Music – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Kim Gordon’s Self-Fashioning Mon, 09 Mar 2015 14:55:51 +0000 Kim GordonIn her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey Street Books, 2015), Kim Gordon recalls a photo shoot with photographer Michael Lavine for Daydream Nation, her band Sonic Youth’s 1988 breakthrough album. “‘Do you want to look cool, or do you want to look attractive?’ Michael asked me, as if the two were mutually exclusive. The silver paint; glitter-dabbed, faded cutout jeans; and crop top with the sheer jeweled panel marked a turning point for me and my look. I decided I didn’t want to just look cool, or just look rock and roll: I wanted to look more girl” (161).

This quote supports the conviction that girlhood and its artefacts are resources for feminist media production and critique. It’s a foundational argument advanced by Angela McRobbie, Mary Celeste Kearney, and other feminist scholars who work within cultural studies, a discipline that investigates the ambivalent politics of everyday life through subjects’ engagement with popular media. Alongside figures like Kathleen Hanna and Wendy Mullin, Gordon’s reclamation of girlhood and girlishness speaks to her connections with riot grrrl and third-wave feminism, movements that deconstructed visual signifiers attached to various feminine archetypes—the flapper’s bejeweled accessories, the housewife’s shirtwaist dress, the Girl Scout’s jumper, the mod’s miniskirt—to question womanhood’s regulations.


As a musician, Gordon challenged rock’s hegemonic masculinity as the unassumingly female and deliberately “feminine” presence within Sonic Youth’s all-male line-up. For one, her deadpan singing and conceptual songwriting frequently voiced women’s concerns about anorexia, harassment, mother-daughter relations, essentialism, commodification, and desire’s sharp edges. Gordon, born on the West Coast to an academic family and bestowed with an art-school education, shares these traits with Pet Shop Boys’ frontman Neil Tennant, who used the grammar of disco to illuminate the politics of the closet for upper-middle-class Englishmen during the AIDS epidemic only to be accused of “just” talking over a beat. As a result, Gordon fought for legitimacy, first through her parenthetical approach to playing bass and later by shredding with guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, two players of a connotatively male instrument that she once memorably described in a tour diary as “thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and combat.” Finally, her relationship with Moore frequently served as evidence that feminism preserved marriages between creative professionals.

Plenty of attention has already been paid toward Gordon and Moore’s divorce and its impact on Sonic Youth’s demise, which Girl uses as a framing device. Gordon writes about the disillusion with withering, Didion-eseque brevity as “just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life” during an account of the band’s final concert at the 2011 SWU Music and Arts Festival that opens the book (3). She concludes by detailing the prolonged betrayal of Moore’s affair, deep, fresh reserves of anger lacerating her prose as she recalls announcing the separation to their daughter, Coco, at the beginning of her senior year of high school.

A recurring theme in Gordon’s memoir is her frustration with the cycle of questions she has been asked throughout her career. One informs its title (as in: “what’s it like to be a girl in a band?”). Another—variations on “can women have it all?”—haunted Gordon as journalists fixated on their normative impressions of her identities as a wife and mother. Focusing on the end of her marriage and band would seem to be the root for more oft-repeated, dead-end questions to a woman who continues to make music and art. Therefore, it’s notable that in the middle of Girl, Gordon observes that X-Girl, a skater-themed clothing line she ran with Daisy Von Furth in the mid-90s, “gave me far more notoriety than Sonic Youth ever did” (199).


Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz observes that Gordon’s oblique approach to songwriting informs her storytelling as a memoirist. As a result, Gordon does not elaborate upon her foray into women’s apparel, nor contextualize it alongside her subsequent collections with Urban Outfitters and Surface to Air. She also tethers X-Girl to familial obligations—she was pregnant throughout its first year of production, she used the money she made from selling it to Japanese company B’s International to purchase her family’s home in Northampton.

However, part of Gordon’s contribution to rock music—what makes her the “Jet Set” in Sonic Youth’s 1994 album, Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star—is her attention to womanly self-fashioning. The frisson between gender performance and pop culture’s absorption into everyday life is central to Gordon’s image, a point Pitchfork contributor Molly Beauchemin makes in her piece on female rock musicians’ Instagram profiles. It’s how the X-Girl logo appeared on DJ Tanner’s long-sleeve t-shirt in a late-season Full House episode, and why I recognized it from reading Seventeen before I could identify the opening chords to “Kool Thing” or Gordon’s menacing whisper.

Thus, Girl presents a question: why might fashion design matter to recording industry professionals? Ever the bricoleur, Gordon decorates her prose with collages of various style icons—Jane Birkin’s louche bohemianism, Françoise Hardy’s urban coquettishness, her mother’s post-Beat utilitarianism, the clean lines of prep school attire she hated as a teenager but revised with mod’s graphic impact and punk’s lean androgyny for X-Girl. Such references bear some resemblance to what Caitlin Yunuen Lewis describes in her star study of Sofia Coppola as “cool postfeminism,” a cultural phenomenon where articulations of “white femininity’s ideals have become ironic and marketable, as have its ‘darker’ opposites, the sexual and moral transgressions that were once most threatening to it” (195). At the very least, it offers a term to describe how Gordon applies and discards certain ethnic sartorial traditions or uses “tranny” to describe designer Patricia Field’s aesthetic. But Gordon’s quotations read as influences in the same way musicians talk about their favorite records and gear. At least they could, if Gordon were asked to discuss her interest in fashion and music as mutually constitutive outlets for creative expression. By elliptically recalling her life’s events, she raises such questions for others to ask.


