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.

Into the Post-Election Wild

For the first eight days immediately following the election, I was unable to write anything.  I filled the space with music, art, performance, conferencing, talking, and wandering Montreal.  In the middle of that chunk of time, I went to see/hear British band Wild Beasts at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA, an outing that I had planned well in advance of the election.  Wild Beasts are unquestionably one of my favorite active bands/artists, in good company with Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Austra, Blood Orange, and FKA twigs.  When they announced no dates in Texas (or the South) this tour, I chose another place: the legendary Middle East in Boston  At the show, this 575-person capacity room was at best half-full; it was hard to avoid the feeling that people had perhaps just stayed home that night out of depression or despair.  But I was present that night; I needed to be there.  Standing immediately in front of bassist and main vocalist Hayden Thorpe, I was the physically closest I have ever been to the band in experiencing them tour their last three albums.  Although I was surrounded by clusters of white and Asian American college-aged youngins and pockets (usually couples) of people who seemed closer to my age hovering near the stage, I could still feel all the empty space of the venue—and of everyone’s emotions—at the moment.  “You look bad—and I don’t say that often,” guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist Tom Fleming would say to the crowd early on.  The band would attempt to fill that space with music, empathy, and… hope.

Wild Beasts’ Boy King was released on August 5, 2016, back when, for all of her many flaws, it didn’t seem real that Hillary Clinton could lose the presidential election.  “It’s been a long week,” Thorpe acknowledged before ripping into a song early in the set.  The sheer energy of the songs got me—and others around me—moving.  More than on previous albums, Wild Beasts go for a funk and R&B (and soul) groove on Boy King, dragging out those bass lines.  The album is dance-y in a way that their sophomore album Two Dancers was not, the kind of call to dance that gets inside you and viscerally compels you to move.  On multiple songs—”Get My Bang,” “He the Colossus”—the band crank up the volume and the intensity at the second versus to keep pushing the momentum from the chorus further and further.  At the Middle East, it’s the transition from “Bed of Nails” into “He the Colossus” that first pushes me far enough beyond post-election despair and gets me moving.  In one of their most beautiful chorus harmonies, Thorpe and Fleming sing, “Do I dare to disturb the universe?/ Lest I crush the softest among us/ The universe has locked us in a death spin/ Not enough fucking and too much of wondering.”  This is a song about fucking and fucking around laced with J. Alfred Prufrock-ian anxiety.  But we are not fucking around anymore—and some of us, for all of the reasons, cannot just fuck the pain away this time.  I dance, I move, but I cannot escape hearing and feeling the lyrics of this and so many of their songs through the lens of white supremacist patriarchy.  Wild Beasts are trying to be better but they still have the privilege of being white men—and in a moment where white male heteropatriarchy is, in advance of January 20th, already stretching its leash to the point of breaking.

