives Matter movement) AND the 20+ year influence of riot grrrl, Lizzo advocates for an expansive feminism through words, lyrics, affect, and rhythm.  And her music is both the release and the activation.  “Rumors that the world gon’ end don’t phase me/ I’mma get faded, I’mma get faded,” Lizzo sings at the end of the “Faded.”  Part of how we’re going to get there is through the release of drugs or sex or alcohol or music or whatever else you do to try to get a break from life’s daily struggles.  By centering her body and calling her audiences to feel themselves, Lizzo signals that we will get nowhere without a recognition of pleasure and appreciation of many different kinds of bodies.  And when we work backwards from that, we arrive at the discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability that create “bodies” in the first place.  Pleasure is both the escape and the site of inquiry.  It’s up to us to not forget the complexity of pleasure when crafting new/old intersectional coalitions to get us through to whatever’s politically coming next.

Take The Plan, Spin It Sideways

We lost many an androgynous icon this year.  David Bowie.  Prince Rogers Nelson.  George Michael.  They were celebrity deaths within a year of death, a year where black and brown people continued to be gunned down by the police, transwomen of color continued to be murdered (and sometimes misgendered), refugees were trapped as they were trying to escape Aleppo, and queer or queer-friendly night clubs (Pulse in Orlando, Ghost Ship in Oakland) were caught in—or on—fire.  And then we played the “it could have been me” game, as hard as we may have tried to avoid this.  It could have been me… in a tightly filled venue in Manhattan during high school.  It could have been me… at a packed basement in West Philly.  It could have been me… on the floor at a cafe in Brooklyn.  It could have been someone I knew; it could have been an entire contingent of people I knew.  

Yet I am still here, left with the living to write, reflect, scream, and cry over it as I will.

When news of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June reached me, I could hardly hold it together.  For days, I could not seem to focus.  Despite my very conflicted relationship with gay clubs, I felt the loss of so many people (and that so many of them Latinx) viscerally.  Music is a survival mechanism for some or many queer, black, brown, and/or punk people—and my queer white female self is in good company with them.  I always tell friends that I experienced my first conscious desires for women at a Tegan & Sara concert at Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan in January 2005.  Queerness and androgyny materialized as options for me in a new way on that night.  In music and/or in these night clubs, some or many of us find the space to be as fluid with gender and sexuality as we have always wanted—or didn’t even realize that we needed.  To see such clubs under fire is to watch our dreams go up in flames.  But, we are not without the power to keep these dreams from being relegated to the realms of nightmares.

~~~

Androgyny and intergenerationality have always one hand-in-hand for me.

Midway through high school, I began to fill my walls with new icons.  As I was in a transitional period in my music listening life, let alone my in existence as a teenager, it was a more than fitting time to shake up the photos on my wall.  Down came Jack White, Julian Casablancas, and Roddy Woomble and up went Sleater-Kinney, Placebo, and Tegan & Sara.  Although there was something at least a little bit queer about nearly all members of this new blessed trinity of bands, Placebo’s Brian Molko stood out most for his androgyny.  

brian-molko

Underneath the crucifix in my room, I strategically positioned a black and white photo of Molko looking pretty as ever.  In the photo, Brian Molko slightly pouts his lips and stares into the camera as long pieces of hair fall over the edges of his face.  My sixteen-year-old self thought that he was incredibly beautiful (still do)—and marvelled over his ability to let masculinity and femininity co-exist on his body.  Between him and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, I had plenty of inspiration for (very slowly) beginning to cultivate an aesthetic that I now describe as “feminine hipster boy.”  Wanting high school to be over already since the end of my sophomore year, I came home every night to these images.

It was 2004 yet my bedroom was covered with photos of Sleater-Kinney and Placebo from the mid- to late 1990s.  Brian Molko had cut off his hair for the release of Sleeping with Ghosts, the 2003 Placebo album that I came to purchase through hearing one of its songs on an Urban Outfitters sampler CD; nevertheless, it was the photos of him from the 1990s that most appealed to me.  I was 16, looking at photos of Brian Molko at 26 from six years back in time.  What I didn’t realize then but understand now is that Brian Molko was doing his own share of gazing at photos of musicians from a generation(s) ahead of him.  Working backwards through Placebo’s discography, I eventually reached their 2000 album Black Market Music.  For the Japanese version of this album (which is what I found in the used CDs section at Sounds in St. Mark’s in Manhattan), the band included a re-recording of the song “Without You I’m Nothing” featuring David Bowie.  I had no idea who David Bowie was at that point (and wouldn’t until I heard Ziggy Stardust in someone’s dorm room in college), so I had to go look him up online.  I was amazed at the images that I found of him—and would never forget the lightning bolt cutting across his face on the cover of Aladdin Sane.

