Tag Archives: music

Walking on the “Wild Side”: 20 Feet From Stardom and the Black Female Gaze

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published on BlackFemLens

In the 1972 song “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” Lou Reed evokes the paternalistic image of “colored girls” cooing in the background to a hipster tale of New York debauchery. Using Reed’s homage as its introduction, white director Morgan Neville’s bittersweet documentary 20 Feet from Stardom attempts to bring black female back-up singers into the foreground with both moving and problematic effect.

From the 1950’s to the present, white America “walked on the wild side” via the dulcet tones and searing power of black women’s voices. Then as now, black R& B music was often the “colorful” backdrop to lily white pop culture scenes of “all-American” revelry, romance, and heroism. For the white consumer of the postwar Jim Crow era, the commercial rise of rock and R&B transformed racial otherness into a more mainstream adventure; a resort vacation to unexplored vistas of self-discovery that anyone with a radio or a few cents for a 45 record could take. As the world’s most rabid consumers of black culture, white folks’ imperialist yearnings to be “black” (from Jack Kerouac to Norman Mailer to Sandra Bernhard) emerge from this grand obsession with the supposed wild, raw, unfettered, close-to-the-bone emotion and physicality of the Black woman belting out soulful paeans to life and love. Minus the racial terrorism, segregation and ghettoization, blackness has always been a sexy place for whites “eating the other”.

Black women’s back-up singing was crucial to the evolution of modern rock and R&B, buttressing songs as disparate as the Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel” and the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” by turning them into richly textured classics. 20 Feet captures the deep travesty of obscurity, marginalization and, often, poverty, that these pioneering artists faced. Spotlighting multi-generational artists such as Merry Clayton (who did the powerhouse vocal on Gimme Shelter), Darlene Love, the Waters family, Tata Vega, Lisa Fisher and Judith Hill, the film’s broad historical sweep shows both how much and how little has changed. Women of color back-up singers are still treated like expendable objects, eye candy and soulful exotics while fighting tooth and nail for recognition and a shot at center stage.

The trajectory of the fiercely talented Darlene Love is the movie’s template and touchstone. Royally swindled by famed producer and (now) incarcerated killer Phil Spector, Love was the voice of many of the 60s most hummable R&B classics. While her vocals on the smash hit “He’s a Rebel” made her a sought after studio singer, she was cheated out of the opportunity to appear in public singing her own work. Love describes the indignity of seeing the Crystals become the public face of her song; lip synching to a number one record while she battled Spector for her just due. As has been well-documented, exploitation of black artists was institutionalized in the music industry. Elvis Presley and scores of “trailblazing” white artists and producers built their careers, empires and international stardom on the backs of uncompensated and un-credited black artists. Nonetheless, the film is largely silent about the mammoth battles black artists waged for recognition and royalties. Love’s decades-long fight with Spector is its only nod to the insidious racial and gender politics that drove capitalist exploitation in the industry.

Similarly, there is only fleeting critical commentary on the sexist objectification of black women vocalists and the way in which this ultimately stunted their careers. Footage of the Ike and Tina Turner revue is used to highlight stereotypes of feral black female hypersexuality, underscoring the bind that women who wanted to be successful in the industry faced. Singer Claudia Lennear, a former “Ikette” and Rolling Stones back-up, comments on the requirement that the Turners’ back-up vocalists be scantily clad. She then limply deflects questions about her own decision to pose for Playboy. Unfortunately, the film never deepens its appraisal of sexism (especially its implications for the modern day “video ho” phenomenon, an image of black women that is one of rap and hip hop’s most enduring and degrading global exports). Reflecting on Turner and her rise to fame in her piece “Selling Hot Pussy,” bell hooks wrote “The black female body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability; when it is sexually deviant…Turner’s singing career has been based on the construction of the image of black female sexuality that is made synonymous with wild animalistic lust…Ike’s decision to create the wild black woman was perfectly compatible with prevailing representations of black female sexuality in a white supremacist society .” Hooks’ perspective would have been a welcome antidote to the ribald lip-smacking ignorance of USC professor Todd Boyd who comments that Ike played the role of the “pimp” to his stable of “hos” (i.e., Tina and the Ikettes). As if to confirm this, the camera cuts to a shot of Turner, Lennear and the Ikettes gyrating and bending over suggestively in micro minis and high heels at a raucous outdoor concert.