At the end of their pre-encore set, Wild Beasts close out with “Alpha Female,” a song where Thorpe declares in the chorus, “Alpha female, I’ll be right behind you.”  I keep waiting for British songwriter and friend of the band Anna Calvi to walk out on stage (as she did in the above video clip at a different show); I keep waiting for this alpha female white woman to walk out into the spotlight.  After the first debate, this election—and now seemingly our daily lives—quickly became about how deeply entrenched straight white patriarchy is in this country and increasingly in many around the world, from Brazil to the supposedly progressive Nordic countries in Europe.  The disconnect between the visuals, sounds, and movements of this Wild Beasts show as an allegory for what’s going on in America right now is unprecedented in any of the 200+ shows I’ve attended in my lifetime.  I am still moving along with this music that a dear friend at Penn introduced me to right after we finished our undergraduate educations, their second album Two Dancers entering my life right as I was really beginning to throw myself into queer theory, with absolutely no turning back (especially not now).  I hear the band lyrically and via banter call for us to not lose hope, even as I look onto stage and notice the absence of a particular white woman (Anna Calvi, who has garnered many comparisons to PJ Harvey for her guitar shredding, shrieking and moaning vocals, and collaborating with original PJH trio member Rob Ellis).  I am moving and moving with the music because to stand still is not a long-term option or solution or strategy.  But it is only when musically grappling with what’s going on that I realize how much all of the uncertainty terrifies me.

~~~

At the very end of “He the Colossus,” Hayden Thorpe sings with pained hesitance, “Do I dare disturb the universe?/ Before it get better, it’s gotta get worse” over a quieting cacophony of guitar, drums, and keys.  As someone who has never encountered a gay slur in ten plus years of wholeheartedly embracing queerdom, these are terrifying words for me to hear.  On the phone, in the airport a mere four days before, I am worrying aloud (more like screaming) to a relative about how many more people will die under this regime change, an intensification of the black and brown death (both in the U.S. and globally) that has become too familiar in the world post-9/11.  That this Wild Beasts show is happening at a venue called the Middle East is not lost on me.  Established almost a decade before the Iran hostage crisis, this Middle East (comprised of a restaurant, bar, and music venue) is an attempt to create sanctuary—a safe space, if we can dare to call anything “safe” these days.  During the set, when the band transition to “Lion’s Share,” Thorpe walks out into the crowd with microphone in hand.  He reaches out to extended hands as we open up a circle around him.  He then somewhat awkwardly half-pogos around our not quite mosh pit, making eye contact and emotively carrying his vocals over extra notes.  I don’t know anyone at the show but for a very brief moment I feel safe, even as I simultaneously notice who is not there—the queers, black and brown people, those who could not afford the $20 ticket for the show, people who have bigger things to worry about than the momentary escape of music or a rock concert.  The circle is only as good as the energy it gives us to go back into the world after the show—and keep fighting.

I’ve sat in (or will soon sit in) many healing circles post-election: with my close friends in my department at UT, with different small pockets of friends in Montreal, with the professors from NYU who taught or have inspired me while we were all in Denver, at friendsgiving back in Austin, at dissertation group, and in queer kinship with the members of the queer studies research cluster that keep me intellectually and emotionally grounded here—at UT/in Austin, in Texas, in academia.  Queerness suddenly feels urgent to me in a way that it did not before, even as I have always foregrounded it as such a major aspect of who I am.  I find myself turning inward, into myself and into the communities of the misfits who always escape to concerts, the outsiders who (intentionally) exist on the periphery of straight culture, and the explicitly militant and politicized queers who won’t shut the fuck up.  From the inside, I then peer outward.  I see white men attempting to make space; Hayden Thorpe steps back for Anna Calvi and Tom Fleming adorns his guitar with vaginal motifs.  I notice well-intentioned but misguided gestures, such as donning safety pins.  I repost the words of people of color on my FB wall and show my students clips of black queer men speaking and snapping in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied.  Organizing—fuck, living and surviving—is always a matter of striking a balance between making space for others and keeping space for yourself.  The circle at the Wild Beasts show is rudimentary yet is also a formation ready to be taken up and (re)concocted in our lives away from the concert hall.  We’re going to need circles to get through this—and then to connect our circles to other circles in solidarity.

The above video of Wild Beasts traveling to Dallas, TX (many, many miles away from anything familiar to them) to work with producer John Congleton on Boy King speaks to me, who moved from Brooklyn to Texas for graduate school, on many levels.  The footage opens with Hayden Thorpe shuffling through a box of different shakers and tambourines in the studio.  The camera moves from capturing these moments in the studio to shots of taquerias and the Texas sun outside.  “You have to leave it all [somewhere],” Thorpe narrates at the end of the footage.  But before you can leave it all somewhere, you have to find it in the first place.  Two and a half years into my five-year stint in Austin, it is still not easy for me to live here.  Attempting to navigate a city built on racial segregation and a queer scene powered on cliquey-ness sometimes sends me home in great anguish and frustration.  I am still sifting through the boxes of shakers and tambourines in front of me, testing out possible tools for dismantling the quotidian microaggressions (and their structural foundations) that surround me.  More and more with each semester, I find myself sitting around the boxers of shakers with people looking to shake shit up with me.  Out of despair and turmoil, we create and we build.  After being out of town for most of the two weeks immediately following the election, there is suddenly nowhere else that I would rather be.  In Montreal for NWSA and then Denver for ASA, I kept finding myself in the same room with my close friends in my department and the members of the queer studies research cluster.  And I missed my students terribly.  Cities and institutions aren’t perfect but we find ways to build homes in them anyway.  And from there, we charge towards the outside.

The work for us now is to pick up those shakers and tambourines—and make some noise.

Cross-Fertilization in 90s Pop Music

