Ke$ha, naked ladies in France and the 1893 World’s Fair

Matt recently told me about Ke$ha’s new video, “Take It Off,” with the caveat that it is, if possible, worse than “TiK ToK.”  At first I wasn’t going to watch it, but it exerted a pull upon me not unlike that of a horrible accident on the side of the highway.  And then I was glad I had, because it’s intellectually interesting, if aurally assaulting:

If you have spent any time in an American elementary school, you will immediately recognize the tune: it’s “The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid,” aka the “Hootchy Cootchy Song,” aka “There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance/There’s a hole in the wall where the boys can see it all…”

But rather than naked ladies in France, there is apparently a place downtown where the freaks all come around–it’s a hole in the wall, it’s a dirty free-for-all where the preferred accessory is a water bottle full of whiskey in one’s purse.  There is also glitter on the floor.

Wikipedia has a pretty good rundown of the history of the melody: originally written for, or at least best known for its early appearance at, the 1893 World’s Fair (which took place just a few blocks from me!), it served as the music for two belly dancers (I don’t love this term, but I don’t know a better one) who appeared at said fair.  An alternate theory about the origins of the tune posits that it is related to one of several Algerian melodies that perhaps migrated to France in the context of the colonial encounter in Maghrebi Africa.

The ethnographic excursions at this fair were bound up in all the colonialist/Orientalist nonsense that was in full swing at the time, and long story short, this tune has since been frequently used to depict salacious “exotic”/Arab/North African female behavior of the kind that frequently shows up in Orientalist film, music, opera, literature, visual art, and so forth.  Think “Sheherazade,” harems, a dirtier version of Disney’s Aladdin, etc.  You’ve probably heard it in any form of media that wants to quickly depict deserts, sexy dancing girls, “the Orient,” snake charmers, and all the usual stereotypes.

Interestingly, Ke-dollar sign-ha positions herself in a highly sexualized, somewhat “exotic” role in this video (and in her public self-representations more generally).  She “goes hardcore,” wears clothes that fall on the unconventional end of the normal spectrum, frequently acts like a wild animal (that hair!  crawling around on the desert floor!  ripped clothes! that eye makeup!  think of the children!) and portrays herself as an out-of-control, trashy-as-all-get-out partier (this is now her second song where she’s referenced doing things with whiskey–using it as toothpaste and carrying bottles around in her purse–that fall firmly in the realm of “alcoholism”).

I also find her evocation (intentional or not) of the Hindu holiday of Holi really fascinating (and problematic), especially in the context of the “Hootchy Cootchy Song.”  One of the primary customs observed for Holi is the throwing of colored powders and water, just as Ke$ha, et al do in this video.  Somewhat like Purim and Carnival, Holi is festive and the world is a bit topsy-turvy for a set period of time as the forces of good/order and evil/chaos battle it out (good and order, of course, eventually win out).  This is, of course, a massive oversimplification, and you should go read about it if you’re interested, but it gets the job done for the point I’m making.

So, what are the implications of linking this exoticizing, Orientalist, sort of salacious song with Hindu religious customs and bratty female-rock-star behavior that tries to be convention-defying but (at least to my mind) ends up being trashy and boring?  I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think I’m down with it.

More thoughts on “Alejandro”

Every so often I head over to Fatshionista and check out the back posts.  I love that blog–I think the fat acceptance movement’s work is incredibly important for women of all sizes and shapes (because let’s face it, our culture makes nearly every woman feel that her body is not acceptable in some way or another and that’s well, not acceptable).  Also, Lesley Kinzel says really smart things about pop culture.

Observe: her analysis of “Alejandro.”  I originally thought Gaga’s video was kind of boring, at least compared to some of her other work, but Kinzel’s reading of it through a feminist lens, and her comparison with Madonna’s videos/persona, was really thought-provoking.

Sometimes I worry about spending my life in academia…

I just finished reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology, a major work of “criticism.”  I’m not going to comment on my thoughts about the substance of the book itself, because to quote my dad and grandfather, it’s not prudent to get into a pissing match with a skunk.

