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.

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.

What I’ve been listening to lately

1) Cake, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”–old school, but still awesome.  I want a machete that cuts through red tape and fingernails that shine like justice, among other things, but I think the outfit described sounds a bit too 1980s-power shoulders.

2) Sufjan Stevens, “Super Sexy Woman”

3) Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine” Okay, so I’ve really just been on a woman-power (I am grown and therefore am not into this idea of being a “girl”) kick lately.  Which is fine.  Clarification: I’m on a permanent woman-power kick.  I meant a woman-power music kick.  Come on people.

4) Bright Eyes, “Classic Cars” Say what you will about Conor Oberst and emo-ness, but this is just a solid song.

Random oddity: Madonna in Israel

All respect to Madonna for her groundbreaking stuff in the 1980s, but I’m kind of sick of hearing about her now.  And I’m also wondering why she is meeting with top Israeli politicians…she’s on tour there and everything, and has visited some Jewish sites (presumably as part of her dubious “kabbalah study” interest) but I don’t see what she and Tzipi Livni could really have to talk about that’s of import.

Quick hit: Breaking down gender and sexism in Lil’ Wayne’s music

Samhita over at Feministing describes work she recently did, helping kids analyze gender in pop culture and then having them blog about it.  She comes at Lil’ Wayne’s work from a feminist, gender studies perspective, but given that the analysis is with respect to music this works equally well as ethnomusicology.  Take a look!

“I have an endless muse-like vision of monsters and playgirls”

In case you weren’t aware, Lady Gaga is a hot mess:

I find it bitterly ironic that a woman whose complex persona would be impossible without the advances of the feminist movement–and a woman who is clearly very savvy about how her career fits into the trajectory of American pop music–is so simplistic in her thinking as to say that she can’t be a feminist because she loves men.

To quote my friend David’s earlier commentary on her:

WHAT.

La Gaga walks a very, very fine line between absurd profundity (or perhaps profound absurdity) and utter ridiculousness on the best of days.  Today she’s definitively fallen off the tightrope and crashed in a heap on the circus-arena floor…

Hip-hop Shabbat?

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this combination of hip hop and the Jewish Friday night liturgy.  As an artistic project, it’s not the best hip hop or liturgical music that I’ve ever heard, but I can see it appealing to some people.  As liturgy, I’m skeptical.

First, it seems intended more as a gimmick to get people into services than anything else, as opposed to a serious attempt to update the liturgy.  That isn’t the best strategy to build a religious community over the long term; eventually the crowd that’s been there all along will get sick of the gimmick and the newbies will have to adjust to the traditional music, or leave.

People need better reasons to come to services than so-so hip hop every few weeks–they need to feel like the services are meeting their spiritual needs, and that the community is one that they want to be a part of through holidays, board meetings and lifecycle events.  Once the hip hop is gone, if the deeper stuff isn’t there, what’s the point?

Second, even people who could care less about a higher power often come to a synagogue (or any other place of worship, for that matter) to connect with their tradition and to experience the comfort of familiar ritual.  I’m all for updating the liturgy, but it has to be done in a way that has a degree of continuity with the historical tradition.  (Before you get too upset about using pop songs for liturgy, the uptempo melody of “Adon olam” that many of us are used to was originally a German drinking song.)

In the sample “Challah at a Balla” from the Hip Hop Shabbat website, there are fragments of traditional b’rachot, and a smattering of traditional themes from the Shabbat liturgy (“Bo’i kallah” rhyming with “holla,” anyone?).  But most of the track is dedicated to inanities with a faint Jewish flavor (“Don’t mess with my tribe/There’s only one G-d and he’s on our side”…what?), and the whole thing seems like a 52-card pickup of Shabbat iconography.

The final bone I have to pick with these artists is their decision not to use women performers in their upcoming album of the weekday prayer service, Modeh Ani. For my non-Jewish readers, extremely observant Jews observe a halakhic principle called “kol isha,” “voice of a woman,” which forbids a man to hear a woman singing (opinions vary on whether this applies only to solo singing, or to singing when a woman is part of a mixed-gender group) on the grounds that it causes inappropriate sexual arousal.

This clearly limits women’s role in public religious life, including forbidding them from leading religious services, among other things, and in my opinion (and the opinion of most non-Orthodox Jews) is one of the worst manifestations of the pervasive and pernicious sexism found in the Jewish right wing.

Anyway, the guys behind Hip Hop Shabbat are hoping that Modeh Ani will catch on in the observant community, defending their decision to boot women performers by saying, “We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive.”  Exclusive of half the entire Jewish community in order to accommodate  the sexist, backward opinions of the fringes?

Given that the kind of people who observe kol isha are the core group who consistently do weekday services (i.e. the core market for Modeh Ani) it’s more like “We are being exclusive in order to boost sales.”  I’ll always have a problem with kol isha and other similar restrictions on women’s full participation in the Jewish community, but I would have less of an issue with the rhetoric around this particular album if the artists were at least honest about their agenda.

My advice, on both artistic and ideological grounds: this iteration of a hip-hop liturgy isn’t worth your time.  If you’re interested in the idea in general, though, check out The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.  It’s fun to listen to and is a much better-crafted update of the Passover liturgy that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.  Or take a look at Joshua NelsonI especially like his version of “Adon olam” (gospel, not hip hop).

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