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Kanye’s Monster: Sexualizing Violence Against Women

I’m super slow to see music videos or even hear new music.  My radio is always on NPR.

But I recently got wind of Kanye’s (and Jay Z’s and Nicki Minaj’s, and Rick Ross’s, etc.) new Monster video.  Check it out here.  It’s absolutely horrendous – the entire video sexualizes violence against women and animalizes women (rendering them emotional uncontrollably).

Daphne Bramham from Vancouver Sun definitely has it right.  Thanks to Feminist Frequency for sharing the link.  I, for one, am tired of seeing women gang-raped in heroine chic fashion ads, or hearing about how “cool” rappers are for singing about dominating women sexually, or seeing the sexualized violence against women on Nip Tuck or vampire films.  Why do I have to be ok with violence against women just because I want to read a fashion magazine, or listen to rap, or turn on the television?

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Let’s label this depravity for what it is: misogyny

Rapper Kanye West’s monstrous new video is out of the bag, and it’s time to say enough to degradation and victimization of women

What’s entertaining about women in lingerie hanging by their necks on chains? What’s artful about images of drugged, unconscious women about to be sexually assaulted?

Nothing.

It’s misogyny, graphic and simple.

Instead of artistic expression, political and social commentator Zerlina Maxwell described Kanye West’s music video for Monster as “a rape scenario set to a soundtrack.”

Yet that’s not what many commentators are saying about the gruesome and degrading images in the rapper’s video, which has yet to be officially released even though it’s all over the Internet either in full or in part.

West has suggested that the video’s necrophilia and brutality are aimed at generating controversy and sales. Still, there’s a profusion of intellectualizing and rationalizing about the video.

Much of that commentary includes attempts to absolve African-American men from criticism of their misogynist lyrics and the grotesque images of violence perpetrated on white women because of the history of slavery and colonialism.

Among the most inflated and convoluted praise for depravity as art comes from progressives. Salon.com’s

Tracy Clark-Flory deliberately set aside the question of misogyny and wrote that the video “offers a fascinating Rorschach test of our current sexual culture.”

Writing on The Atlantic’s blog, Chris Jackson deflected the question of misogyny saying he couldn’t answer it given all the other examples in popular culture.

Instead he fatuously wrote: “Kanye is like [French Renaissance writer] Montaigne, who said of himself that he doesn’t record being, but passing … The most difficult and most intriguing aspect of Kanye as a rapper is that you never know whether he’s celebrating or satirizing an idea or doing both at the same time.”

However, it’s worth noting that Jackson’s Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates disagrees.

Coates described the video as “boring racism, boring sexism that hearkens back to the black power macho of Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver at their worst … the work of a failed provocateur boorishly brandishing his ancient affects.”

Of course, Jackson was not wrong when he pointed out that degradation of women is nothing new in North American pop culture.

Twenty years ago, high fashion was awash with so-called heroin chic.

In 2005, contestants on the reality TV show America’s Next Top Model were forced to pose as victims of poisoning, drowning, stabbing, electrocution, organ harvesting and other kinds of violence.

The judges’ comments about how beautiful and wonderful the young women looked was almost more chilling than the photos.

Around the same time, shoemaker Jimmy Choo’s print ad showed a dead, white woman lying in a car trunk with legendary music producer Quincy Jones digging her grave in the desert.

Far from breaking new ground, West’s video only sinks to a deeper level of depravity, bringing the mainstream closer to what’s come to be known as torture porn.

It’s part of a growing social tolerance or numbness to violence against women. Kathleen Lahey describes it as “the remapping of male primacy onto contemporary culture.”

Lahey, a Queen’s University professor and expert in law and sexuality, has no doubt West’s video fits the definition of hate speech under Canadian criminal law, which makes it illegal to incite public hatred or advocate genocide of an identifiable group.

Of course, the likelihood of prosecution is infinitesimal: The bleeding of American culture into Canada through old and new media makes it impossible.

In the past, social conservatives have succeeded in banning books, songs and videos and are now trying to censor both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Of course, they’ve never rushed to battle against misogyny.

Instead, they’ve more often been on the front lines blocking every attempt women make to gain equality.

(Besides, as we saw this week in Canada, sometimes bans are just stupid because laws, rules and regulations and their enforcers are too clumsy to deal with the nuances.)

It’s more laughable than laudatory that 26 years after Dire Straits released Money for Nothing, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council acted on a complaint and banned it because the lyrics include the word “faggot.”

When it comes to misogyny, women have few allies.

Misogyny just doesn’t register with social conservatives or progressives like attacks on other disadvantaged groups do. Imagine the uproar if a white, female “artist” depicted barely clothed, African-American men hanging from chains.

And don’t forget how the words “blood libel” were scarcely out of Sarah Palin’s mouth this week before she was widely (and rightly) excoriated for using a phrase that’s so highly offensive to Jews.

