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.