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.

Thinking about the “Telephone” video

As anyone with an internet connection probably knows, Lady Gaga (or perhaps more accurately, the Haus of Gaga?) dropped the video for “Telephone,” featuring Beyoncé, last week.

First, take ten minutes of your time to watch it, if you haven’t already:

The narrative of “Telephone,” of course, picks up where “Paparazzi” left off:

First, I’m really intrigued by the prevalence of female musicians who have been victimized by men in a real or imagined way (Rihanna by Chris Brown, Gaga in these videos) turning the tables in a very violent and stylized way in subsequent music videos.  I don’t know that revenge is the best way to solve such issues, but it is nice in a way to see women taking control of the narrative of abuse.

Second, this is the first time I’ve seen such a mainstream music video that includes lesbian desire as such a prominent part of the storyline, especially when it’s clearly not intended for male excitement.  There’s an interesting interview in Out with Heather Cassils, the woman who played Gaga’s girlfriend in the prison yard scene, about queer representation in mainstream media and lots of other stuff.  Along those lines, I was also pleasantly surprised by the range of types of female bodies among the prisoners and guards; that’s also not something you see much of in mainstream media of any type.  (Of course, the real breakthrough will come when body diversity isn’t just to reiterate the dirt and grittiness of a group of people we’re supposed to consider problematic–I look forward to the day when Gaga’s backup dancers and the like represent some kind of diversity…)

Third, the layered references to Kill Bill (pretty overt) and Thelma and Louise (vaguely less overt) both reinforce the woman-scorned-taking-violent-revenge theme.  They also reinforce “Telephone” and “Paparazzi”‘s claim to be something more than a music video: a narrative in their own right with a preordained soundtrack as opposed to just something to look at while the music runs.

That’s what I am most interested in here: the growing independence of the music video.  The videos for both “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” are a far cry from simply being dramatizations of the song lyrics or a dance routine or something gimmicky (hey, OKGo!)–which even the best recent music videos, like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” can be.

Instead, the visual and aural narratives intertwine in confusing or novel ways–for example, when Lady Gaga’s prison phone call is a lover annoying her while she’s in the club, does that mean we’re supposed to equate prison with a club? the club with a prison? are they at all related anyway? is she just lying about where she is? Any of these narratives, and more, might be plausible, and the banal and conventional lyrics of the song are suddenly much richer for their interplay with the images.

I wonder if a case can be made for viewing complex narrative music videos like “Paparazzi”/”Telephone” as the new form that functions like 18th- and early-19th-century opera: high/low mass art that plays on the themes of the day and spotlights the performer, accessible on multiple levels and a way of displaying technical virtuosity (here, in fashion and video editing) for the delight of the audience.  Pretty exciting that this kind of art now premieres on a web site accessible around the world for only the cost of digital infrastructure (admittedly a barrier to many, but better than buying opera tickets…) and endlessly repeatable.

My thoughts here are admittedly disjointed and fragmentary–just a few initial reactions that bear more dedicated thinking.

Ke$ha, white girl rap and the utility of genre classifications

The other day, Jon Caramanica of the NYT checked out the “TiK ToK” singer’s rap credentials, situating her in a lineage of white-girl rappers from Debbie Harry to Peaches to Lady Sov.  Caramanica argues that, while Ke$ha is a rapper, she’s also a pop artist, and this has larger implications for how we think about blackness, whiteness, rap and hip hop–namely, that while rap and hip hop as genres and musical practices used to be only “black,” now they are so common, pervasive and popular that people like Ke$ha are redefining them as “white,” too.  He places Ke$ha within the burgeoning white-lady-electro-rap trend.

Take a listen to the first bit of the song:

As an aside, I personally think her flow sounds a lot like Fergie’s and wonder why that wasn’t discussed more.  Anyway.

I think it’s obvious to anyone that Ke$ha does, in fact, rap during this song.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a rapper per se (and neither would Latoya Peterson over at Jezebel).  Here’s why.

Along with Caramanica, I think it’s pretty clear that rap used to be considered a black-only practice, but is now more culturally acceptable for white people to do (though this is, of course, often contentious).  I also agree that “TiK ToK” has quite a lot of rapping in it but is not a “rap song” per se.  Why?  Because she’s white, she’s female and because it’s being used the way dance-pop songs are used and marketed the way dance-pop songs are marketed.

Latoya Peterson attributes the music business’ classification of Ke$ha as a pop artist as “intentional mis-labeling” that speaks to a larger “fear of [racial] cross-pollination” in musical genres–i.e., hip hop=”black” and pop=”white” and ne’er the twain shall meet.  Which is, of course, the way it was quite explicitly for a long time and still is, implicitly.