I had a moment on Saturday where I realized that my first introductions to disco, house, and hi-NRG music came from listening to KTU (“The Beat of New York”) while my mother was driving my sister and I around in the 1990s.  I was reading at a cafe near my house when I was suddenly greeted with early to mid-1990s pop songs with serious house and hi-NRG elements that I had not heard in a decade or two—songs that I first encountered on KTU.  In 1996, WKTU 103.5, a reincarnation of the Disco 92KTU station that played disco and R&B songs from 1978-1985, launched with a dance-based CHR (contemporary hit radio) format.  The launching soundbite of WKTU from 1996 boldly declares, “You told us you wanted a radio station that plays music you don’t hear enough of on Hot 97, Z100, or WPLJ.”  As someone who listened to Z100 and sometimes WPLJ in the car and Hot 97 on my own, this was definitely true.  At the same time, the early to mid-1990s was a time when songs such as CeCe Pinston’s “Finally” (1992),  SNAP!’s “Rhythm is a Dancer” (1992), and La Bouche’s “Be My Lover” (1995) all charted on the Billboard Hot 100.  Disco had not actually died in the late 1970s but had spawned off into house, hi-NRG, and techno (amongst other genres), with the former two slowly creeping into pop music during the 1980s and into the early 90s.

In other words, disco went underground, free to once again cross-pollinate as it did before its height in the 1970s.  As Tim Lawrence notes in Love Saves the Day: A History of Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, before the days of Saturday Night Fever and disco departments at major record labels, disco DJs pulled from a plethora of genres, such as rock, R&B, salsa, soul, and funk.  A recent symposium at NYU organized around Lawrence’s new book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, explored the incredible four-year-long period when the NYC underground embraced new incarnations of disco and also punk, new wave, and hip hop.  The respondents on the first three panels (I had to leave at 3:30pm) were adamant that there was something uniquely creative and democratic about the music that arose via the sprouting numbers of independent music labels, never mind in the sense of community provided by select downtown night clubs.  And then in 1983, which multiple panelists deemed the point when the effects of neoliberalism and Reagan conservatism began to be felt in New York City, this newfound potential for musical and democratic potentiality suddenly evaporated.  This could not possibly be the entire story.

Without a doubt, the underground music and art scene in downtown Manhattan described by the panelists was indeed special and unique to its time, a result of the people involved in these spaces.  At the same time, if we believe that corporatization (and there was incredible record company consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s) rendered all musical creation as purely for profit, then we might as well give up now on imagining alternative possibilities of the world through music and other kinds of artistic creation.  As I noted in my post on Janet Jackson last month, coming into musical consciousness in the mid-1990s—and specifically through big money radio formats such as Z100, Hot 97, and KTU and stations such as MTV, BET, and the Box—taught me a lot about the wide range of pop music.  Having access to so many different kinds of music set me up to be become passionate about the infusions of R&B, pop, and electronic music that have been driving both indie and mainstream (whatever that means in an age of Spotify) music since 2010.  The below three-hour-long play list is comprised of some of the songs from the 1990s that have most stayed with me.  They are some of the first songs where I began to (subconsciously) realize pop music’s potential.

On Janet Jackson

I have been feeling extra grateful lately about coming into my awareness of popular music in the mid-1990s.  When songs first started to stick with me in 1995/1996, Lauryn Hill, Gwen Stefani, and Mariah Carey were all dominating the Billboard charts.  In spite of epic battles (or breakups) with their respective record labels and/or collaborators, these women came off confident and strong—in both their artistic gifts and their sexual allure.  Growing up in the incredibly racially diverse Jersey City, NJ, seeing a black woman, white woman, and mixed race woman (who my younger self mistaken for Latina) appear so frequently on MTV and BET was an extension of what my daily life looked like.  Despite not being a person of color (or not being the faux punk meets Marilyn Monroe type that Gwen Stefani was) and being many years away from any conscious recognition of desire, I connected with them.

velvet-rope

And then there was Janet Jackson.  Before I watched any of her music videos, I saw the album cover for her 1997 album The Velvet Rope hovering over the Sam Goody at Mill Creek Mall in Secaucus, NJ.  Most of my music purchases during my preteen years were made at this Sam Goody.  Although I would not right away realize that it was Janet Jackson on the album cover, I would nevertheless appreciate this seemingly thoughtful woman watching over me as I expanded my music collection.  During this time, I was listening to a wide array of music—everything from hip hop to R&B to alternative rock to capital P pop music.  This was the late 1990s after all, when dancing to TLC and Aaliyah existed on the same continuum as rocking out to Alanis Morrisette and the Spice Girls for many of us who were preteens during the later half of the decade.  But something about this visual of Janet Jackson really spoke to me.  The now iconic cover art for The Velvet Rope presents Jackson with dyed red curly hair that clashes with the bright red background.  Jackson is dressed in a black long sleeve shirt and has her eyes turned downward and away from the camera.  As I would learn many years later, this visual of looking inside herself was an allegory for the (lifelong) depression Jackson dealt with while recording the album (which sonically, in addition to visually, manifests itself).  What I saw as a ten-year-old was someone who seemed comfortable spending time with herself and taking a moment to be thoughtful about things.  As I was already someone who spent extended periods of time in a room alone journalling and/or listening to music, I felt very drawn to this image of introspection.

In early 1998, the music video for Janet Jackson’s “I Get Lonely” appeared on MTV and BET.  Sonically, “I Get Lonely” felt considerably different from other songs and accompanying music videos that resonated with me at a young age, such as Mariah Carey’s “The Roof” and the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly.”  While also a R&B song, “I Get Lonely” was unwilling to make the clean break towards the hip hop and R&B fusion of Mariah Carey’s Butterfly and the neo soul, hip hop, and gospel fusion of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation (which producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis factored into significantly).  As I watched this video over and over again, what stuck out to me as a young person was the smoothness of Jackson’s movements, culminating in the moment where she and her dancers rip open their shirts with one minute remaining in the song.  I can remember seeing this as a preteen and saying to myself, “Oh, okay, she’s just expressing herself.”  Of course now that I’m older and am beginning research for a dissertation chapter about Janet Jackson’s 1980s output, I realize how much the status of sex symbol was thrown on her—and how caught up that is in herstories of black exploitation, commodification, and fetishization.  But as my younger self followed Jackson’s movements on the TV screen, this gesture signaled the vulnerability—and necessity—of opening ourselves up to the world.  Her bravery moved me.