I just wanted to point out that the following blurb is on the back of the book (I have the 1998 corrected edition, the English translation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) and that it makes me die a little inside to be a member of a world where this is considered some kind of meaningful praise (up there on the back cover with “One of the major works in the development of contemporary criticism and philosophy.” from J. Hillis Miller of Yale University):

Of Grammatology is the tool-kit for anyone who wants to empty the ‘presence’ out of any text he has taken a dislike to.  A handy arsenal of deconstructive tools are to be found in its pages, and the technique, once learnt, is as simple, and as destructive, as leaving a bomb in a brown paper bag outside (or inside) a pub. –Roger Poole, Notes and Queries

Participation, the Wauwatosa casserole brigade, and the notion of gospel brunch

A few weeks back, Matt and I went to gospel brunch at the Chicago branch of the House of Blues.  For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, gospel brunch is exactly that: you go to a brunch event at which a gospel group performs.  I don’t remember how we alighted on this as an option when we were trying to think of a performing arts event to go to, but alight upon it we did, both because we like gospel and because we thought it would be sociologically interesting.

As we made our way up to the near north side, we tried to guess what it would be like, who would be there and how they might react to or interpret gospel.  At first, with no prior knowledge of how gospel brunches work, we thought that the audience might be predominantly black; when we got there, we were surprised to see that not only was the audience predominantly white, but that the audience seemed primarily composed of white tourist types who looked very much like the soccer moms and Lutheran casserole brigade of my hometown, Wauwatosa, WI.  (Not that I’m knocking Tosans–I say this in a loving way!  But, you know, some of my friends like to refer to it as “Comatosa.”)

We waited in the lobby for a long time before we were allowed to go in and sit (which I thought odd); the food was served buffet-style, and was in my opinion pretty darn good although lacking in vegetarian options (unnecessary bacon in things, always so frustrating); and then we all sat down for the show.  The bandleader, of the group William Smith Jr. and the Renewed Voices for Christ, opened by introducing the group and welcoming everyone to the “ecumenical church of…” and listed just about every religion under the sun.  The music was fantastic, in my opinion: they had a mixed choir, a drummer, and an organist; all the musicians were truly excellent at what they did; the arrangements were tight and energetic; the repertoire selection was good, etc.  I bought their CD and have listened to it a couple times.

What I was really interested in was the interaction between the musicians and the audience.  The bandleader was really good about trying to have the audience participate, exhorting us to clap, sway, dance, sing responsorial phrases, and at one point had a couple people come up on stage and mock-conduct.  Here’s where things got awkward.

In my past experience (having a preschool teacher who was an excellent singer and did gospel with us, and doing fieldwork in a Jamaican Pentecostalist church, as well as going to various friends’ churches here and there), gospel is a participatory musical form: although there are designated “musicians” or “performers” in the church setting, everyone joins in one way or another, by clapping, singing along, pulling out a tambourine, dancing, or just active, engaged listening.  Those who raised their hand when the band asked who had been to gospel events before seemed to know this.  Matt and I, the family next to us, and various other small groups scattered throughout the crowd had no problem clapping, waving our hands, dancing or singing as we felt moved.

However, the casserole brigade folks were painfully reticent, to the confusion of the bandleader.  At first I chalked it up to the combination of intercultural awkwardness, perceived lack of musical knowledge on the part of the audience, or the desire to eat rather than participate in the goings-on.

A few days earlier, I had begun to read Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, by ethnomusicologist Tom Turino.  In this book, he introduces a four-part classification scheme for all musical types that I think is really useful: 1) participatory traditions, musics in which there is no distinction between performer and audience, such as, for example, the traditional Andean music that he studies, or Irish session music, and many more; 2) presentational traditions, such as European classical music; 3) high-fidelity recording, or recording that tries its best to capture an audio event accurately; and 4) studio audio art, or recorded music that does not pretend to have any fidelity to acoustically produced sound, such as computer-generated music.