I don’t think it’s mislabeling, though.  Rapping per se does not make one a “rapper.”  Just as someone who plays a violin can be a classical violinist, a fiddler, a klezmer, a “trad player,” or what have you depending on the musical scene they’re a part of, someone who raps is not necessarily a rapper.  Because Ke$ha, her handlers, and the musical public don’t attribute to her the other qualities that people generally associate with “rappers”–blackness, maleness, urban poverty, flashy stuff–she’s not a rapper.

This shows why genre classifications are pretty useless much of the time, and can often serve to reify nasty ideas about race, gender, class and all the rest.  When we define a genre as the exclusive provenance as a particular type of person, and censure those who don’t conform as somehow inauthentic, we run into a whole bunch of problems.  The homophobia in hip hop, for example, is connected to constructing that genre as the provenance of macho black misogynist masculinity–which, of course, is not the only type of black masculinity (nor, lots of people would argue, a positive type of black masculinity).

Ke$ha raps, yes.  There are also lots of other influences on her song, just as there are on almost every other song, ever.  Peterson spotlights the myriad ways in which contemporary musicians have crossed the imaginary and rather silly borders of genre in the past couple years:

It is this environment that allows for Lil’ Wayne to cut a rock track like “Prom Queen,” that gives space to hip-hop violinists like Miri-Ben Ari, Sarina, and Nuttin But Stringz, to allow neo-soul crooners like Van Hunt to sing ballads and then thrash on guitars, and have one of the most downloaded albums of the decade be a mash-up between Jay-Z and the Beatles. We are in a world where the K-pop sensation The Wonder Girls can open for the All-American Jonas Brothers, and where traveling DJs take Baltimore House and Baile Funk all over the globe, while artists like M.I.A, Esthero and Nelly Furtado dabble in any and every genre they please.

Genre can be helpful in certain ways, most notably to record labels and music-store clerks who have to organize things.  But given that so many artists so openly acknowledge the diverse influences on their work, and given that the internet and digital media more broadly is giving so many people access to tons of new sounds, why bother forcing people and things into narrow categories?

I’m personally more interested in looking at the many ways in which musicians and listeners are part of multiple communities at the same time, and all of the sources from which they draw inspiration–not policing the boundaries of a small, boring genre box and worrying when things don’t fit neatly inside.

Another reason to love Lady Gaga

Apparently, according to Fred Phelps (of Westboro Baptist Church/”G-d hates fags” fame), the deity himself hates Lady Gaga.  Watch out kids, the “hussy’s pretentious prancing” could lead you into moral ruin.  Consider yourselves warned.

This is pretty predictable, given the intense social-conservatism-cum-insanity of Phelps and his followers (who, incidentally, protested at Penn Hillel a few weeks back!).  What I find more interesting is his choice of Lady Gaga to hate on, as opposed to other singers.

There are certainly other prominent artists who could conceivably raise his hackles: people like Adam Lambert, who’s unapologetically out and caused a stir in November with his homoerotically-tinged AMA’s performance (good for him!), or perhaps better yet, Katy Perry, who used to be a conservative Christian but now a) kisses girls and likes it, and b) dates skinny guys with long hair (!).  Or, you know, any pop artists who have overtly sexual lyrics.

Lady Gaga, however, is adamantly pro-empowered female sexuality, often explicitly assuming sexual control in her videos, evangelizing about masturbation, openly identifying as feminist, and doing a lot to challenge the normative male gaze/crazy amount of cookie-cutter sexualization that young female celebrities (and women, period) have to deal with.

I’m not sure how much her message comes through–I feel like a lot of people put her in the “crazy antics” box and don’t pay much attention after that–but I certainly appreciate what she’s trying to do, which is pretty unique and quite important.  And it seems to me that her ideas about female sexual power, more than the fact that she doesn’t often wear much beyond tights below the necessary bits (not that the two aren’t related), is what’s ticking off the good Rev. Phelps.

Rush vs. Jay-Z: Is talk radio gangsta rap for angry white men?

David Segal has an interesting breakdown in yesterday’s New York Times comparing right-wing talk show hosts to rappers, especially gangsta rappers.  He admits that both groups would probably not be happy to be compared to the other, and I agree, but I still think he has a point.

Segal argues that four key things are necessary for success in both fields: an enormous ego that you’re not shy about discussing; haters; feuds with others in your field; and verbal skills, especially an ability for improvisation and free-association.  This is true, but not the most profound analysis–yet.