On Radio: Live Music Festivals as Satellite Radio’s Premium Content? Tue, 10 Jun 2014 13:59:04 +0000 govball-9Subscription satellite radio is certainly not the most local form of radio. The majority of programming is produced in digital radio broadcasting facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C. and satellites are not entities that we encounter in our communities (let alone in our atmosphere). But as a subscriber and listener of Sirius XM, I am hearing the ways in which satellite radio has increasingly been offering musical programming and listening experiences that amplify aspects of radio’s past.

For one, I’m intrigued by the persistence of place, of musical “hotspots,” within the satellite radio universe. This carries on a long tradition of radio connecting listeners to musical and cultural centers. One notable and recent example of this was Sirius XM’s multichannel coverage of the fourth annual Governors Ball, which took place over three days in on Randall’s Island in New York City this past weekend.

“We’re excited that people across the U.S. will be able to experience the diversity and depth of the lineup on multiple channels across Sirius XM,” explained Yoni Reisman from Founders Entertainment, the company that produces the festival. A number of “marquee performances” were played over the weekend on channels including The Heat (Janelle Monae, Outkast), Outlaw Country (Neko Case), The Joint (Damian Marley), Hip-Hop Nation (Childish Gambino), BPM (Skrillex, Disclosure) and Sirius XM U (Damon Albarn). Performances were broadcast live and replays were scheduled throughout the weekend.


Listening from a kitchen in Toronto, Ontario, I could hear the noise of the crowd building as Janelle Monae’s set began with Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, known commonly as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. When festival-goers heard Monae introduce “Cold War” with a speech about discrimination, so too did Sirius XM subscribers.

Satellite radio is delivered to a private, personal space. Often within an automobile but also to laptops or smartphones for those who pay the added monthly fee of $4 for online access. Many listeners are connected to the internet and, thus, satellite radio fits nicely with Michele Hilmes’s characteristic of radio today as “soundwork,” in which, radio must now be understood as “the entire complex of sound-based digital media that enters our experience through a variety of technologies and forms.” As satellite radio becomes more mobile through the ability to listen via smart phones and laptops, programming extends into online spaces and listeners are presented with new visual platforms for interacting with DJs and content. Satellite radio moves with the listener and local boundaries are practically nonexistent. But even as Sirius XM operates on a transnational scale, beyond radio’s former borders, an essence of radio’s pre-digital identity is increasingly prominent in the satellite radio universe, that of providing a shared cultural experience.


Between satellite channels and mobile, individual listening practices, is the persistence of place and the transmission of musical performance sites. The Governors Ball broadcast constructs a radio experience that enables listeners to engage from a distance through new media, continuing the tradition of radio bringing music from centers to private spaces – from the home, the car, and now a mobile space within which one is bound to a smartphone or laptop.

However, we also hear how privatized spaces and experiences are transmitted, especially as music festivals are critiqued as focusing too heavily on branded experiences. Another important critique to raise in this instance is one of exclusivity. Festivals sell out, they cost a lot of money, and often require travel time and expenses. In a preview of the weekend’s musical offerings, Sirius XM explained that “the exclusive broadcast, showcasing a diverse line-up, will include Jack White’s performance, which comes days before the release of his anticipated second solo album, Lazaretto.” While satellite radio overcomes these obstacles to some extent, it also requires a subscription fee. Accessibility is limited, but as subscription television becomes increasingly watched and revered, premium content delivered by subscription radio is not a surprising development.

Given that music festivals are becoming a larger component of the music industries and a greater source of income and promotion, I am certainly interested to hear how satellite radio continues to transmit the sounds of live musical performances.


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“She Loves You”: The Beatles, Girl Culture, and The Ed Sullivan Show Fri, 07 Feb 2014 13:30:10 +0000 The Beatles Perform During The Ed Sullivan ShowFebruary 9, 1964: a dark-haired girl gazes into the box perched in her family’s kitchen. Paul McCartney’s face, framed in a close-up on that TV set, shines on the screen. The girl doesn’t take her eyes off him and his mop-topped cohorts while her younger sisters lean forward and smile, equally mesmerized. Their dad, however, looks down with just a hint of disapproval, as the family watches the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.

This home movie is part of the footage compiled on CNN’s “The British Invasion,” a one-hour segment of the 10-hour series, The Sixties, which will air in May. The episode premiered January 30, 2014, in advance of the 50-year anniversary of a landmark moment in American cultural history: the Beatles arrival at JFK Airport and their subsequent performance on the Sunday-night standard.