But misogyny as hate speech? It’s barely recognized and even more rarely protested.

There is an online petition seeking to block the commercial release of West’s monstrous video.

Yet regardless of its success, West’s Monster is already out of the bag.

What’s more important is what happens next.

Before we become so inured and desensitized to images of degradation, victimization and abuse of women, we need to say enough.

One way to do it would be to boycott the creators and purveyors of these images whether they are rap singers, television producers or shoemakers.

Because the only other option — tolerance — risks sinking our society more deeply into incivility, violence and inequality.

Here’s the website for the online petition.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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Happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa!!!

I. Love. Christmas music.  I start singing jingle bells in July.  But I recently realized that there are tttooonnnnsss of non-religious Christmas songs (Who doesn’t love Bing Crosby?), and then tttooonnnssss of religious Christmas songs, and like 2 Hanukkah songs (Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel and Adam Sandler’s song).

Much less, Kwanzaa songs:

You might not even know what Kwanzaa is, which is understandable.  Let Sesame Street tell you how it’s done:

Yes, the silent boy is from Everybody Hates Chris.

So I was listening to NPR yesterday night (shocker, I know), and heard Matisyahu, a Hasidic reggae musician from Brooklyn, speaking about the shortage of Hanukkah music.  Here’s an excerpt from his NPR essay on Hanukkah music:

Amazon.com has 48,322 Christmas albums for sale, but only 212 Hanukkah CDs. That’s 227 Christmas albums for every one Hanukkah album. Even taking into account that Christians outnumber Jewish people 76 to 1, there is still a huge lack of Hanukkah music. Over the past 100 years, there have been thousands of Jewish singer-songwriters. Where is all the Hanukkah music?

Jewish musicians might feel more inclined to make Hanukkah music if they knew that someone would actually want to listen to it. Until the holiday music market shows it can support Hanukkah songs, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever hear Jewish holiday music at the mall, or the gas station, or the DMV, or on every radio station that Santa currently rules.

Is it possible that one day the tide may turn, that Jews and Christians will come together in the studio and start making Hanukkah music? Will we ever get to hear Drake and Rihanna’s hit single, “Hanukkah’s Sexy Love Lights”?  Maybe, but it would take a real Hanukkah miracle.

Listen to the interview with Matisyahu and NPR, in which he discusses his choice in reggae and, at the end, performs his song “Miracle” acoustically.  It’s really amazing.

All in all, I’ll definitely be looking for ways to make my expansive holiday playlist more diverse this winter.

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“Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” – bell hooks

In reading this blog post from Ms. Magazine entitled “Why I miss bell hooks” which mentions her essay, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” I decided to share it with all of you.  Like Gina Ulysse, I too miss hooks, although I only recently became familiar with her in my graduate career.  She was a real, incredibly intelligent soul.

So why this essay?  Because it’s pretty fun.  Madonna’s a little outdated, I know, but just try and tell me you don’t see 90% of this in Lady Gaga.  Her large gay male fan base?  Her blond hair?  Her controversial “Alejandro” video (just look at whiteness and homosexuality in that one)?  Madonna’s “emotional cripples” to Lady Gaga’s “little monsters”?  Anyone?  Bueller?

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Excerpt from bell hooks, ‘Black Looks: Race and Representation.’  Read the entire essay here.

No black woman I talked to declared that she wanted to “be Madonna.”

Yet we have only to look at the number of black women entertainers/stars (Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Vanessa Williams, Yo-Yo, etc.) who gain greater crossover recognition when they demonstrate that, like Madonna, they too, have a healthy dose of “blonde ambition.” Clearly their careers have been influenced by Madonna’s choices and strategies. For masses of black women, the political reality that underlies Madonna’s and our recognition that this is a society where “blondes” not only “have more fun” but where they are more likely to succeed in any endeavor is white supremacy and racism. We cannot see Madonna’s change in hair color as being merely a question of aesthetic choice. I agree with Julie Burchill in her critical work Girls on Film, when she reminds us: “What does it say about racial purity that the best blondes have all been brunettes (Harlow, Monroe, Bardot)? I think it says that we are not as white as we think. I think it says that Pure is a Bore.” I also know that it is the expressed desire of the nonblonde Other for those characteristics that are seen as the quintessential markers of racial aesthetic superiority that perpetuate and uphold white supremacy. In this sense Madonna has much in common with the masses of black women who suffer from internalized racism and are forever terrorized by a standard of beauty they feel they can never truly embody.