Hooks notes that Tina Turner’s image was shaped by Ike’s “pornographic misogynist imagination” and his obsession with jungle films. The subtext of the film is black women’s resistance to this brand of sexualization and the regime of the male gaze (corporate, white, ageist, mainstream). It is a narrative that develops despite the political limitations of the white director who is clearly enthralled with the “mystique” of black soul. This tension is reflected early on in the dichotomy the film constructs between mainstream cultural norms of white feminine respectability and “authentic” black femininity. Commenting on the origins of the back-up singer tradition, the narrator contrasts the restrained primness of white female vocalists with the “raw” abandon of the mostly gospel trained black female vocalists. “We called them ‘readers,’’ Darlene Love says, referencing the white mainstream method of simply singing the notes on the page without injecting passion and spontaneity into the delivery. Reinforcing the stereotype of “natural” “God-given” black soul singing talent, the film does not explore the musical training and vocal instruction some of these black women artists undoubtedly received. Nonetheless, the sheer discipline and tenacity of the back-up singers is conveyed by their testimony about marathon all-night recording sessions, demanding concert tours and exploitative conditions.

While the commentary each singer provides is illuminating, it would be inconceivable for a retrospective on white male singers to feature virtually all black women musicians, historians, technicians and producers as subject experts on their careers. However, this is the “benign” structure that 20 Feet sets up. For nearly two hours the women appear through the eyes of their mostly white male employers— rock and pop superstars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Chris Botti—and assorted white male subject experts. Presumably hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose and scores of other black feminist scholars and music historians were unavailable to critically contextualize these women’s experiences. This gross deficit makes 20 Feet From Stardom a meta-reflection of the constant struggle women of color must wage for political visibility, historical validation and culturally responsive scholarship. Attempting to evoke the social upheaval of the sixties, the film trots out stock images of the Black Panthers as well as Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ iconic raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics to evoke black consciousness. We catch a fleeting glimpse of Kathleen Cleaver but no other black women figures or activists are evoked. It would have been powerful to hear what Cleaver, an esteemed legal scholar and feminist critic, would have had to say about Merry Clayton’s decision to sing back-up on the Lynrd Skynyrd’s 1974 song “Sweet Home Alabama,” a racist homage to Dixie. Clayton ruefully critiques “Alabama” and describes the force she put into her vocals as an act of resistance, reflecting the contradictions of an era in which black women artists felt they had to conform to visions of white supremacy in order to survive. But apparently giving this narrative a critical, scholarly black feminist voice would have been too much of a walk on the “wild side”.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.

Racialized performances in pop music or Why are Beyonce and JLo so scandalous?

This image is approved for consumption by polite society.

This image is approved for public consumption.

Last week, Jennifer Lopez scandalized Britain with a “raunchy” performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Not only did viewers flock to social media (as you do) to complain about JLo dropping it like it’s hot in a French-cut one piece and thigh-high boots, but British  TV regulator OfCom confirmed that it has received complaints about the broadcast and is assessing the matter, but not investigating it.

For helpful context, here is the performance–labeled “disgusting” and “shameful” by some critics–that provoked an “assessment” of whether a competitive reality show violated the bounds of decency.

In my humble opinion, the only thing indecent about that performance was the tepidness of the dancing and the awfulness of the song. (But, hey, maybe it’s not for me. I’m an old–actually the same age as JLo–and I don’t spend much time at the club lately.)

I suspect the assessment of Jennifer Lopez’s performance is influenced by both race, size and age bias. But you know I’m conspiratorial that way, so I asked Andrea, my homegirl and fellow editor at the R to weigh in.

Tami: When I heard all the crowing about this performance, I recalled Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year., which also prompted cries of outrage.

Both of these performances seem astonishingly tame in the face of criticism. “Disgusting” is a pretty strong word to describe booty shaking in a body suit. Folk are generally cool with sexy (and sexist) Go Daddy commercials during the Super Bowl, but Queen Bey causes parents to “shield their kids’ eyes.”

