Tag Archives: pop

“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  Madonna’s a little outdated, I know, but just try and tell me you don’t see 90% of this in Lady Gaga.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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Beyonce, Gaga, and Katy Perry in Drag

This NPR (are you even surprised?) article on the not-so-subtle relationship between drag and pop stars brings up a lot of interesting points:

  • It gets at my subtle uneasiness for Lady Gaga.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – Lady Gaga rocks my socks off.  Her concerts are fantastic and so is her “platform” of gay rights and love, but some times I want more than just connecting with her larger than life character.
  • It gets at a bit of my research! (Don’t know?  Read my about me.) As far as music is concerned, we are at the core of the mid-70s with the rise of spunky glam rock with just a dash of punk’s volatility.

Labelle with multiple personalities beside Beyonce as Sasha Fierce.

Dragtastic Elton John circa mid-70s next to Stephanie Germanotta as Lady Gaga.

  • But why women?  This article doesn’t get out how the glam rock seen is remembered for its male performance artists: Freddie Mercury from Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Kiss….  Yet now, when male singers take on a character, it’s generally one that epitomizes masculinity – talking about slappin’ bitches and doing hos.
  • And why now?  I think it’s due to the rise of MTV (origin in the mid-70s) and our ADHD need to be constantly surprised and entertained.  Take for example, the latest glam pop craze mentioned in the article – Nicki Minaj.  On her recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, she introduced herself as a plethora of people (read below).  She already has split personalities and she hasn’t even released an album.

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Pop Personae: Why Do Some Women Perform in Character?

Zoe Chace

(Embedded links are from Chace)

There are some pop stars right now who look a lot like drag queens — Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Katy Perry, even Ke$ha. I went to an apartment full of pillows and animal prints to ask an expert why this is so. It’s the home of Bebe Zahara Benet, winner of the first season of the glitter-drenched reality show Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Is there anything in particular about these pop stars that reminds Bebe of her colleagues? She opens her eyes wide and stares at me.

“You mean everything they wear?!” she says, laughing. “That’s my answer. Everything they wear — everything they wear on that stage is drag.” It’s the wigs. It’s the coats. It’s the dresses that look like lampshades made of lollipops. It’s the velvet stilettos that somehow resemble Slinkys.

“When you do the art form of drag, you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, and you can say whatever you want to say,” explains Benet. “I think a lot of these female artists have noticed that it’s powerful. They can use it as a platform to express themselves, even if that’s not who they are in their daily lives. They found that secret.”

Beyonce becomes Sasha Fierce when she performs. Katy Perry puts on a bright blue wig to walk the red carpet. And Stephanie Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, wears sunglasses made of cigarettes and sells out stadiums.

Gaga does a lot of interviews (though she declined NPR’s request for one) — and in every one, she says some version of this:

“I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate because I didn’t fit in in high school, and I felt like a freak.  So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with, and they don’t feel alone!”

That was on Ellen last May. And this year she said the same thing to journalist Toure, on his web show On the Record with Fuse. Her fans are indeed flying their freak flags — by the millions.

“I definitely relate to her because I don’t fit in at school either,” says Katharine Weiss, from outside “The Monster Ball”, as Lady Gaga’s current tour is called, in St. Louis, Missouri. “But, her, as a person, just helps me get through.” Weiss is wearing an “I Heart Lady GayGay” T-shirt. Her friend, Sam Mandry, is wearing an outfit that he describes as “an homage to her outfit at the V Festival in England,” and he’s carrying a “disco stick, as always.” Mandry says Lady Gaga is “creating this space so that people can feel free and dress how they want and be how they want, and it’s like, we’re all crazy because of her.” Seeing the hairbows and leotards on parade outside the venue, I have to agree with that assessment.

Gaga has started calling her fans “monsters.” 18-year-old Darnell Purt is one of those them. He just graduated high school in Brooklyn.

“We’re all monsters,” he says. “Like, if they think that I’m a monster because I’m bi, or I’m a hermaphrodite, or I dress funny, or I’m gay-friendly, then we’re all monsters. We’re all crazy monsters.”

When it comes to creating outsized personas, there’s someone going toe to toe with Gaga’s monster brand. Here’s how she introduced herself on one of her songs on a recent mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty:

“I’m Nicki Minaj; Nicki Lewinski; Nicki the Ninja; Nicki the Boss; Nicki the Harajuku Barbie.”