~~~

kaytranada

My most recent encounter with Janet Jackson out in the world occurred at Kaytranada’s show at Emo’s in Austin, TX on September 22nd.  After already appreciating images of TLC (because 1990s R&B) floating across the projection screen earlier in his set, I suddenly noticed some very old footage of Janet Jackson that I had never seen before.  The footage, which switched back and forth between being in color and in black and white, showcases Jackson in big sunglasses and big 80s hair out on a beach island somewhere.  Jackson looks visibly happy, looking directly at the camera and smiling often as she dances with her girl friends or just lounges around.  This same footage would reappear once again towards the end of the Kaytranada set, before he transitioned into his remix of Janet Jackson’s “If” to close out the set.  At this point, the very diverse crowd (especially for Austin) absolutely lost it for this remix.  Since this was an all ages show, I got the impression that some of the people around me were at least a decade younger than me.  I was so struck that the lasting power of Janet Jackson is so massive that it transcends generational lines.

But I also had mixed feelings about the ways that Janet Jackson appeared in the set by Kaytranada (née Louis Kevin Celestin).  In terms of musical influences, Kaytranada’s reach is expansive in that he draws on house, disco, hip hop, and R&B and mixes them all together in some very funky fusions.  Also of interest here is that Celestin identifies as gay, as he shared with The Fader back in April.  House music as a genre has a long history where gay (and often black) male producers have coupled the vocals of black women with synthesizer and drum machine sounds—effectively disembodying black women’s voices from their bodies yet again (since all recorded music enacts an original separation of vocals from the people singing them).  On Kaytranada’s really quite good debut 99.9%, both male and female vocals feature prominently in a majority of the tracks on the album.  But, with the exception of images of Celestin himself and some artwork, it is visuals of women—TLC, Janet Jackson, and the women in Kaytranada’s “At All” music video—that circulate during the live set.  From my position as a dancing member of the audience at this show, it is difficult to tell whether Kaytranada is paying homage to these women or if he is circulating these sexy images to be provocative (or both).  While I don’t want to give up on the utopic possibility that Kaytranada is circulating these images so as to center black women, I am also not as sure about his intentionality as I am of someone like Devonté Hynes.  In other words, Kaytranada’s art is not so easily deciphered.  In all its smoothness, it’s… still messy.