I think the response to these performances is very much influenced by racial bias. Brown and black bodies are routinely sexualized. Latinas bear the weight of the “spicy” and “exotic” stereotypes. And those stereotypes have dogged Lopez throughout her career. The nickname “J. Ho”–a reference to the singer/actress’ alleged promiscuity and mercenary character–even has a spot in the Urban Dictionary. And I should point out, these accused character traits seem to be based on little but the skewed way this culture views Latinas.

Lopez herself told US magazine of the controversy: “I think people are so much raunchier than I am. I feel like I’m so tame. [I] wore it at Billboard and Britain’s Got Talent said they wanted exactly the same. So I thought I’d wear the outfit in black. No one complained at Billboard. I think people just like to talk. It was a bodysuit. A lot of performers wear that these days. It is standard stage clothes. I’m not going to walk down the street like that!”

JLo’s act does not seem markedly different from any other pop spectacle–no different Britney Spears’ iconic performance at the 2000 VMA’s or what this Britney impersonator did during an audition for…wait for it…“Britain’s Got Talent” in 2011.

Andrea: I agree, especially about the relative tepidness of Lopez’s performance and the non-scandalousness of her outfit.

What I think  is at play here is Beyonce and Lopez are doing dance moves that are, whether done with Beyonce’s exuberance or with Lopez’s tepidness, sexy moves that they thought of and/or approved of. In other words, they’re expressing their sexual agency. However, that’s a major no-no in a society steeped in the sexist ethos of “I can touch you, but you can’t touch yourself,” which has a long structural history in the lives of women of color due to slavery and colonization.

And this “what about the children” reasoning as to folks’ disgust with the two women’s performance brings up not only women of color doing that stereotypical thing of ruining people’s sexual “innocence” but also something of–how shall I phrase this?–an unspoken notion of the influence of images not only affecting how a person will be “brought up” to express their own sexuality but also the kind of person their brain will be hard-wired to be attracted to. If the child–and let’s be really real, kids are indeed sexual beings–is connecting their erotic feelings to seeing a woman of color dancing like Lopez and moreso like Beyonce, the parents may be thinking that their child just may act upon that attraction and–gasp!–fall in love and–clutch the pearls!–bring “such a woman” home as a spouse.

Tami: And here’s the other thing: Jennifer Lopez (and Beyonce) are not only women of color, they are also women known for having curvy body types, which are often associated with Latinas and black women and are larger than the current ideal for celebrities. Unrestrained fleshiness and jiggle reads differently than hard and trim; Physical abundance is often mistaken for wantonness.

Media wrote about Lopez’s “bum-baring” performance, but the singer’s booty is covered; her outfit was less revealing than typical beachwear. Could the rub be that JLo’s rear is big and round vs. tiny and tight?

Andrea: I think Lopez herself has pointed out how her body shape get framed in this society: “People equate sexy with promiscuous. They think that because I’m shaped this way, I must be scandalous–like running around and bringing men into my hotel room. But it’s just the opposite.” To me, Lopez shouldn’t have had to say such a thing–her body, however it’s shaped, is hers to do with what she wants with nary a comment to the press. However, the burden of the stereotypes about Latinas and Black women keeps us defending our reputations in the public space in order to, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry says in her book Sister Citizen, keep our bearings in the face of the socially constructed crooked images of ourselves.

But we’re not only defending our reputations that folks assume comes with our bodies; we also need to defend our bodies, literally, as seen by the clip of Beyonce whipping around and firmly telling a white-appearing concertgoer in Denmark that she’d have him removed because he smacked her butt–and this happened last week!

This brings me back to what you said about our bodies being routinely sexualized. It’s not just that bodies of color are routinely sexualized; it’s that our bodies are furthermore seen–still–as public sexual property to be discussed and publicly contested to be the figures that people shouldn’t aspire to desire sexually, though I’ve heard quite a few non-Black and non-Latin@s say that Beyonce and Lopez inspired them to “love their curves” and/or “embrace their booties” in light of the contested reality that Beyonce’s and Lopez’s curves are seen as a physical and sexual ideal.

