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.

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