What I realized about the gospel brunch after reading this book is that the very notion of the gospel brunch seeks to use a participation-based tradition in a presentational setting.  In my experience, gospel tends to run along a spectrum of participation: at one end is the model where the entire church participates in singing gospel hymns, a completely participatory experience; in the middle is the setup I mentioned earlier, where there are designated musicians but the churchgoers actively participate in “secondary” ways; and at the more presentational end of the spectrum, commercial gospel concerts where the audience nonetheless is often actively and physically engaged.  This expectation of a participatory experience is what conditioned me and those few others who did clap and sing along at the brunch.

However, Turino also makes the point that, in contemporary American culture, especially urban and suburban culture, the majority of the music we know is presentational or falls into one of the two recorded categories.  The average American musical experience includes attending concerts at which audience participation is somewhat limited (perhaps restricted to cheering or clapping) and purchasing recorded music.  The only participatory moments that many of us have might be at our preferred place of worship or if we happen to be musicians ourselves, which is not terribly common.

I realized that the people who seemed awkward probably came in with the expectation of having a presentational musical experience: the gospel group performs during brunch, and they expect to sit and appreciate it rather than participate directly, as they had probably been trained to do in other musical settings.  The difference between the varied sets of expectations was probably a major cause of the stiffness and tension.

After all, I grew up in the same kind of environment that I am assuming many of these folks came from–so why did I feel comfortable clapping and singing where others might not have?  It seems to me that the answer lies in my particular set of musical experiences, arrived at somewhat randomly: if I had had a different preschool teacher, or chosen not to take the course “Field Methods in Ethnomusicology” during the semester in which it had been decided that we would all do fieldwork in a particular type of church, I would not have known what to do or felt comfortable doing it, given that the majority of my musical training as both performer and audience member has been within the context of the highly presentational tradition of European classical music.

To me, this insight gives some hope.  Rather than attributing the reluctance to participate on the part of the white folks in the casserole brigade to racial issues, or to some inherent rhythmic deficiencies that people joke about white people having,

it’s about our exposure to diverse musical traditions and the communities in which they are embedded that helps us develop ease and comfort with each other and with each other’s music.  Granted, this doesn’t take away the complexity with which these encounters are often fraught, but it does speak to the power of relationship-building, of sustained engagement with the unfamiliar, and of not being afraid to mess up.

I haven’t really addressed here the complex issues of putting historically black musical traditions on display for paying white audiences, a topic that’s highly fraught.  I admit that the situation made me uncomfortable at first, especially because it brought up the specter of gospel tourism, something I’ve previously discussed: the increasing trend of white people going on tours of black gospel churches, gawking at what they seem to consider a primitive spectacle put on for their benefit.  In my previous post, I expressed my belief that learning about new kinds of music is a good thing, and building respectful relationships with members of the communities that make that music is also a good thing, but that objectifying and exploiting people is obviously not.

I would rather have a bunch of white suburban folks pay to go to a gospel event that is designated as a commercial performance–thus ensuring the consent and fair compensation of the performers, and not turning an overtly participatory event into an overtly presentational one–than go to a gospel church as a tourist.  The gospel brunch setup seems more fair.  The House of Blues setup is a space designated for controlled, consensual spectacle, as it were.  In this context, I felt that it was okay.

The final point that Matt and I pondered was, what is the motivation for tourists to come to a gospel brunch?  We went out of curiosity as to how such an event works, and a love of gospel, but we’re not tourists; it was something to do on a Sunday morning in the city in which we live.  We came up with a couple hypotheses:

  • If you’re a tourist, you have to eat on Sunday morning, and why not go to a brunch that also has some music?
  • White Americans have long been both fascinated with and scared of African-American culture, especially music.  Chicago is well-known for its excellence in several musical styles rooted in the African-American musical tradition: blues and jazz, among others.  Rather than going to a jazz or blues club on a weekend evening in a predominantly black neighborhood, which might not be considered “safe,” or a predominantly black church, which offers a very different worship model than your average white Lutheran church, the House of Blues, a corporate chain barely out of the Loop, presents a way of engaging with gospel that feels safer, easier and more comfortable–it’s perceived as just like going to any other concert.