Tami: Lastly, I think age is a factor in this discussion as well. Western culture worships youth. Women past a certain age aren’t supposed to sexy; we are supposed to cover up. Madonna is routinely told to put it away. And, to hear some folks tell it, Janet Jackson’s biggest sin wasn’t showing booby on primetime television, but showing over-40 booby. Sexy dressing may be fine for the 20-somethings, but for women north of 40, it is unseemly.

Andrea: *Sigh* I think part of this is the association of age and motherhood. Lopez and Beyonce are both mothers. Forty-something women especially (Bey is in her 30s) are cast as matronly–whether or not we have children–and being sexually attracted to a woman of that age is seen as MILFing, which, as the phrase states, is all about desiring a woman old enough to be (some)one’s mom, who are always constructed as non-sexual beings in this society. (Thus, the porned-out “shock” of the attraction.)

But, as we talked about in an earlier conversation, pop is relentlessly marketed as the “music of youth”–and “youth” is relentless hyped as the desired, if not ideal, stage of life, partly because of its able-bodied physicality–that very few people have a career in pop music in their late 30s and especially in their 40s and beyond, especially women of color. The brilliant singer Cassandra Wilson can enjoy a long career in jazz. Jill Scott can stay a neo-soul singer for a good long time, especially since she can always cross over into jazz (which she has). Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops will have longevity in the alt-country/bluegrass scene. Tina Turner, who had a string of pop hits in the 80s, is idolized as a rock icon who here lately rocked out as as torch singer. Grace Jones is lionized as a black proto-AfroPunk goddess who can shame all pop performers with a hula hoop. And I highly doubt any of them would get whapped on their asses at their concerts.

No, it’s pop goddesses who are so deeply degraded when they aren’t meeting the physical ideals of youth, like, well, getting older. And it’s Black and Latina pop goddesses–like Beyonce, Jackson, and Lopez, who’s still fondly remembered as one of the Fly Girls for In Living Color–who are degraded so roundly and so publicly.

Let Me Break It Down for You: Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”

by Joseph Lamour

I, like the rest of the internet and world (outside of the Arista Nashville offices, apparently), think “Accidental Racist” is an absolutely awful song. With a title that sounds more like a play by Neil Simon than a country-rap crossover, this misguided attempt at finding racial common ground is so terrible because it’s just so ill-considered from both sides of the duet. Being like I am, though, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when things like this happen. I try to figure out why that actor called that other actor that homophobic slur. I hold on hope for fallen starlets for about a year longer than everyone else. But, because I  also Like being appalled (it gives me an excuse to make this face), I often break it down the whole process when something like this happens.

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Confessions Of A Black Morrissey Fan

By Guest Contributor Joshua Alston; originally published at Feminist Wire

smiths

This week, Morrissey announced that he is canceling the remainder of his North American tour, due to an ongoing battle with a bleeding ulcer, Barrett’s esophagus, and a case of pneumonia in both of his lungs. I was disappointed to hear about the illnesses plaguing the singer who, since fronting the seminal rock band The Smiths in the 80s, has built a particularly cultish fan base of which I more or less consider myself a part. But there was also a rush of relief when I heard about the tour cancellation because it relieved me of a quandary that presents itself every few years: whether or not to see Morrissey in concert.

A friend of mine texted me a few weeks back to tell me when Morrissey was scheduled to play Philadelphia and to ask if I planned on going. The question startled me. It shouldn’t have. Like most Morrissey fans, I’ll find a way to mention his work if you talk to me long enough, and I often find myself pleading with Morrissey agnostics to listen to his work, particularly those who know nothing except for the penchant for whiny navel-gazing that has earned him the pejorative honorific “The Pope of Mope.” It only makes sense that anyone who’s gotten close enough to see how important Morrissey’s work is to me would ask if I wanted to see him in concert. But it’s a far more complex decision than it seems on its face.

Morrissey doesn’t make himself easy to like and has proved to be as deft at writing catchy, literate indie-pop songs as he is at erecting barriers that prevent the unqualified enjoyment of those songs. He’s egregiously precious and oversensitive and has a tendency to come off in interviews as self-important, vain, and smug. He’s a vocal advocate for animal rights–but perhaps too vocal. His passion for protecting all God’s creatures is an admirable one, but the rigid, bratty way he tends to express that passion represents the type of myopic zealotry that stunts movements more often than it fortifies them.