~~~

When David Bowie died at the beginning of the year, I immediately went searching for footage of he and Brian Molko performing together.  A longtime fan of the band, Bowie would on occasion join Placebo for a performance of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a fan favorite even before Bowie’s blessing.  “Without You I’m Nothing” is one of Placebo’s most painfully beautiful songs, a song about love lost that is so acutely personal that Brian Molko eventually stopped including it on Placebo’s setlists.  But on the night of March 29, 1999, Bowie joined the band on stage at Webster Hall in New York City.

The above footage takes place in a dressing room at Webster Hall, before the time of the performance.  A 28-year-old Brian Molko is seated on a chair, guitar in hand; a 52-year-old David Bowie kneels next to him with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.  After Molko gets the song going, Bowie stands up and retreats into the corner.  As the camera zooms in on Brian Molko’s face at 1:23 and again at 2:13 into the footage, the younger musician can hardly contain his joy over rehearsing with one of his idols.

At the 2:36 mark, the two discuss harmonizing in between lyrics:

Molko: “I’m coming up.”

Bowie: “Mmm, keep that harmony, man.  It’s much better here.”

Molko: “It’s hard, though.”

Bowie: “Oh, is it?” [looks at Molko with eyes full of feeling]

Molko: “I can try it.”

As the song progresses, Molko and Bowie move up octaves and into the registers traditionally classified as female—to the extent that they are practically screeching at the end.  More than a shared penchant for femininity and makeup, the androgynous connection between Molko and Bowie in this moment is just as much sonic as it is visual.  “And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision,” David Bowie declares in his 1977 song “Sound and Vision.”  In 1999, Bowie was over three decades into his career of gender-blending via the aural and the visual.  In the presence of the younger Brian Molko, Bowie illustrates how it is the imperative of those who come next to pick up and continue this work of troubling binaries.  The song is Placebo’s yet Bowie’s presence is a welcome one, lending Molko’s sonic and visual transgression an air of posterity.  Of course, what is also passed down in this moment is whiteness.  We see Bowie, but not Prince or Grace Jones; we can sense Freddie Mercury, but not Sylvester or Little Richard.  While this is a powerful moment of intergenerational androgyny and bisexuality, it happens within a particular white genealogy—and between men.

~~~

There is a second possible meaning of the “vision” in “sound and vision.”  In addition to what one sees in front of her, there is the vision of what one would like to see.  Through the photos of Brian Molko on my wall in high school, I was able to envision a female self that strayed away from the gender binary.  In a more musical vein, Grace Jones was able to use the Bowie-penned “Nightclubbing” (written for Iggy Pop in 1977) to create her own version of sonic and visual androgyny, one in which blackness was/is an indisputable component.  It can be easy to overlook race when androgyny is conceptualized in terms of sexual and gender fluidity, even as definitions of race are what get reconfigured in this process.   My proposed dissertation project is an exploration of black sonic and visual androgyny, a zooming in on the places where blackness, femininity, and queerness become scrambled.  This blog is becoming a space where I unpack many of the things that hover in the background of that work: my own whiteness, the slew of white bands that I listened to in high school and college (and, for some of them, still listen to today), my personal investments in queerness and androgyny, and my positionality as a white person who grew up surrounded by racial diversity and immersed in music made by black people.

Throughout this hell of year (which has been quite good to me on an individual level but, conflictingly, quite shitty in terms of the state of the country—and the world), I have continuously kept turning back to Cathy Cohen’s 1997 essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”  On the first page of the essay, Cohen proclaims,  “Many of us continue to search for a new political direction and agenda, one that does not focus on integration into dominant structures but instead seeks to transform the basic fabric and hierarchies that allow systems of oppression to persist and operate efficiently” (GLQ, Vol. 3, Issue 4, p. 437).  Cohen is critical of conceptualizations of queer politics in the late 1990s, asserting that such politics reinforce an overly simplistic binary between “heterosexual” and “queer.”  Better to, she suggests, turn to the workings of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens for reimagining intersectional (race, class, gender, and sexuality) coalitions for challenging power structures and creating new worlds.  Cohen presents this expansive queerness as the foundation for a new politics.

My question always is: if politics have supposedly failed, then do we need to begin from somewhere else entirely and build up a new politics from there?  Could androgyny do this work?  Could music?  As Josh Kun writes in Audiotopia: Music, Race, America, “Music can’t topple regimes, break chains, or stop bullets.  But it can keep us alive” (17).  After so many people have died in so many terrible ways this year, I am looking for the ways that we can physically, mentally, and emotionally keep ourselves alive on both an individual and collective level.  We all need to find the thing right now that’s going to make sure we keep taking care of ourselves and one another.  Listening to Placebo is what kept me from descending into depression during the later half of high school; meeting people in line for Sleater-Kinney shows in early college is what gave me some of my first glimpses into alternative kinds of collectivity.  Yet as I’ve learned from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement(s) during my time in grad school, I too have had my share of racism to unlearn, from both mainstream and indie cultures.  Plotting in my room, I slip back into the music that first got me through high school.  Intermixing that with sounds from the year of the album, I once again begin to imagine new worlds and collective possibilities.

In 2017, I’m choosing music.