We still need (his) art anyway.  In all of its messiness, art (and pop music counts as art!) offers us an inroad to reimagining what our world(s) could look like.  In her keynote at UT-Austin Black Matters conference earlier tonight, Angela Davis suggested that we seek out new theories of freedom in the cultural realm.  While I was waiting to enter the hall in which Davis would be speaking, I had a conversation with an older man who was surprised to hear that my intellectual work is grounded in ascribing political potential to the music/videos of mid-80s pop stars such as Janet Jackson and the contemporaries who reference and remix them.  He shared that growing up with the explicitly politicized hip hop of Public Enemy had tremendously influenced his social consciousness.  What could be so revolutionary about pop music?  My response was that pop can reach so many people and can (sometimes) inspire in them little changes over time.  This is, after all, an argument that many scholars and music critics have already made about Prince and Michael Jackson. [In fact, entitling this post “On Janet Jackson” is a riff on Margo Jefferson’s excellent essay collection On Michael Jackson.]  By the end of this exchange, this older man and I had connected over the ways in which pop and hip hop in the mid-1980s interfaced with one another—and how all of this affected people’s lives.  I have to think that Kaytranada and the many other people who still look—and listen to—Janet Jackson at least partially feel this way as well.  When reformatted in the present, the past can be a portal to something else entirely.

That is why, when writing about popular music in any context (music criticism, academic work, etc.), there is so much more at stake than just the music itself.

 

Blood Orange, Queer Femininity, and Centering Black Femaleness

A lot of things clicked for me when I heard/saw Devonté Hynes and his band perform songs from Freetown Sound, the latest album released under Hynes’s Blood Orange moniker, at the Greek Theater in Berkeley on Saturday night.  The choice of who was on stage with Hynes and the movements/dance moves in which he partook signalled that this was a performance inspired by—and for—queer and trans people and/or black women, lending the songs of Freetown Sound a new air of utopian possibility.  In its LP format, Freetown Sound is not an easy listen.  Clocking in at 58 minutes, the album is considerably longer than the usual 40-minute standard length for comparable “indie” albums.  It is also a heavy album, one that Hynes has described as “for everyone told they’re not BLACK enough, Too BLACK, Too QUEER, not QUEER the right way, the underappreciated.”  The album, especially during the second half, has this long, slowly-drawn out heaviness (lots of reverb and amplified bass) that materially attests to the never-ending daily struggles of the black, queer, female, and/or trans people that Hynes centers on the album.  In capturing the relentless rhythms of these quotidian struggles, it at times becomes difficult to hold onto the fragile hope that opens the album in the form of spoken word poetry from Ashlee Haze, who powerfully declares on the first song on the album, “I will tell you right now there are a million/ black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them.”

At the Berkeley show, Hynes and company opened with “By Ourselves,” the opening track from Freetown Sound.  Where Hynes contributes vocals on the album version, in concert he sat down and played his keyboard while the two female backup singers standing to his right sang all of the vocals themselves.  The two singers appear to be black and white—which, given the presence of white women on Blood Orange’s previous album, Cupid Deluxe, and the shift in emphasis to black women on Freetown Sound, was fitting and likely intentional on Hynes’s part.  During this opening song at the Berkeley performance, Hynes provides the background music for the women’s voices.  The setup on state visually reinforces this sonically centering their voices.  At the Greek Theater, the black female singer stands tall in between Hynes to her left and the white female backup singer to her right.  At the end of the clip, Hynes turns towards the black female singer (*edit, 9/1/16: who, after some further research, I believe is Ava Raiin, the singer featured on multiple songs on Freetown Sound), looking her directly in the eye.  This is for her—and for the black women in the audience—in a special way that it is not necessarily for everyone else.  Later, when Hynes is up at center stage and dancing around, he turns towards the group of young black women at the literal front and center of the audience and gestures in acknowledgement towards them.  The young women react with joy and glee as they point back towards him back and then ecstatically turn towards their friends.  In a weekend where Rihanna and Beyoncé, holding it down for black women, made the MTV Video Music Awards suddenly not as irrelevant as it has been the past few years, this was a significant moment.