Segal then describes how rap can be among the most politically conservative of genres: that it “exalts capitalism and entrepreneurship with a brio that is typically considered Republican.”  And so do Rush, Glenn Beck, et al.

Rap loves the Second Amendment; right-wing talk radio fans are probably the kind of people who made gun sales spike right after the 2008 elections.

Both rap and talk radio regularly assert that criminals cannot be reformed–but “gangsta rappers often identify themselves as the criminals, and are proud of their unreformability.”

And

Finally, rappers and conservative talkers both speak for a demographic that believes its interests and problems have been slighted and both offer stories that have allegedly been ignored.

Obviously, there are limits to all these parallels, but there is one more worth noting: rap has inspired its share of fear and now, liberals and moderates are asking the same question about conservative talk radio that conservatives have long asked about rap: How dangerous is it?

Interestingly (with respect to the first paragraph of the quote) rap was often referred to as “black TV” in its early days for its timeliness and opinionated, sometimes paranoid take on current events.  Anyway, I will admit that I am much more scared of Glenn Beck’s followers than those who listen to Ludacris (notwithstanding the fact that I’m in the latter category), but perhaps that’s just the socialist-health-care-loving left-winger in me talking.

Anyway, I think that overall Segal’s right on here.  I would have been interested in a little more gender analysis, though.  It is well-documented that gangsta rap is (at least partially) about working out a very specific kind of masculinity in the face of oppression or perceived oppression–a tough, heterosexual, homophobic, muscular, violent, self-sufficient masculinity.

This has not been as studied in the case of right-wing talk radio, but anecdotally, it seems to serve the same purpose for angry white men.  In fact, Rush Limbaugh is well-known for tasteless rape jokes, Glenn Beck has made misogynistic remarks about women’s looks and a host of other things, and Michael Savage has stated that “any heterosexual woman today over the age of 25 who grew up in America is basically a dominatrix.  You ask any heterosexual guy” as well as making some nasty transphobic comments.  (Note, I find it interesting that Ann Coulter, who doesn’t have a talk show but who is a public figure who says a lot of similar things, is often characterized as “mannish.”  Perhaps we are picking up on this gender work going on in right-wing media, albeit in a sexist way.)

And this doesn’t take into account the xenophobia, pro-gun and pro-war positions, and other macho and bigoted things that come out of these guys’ mouths.  They are constructing a notion of white American masculinity that is even more unappealing than gangsta rap’s portrait of black American masculinity.  Men can do better!

Should Jay-Z be a relationship role model for the black community?

Jozen Cummings over at The Root argues that, now that Jay-Z is tied with Barack for the coolest, most influential married African-American man, he should use that power to encourage young black men to put a ring on it.

I’m skeptical of the research Cummings cites, not in terms of methodology but in terms of agenda and what’s really driving the “marriage crisis” for black women.  I agree that it’s hugely problematic if someone can’t have the relationship status they want just because they belong to a certain demographic group or–heaven forbid!–are incredibly successful.  And I hope this doesn’t showcase how some women, unfortunately, still have to choose between personal success and familial success.

But read further.  According to the article, most people commit to others with similar levels of education.  One of the reasons that successful black women might not be finding black men to marry, then, is because fewer black men than women go on to higher education.  This is the real problem.

Jay-Z is hugely influential–Cummings mentions that

[Jay-Z] still has the ability to write the kind of rhymes young people follow as though they are gospel.  On his 2004 album The Black Album, Jay-Z rapped, “I don’t wear jerseys/I’m 30-plus/give me a crisp pair of jeans/[expletive] button up,” every guy ditched their throwback basketball jerseys in favor of button-up dress shirts.

Okay, fine.  But this doesn’t work so well:

When it comes to the marriage discussion, black men need to get involved. Black women are already on board. This week one of them will probably buy one of the two books written by Harvey or Hill or read another article in Essence about what they need to do to make a man happy. Meanwhile, by this time next week Jay-Z will probably have the No. 1 album in the country and a big reason will be because young black men everywhere listen to what he has to say and live vicariously through his lyrics.

The way Cummings paints unmarried successful black women as desperate is really unflattering, unfeminist and undignified.  The solution to the situation is not to make black men decide that marriage is cool and snap up desperate successful black women on a whim.  The solution is to encourage black men–perhaps using Jay-Z’s formidable powers of persuasion–to be similarly successful.