Like many black women who have stood outside the culture’s fascination with the blonde beauty and who have only been able to reach it through imitation and artifice, Madonna often recalls that she was a working-class white girl who saw herself as ugly, as outside the mainstream beauty standard. And indeed what some of us like about her is the way she deconstructs the myth of “natural” white girl beauty by exposing the extent to which it can be and is usually artificially constructed and maintained. She mocks the conventional racist-defined beauty ideal even as she rigorously strives to embody it. Given her obsession with exposing the reality that the ideal female beauty in this society can be attained by artifice and social construction, it should come as no surprise that many of her fans are gay men, and that the majority of nonwhite men, particularly black men, are among that group. Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning suggests that many black gay men, especially queens/divas, are as equally driven as Madonna by “blonde ambition.” Madonna never lets her audience forget that whatever “look” she acquires is attained by hard work–“it ain’t natural.” And as Burchill comments in her chapter “Homosexual Girls”: I have a friend who drives a cab and looks like a Marlboro Man but at night is the second best Jean Harlow I have ever seen. He summed up the kind of film star he adores, brutally and brilliantly, when he said, “I like actresses who look as if they’ve spent hours putting themselves together–and even then they don’t look right.” Certainly no one, not even die-hard Madonna fans, ever insists that her beauty is not attained by skillful artifice.

And indeed, a major point of the documentary film Truth or Dare: In Bed With Madonna was to demonstrate the amount of work that goes into the construction of her image. Yet when the chips are down, the image Madonna most exploits is that of the quintessential “white girl.” To maintain that image she must always position herself as an outsider in relation to black culture. It is that position of outsider that enables her to colonize and appropriate black experience for her own opportunistic ends even as she attempts to mask her acts of racist aggression as affirmation. And no other group sees that as clearly as black females in this society. For we have always known that the socially constructed image of innocent white womanhood relies on the continued production of the racist/sexist sexual myth that black women are not innocent and never can be. Since we are coded always as “fallen” women in the racist cultural iconography we can never, as can Madonna, publicly “work” the image of ourselves as innocent female daring to be bad. Mainstream culture always reads the black female body as sign of sexual experience. In part, many black women who are disgusted by Madonna’s flaunting of sexual experience are enraged because the very image of sexual agency that she is able to project and affirm with material gain has been the stick this society has used to justify its continued beating and assault on the black female body.

The vast majority of black women in the United States, more concerned with projecting images of respectability than with the idea of female sexual agency and transgression, do not often feel we have the “freedom” to act in rebellious ways in regards to sexuality without being punished. We have only to contrast the life story of Tina Tumer with that of Madonna to see the different connotations “wild” sexual agency has when it is asserted by a black female. Being represented publicly as an active sexual being has only recently enabled Turner to gain control over her life and career. For years the public image of aggressive sexual agency Turner projected belied the degree to which she was sexually abused and exploited privately. She was also materially exploited. Madonna’s career could not be all that it is if there were no Tina Turner and yet, unlike her cohort Sandra Bernhard, Madonna never articulates the cultural debt she owes black females.

In her most recent appropriations of blackness, Madonna almost always imitates phallic black masculinity. Although I read many articles which talked about her appropriating male codes, no critic seems to have noticed her emphasis on black male experience. In his Playboy profile, “Playgirl of the Western World,” Michael Kelly describes Madonna’s crotch grabbing as “an eloquent visual put-down of male phallic pride.” He points out that she worked with choreographer Vince Paterson to perfect the gesture. Even though Kelly tells readers that Madonna was consciously imitating Michael Jackson, he does not contextualize his interpretation of the gesture to include this act of appropriation from black male culture. And in that specific context the groin grabbing gesture is an assertion of pride and phallic domination that usually takes place in an all-male context. Madonna’s imitation of this gesture could just as easily be read as an expression of envy.

Throughout [many] of her autobiographical interviews runs a thread of expressed desire to possess the power she perceives men have. Madonna may hate the phallus, but she longs to possess its power. She is always first and foremost in competition with men to see who has the biggest penis. She longs to assert phallic power, and like every other group in this white supremacist society, she clearly sees black men as embodying a quality of maleness that eludes white men. Hence they are often the group of men she most seeks to imitate, taunting white males with her own version of”black masculinity.” When it comes to entertainment rivals, Madonna clearly perceives black male stars like Prince and Michael Jackson to be the standard against which she must measure herself and that she ultimately hopes to transcend.

Fascinated yet envious of black style, Madonna appropriates black culture in ways that mock and undermine, making her presentation one that upstages. This is most evident in the video “Like a Prayer.” Though I read numerous articles that discussed public outrage at this video, none focused on the issue of race. No article called attention to the fact that Madonna flaunts her sexual agency by suggesting that she is breaking the ties that bind her as a white girl to white patriarchy, and establishing ties with black men. She, however, and not black men, does the choosing. The message is directed at white men. It suggests that they only labeled black men rapists for fear that white girls would choose black partners over them. Cultural critics commenting on the video did not seem at all interested in exploring the reasons Madonna chooses a black cultural backdrop for this ~video, i.e., black church and religious experience. Clearly, it was this backdrop that added to the video’s controversy.