Later in the set, Hynes and the band perform “Better Than Me,” another song from Freetown Sound.  The structure of the song is one where Hynes mumble-sings the verses over some very 80s synths (that practically drown out his vocals on the recorded version)—and then vocally turns up the volume once he reaches the chorus.  When he reaches the chorus version in the performance at the Greek Theater, he harmonizes with the backup singers for the first two lines (“Know my worth and fake the blame/ But I know she’s better than me”) instead of taking the lead.  During the next vocal couplet, Hynes lets the backup singers sing the first line and then comes in to harmonize with them on the second.  Hynes and the backup singers go through the latter singing distribution twice more (with Hynes singing at a higher vocal register each time) to close out the chorus.  As the backup singers and he get ready to vocally release again, Hynes spins about on stage and does movements that I would categorize as voguing-esque and the dancer and performance studies scholar with whom I chatted with while waiting in line to enter the venue would describe as dancing alone in his bedroom moves.  Where Hynes provided the music for the backup singers during “By Ourselves,” it is the female singers who give Hynes the soundtrack for his moves during “Better Than Me.”  While Hynes notoriously maintains large amounts of creative control over his albums (the liner notes for Freetown Sound, for example, credit him with “production, engineering, mixing; main instrumentation: vocals, keyboards, synths, piano, guitar, bass, synth guitar, clarinet, cello, drums, percussion, composition, arrangement”), the performance of “By Ourselves” on stage, with other people, becomes a space for imagining a collectivity that centers the experiences of black women—and queer/trans people.

~~~

Released on June 28, 2016, Freetown Sound is in good company with a wave of albums that have come out since early 2015 that politicize some combination of blackness, maleness, femaleness, femininity, queerness and/or transness.   On a more mainstream level, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, released on March 15, 2015 and April 23, 2016, respectively, have provided endless talking points about black masculinity and black femaleness in particular.  These albums and the subsequent performances of some of their songs have raised their share of questions of who’s missing, such as where black women were (besides as dancers) in Kendrick Lamar’s performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” at the 2016 Grammys and where Big Freedia—or any trans person, for that matter—was in the visual album for Beyoncé’s Lemonade.  For Blood Orange, black (and Latina) queerness and increasingly transness have been at the center of his musical project.  As Hynes famously declared in an interview with Interview Magazine in 2010, “The whole aesthetic of Blood Orange is basically a celebration of gay culture.”  As a result, both music critics and fans alike have often read Hynes as queer on account of his feminine gender presentation and engagement with queer and trans culture.  While Hynes has largely skirted questions about his sexuality in the media, he has nevertheless remained steadfast in his commitment to queer/trans people and culture.

This is most immediately clear on the Freetown Sound track “Desirée,” on which Hynes samples sound bites of Venus Xtravagnza (who, granted, was not black—but was a trans woman of color) talking to (white lesbian) director Jenny Livingston in Paris Is Burning, the documentary on late 1980s ball culture in New York City.  On the album, this song immediately transitions to “Hands Up,” an ode to those who have been literal or figurative victims of anti-black police violence.  “Desirée” and “Hands Up” are two of the most explicit songs about trans women and black people murdered by the police that Hynes—and most other contemporary artists—have ever written.  I was extremely surprised to not hear either of these songs in the set on Saturday night (although I wonder how much of that was Hynes worrying about trying not to rattle those in the audience only there for Grace Jones too much).  Instead, we heard two of the strongest songs from Cupid Deluxe, “Chamakay” and “Uncle Ace,” both of which in terms of dance or lyrics reference queerness.  The music video for “Chamakay” features some of Hynes’s first forays into what I (and others) have termed vouging-esque movement.  “Uncle Ace,” meanwhile, has been described by Hynes as a song about how queer and trans youth who lived along and rode the A, C, and E trains.  At the Greek Theater, these songs were strategically positioned near the end of the set, with “Uncle Ace” Blood Orange’s last song for the night.  For those unfamiliar with Dev Hyne’s work before Freetown Sound (or at all), this queer and trans connection likely went unnoticed.  But for those of us at the front who were there just as much for Blood Orange as we were for Grace Jones, we fucking got it—and danced our asses off as a result.  This was a space the young women and men’s blackness and my queerness.