So, in conclusion: stepping out of our comfortable molds is difficult.  People may not know the behavior that is expected of them, or the setting may conflate conflicting sets of behavioral expectations (which I think was part of the difficulty at the House of Blues).  Unfortunately, our society prescribes such rigid racial/ethnic/cultural boundaries that we often have few if any tools at our disposal when we want to try something new, much less build relationships with those who are not like us in one way or another.  On the one hand, an experience like this gospel brunch can reify some of these boundaries; on the other, it’s a better alternative for allowing people to begin to engage with new cultural experiences than gospel tourism.  This is compounded by the fact that American culture does not teach us how to behave in participatory musical settings, such that many people feel awkward and ashamed about their perceived lack of musical ability despite their desire to try to participate.

What could some solutions be?  Nothing simple, I’m afraid.  A true solution would have to encompass a vast and concerted effort to combat the racism that still lingers in our culture, and a similarly large-scale effort to build participatory music-making, and music education, into daily life.  In the meantime, conscious attempts at self-education and relationship-building, in both areas, would go a long way.

The sounds of baseball, part two

Last Wednesday night, Matt and I went up to Wrigley Field to catch a minor-league game between the Peoria Chiefs and the Kane County Cougars…all for the low low price of $26 total (!).  I was struck by the relative quiet in comparison to our Miller Park experience of a few weeks ago.  Wrigley is the second-oldest major league ballpark (behind Fenway), built in 1914.  It’s obviously been modernized some since then, but many of the bells and whistles that we’ve come to associate with ballparks are conspicuously absent–notably, large advertisements and a fancy scoreboard.

As opposed to Miller Park, which has a large light-up scoreboard and several somewhat-smaller, multicolor scoreboards and an up-to-date soundsystem, all of which work in tandem to produce the effects I discussed earlier, Wrigley has an old-school, manually manipulated scoreboard and just a few light-up strips.  I would also assume that their soundsystem is much smaller.  The standard baseball organ was present, as well as each player’s entrance song, but the constant music, sounds and exhortations for the crowd to cheer were gone.  Instead, the mascots’ antics and the baseball being played provided the impetus for crowd noise.

I’m sure that the Miller Park model is more enjoyable for many people, but I really appreciated the relative calm of Wrigley–I felt like I could experience the game, and decide how to interact with it, at my own pace and not at the urging of whoever’s running the soundsystem.

The sounds of baseball

On Wednesday night, Matt and I went up to Milwaukee to take in the Brewers-Twins game with my family.  I hadn’t been to a game in a while and was really intrigued by the diversity of sounds and music there.  One of the Brewers’ aural hallmarks is, of course, the singing of “Roll Out the Barrel” (aka the “Beer Barrel Polka”) at the seventh inning stretch, which is accompanied by dancing polka (!!):

And as per usual at baseball games, each player chooses a song that will play when he comes up to bat.  These tended to be hit songs with a prominent, fast beat–rock, hip-hop (the most aurally prominent song being Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” I believe) and reggaeton (chosen by Alcides Escobar, originally from Venezuela).

This was nothing, however, compared with the sound effects used to try to get the crowd excited.  Like many teams, the Brewers have had an organist forever to play the sequenced “Charge!” melody and arrangements of popular songs here and there.  This time, I was surprised to find a much larger array of synthesized sounds, coordinated with bright, flashing graphics on the screens that circle the stadium.  The speakers played the rhythm that people generally clap (long-long-short-short-short) to get people making noise; a swooshing sound played along with the quintessentially Midwestern message “How about that one, folks!” when a Brewer had an especially good hit; and various plays were emphasized with sound effects, lightning-bolt graphics and other messages.