In her commentary in the Washington Post, “Madonna: Yuppie Goddess,” Brooke Masters writes: “Most descriptions of the controversial video focus on its Catholic imagery: Madonna kisses a black saint, and develops Christ-like markings on her hands. However, the video is also a feminist fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White waited for their princes to come along, Madonna finds her own man and wakes him up.” Notice that this writer completely overlooks the issue of race and gender. That Madonna’s chosen prince was a black man is in part what made the representation potentially shocking and provocative to a white supremacist audience. Yet her attempt to exploit and transgress traditional racial taboos was rarely commented on. Instead critics concentrated on whether or not she was violating taboos regarding religion and representation.

In the United States, Catholicism is most often seen as a religion that has [few] or no black followers and Madonna’s video certainly perpetuates this stereotype with its juxtaposition of images of black nonCatholic representations with the image of the black saint. Given the importance of religious experience and liberation theology in black life, Madonna’s use of this imagery seemed particularly offensive. For she made black characters act in complicity with her as she aggressively flaunted her critique of Catholic manners, her attack on organized religion. Yet, no black voices that I know of came forward in print calling attention to the fact that the realm of the sacred that is mocked in this film is black religious experience, or that this appropriative “use” of that experience was offensive to many black folk. Looking at the video with a group of students in my class on the politics of sexuality where we critically analyze the way race and representations of blackness are used to sell products, we discussed the way in which black people in the video are caricatures reflecting stereotypes. They appear grotesque. The only role black females have in this video is to catch (i.e., rescue) the “angelic” Madonna when she is “falling.” This is just a contemporary casting of the black female as Mammy. Made to serve as supportive backdrop for Madonna’s drama, black characters in “Like a Prayer” remind one of those early Hollywood depictions of singing black slaves in the great plantation movies or those Shirley Temple films where Bojangles was trotted out to dance with Miss Shirley and spice up her act. Audiences were not supposed to be enamored of Bojangles, they were supposed to see just what a special little old white girl Shirley really was. In her own way Madonna is a modern day Shirley Temple. Certainly her expressed affinity with black culture enhances her value.

Eager to see the documentary Truth ar Dare because it promised to focus on Madonna’s transgressive sexual persona, which I find interesting, I was angered by her visual representations of her domination over not white men (certainly not over Warren Beatty or Alek Keshishian), but people of color and white working-class women. I was too angered by this to appreciate other aspects of the film I might have enjoyed. In Truth or Dare Madonna clearly revealed that she can only think of exerting power along very traditional, white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal lines. That she made people who were dependent on her for their immediate livelihood submit to her will was neither charming nor seductive to me or the other black folks that I spoke with who saw the film. We thought it tragically ironic that Madonna would choose as her dance partner a black male with dyed blonde hair. Perhaps had he appeared less like a white-identified black male consumed by “blonde ambition” he might have upstaged her. Instead he was positioned as a mirror, into which Madonna and her audience could look and see only a reflection of herself and the worship of “whiteness” she embodies– that white supremacist culture wants everyone to embody. Madonna used her power to ensure that he and the other nonwhite women and men who worked for her, as well as some of the white subordinates, would all serve as the backdrop to her white-girl-makes-good-drama. Joking about the film with other black folks, we commented that Madonna must have searched long and hard to find a black female that was not a good dancer, one who would not deflect attention away from her. And it is telling that when the film directly reflects something other than a positive image of Madonna, the camera highlights the rage this black female dancer was suppressing. It surfaces when the “subordinates” have time off and are “relaxing.”

As with most Madonna videos, when critics talk about this film they tend to ignore race. Yet no viewer can look at this film and not think about race and representation without engaging in forms of denial. After choosing a cast of characters from marginalized groups–nonwhite folks, heterosexual and gay, and gay white folks–Madonna publicly describes them as “emotional cripples.” And of course in the context of the film this description seems borne out by the way they allow her to dominate, exploit, and humiliate them. Those Madonna fans who are determined to see her as politically progressive might ask themselves why it is she completely endorses those racist/sexist/classist stereotypes that almost always attempt to portray marginalized groups as “defective” Let’s face it, by doing this, Madonna is not breaking with any white supremacist, patriarchal status quo; she is endorsing and perpetuating it.

Some of us do not find it hip or cute for Madonna to brag that she has a “fascistic side,” a side well documented in the film. Well, we did not see any of her cute little fascism in action when it was Warren Beatty calling her out in the film. No, there the image of Madonna was the little woman who grins and bears it. No, her “somebody’s got to be in charge side,” as she names it, was most expressed in her interaction with those representatives from marginalized groups who are most often victimized by the powerful. Why is it there is little or no discussion of Madonna as racist or sexist in her relation to other women? Would audiences be charmed by some rich white male entertainer telling us he must “play father” and oversee the actions of the less powerful, especially women and men of color? So why did so many people find it cute when Madonna asserted that she dominates the interracial casts of gay and heterosexual folks in her film because they are crippled and she “like[s] to play mother” No, this was not a display of feminist power, this was the same old phallic nonsense with white pussy at the center. And many of us watching were not simply unmoved–we were outraged.