~~~

On vacation from Austin, which is the whitest place of anywhere I’ve ever lived (Jersey City, Philly, and Brooklyn are considerably more diverse than the supposed pool of blue in a state of red city that is my current home), it was beyond refreshing to be surrounded by so many queers and/or people of color in the audience.  At the risk of making some race, gender, and sexuality assumptions, this is who was (presumably) surrounding me: the before-mentioned group of young black women and men directly in front of me, two middle-aged black women with nose piercings, spiked up hair, and lots of Grace Jones-esque makeup to my northeast, a group of white (and other fair-skinned) queer women (and possibly also some genderqueer folks) to my right, a southeast Asian couple to my southeast, a black man in his mid-30s (with whom I nerded out about music) behind me, a group of middle-aged white gay men to my left, and a Latinx couple to my northwest.  But, because even the concert space for a Grace Jones and Blood Orange is not completely safe from the perils of the outside world, all was not completely utopian.  In between sets, a middle-age white gay man swooped in from my southwest and tried to push his way up to the front.  Once he told one of the women near me to “Die, bitch,” all of us standing in her direct proximity starting screaming at security until they ejected him from the venue.  In another existence, this white queer woman who was pseudo-chatting me up posed to take some fetishizing photos with the aforementioned middle-aged black women with the piercings and makeup (and I subsequently starting fading myself out from that conversation).

Blood Orange’s set was an opening, a queer, black, trans, and feminine space within the bigger space of the Grace Jones show that was arguably already hospitable to those things in its own way.  Even after acknowledging all of that, I must say that I felt much more connected to Dev Hynes’s set than that of Grace Jones, which is at least partially a result of he and I being around the same age and therefore growing up as part of the same generation.  The music of Blood Orange has also been a huge part of my life since I began grad school three years ago.  There have many times where I’ve felt that I’ve been grappling with questions of queerness, femininity and androgyny along with Hynes (and with questions about my whiteness and cisgender-ness on my own in relation to all of that).  These are all positive and generative things.  Nevertheless, I am left wondering about what the possible repercussions of accessing black femaleness and transness through the performances of someone who was born—and identifies—as male are.  This is a huge question that I will not even attempt to begin to answer in a 2,000 word blog post.  One thing I can say about Dev Hynes (in stark contrast to Beyoncé, for example) is that he continuously talks about the queer, black, and/or trans people and culture from which he draws inspiration constantly in all of his interviews.  That he feels like he has to keep talking about them illuminates how much carrying on the utopian possibility of performances such as Blood Orange’s requires that we continue the conversation after the show is over—and that we carry this spirit over to attempting to make political and cultural interventions of our own.

Black Artists, White Allies

I went to see Lizzo live when I was home in NYC in May.  The show was at Mercury Lounge, a rare Manhattan venue with good sound and an intimate feel.  The few shows that I’ve seen there (Land of Talk in 2009 and Versus in 2011 were highlights) have been really special to me, helped along by the 250-person capacity of the venue.  When I got to the show a few minutes before Lizzo’s set, I was initially surprised to see so many white people with piercings, tattoos, and alternative lifestyle haircuts present in the space.  In some ways, this shouldn’t have been surprising, as Lizzo got a big boost from touring with Sleater-Kinney during the first half of their winter 2015 tour.  When I first listened to Lizzo’s Big Grrrl Small World, there was a lot about her music that instantly appealed to my queer, feminist, and music nerd self: good beats, politically-charged lyrics, messages of self-love and sex positivity, and an incredible voice and presence.  But Lizzo is also a black female rapper who directs large portions of her lyrics towards black women specifically.  Where were they at this show?  After doing an initial scan of the room, I noticed a front row of (presumably) people of color standing up against the stage.  Throughout the show, they often led us through dancing and singing along to Lizzo’s solid set.

Lizzo has been described as a triple threat: rapper, soul singer, and personality.  In my mind, I group her with hip hop artists such as Missy Elliott and Azealia Banks, black women rappers who combine smart and tight rapping, emotionally-charged signing, and endless sampling that draws heavily from electronic music genres.  But Lizzo is also more (or at least differently) politically explicit than Missy Elliott and Azealia Banks.  Taking on everything from slavery (“Ain’t I,” “Bloodlines”) to self-love (“My Skin,” “B.G.S.W.”) to the power of friendship (“Ride”), everything sounds simultaneously personal and political as it leaves Lizzo’s tongue.  In the live setting, her performances have the added bonus of dancers, to whom she refers to as “the big grrrrls.”  The performance at Mercury Lounge is extremely high energy, despite ongoing sound issues.  A highlight is “B.G.S.W.” (link here), which begins with a slow build of keyboard and drum machine samples.  When Lizzo’s (singing) vocals enter at thirty seconds into the song, the keys and drums pick up in intensity.  The song then moves to an EDM-esque buildup that eventually transitions into a drop of extended and drawn out drum machine beats.  Lizzo is vocally on point throughout the song and she and her dancers move in sync with the musical loops.  The music, the words, and her delivery work together; the impact is what it is because the trio—and DJ Sophia Eris—are a collective.

