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.

Taqwacore

Like Jewish hip hop, Muslim punk or “taqwacore” is about finding one’s place at the intersection of a global religion and a nation-state in which that religion is in the minority.  I’ve heard of taqwacore a few times before, but it seems to be getting more buzz lately and I thought it was worth a shout-out.

Taqwacore as such is the brainchild of a guy called Michael Muhammad Knight, a convert to Islam who became disillusioned with his faith and, in 2003, published a novel called The Taqwacores in which a bunch of Muslim kids who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere else move into a house together and do their own thing.  (Basically just like parts of West Philly, but plus Islam and probably more fun…anyway.)

The novel inspired a full-fledged genre of Muslim punk music, which is becoming more and more successful all the time; most of the music deals with issues of concern to American Muslims and generally sounds like regular punk music with a few nods to Arab influence here and there.  The musicians conceive of themselves as

stoking the revolution – against traditionalists in their own communities and against the clichés forced upon them from the outside – “we’re giving the finger to both sides,” says one Taqwacore. “Fuck you and fuck you.”

Here’s a review of an Al-Thawra concert earlier this year. As an aside that should be developed further at some point, I think it’s pretty interesting that this is (to my knowledge) the only music scene that has grown almost entirely out of an imaginary group of music-makers in a fictional work.  It’s almost too pomo to be happening in real life.

Unlike Jewish hip hop (which is the topic of my current research hence my constant reference to it), which tries very hard to contextualize itself within and connect itself to both mainstream American society and to the larger Jewish diaspora, taqwacore seems to be more about individual identity–more about asserting oneself against the larger Muslim and American communities.  (Not that there aren’t elements of both in each style.)  I don’t always like the strident individualism in the punk ethos, but I think in this case it can be really valuable for members of a community who are often seen by other Americans, and by the media, as monolithic, dogmatic and obedient (especially women).

Taqwacores don’t unproblematically identify as Muslim; they have many different views on the practice of Islam, on American culture, on music, and how they deal with all of the above and more.  They’re also really savvy about speaking for themselves–check out the Taqwacore Webzine–and seem to be making room for themselves and their unique take on American Muslim identity.  Perhaps their paradoxical “shared sense of isolation” will be the tension driving a new way of thinking about Islam in the American public sphere.  We can hope, right?

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!

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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