Perhaps it is a sign of a collective feeling of powerlessness that many black, nonwhite, and white viewers of this film who were disturbed by the display of racism, sexism, and heterosexism (yes, it’s possible to hire gay people, support AIDS projects, and still be biased in the direction of phallic patriarchal heterosexuality) in Truth or Dare have said so little. Sometimes it is difficult to find words to make a critique when we find ourselves attracted by some aspect of a performer’s act and disturbed by others, or when a performer shows more interest in promoting progressive social causes than is customary. We may see that performer as above critique. Or we may feel our critique will in no way intervene on the worship of them as a cultural icon. To say nothing, however, is to be complicit with the very forces of domination that make “blonde ambition” necessary to Madonna’s success.

Tragically, all that is transgressive and potentially empowering to feminist women and men about Madonna’s work may be undermined by all that it contains that is reactionary and in no way unconventional or new. It is often the conservative elements in her work converging with the status quo that have the most powerful impact. For example: Given the rampant homophobia in this society and the concomitant heterosexist voyeuristic obsession with gay life-styles, to what extent does Madonna progressively seek to challenge this if she insists on primarily representing gays as in some way emotionally handicapped or defective? Or when Madonna responds to the critique that she exploits gay men by cavalierly stating: “What does exploitation mean? . . . In a revolution, some people have to get hurt. To get people to change, you have to turn the table over. Some dishes get broken.” I can only say this doesn’t sound like liberation to me. Perhaps when Madonna explores those memories of her white working-class childhood in a troubled family in a way that enables her to understand intimately the politics of exploitation, domination, and submission, she will have a deeper connection with oppositional black culture. If and when this radical critical self-interrogation takes place, she will have the power to create new and different cultural productions, work that will be truly transgressive–acts of resistance that transform rather than simply seduce.

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New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap – The New York Times

By JONATHAN DEE
Published: July 19, 2010
This is an excerpt.  Read the entire New York Times article here.  If you like what you read and hear, fan Big Freedia and friend Katey Red.  Check Big Freedia out in concert in a city near you!

Big Freedia

If “gay rapper” is an oxymoron where you come from, how to get your head around the notion of a gay rapper performing in a sports bar? What in most cities might seem plausible only as some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen-style provocation is just another weeknight in the cultural Galapagos that is New Orleans. Sometime after midnight on the sweltering Thursday before Memorial Day, the giant plasma-screen TVs at the Sports Vue bar (which “proudly airs all major Pay Per View events from the world of Boxing and Ultimate Fighting”) were all switched off, and the bar’s backroom turned into a low-lit, low-ceilinged dance club, where more than 300 people awaited a return engagement by Big Freedia, who by day runs an interior-decoration business and who is, to fans of the New Orleans variant of hip-hop music known as “bounce,” a superstar.

At 1 a.m., though, Freedia (pronounced “FREE-da”) was still a mile or so away, fulfilling a paid celebrity-hosting gig at Club Fabulous. The fabulousness of Club Fabulous, on this night at least, seemed a function mainly of its Mardi Gras-themed décor, conceived and executed by Freedia herself. Otherwise the crowd was sparse, largely straight and listless. Freedia looked weary as she leaned back against the bar with her dyed, diagonally cut bangs over one eye, holding a cordless microphone. (Freedia, who is about 6 foot 2 and very powerful-looking and dresses in a fashionable but recognizably masculine style, is genetically a man; but neither she nor anyone who knows her uses masculine pronouns to refer to her.) When “Rock Around the Clock,” one of her signature songs, came on the sound system, a few women walked over to Freedia and stood with their backs to her, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite electric enough for them to really start dancing, and the men just continued playing pool. After a while, Freedia’s D.J. and de facto manager, who goes by the name Rusty Lazer — a whippetlike 39-year-old white man with a salt-and-pepper beard — let Freedia know that it was time to move on to the next show.

And then something remarkable happened. The crowd — just about evenly divided between men and women — instantly segregated itself: the men were propelled as if by a centrifuge toward the room’s perimeters, and the dance floor, a platform raised just a step off the ground, was taken over entirely by women surrounding Freedia. The women did not dance with, or for, one another — they danced for Freedia, and they did so in the most sexualized way imaginable, usually with their backs to her, bent over sharply at the waist, and bouncing their hips up and down as fast as humanly possible, if not slightly faster. Others assumed more of a push-up position, with their hands on the floor, in a signature dance whose name is sometimes helpfully shortened to “p-popping…”

Sissy Bounce

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)

(Lyle Ashton Harris for The New York Times) ‘PUNKS UNDER PRESSURE’ Big Freedia and Katey Red in the Third Ward of New Orleans.