I could accept all of this, though, if it weren’t for the fact that Morrissey is also probably racist. I say “probably” for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Morrissey is not at all shy about litigation where such accusations are concerned. Added to this, as with any damaging rumor that shadows a celebrity, Morrissey’s alleged racism is a conjecture built of equal parts fact, perception, and apocrypha. But in spite of his insistence that he isn’t racist–an assertion he’s repeated over the years–no one has done more to make the case that Morrissey is deeply racist and xenophobic than the man himself.

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Lil’ Wayne And Boundaries

by Fashion and Entertainment Editor Joseph Lamour
*Warning: Strong Language*

wayneillus

So, have you heard about Lil’ Wayne yet? Let me give you the long and short of it: in a collaboration with Future, he used a metaphor to compare sex to Emmett Till’s murder. Lyrics below the cut, if you don’t know the line yet. This, of course, managed to offend the universe. The song in question, “Karate Chop,” features lyrics that stirred Emmett Till’s cousin to hire Jesse Jackson and demand an apology. Didn’t we all learn from Outkast’s “Rosa Parks”?

Now, I feel a little bit like Tyra Banks with what I’m about to say: I can relate to Lil’ Wayne because I’m also a musician. I don’t rap, but in addition to writing about fashion, entertainment–and having a hand in an array of art disciplines–I also compose and sing. In addition to recounting the facts up to this point, I decided to take this time to openly ponder what makes this lyric offend us all so viscerally, while others garner no news reaction at all.

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Rap, The Creative Process, And Power

By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images

 

 

Sociologist Jooyoung Lee is writing what sounds like a truly fascinating book. Titled Blowing Up: Rap Dreams in LA, it follows a series of young Black men who are trying to make it as rappers.  ”Together,” Lee writes, “their stories show how rapping–and hip-hop culture more generally–transform the social worlds of urban poor black youths.”

The video below gives us a taste of his findings.  In it, he’s asked why he thinks rappers are “so maligned in our culture.”  He explains that it’s because people often “take violent and misogynistic lyrics” literally.  Doing so, however, is to misunderstand “how the creative process works.”  He goes on to explain how one of the men he studied was pressured by a music label to cultivate an image that conformed to stereotypes of young, urban Black men.

Laina Dawes Serves Up A Righteously Rocking Playlist

Society allows white guys to utilize this music to get their aggressions out, act like He-Man and go crazy. The same benefits they get out of the music, black women not only get, but need even more. Black women need spaces in society where we can be free and express our individuality and be who we want to be.

- Laina Dawes, author, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

See Dawes’ You Tube playlist of black women in hard rock, heavy metal, and punk–from originator Big Mama Thornton to Diamond Rowe.

Listening To Kanye [The Mental Health Files]

808′s and Heartbreak Album Cover.

 

Went through, deep depression when my momma passed/
Suicide, what kinda talk is that?/
But I been talking to God for so long/
And if you look at my life I guess he’s talking back- Kanye West, “Clique,” Cruel Summer

As often as Kanye West talks about the state of his mental health, one would think that we’d be having a national conversation on mental health–kind of like the way we had a wave of conversations about domestic violence in the wake of the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident. Yet, in the four years since Kanye began talking openly about the depression related to the death of his mother and the dissolution of his romantic relationship with longtime paramour Alexis Phifer, the conversations have continued to be one-sided.

A search for “Kanye West and Depression” brings up surprisingly few articles and discussions. There’s a sterile AP article describing his initial comments, Cord Jefferson advising Kanye to go to a therapist on The Root, an MTV news article on his path to recovery, and Tom Breihan in the Village Voice distilling 808′s and Heartbreak down to “emo bellyaching” and a “album-length tantrum at his ex.” While Bassey Ikpi later argued to have some compassion for Kanye, it was one small plea in a sea of indifference and condemnation.

After four years of being open about pain and vulnerability, I’m starting to wonder if society will ever really hear him. Continue reading