Just as significant is what Lizzo says in between songs, such as: “All lives matter.  My black life matters;” “You don’t see a lot of people like me up on stage” (i.e. black, female, and big); “I’m an artist; I’m sensitive about my shit.”  In these moments, Lizzo is talking to both black people (and especially black women) in particular and the audience as a whole.  Already putting so much energy into her sets, she speaks truth between the breaks in the songs.  This is part of the day-to-day work of trying to eradicate racism (and fatphobia and sexism and homophobia), work that, as the founders of Black Lives Matter illustrate, often disproportionately falls on black women to do.  We are getting both a concert and critical race studies 101 lesson all in one. But these lessons are not so much grounded in theory readings as they are in lived experiences.  Lizzo speaks from the positionality of being a black female artist, from within a music industry that is so tough for women—and even more so for those who aren’t white feminine stick figures.  As my colleague and fellow feminist music blogger Alyx Vesey notes, this can be dangerous territory as Lizzo attempts to keep speaking truth in a music industry with a history of commodifying political messages.  After recently signing to Atlantic Records, Lizzo commented in an interview with Paper that she hopes that major label distribution will help her get this message out to even more people.   A Prince protégé and recent convert to riot grrrl, Lizzo seems ready to do all of the things.

But she will still have all the usual obstacles along her path to doing just that.

~~~

I’ve had questions of access on my mind often over the course of the past two months.  Between being a part of the sea of whiteness at the Lizzo show at Mercury Lounge in May, viscerally grieving (and (re)experiencing my own shit) in the wake of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, and feeling constantly angry and upset about the uptick in black and brown deaths in the U.S. this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets access to which spaces (and, hell, which cultural forms) at which points in time.  What happens when the white queers and/or feminists buy up (almost) all of the tickets for the show of an artist who presents herself as a fat black feminist?  What happens when the gay club needs to have a separate Latin night in order for non-white patrons to feel safe?  What happens when music and utopian space aren’t enough to keep one safe from a police officer pulling the trigger on them?  The material disconnect between daily lived experience and these moments of reprieve can be painful and, sometimes, also deadly.  I’ve been in constant conversation about all of this with trusted friends all across the country.  What is the role of white allies in this, particularly those who are queer, feminist, and/or committed to black liberation?  What can I do to help make space for artists like Lizzo to get their message out?  And, equally as important, what can I do to help chip away at the systematic racism that enables all this black and brown death?  I have no easy answers.  Lately, I’ve more often than not been left with my head in my hands, not sure exactly where to go next.

After the shooting in Orlando, Lizzo posted this message on Facebook: “I haven’t felt ‘safe’ in America for a long time. When will we stop chalking tragedy up to isolated events or ‘lone shooters’ and start the process of pacifism from the root? Stop glorifying the killers and start analyzing the system. I know it may seem small, but use your voice.  Even now– I don’t feel like posting on Instagram is going to make much of a difference, but all of our voices together have a greater chance of being heard.”  Lizzo lives this advice.  In between songs at shows or interspersed with posts on social media promoting her work, Lizzo keeps tirelessly repeating some variation of this message over and over again.  As a wise person in my life said to me in the aftermath of Orlando, you really learn where someone stands after a tragedy of that magnitude happens.  People either viscerally feel it and speak up or… they don’t.  What I appreciate most about Lizzo’s public presence is her calling for a coalition of all kinds of oppressed people while paying special attention to the nuances behind that oppression for black people—and in particular for black women such as herself.  Her message behind all the educational moments is ultimately love, because that is how she gets people to keep listening to her.  This mixture of anger and love is a tightrope walk, one in which artists such as Lizzo need us to be the safety net underneath.  It’s on all of us (including white people with white privilege) to do the work to help prop the rope up.  But we need to figure out a way to do that without also simultaneously taking over the space.