Just putting a ring on it won’t solve anything.  But if successful African-American women and men can find equals to date and marry–if they so choose, let’s not advocate marriage as a universal necessity here–because everyone in the community has access to education and is getting pop-culture messages encouraging success and working hard, then that would go a long way toward solving the problems Cummings laments.

Deconstructing Joan’s accordion début on Mad Men

I know this is a little late, but bear with me because I think it’s super interesting.

As anyone who watches Mad Men (or reads the entertainment section of most major news outlets) knows, office manager Joan Holloway–with the gorgeous red hair–hosted, along with her surgical-resident husband Greg, a dinner party for Greg’s boss and coworkers in the August 30 episode.  It was quite fraught with tension for a variety of reasons and I won’t go into all the (sexist) drama between Joan and Greg during the majority of the show (it has nothing to do with music and it has been dissected thoroughly all over the internets), though it’s fascinating and you should look it up elsewhere.

Anyway.  After dinner, Greg essentially trotted Joan out like a “dancing bear” (as people have aptly written on other blogs) and had her play accordion (which James Wolcott over at VF amusingly referred to as a strap-on) for the guests.

Another interesting ethnomusicological note: watch for the boss’s wife’s comment that “It’ll be just like the olden days–we used to sit in the parlor after supper and my mother would play the piano while we read.”  Here she marks herself as coming from the late-19th/early-20th-century middle class (who could afford pianos but not hired musicians to play them, and for whom the bourgeois social culture of the parlor was of great importance), for whom this was the primary method of listening to popular music.

Now, back in the 1960s accordion was quite a bit more popular in the urban northern U.S.–i.e. in an area like the New York City region where Joan and Greg live and work–than it is now due to the greater prominence of Euro-ethnic folk music (I’m purposely ignoring the current minor fad for it among hipsters, btw).  But it had certain implications: that anyone playing it or listening to it was not “fully assimilated” into American whiteness; that anyone playing/listening to it was likely from a working-class Eastern European, Irish, or Italian background; etc.  Given that Joan was playing a big piano accordion (as opposed to something smaller, or a button accordion or concertina) I’m betting on Eastern European of some kind.

Greg is trying desperately to climb up the social ladder, which is exquisitely highlighted at this dinner party, where he’s even willing to break accepted etiquette and seat his boss, one of the top-ranking surgeons at the hospital, at the head of the table (normally where the host should sit, according to Emily Post) in order to kiss ass as vigorously as possible.

Therefore, even if he has an accordion-playing wife from a less-than-suitable background vis-à-vis the occasion, and is willing to force her to perform to cut the awkwardness in the air, it would have been wholly unacceptable for her to play anything as déclassé and ethnically-obvious as a polka (this is one of my favorites, by the way; polka at the ballpark’s seventh-inning stretch was one of the greatest musical aspects of growing up in Milwaukee):

So, Joan plays a French café song–at the height of the vogue for all things French given Jackie Kennedy’s heritage and cultural preferences.  She masks the fact that her background puts her at risk of some level of bigotry by using the skills it has taught her to perform something fashionable and prestigious.  But, as is highlighted in the kitchen conversation amongst Joan, another resident’s wife, and the boss’s wife, though it’s recognized that Joan has many talents and works hard, it’s never quite enough to completely hide the truth of her situation (in this case, the fact that they must still be “poor” because Joan still “has” to keep her office job despite the fact that she’s married).

Joan may hide her less-than-fashionable ethnicity (and I admit, I’m only presuming her ethnicity) by performing a more-prestigious one, but the fact that she, in 1963, is a competent accordionist at all shows quite a lot about her background given that it was only in certain ethnoeconomic settings that people still learned it.

And for the closer, a supreme irony: Donna Trussell (and friends) over at WomanUp on Politics Daily does a good job of pointing out the other ways race and ethnicity are worked through in this episode (I didn’t even touch Roger Sterling’s blackface performance!), but misses the boat on the accordion:

Darling Joan aside, Episode 3 was also noteworthy for addressing ethnicity, as my colleague Mary Curtis discussed in Carla, Roger, and Racial Stirrings on ‘Mad Men.’ And gender, as my colleague Bonnie Goldstein pointed out in Peggy Olson: ‘My Name Is On the Door.’

“Darling Joan” is precisely at the intersection of both of those with her “strap-on” (sorry, it’s too amusing).  Her husband forces her, in a shockingly (at least, to our contemporary sensibilities) nonchalantly sexist move to manipulate her ethnic presentation in the service of his socioeconomic climbing.  Mad Men always astounds me with how deep–and how subtly deployed–its historical knowledge is across such a broad range of disciplines.

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