Archive | March, 2011

New articles

25 Mar


Winding down my visit to Chicago for the Cultural Studies Association Annual Meeting, where I was on a plenary on political affect with Lauren Berlant and Patricia Clough, company in which I felt truly humbled. I spoke on Lady Gaga‘s political activism, which I will speak on again next week at Cornell U. Before then I will have to take into account the fallout over her latest single “Born This Way” in Malaysia, where some deejays have been censoring the gay affirmative lyrics. Odd that Malaysia is also where Adam Lambert had to clean up his act a little on his recent international tour. While I should be (and am) upset by this censorship of gay content, I am equally interested in Malaysia’s apparent appetite for sexual risqué musical content, despite the putative restrictive codes of its moral gatekeepers. I’d like to know more about queer culture and pop culture there than I currently do.

My two new articles are out, and both are on music, blackness, and queerness. Links below to full PDFs. The first is my contribution to a special issue of Criticism on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, edited by Erin Murphy and J. Keith Vincent. My article, “Trapped in the Closet with Eve,” employs Sedgwick’s thinking about paranoid and reparative readings to interpret the Trapped in the Closet series of videos by R. Kelly.

My other new article is from the special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies (congratulations to new editors Gustavus Stadler and Karen Tongson) on Michael Jackson (congratulations to special issue editors Tamara Roberts and Brandi Catanese). My article, “Have You Seen His Childhood? Song, Screen, and the Queer Culture of the Child in Michael Jackson’s Music” looks at cinematic and musical figurations of lateral childhood in Michael Jackson’s short films. I have to say that with both essays I feel privileged to be in such fine company. Too many  to mention but I must not I found Tamara Roberts contribution to JPMS and Cindy Patton‘s essay in Criticism to be particularly rewarding. Well worth seeking out.

To sing the praises of your fruit

22 Mar

Does a new R.E.M. album count as an event in queer music? I think so, and Fred Maus helps me understand why. As he points out, the obscurity and elision in Stipe’s lyrics make them at once confessional and oblique, “intimate and distant.” This I think is the case both before and after Stipe’s public coming out.

The queerest thing about Collapse into Now isn’t song titles like Mine Smell Like Honey, or lines like “You’re going to sing the praises of your fruit.” It might perhaps rather be collaborations with Berlin-based queer and punk collaborators Joel Gibb and Peaches. While a lot of reviews have pointed to the classic sound of a band content to deliver the goods to devoted fans, the “now” into which they are collapsing seems very much to be the queer, collaborative ferment of art and music in Berlin. At least the video for Mine Smell Like Honey has a very Berlin look and feel to it, from Stipe’s bearded bear look to the improvisational dance up some grimy Kreuzberg-looking stairs. It captures the loose, collaborative feel of the city. Queer music may today increasingly be about such convivial ambience, following the template set by artists like Antony and the Johnsons.

Gay on Glee and Idol

11 Mar

(Glee cast version pulled from YouTube so I’m posting the most popular amateur cover).

I admit it, I never did put two and two together and realize that “landslide=orgasm.” Seems I can learn something from a Very Special Episode about Sex too! The episode of Glee was impressive not only for taking on a lot of basic taboos about condom use, pregnancy, etc., but also in terms of how adroitly it used songs like Landslide to underline the distinctiveness of female from male homoeroticism.

Where to date Kurt was the stereotypical mainstream stand in for queers — the porcelain show queen — this week’s episode revealed for the first time how much he feared actual sexual contact with a boy. It was left to the girls to turn up the heat around queer sex.

Kurt’s virginity proved a nice foil for Santana, the “hot blooded Latina” whose sexuality to date has remained within an equally established mainstream cliche of female-female desire performed for the titillation of a male voyeur. For the first time, we got a hint at how this ruthless enforcer of high school hierarchy really feels about the boys she has seemed content to be passed around like a trophy. Landslide became her metaphor, not for growing out of “teenage experimentation” with fellow cheerleader, but of the shock of realizing she may be growing into an adult who doesn’t need heteronormativity to prop her sexuality up.

I liked how the Sex Ed episode of Glee managed to be sex-positive without painting sex as anodyne. To the contrary it repeatedly drove home the Lacanian injunction that there is no such things as a sexual relationship. Love and Eros — “sex” and “relationship” — never can quite coincide, even as we cannot fail to aim for that sweet spot where we imagine they might. And this is as much the case, or even more so with the adults on the show as with the confused, horny teens. The swinging sex ed teacher who can’t sustain a relationship past 36 hours; the virginal school counselor won’t touch her own husband; the preening “glory days” choirmaster; the self-glorying cheerleading coach who is reduced to marrying herself; and the ‘mannish’ football coach who has never been kissed.