I personally found this a bit disorienting.  The Miller Park (and before that, County Stadium) I had been used to typically only had the organist, a few recorded songs, the national anthem and whatever noise the crowd wanted to make.  This game–despite the fact that the roof was open–was a much louder baseball experience than I’ve had in a while, and one that seemed much more manipulated.  Brewers crowds are not typically as loud, in my experience, as others I’ve seen (especially in Philly and Boston!).  I was bothered by the constant aural demands coming from the stadium; it felt forced and annoying to me.

Nonetheless, no one seemed obviously disturbed by this.  The rhythms coming over the speakers were generally successful in getting people to cheer, which energized the atmosphere.  And “How about that one, folks!” provided endless amusement for Matt, who isn’t used to Midwestern customs yet.  I’d be interested to hear more about how and why the Brewers chose these sounds.

Ethnomusicology as a practice of freedom?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of works lately that deal with the histories of anthropology and ethnomusicology.  I’ve also recently begun the second book in bell hooks‘ trilogy on education, Teaching Community.

The history of ethnography, in short, is a story of its use as an instrument of domination and oppression, the realization of this and a desire to turn away from it, and subsequently attempts at creating new ways of writing and thinking to avoid the re-inscription of domination.  While the original means of producing and using ethnography were pretty horrible, the last several decades of challenging the ways in which we represent other people have been productive, courageous and incredibly necessary.  A lot of good things have come out of this challenge, these re-thinkings; I’m convinced that there is now a good-sized body of work that does very little or nothing to reify the oppression inherent, and even desired, in earlier eras of ethnography.

However, as I read hooks, and try to digest her notions of “education as the practice of freedom,” I’m not convinced that leaving the smallest footprint of oppression possible is the right way of thinking about doing ethnography and ethnomusicology–and I’m not convinced that new ways of writing about the ethnographic experience can go all the way in flattening power relationships.  Two major changes need to be made (and I want to stipulate that I know of some people, and I’m sure there are many more out there, who are making these changes as individuals–but this needs to be done on a disciplinary level):

  • Ethnomusicologists, and ethnographers more generally, need to think about how the research experience itself, and not just our models of writing, can be inherently liberating; and
  • We need to go beyond trying not to act in oppressive ways in our research, to actively undoing systems of oppression (whether within ethnography or in the world more generally) in our research and in our writing.

In my experience, limited as it is, most ethnomusicologists I know are truly committed to feminist, anti-racist, anti-classist, etc. points of view and have every intention of making their work reflect these commitments; it’s taboo in the discipline as a whole not to espouse these beliefs at some level.  But what I would like to see is not just a verbal commitment to these ideals.

Instead of asking how we can make ethnomusicology as it stands more feminist, anti-racist, etc., we need to start from the bottom up and ask, what would a liberating and liberated practice of the study of music as embedded in sociocultural processes look like? Continue reading

Some thoughts on musical science

I’ve recently been chugging through a bunch of pre-grad school reading suggestions, and read Guido Adler‘s 1885 article laying out the (then) new “science” of musicology–”The Scope, Method, and Aim of Musicology.”  His thoughts, and the article itself, are, of course, products of their time, and have been really influential, and all that.  I’m glad I read it in terms of my own edification in the history of a discipline whose cousin I am entering, but his essential notion that music can be studied and systematized like any natural science bothers me incredibly, to say the least.  (Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t still floating around, though.)

I’ve been bothered by this tendency for a long time, since I first became interested in ethnomusicology, and I think what it really boils down to is this: people aren’t simple and neither are things that people create.  People are, in fact, inordinately complex, and the communities they create and in which they participate are even more so, and how those communities interact and develop over time even more so.  How much more infinitely complex, then, are the often highly-idiosyncratic artistic products of these communities?

This isn’t to say that we can’t possibly begin to try to understand music–but it’s so, so extremely important to do so with the biggest dose of humility we can summon up.  People who think about music, and who study music, have to come to terms with the fact that all our thinking and writing, no matter how clear, insightful, perceptive, granular, deep, broad, what have you, is pretty much just a thin crust of simplification floating on a huge mass of complex and at times even chaotic music-making.  It’s simplification that is often very useful, but we can’t possibly hope to represent, let alone systematize, everything out there in an exhaustive fashion.

