From one Jewish hip-hop artist to another…

SoCalled’s 2007 song “You Are Never Alone” and Drake’s recent Sprite commercial, presented without comment except to thank Matt for the heads-up.

A palate cleanser: Cee Lo’s latest

This video is just unequivocally so awesome on all kinds of levels: Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.”  It makes me feel much better after watching Ke$ha.

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.

Tavi’s post on “Alejandro” just made my day

So, I’ve been a little monster for Tavi Gevinson for a while, and just when I thought she couldn’t get any better, she writes this post (click through or get out of here) on Gaga’s video for “Alejandro” that sums up my thoughts exactly.  (Btw–now that I’m in Chicago, Tavi and I are practically neighbors!  Let’s hang out!  Despite my entrenched dislike of fabric products formerly owned by other people, I would go thrifting with you or whatever!)

On the heels of a whole bucket full of interesting or at least provocative videos from strong and important female artists (more on that later), “Alejandro” was a let-down, especially for Gaga.

Latex nun habits–boring; probably sweaty.

I can’t believe that I live in a pop-cultural world where a whole lot of people would agree with the above sentiment, but hey.

I did think that the song itself was a lot more listenable minus visuals this time–something I can’t always say about La Gaga–but much more thematically disconnected from the visuals.  Still, boring.

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.

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.

And:

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.

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.

Quick hit: Lady Gaga’s new video, frame by frame

Dodai over at Jezebel breaks down Lady Gaga’s new video, for the song “Bad Romance,” and it’s pretty amusing.  This is why I like Lady Gaga as an entity: you can actually analyze stuff like this, and she probably meant to embed lots of those meanings.  Check it out.

My only worry is that 25 years from now, my kids will look back on it the way my friends and I look back on this classically wacky video:

Bonnie Tyler’s not quite as high-concept as La Gaga, unfortunately.

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