Only the god-fearing comic relief principal seems to occupy a place of full erotic (albeit marital) enjoyment, a location whose incongruity is underscored by the casting a South Asian actor to play a Christian mid-Westerner named Figgins. It is only in Figgins’ world of the perpetual double take and continuous malapropism, it seems, that “true happiness” on Glee can be permitted to reside.

The other big gay news this week was Adam Lambert‘s returning to American Idol to play an “unplugged” version of the song Aftermath which he is also releasing a dance version of to raise funds for the anti-suicide hotline the Trevor Project. :

Philanthropic motives aside, I can’t say this song moves me much. In my view, Adam’s incredible vocal talent and relaxed, exuberant personality (the latter best witnessed on his Twitter feed and in interviews) is still being squandered on milquetoast material. I blame it on LA. Underneath all the black dye and emo posturing, Adam strikes me as a happy, well adjusted, California strawberry blond who is having the time of his life living la vida loca. His songs on behalf of the isolated and alienated teen sound no better nor worse to my ears than Public Service Announcements. No landslide  here.

Arts and Crafts

10 Mar

Attended a read-through of Justin Bond and Sandra Bernhard’s new show at Joe’s Pub Monday night. Then watched “Without You I’m Nothing” last night with Chris. He pointed out (admiringly) Ms. Sandra’s “vulgar vibrato,” to help me as I try to put into words exactly what makes certain vocalists “sound queer,” as I think Bond, Bernhard, and Kalup Linzy (who I also saw earlier that evening in a separate) all do.

The value of academic blogging

9 Mar

This post on the value of academic blogs makes a lot of sense to me, particularly here:

To think about such matters from the perspective of assemblage theory, we should be able to see that the material and expressive segments of a journal serve a strong, territorializing function, reaffirming the boundaries of discipline and the identities of participants. Sitting behind a paywall, available primarily through academic libraries, one can be fairly certain that no one will even accidentally encounter the text (and even if they did, the discourse would likely turn them away). There are good reasons for doing this kind of writing, but I would suggest that it is not the only kind of writing humanists should do. On the other hand, the functionality of the blog has a strong, deterritorializing function. It is designed to carry the media away via RSS feeds, to go viral via Twitter and Facebook, and so on. It is public and available via Google. And while it’s discourse can be variable, and potentially as esoteric as any journal article, the culture of blogging in general invites participation and sharing.

I only skimmed the comments, but they seemed to contain a useful discussion of methods, and an intriguing anxiety about exposing humanistic approaches to the casual ethos of the net. As if paywalls and peer review were a sort of curtain behind which our wizardry were best conjured.

But everyone has seen the end of that movie, so it looks like we are looking at the world of discourse without emerald colored glasses for the foreseeable future.

Upcoming lectures

4 Mar

I seem to be taking forever to write up my full post-conference notes on EMP 2011, so maybe my little provocation on queer representation will have to stand in for my substantive intellectual gains from the event, even if someone on Twitter called that posting a “post-identity relapse” or something like it.

We are not post-identity. We are pre-identity. Identity is not yet upon us. Like the owl of Minerva, it flies at dusk.

In the meantime, I just got the link to this interesting conference at Harvard University for which I’ve been invited to give a keynote on April 8th. I’m not speaking about music, but wearing my other hat as a nineteenth century cultural historian. I will do Gaga redux, however, at the presidential plenary of the Cultural Studies Association Annual Meeting in Chicago later this month (March 24th), and at a conference at Cornell University on Music, Gender, and Globalization, April 2nd.

Coming up on Bully Bloggers: Jack Halberstam and I trade thoughts on “Born this Way” video.

EMP 2011 Wrap-up: Where were the Queers?

1 Mar

The 10th Annual EMP Pop conference wrapped up over the weekend and, against my fears, hosting it at a university didn’t alter the ‘secret recipe sauce’ of journalists, academics, and musicians. Is it me or did we actually gain a new and welcome constituency of students? I can’t think of another conference I go to in which people from 18 to 60+ are in the audience and at the podium, carrying on overlapping conversations about a single topic with such enthusiastic passion.

Others, notably Ned Raggett, have offered copious documentation of specific papers. And a couple conference reviews are coming online, including one by my co-panelist Oliver Wang. I am going to offer my own scattered thoughts on presentations that struck a chord in me but before I do, I have to give a “wag of the finger” as Stephen Colbert likes to say to myself and the EMP community for a group that, upon reflection, was seriously underrepresented this year: queers.

Where were the queers?

I don’t mean the queer presenters: because there were plenty of us. My question is not about a head count but about where, in the discussion of popular music today, queer and transgender topics figure. Homosexuality is apparently a big enough topic that Congress has recently passed legislation on it, people have fought and died for it at home and abroad, artists are singing about it, and sex columnists are making sentimental YouTube videos about it. Is it important to us too when we gather annually to talk about music?