Of course, these are issues with any kind of intellectual inquiry into natural or human phenomena–it’s not something that even a true natural science like biology, for example, can escape.  Biological phenomena, though, are quite a bit more regular than artistic phenomena and thus, I think, lend themselves a lot more elegantly to positivist systematization.

I’m not saying anything here that I don’t think a whole bunch of ethnomusicologists would agree with–I just feel it important, for my own intellectual development if nothing else, to lay it out.  These thoughts mean that my work has tended, and will continue to tend, I hope and believe, toward the granular; if over time I can create some kind of pointillist image that eventually points to bigger theories, then I’ll go there–but until that time I think it’s wise to be somewhat conservative in what I believe to be the implications of any particular project for anything else.

The other, semantic consequence of these thoughts is that “ethnomusicology” is a rather poor, and unnecessarily scientific-sounding, title for the essentially humanistic and anti-positivist discipline I think it is and/or should be.  Unfortunately I can’t think of another term that is quite as short and convenient, but I’ll keep you posted.

Deadly karaoke

The New York Times recently ran an article about karaoke killings in the Philippines that would be comic in its absurdity were it not so sad and troubling.  Karaoke is extremely popular in the Philippines, and the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” was, until recently, one of the most-frequently performed karaoke songs:

The article doesn’t give an explanation for the killings; Filipino sources quoted attribute them to everything from a Filipino intolerance for bad singing to “the country’s culture of violence, drinking and machismo” to something inherent in the song that inspires murderous rage.

I don’t know much about the Philippines, so I won’t hazard any guesses, though I will say that I’m suspicious of some of the very broad explanations given that stereotype Filipino culture–likely inaccurate and not as interesting as a more nuanced explanation.  Anyway, to me this article shows the value in understanding something as seemingly-frivolous as karaoke trends.  Far from being an inconsequential pastime, these incidents show that karaoke culture has some bearing on, or shows something about, what’s going on in the community around it in a way that might not otherwise be evident.

Later in the article, we start to hear about some of the context of these killings:

Defenders of “My Way” say it is a victim of its own popularity. Because it is sung more often than most songs, the thinking goes, karaoke-related violence is more likely to occur while people are singing it. The real reasons behind the violence are breaches of karaoke etiquette, like hogging the microphone, laughing at someone’s singing or choosing a song that has already been sung.


Awash in more than one million illegal guns, the Philippines has long suffered from all manner of violence, from the political to the private. Wary middle-class patrons gravitate to karaoke clubs with cubicles that isolate them from strangers.

But in karaoke bars where one song costs 5 pesos, or a tenth of a dollar, strangers often rub shoulders, sometimes uneasily. A subset of karaoke bars with G.R.O.’s — short for guest relations officers, a euphemism for female prostitutes — often employ gay men, who are seen as neutral, to defuse the undercurrent of tension among the male patrons. Since the gay men are not considered rivals for the women’s attention — or rivals in singing, which karaoke machines score and rank — they can use humor to forestall macho face-offs among the patrons.

Is it about maintenance of social boundaries–from class barriers to breaches of etiquette?  Is it about maintaining heterosexist masculinity in a sexually-charged environment characterized by competition?  I’d be interested to know more.

Stereotyping people by their favorite indie bands

Based on this list, I:

  • have considered becoming a squirrel
  • am “everyone”
  • am a feminist
  • am self-actualized, a bro, and grow pot
  • believe in Jesus and/or Juno
  • don’t understand politics or boys
  • drink shitty beer without ironic intentions
  • and like too many toppings on my pizza

How many amusingly-specific and generally-unflattering ways can you describe yourself off this list?  And what does the alarming ease with which it can be mocked say about the pretentiousness that is endemic to indie-rock culture?  More thoughts on how this dovetails with our collective quest for the nebulous concept of authenticity in a while, if I have time and/or remember to write it up.

Blog at
The Esquire Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.