The overwhelming majority of bounce artists are, of course, straight. But 12 years ago, a young drag queen who goes by the name Katey Red shocked the audience by taking the mic at an influential underground club near the Melpomene housing project where she grew up, and in that star-is-born moment, a subgenre of bounce took root. It is a sad understatement to say that homosexuality and hip-hop make for an unlikely fusion: hip-hop culture is one of the most unrepentantly homophobic cultures in America, surpassing even its own attitudes toward women in bigotry and smirking advocacy of violence. But New Orleans’s tolerance of unlikely fusions is legendary, and today Katey Red, along with a handful of other artists — Big Freedia (who grew up four blocks from Katey and started out as one of her background vocalists), Sissy Nobby, Chev off the Ave, Vockah Redu (who was captain of the dance team at Booker T. Washington High School) — are not just accepted mainstays of the bounce scene but its most prominent representatives outside New Orleans. Katey recently received a New Orleans consecration of sorts when she appeared as herself, unidentified, in an episode of the HBO series “Treme,” with her song “So Much Drama” playing in the background.

Some part of this subgenre’s popularity is surely due to the catchily discordant name by which it has become known: sissy bounce. The term is problematic, because the artists themselves do not care for it at all — not because they object to the word “sissy” but because they consider it disrespectful to bounce music. Even when their lyrics are at their frankest (“I’m a punk under pressure/When we finish, put my money on the dresser”), they rush to point out, correctly, that they’re just drawing from the life at hand in the same way virtually every rapper does. They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not — even as their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.

The term “sissy bounce” is one for which a young New Orleans music writer named Alison Fensterstock takes very reluctant credit. Fensterstock is a native New Yorker who moved to New Orleans for what was supposed to be a semester in college 15 years ago, and now lives in the Ninth Ward with her husband, who D.J.’s regularly for Katey and other bounce artists. She has done as much for the promotion of bounce culture as anyone, not only by writing about it extensively for New Orleans-based publications (in one of which she offhandedly coined the fateful name) but also by spending two years assembling a museum exhibition, a comprehensive oral and photographic history of bounce and New Orleans hip-hop called “Where They At?” which has traveled all over the country. Indeed, the sissy-bounce artists themselves seem to adore her; when I met her in New Orleans, she mentioned that Katey was excited about giving her a makeover.

Gay and Trans Performers

When it comes to locating sissy bounce’s roots, Fensterstock said, you should look deep rather than wide; that is, rather than try to place it within the current spectrum of American hip-hop, it makes much more sense to understand it as an outgrowth of New Orleans musical culture itself, which has a long tradition of gay and cross-dressing performers not just as a fringe element but as part of the musical mainstream. (Though the definitional lines aren’t as bright as they used to be, among the sissy-bounce rappers, Katey Red is the only one who performs in women’s clothing.) Bobby Marchan, a female impersonator who was a singer for Huey (Piano) Smith and later became an influential promoter, and Patsy Vidalia (born Irving Ale), the cross-dressing hostess of the Dew Drop Inn, were among the most popular entertainers and social figures in New Orleans for decades.

“As far back as the ’40s and ’50s, it was a really popular thing,” Fensterstock said. “Gay performers have been celebrated forever in New Orleans black culture. Not to mention that in New Orleans there’s the tradition of masking, mummers, carnival, all the weird identity inversion. There’s just something in the culture that’s a lot more lax about gender identity and fanciness. I don’t want to say that the black community in New Orleans is much more accepting of the average, run-of-the-mill gay Joe. But they’re definitely much more accepting of gay people who get up and perform their gayness on a stage.”

Outside New Orleans, though, booking the artists, or selling their records, remains a particular challenge. “They’re the hottest things in the club, but they just haven’t been able to get national exposure,” says Melvin Foley, who manages several sissy-bounce artists. “They have clean versions of their songs for radio, but we can’t get the radio to put them into rotation. I took Sissy Nobby and Big Freedia to New York to meet with Universal, but we couldn’t get a label deal. Their main concern was, ‘How would we market this?’ You market it like you market any other artist.”

Or not. For while it may be true that openly gay rappers will never gain much traction with rap’s mostly male demographic, men aren’t the natural market for the music anyway. As attendance at even a few shows will tell you, the eager and underserved audience for sissy bounce is clearly, overwhelmingly, women. “There’s like a safe-space thing happening,” Fensterstock says. “When Freedia or Nobby’s singing superaggressive, sexual lyrics about bad boyfriends or whatever, there’s something about being able to be the ‘I’ in the sentence. That’s not to say that women can’t like the more misogynistic music too. I like it — some of it’s good music. But it’s tough to sing along about bitches and hos when you’re a girl. When you identify with Freedia, you’re the agent of all this aggressive sexuality instead of its object…”

(Lyle Ashton Harris for The New York Times) Katey Red (left) and Big Freedia, fixtures of the New Orleans scene.