It’s possible — even likely — that I missed some great conversation on queer music happening in some other room. (I missed the Idol panel. Did Adam Lambert come up in relation to queer performance or music there?) But here’s my evidence based on what I do know. In the printed program (which would have attracted or kept away potential attendees), only a single paper title (mine) including the words lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer. And that paper wasn’t even about a queer artist, exactly, although Gaga has, as my co-presenter Jack Halberstam pointed out in his talk, provocatively declined to disavow the transgender body imputed to her by some hostile fans. So while I don’t ordinarily do this kind of thing, I got out my rusty essentialist bean counter and looked for honest to goodness out musicians announced in paper titles (I started to go through abstracts too, but got tired. I’d never make it as a sociologist!).

The results (aside from my and Jack’s paper): Ann Powers’ creative use of the closet as a metaphor for thinking about genre; José Muñoz’s (sadly missed) paper on Darby Crash, and an interview with the man who signed The Smiths. I do have to throw in one attendee: Phranc showed up to the Work It! pre-conference (and asked, incidentally, are we going backwards or forwards? Is there any progress? Part of the trigger for this post.)

Gerrick Kennedy’s LA Times review of the pre-conference Work it! (organized through the prodigious energies of Karen Tongson) was appreciated. But it reproduced the annoying (to both feminists and queers) equation of “sexuality” and “female sexiness in some vicinity of the conventionally heteronormative.” (as the accompanying illustration of Beyoncé, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga suggested). Homosexuality or bisexuality was not mentioned in the article.

I embrace the selfishness of my criticism: I want more people to talk to at EMP about stuff I care about! It’s why all of us keep coming. But me aside, its obviously not the case that sexuality is irrelevant to the theme of money and capitalism, or that we did it a couple years back and now we’re through. We need to talk about it every year, especially if the mainstream media and scholarship doesn’t, or does so in simplistic ways.

So here, in the spirit of productive suggestions, are some ideas for next year:

  • Queer as Format: Logo TV runs “gay themed” video shows. Virgin America has a “Pride” channel featuring a range of artists from Ricky Martin to Joan Armatrading. What’s that about? Do you have to be gay to be featured on Logo? What if you aren’t gay? Have artists ever objected to their videos being shown on a gay channel? I’m thinking perhaps about glass closeted artists. What’s the history of gay labels (including the one that the original “I Was Born This Way” was on: the amazingly titled Gaiee Label!)
  • After the Closet. Speaking of Ricky Martin: where is the reflection on the momentous change (is it a momentous change?) in the last year or two where established and up and coming artists coming out to increasing indifference? K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through in the 1990s. Was it harder for male artists to come out? What about trans (does Antony (& the Johnsons) count)? Is indifference a non-story, ie: sexuality doesn’t matter now? Or are new things happening with queerness precisely in the space where, for instance, straight female fans feel free to adore gay male singers and male frat boys groove on Kaki Kings’ guitar stylistics (HT Tina M on that last one).
  • Boys who do Girls. Speaking of new things happening, someone (ID anyone?) did bring up one EMP conversation the start that Darren Criss got a start performing Disney Princess songs on YouTube. Learning that completely opened my eyes to the canny sexual orientation striptease Glee has going on now, in which an openly straight actor plays an openly gay character who is given all these songs of female empowerment (Bills Bills Bills, Teenage Dream) to sing. Isn’t there an emo genealogy to trace here (paging Dr. Tongson)?
  • It Gets Worse: But maybe this is just a bigger question: where was Glee at this year’s EMP? Isn’t its commercial revivification of the TV musical and its impact on the pop charts and digital downloads worth checking out from a C.R.E.A.M. perspective? How do we think about the clash that the show constantly stages between musical theatre and contemporary pop/hip hop, both in its plot and in its contemporary impact (and its problematic whiteness)? Glee has used music to put forth the powerful idea (connected to neoliberalism in ways I could spell out) that life after the closet isn’t necessarily easier. As the adults on Glee intimate: life often gets worse, so endurance is not about normative futurity but about a kind of indefinite, lateral childhood (which is why the bratty Sue Sylvester remains the heart and soul of the show). The braggadacio of pop and the pathos of musical theatre meet in uncanny and uncomfortable ways on Glee that seem to have a lot to do with accommodating the growing social visibility of queers.
    I shouldn’t be giving away all my ideas here because really I want to write a book on Glee and the unmaking of the American Dream. But really, it would be swell to have more stellar minds than mind helping me think these things through. I’m jealous of how much platonic love record collectors, eminent rock critics, and the term “authenticity” gets.

Or, as Darren Criss, channeling Princess Ariel, sings: “wish I could be part of your world.”