Nicki Minaj the Rapper hasn’t even released her first album. But if you listen to pop radio you can’t escape her. It sounds as though she’s guesting on every song this summer. What makes Minaj stand out — besides her supply of Lil Kim wigs and burlesque outfits — is her bottomless closet of characters. In one song alone, she’s Jamaican, she’s Queens, she’s British. Not to mention childlike, gangster, valley girl. Recently she introduced a new character to the mix, whom she named “Roman Zolanski.” 22-year old Britney Ross really connects with Roman.

“Have you ever noticed,” Britney asked me on the phone from her car in Chicago, “when Nicki puts on an English accent in interviews? That’s Roman.  When Roman comes out, that’s when all the voices and all the crazy styles start to come out.”

Ross loves Nicki’s alter egos so much, she’s been going to a club just outside the city, Secrets, and performing as Nicki Minaj for over a year.

“Sometimes I’m shy,” Britney says. “But when Roman — or Nicki — comes on, that just goes out the window. I don’t think about it anymore, I just do it.  That’s why I like Roman. That’s why I like being Roman.” Minaj’s almost cartoonish shape-shifting grabs her fans and hooks them. They get involved and start to tell stories.

Take 20-year old Naquasha Baker — a self-appointed expert on Nicki Minaj.  She’s been closely following the rapper’s career since her first mix tape — which was years ago, even though Minaj is just blowing up on the radio now.  Baker is a friend of Darnell Purt’s, the Lady Gaga fan in Brooklyn.

“Her father was mad abusive,” Baker tells me. “He would drink all the time.  And then to get away from her life, she would pretend that she was somebody else. So that she didn’t have to deal with the issues and the problems that her family were having. I think that’s where she gets that Harajuku Barbie thing from. In real life, that’s what people do [to get out of a bad situation], they pretend they are somebody else.”

This story is backed up by an interview Minaj gave to The Fader magazine (though she, too, declined NPR’s request for one). Baker read it because she reads everything about Minaj.

Just like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj has named her followers. She calls them her “Barbies” and she has an army of them on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, Nicki Minaj imitator Britney Ross goes by “Britney Lil’Bee Zolanski”.

This generation really gets alter egos. They also have a personal stash of identities for different situations — they’re constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for going out at night. Darnell Purt’s alter ego is called Lord Glam.

“When I’m Lord Glam,” says Purt, “dancing in the club or performing in front of people, it’s a different kind of rush, it’s a different feeling. I have more confidence. It’s like Beyonce with Sasha Fierce. I kind of relate to her because I know there’s two sides. When I walk down the street, people are like, ‘Oh, Lady Gaga!’ Which is cool.” Because of Lady Gaga’s ubiquity, Lord Glam has a place in the world he maybe didn’t have before.

This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it’s new, says Judith Halberstam, who teaches media studies at the University of Southern California.

“Look back at the 19th century at people like Oscar Wilde,” she suggests. “Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself and then was happy, when called upon, to perform this role of the glib dandy who was full of one-liners.”

Instead of spinning around helplessly in a media cycle devoted to his outlandish behavior, Wilde grabbed the steering wheel. Halberstam says the British punk band The Sex Pistols did much the same thing in 1976, when they upended a live television show by lobbing expletives at the host. Halberstam sees this as a seminal moment, where a band used a created persona to manipulate their media coverage.

“It marked a new era in the way that performers were going to interact with the supposedly neutral machine that was just there to capture them,” she says.

The artists found the controls for the machine, and started feeding it images of their own creation. David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, an extra-terrestrial version of his glam rocker self. In the ’80s, cross-dressing disco queen Grace Jones satirized popular images of black women whenever she stepped in front of a camera. Rapper Lil Kim showed up on MTV in the ’90s wearing a pink wig and matching stilettos as if to say, “You want sexy? I’ll give you a very explicit sexy, and see if you can handle it.”

Is this empowering or exploitative? For women, it can be a fine line. These musicians frequently have all-male management teams, who often push a female singer to be provocative to get exposure quickly. And the women’s images, for better or worse, directly affect the fans who follow them.

These days, that power is almost immediate. There are so many platforms for exposure, an artist’s team needs to be pretty savvy to navigate all of them consistently, in a way that will make fans catch on and stay with them. The window to make an impression is short. One video is watched by millions, all over the world, in a matter of minutes.  As current pop star Ke$ha puts it, “I have three and a half minutes to change somebody’s mood, and if I can make them in a better mood, that’s like magic. That’s like magic mind control.”

So are these stars controlling their fans, controlling their media coverage, or just enabling everyone’s inner drag queen to come out?

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