Gender Dynamics of Clubs

Any doubt that that space, like any space in which Freedia performs, quickly belonged to the women in the crowd may be dispelled by a story Lazer laughingly told about a blog post he’d seen the day after their Hoodstock set. It consisted of two photos taken at the show, and their captions: in the first, a group of women were horizontally p-popping in what amounted to a flesh pile. “To the men,” the caption beneath it read, “we don’t need you.” The second photo depicted a woman at the same show sitting on the floor while a man prone in front of her performed a sexual act that might traditionally be described as submissive. “But we like having you around,” the caption beneath that one read.

What strikes Lazer most about the dynamic at these shows, though, is not how unexpected it is but how familiar. Long before he started D.J.-ing, he was a drummer in a series of rock bands; he is old enough to have come of age in the latter days of punk. And when he started playing shows with Freedia almost two years ago — when he started witnessing, over and over again, a same-sex group taking over the dance floor in order to perform an ecstatic act of physical aggression that is both exceptionally demanding and socially unacceptable in other contexts, at the behest of music that’s ritualized and played at seemingly impossible tempos — it all began to remind him of something.

“It’s as if punk had been reinvented for women,” he said, smiling. “I remember going to punk shows when I was 13, slam-dancing, stage-diving. It was a kind of reckless abandon, something you really couldn’t stop yourself from doing. If the girls weren’t just outright afraid of being in there, there was somebody literally shoving them out of the way. Now it’s exactly what was happening when I was young, but in reverse: the girls literally push the dudes right out of the middle. It’s just pure empowerment, physical aggression that’s not spiteful or vicious. I think it’s no accident that the slang term for a gay kid in New Orleans is ‘punk.’ It’s pretty rewarding.”

There have been, it should be said, several promi­nent, strongly voiced bounce rappers who are women. For whatever reason, though, the connection between them and an audience of straight women has never seemed as quick or as instinctive. The fact that the uninhibited ring of rump-shaking and p-popping is centered on a Freedia or a Katey doesn’t desexualize it — not by a long shot — but it does seem to take the sense of threat out of it.

“I think the girls like the gay rappers a lot because they feel safer,” Lazer said. “You can get up in the front, you can dance for Freedia, you can work it for Freedia, but at the same time, if anybody comes up on you and gives you a hard time, Freedia’s gonna be the first one —”

“To defend the girl,” Freedia agreed. We were sitting in her modest second-floor apartment in the Sixth Ward, glad to get out of the sun after a photo shoot she did for a British fashion magazine. “I just had that situation on Tuesday, at Caesar’s. I had like 20 girls in this big old circle around me, shaking it real hard. And the boys started closing them in like in a cage. I’m like, ‘Hold up, D.J., stop the music.’ I said, ‘Fellas, back it up, give me 50 feet, I need my girls to work it out where I can see them and where I have control over them.’ So all the fellas back up, but then one guy tries to put his hands on a girl. I stopped the music again, and I said, ‘Dude, I don’t need you touching on my girls because you gonna make all the boys think it’s O.K….’ ”

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That’s What She Said: Female Musicians Discussing Gender

“I see differences between women after the 1970s. Women entertainers were suggestive until then. Women have become way too salacious since then. There is little left to the imagination.”

Bettye LaVette

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Holy Jesus, do I hate when men say, “That’s what she said.”  But in this case it’s actually true – NPR gathered responses from 700 female musicians on questions over music style, influence, and most intriguingly, gender.

My own research is on representations of women, mainly female musicians, in Rolling Stone in 1975.  I examine how these women are objectified or how they sexualize themselves, how they support other female musicians or how they denigrate feminism – which makes comparing responses from female musicians from 1975 and 2010 pretty interesting.

So how have things changed for women since then?

Here is just a sample comparison between Terry Garthwaite from Joy of Cooking (interview from 1974) and Janet Robin from several bands including Air Supply and Meredith Brooks (interview from 2010).

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Interview with Terry Garthwaite, Joy of Cooking, from Katherine Orloff’s published collection of interviews with female musicians, Rock ‘N Roll Woman, printed in 1974 (page 59).

Terry Garthwaite (top row, far right) and Toni Brown (top row, middle) were the lead performers for their band Joy of Cooking.

“A lot of times it’s hard to know whether problems arise because you’re a woman or for other reasons which you’ll never know.  There are some things which are more obvious than others.  I think also, when you’re woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of somebody who’s in the music business, and there are a lot of pigs in the music business, that creates problems.  (Orloff asks what that stereotype is for women.)  Well, women should be what I call “chicky-poo,” they should be ultrafeminine and be submissive in their attitude.  That’ not necessarily always true.  I supposed I’ve felt that if I’m being who I am and asserting some idea which a man int he music business doesn’t agree with, that he would be offended, somehow his hackles would rise, rather than being able to really discuss it as a valid idea…

Also men want women in the music business to be attractive in a certain way.  That’s not simple to do, but it’s a simple concept, a simple-minded concept.  The music business is just a funny, funny space to live in.

It occurs to me that the importance of women in rock today has to do with women 1) playing instruments and being taken seriously as actual musicians, and 2) making meaningful statements about women’s feelings through and around music, rather than the traditional statements which have frequently been put in the mouths of women by male writers.  For women to be exploiting their own sexuality (which at the very least is a given) as a means of getting a so-called foot in the door is falling prey to the old set-up.  If women are serious in their efforts as musicians, then let the world know it’s their music and its message that merits attention, and it should speak for itself.  Whatever advantages of being a woman will then be a bonus.  Self-exploitation of the stereotypical women’s wiles only confuses the point of women in rock.  Women have been in music through history, but within rock they’ve been able to emerge as serious and articulate musicians/writers, speaking to and for a large audience.  How much easier it would be with more women in all facets of the business, including record-store owners, publicity agencies, rack jobbers, deejays, engineers, producers and of course record company executives. Can you imagine?”

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Janet Robin, Air Supply, Meredith Brooks, etc., from NPR’s collection of interviews, “Hey Ladies”, published online in 2010.

Janet and band @ Hotel Cafe ©Peter "Hopper" Stone/stonefoto.com

“Well, certainly it’s gotten better for women in music, these days you see a lot more women out there playing and doing their own thing. Or, being hired as players in bands. When I started, it really was a novelty. When I was in my band in the 80’s we had a major record deal (Polygram and Capitol), we were an all-girl band, (actually friends with some of The Runaways girls), and as we started promotion for our records, radio stations actually said to our faces that they could not add another band with a female singer. That their roster already had one (ala Pat Benatar or Heart) and that they only allowed for one female fronted band at a time on their playlist….Totally ridiculous, of course. We also had some guys come up after our shows and actually ask us if our “”boyfriends’ were playing the instruments behind the curtain because “”girls can’t play rock n’ roll”” that was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

Now, it’s much better and the more women who get out there, learn and play their instrument proficiently, the better. When I got hired to play in Lindsey Buckingham’s solo band, he specifically wanted a woman who could play guitar and sing background vocals. There were not very many at the audition, I can tell you that. He was extremely open to the idea and I’m sure all those years working with Stevie Nicks opened up his mind to even the concept of a women musician. People like Joni Mitchell, Heart, Runaways, Fanny, Suzi Quatro, Bonnie Raitt, even bassist Carol Kaye, all helped women get to where we are now. When there are even younger women players and musicians getting recognition now, I hope they remember where it originated from.

Like I said above, I find that some of the younger women musicians may not know much of people like Joni Mitchell and Heart or even Bonnie Raitt. I have a few guitar students and I try to educate them. Fanny and The Runaways were some of the first all girl bands around, then came Go-Go’s, Bangles, Girlschool from the UK, Vixen, (and my band, Precious Metal), during the glam rock days. We all knew each other, whether we were big and famous or not. It didn’t matter, there was a comraderie. Now, there are girl bands everywhere, and a lot more girl musicians with companies making guitars for girls even- and really trying to promote playing an instrument to young girls. I think it’s great. I just want to make sure that they know their history and know of some of these other women that came before. Even in the blues, there were incredible women guitarists such as Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Most people don’t even know who those people are, but for example, Memphis Minnie wrote “”When the levee breaks”” the song that Led Zeppelin made famous and basically doesn’t give her any credit. She was also an amazing LEAD guitarist and her husband was the rhythm guitarist in the band. These are facts that not only women should know, but men too- and people of all ages.

Someday I wish to put on a show that features women guitarists and pay homage to women guitarists from the past and present.”

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Favorite Protest Music

I feel it in my finguhs, I feel it in my toes – summer is all around us.  And so the feelings grows!

This post is in celebration of many things: the end of the school year, the beginning of summer, novels by the poolside, traveling, and life.  I was listening to The People Speak soundtrack in my amazing new-found very limited free time, and wanted to devote a post to protest music.  Here are some of my favs, but I want to hear yours!

These are in no particular order and just a few of tons of great protest songs:

The Temptations  Ball of Confusion

Aretha Franklin Respect

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Ohio

CCR Fortunate Son

Edwin Starr War

Michael Jackson  Black or White

Helen Reddy I Am Woman

Michael Franti and Spearhead Say Hey! (I love you)

Peggy Lee  I’m a Woman

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Bob Dylan The Times They Are A-Changin

Tracy Chapman Change  (which I would love to link but can’t!  if you don’t know it, go right now and listen to it.  right now!)

Loretta Lynn The Pill

And I wish The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter were in honor of homeless people.

Lemme hear your favs!

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