CNN’s documentary recognizes the importance of the televised event as ushering in the British Invasion, an onslaught of English bands that pervaded the musical landscape of the Baby Boomers. These British bands essentially re-introduced American rock and roll but this time with an English twist. Interviews with rock critics and musicians celebrate the cross-cultural exchange between African-American artists (like Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson) and English rockers (like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones).

But it wasn’t just a boys’ club: the footage of the American girl-viewer and her sisters reminds us of the importance of those girl audiences. In fact, the Beatles’ relationship with girl culture is crucial to understanding their break-through Ed Sullivan moment.

Ed Sullivan brandishes his arm, introducing “The Beatles!”, words that are drowned out by the roar of girls’ screams that will accompany the band. This performance united an entire generation of young people, turned on by the newness of the Beatles sound. The Liverpudlian lads’ fresh youthfulness invigorated a nation still mourning the death of a young, promising president. But the Beatles’ special appeal to girls helps explain why John, Paul, George, and Ringo became the vessels into which so much emotion from female youth was poured.

Prior to 1964, the Beatles had covered a number of girl-group songs, singing through a girl’s point of view in tunes like the Marvelette’s “Please Mister Postman” and the Shirelles’ “Boys.” During The Ed Sullivan Show, they sang a Lennon/McCartney original, “She Loves You.” Jacqueline Warwick (“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” 2000) and Barbara Bradby (“She Told Me What to Say” 2005), recognize how the Beatles act in this song as intermediaries in a relationship between two other people, encouraging “you” to trust in “her” love:

You think you lost your love,
Well I saw her yesterday.
She says she loves you,
And you know that can’t be bad,
Yes, she loves you,
And you know you should be glad.

This position, that of a kind of girlfriend with relationship advice, mirrors the perspective offered by girl-groups, and, as Bradby argues, encouraged the public expression of female desire.

In short, the Beatles spoke to girls in their own language.

In a fascinating twist, the Beatles continue their conversation with these girl groups in songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” (also performed during The Ed Sullivan Show). Bradby suggests that “the Beatles’ frequent assertions of ‘I love you’ can be seen as a direct response to the repeated questions and requests for men to voice these words, by the Shirelles and other groups.”

So the Beatles appealed to girls through familiar and comforting girl-group discourse, but they also became the “bad boys” who worried parents. Such rebelliousness, however, was managed through androgyny, not conventional masculinity. Their hair, which shook as they “woo”-ed girls, was considered long and girlish, rebellious and untrustworthy. Their lanky bodies, accentuated by fitted suits, contrasted starkly with the adult male body of 1950s icon, Elvis Presley. The soon-to-be-famous Beatle boots were sleek and pointed, suggesting an artistic sensibility.

The Beatles Perform During The Ed Sullivan Show

On The Ed Sullivan Show that Sunday evening, these haircuts, suits, boots, and boyish bodies were not just alike in androgyny; they were also simply that— alike. Such matching images were complemented by tight harmonies literalized by close body positions. Similar to their girl-group predecessors, as well as the Everly Brothers, the Beatles shared microphones in two-at-a-time pairings. In Meet the Beatles, Steven Stark observes how McCartney’s left-handed bass playing made intimacy even more apparent while creating a pleasing mirror image. Strumming and singing together, they were so close they could almost kiss. Close-up shots that linger on their mouths and faces may have encouraged girl viewers to imagine their own Beatle kiss.

This brotherly togetherness facilitated the image of intimate friends, whose carefree playfulness promised freedom. Famously, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs (“Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun” 1992), have theorized the relationship between girls’ screams for the Beatles and sexual desire. They argue that this collective expression had as much to do with girls’ desire to break with restrictive gender expectations as it did with their adoration for the Beatles themselves. Watching these girlish boys on Ed Sullivan—boys who were in conversation with them!—showed girl viewers new possibilities.

The Beatles promise of new possibilities continues to account for their persistence in girl culture today. I will present research in this area at the Penn State Altoona academic conference focused solely on the Beatles from February 7-9, 2014. (Apparently, even academics are not immune from the urge to commemorate the landmark event!) What I find over and over again in online communities of 21st-century fangirls is that the Beatles’ androgynous gender performances, which promised fun, friendship, and freedom, still excite female youth today as they did for girls in the 1960s.


Accessing Beyoncé Tue, 31 Dec 2013 13:41:40 +0000 Beyoncé and will again, regardless of how she chooses to distribute them.]]> Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 7.39.13 AM“Why does music have to be the center of the thing? What can’t lifestyle be the center and music be part of the presentation?”

Brian Eno raised these questions in an interview for Time-Life’s 1995 documentary series The History of Rock and Roll. In the final installment, “Up From the Underground,” Eno’s comment is framed as a defense of Madonna, who was criticized for prioritizing image over music as though they were mutually exclusive. Eno, like Madonna, recognized music video’s potential for creative expression and refused to dismiss it as a commercial, artistically craven medium.

I remembered Eno’s comment upon viewing Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album for a few reasons. First, much like History, I anticipate media scholars clipping Mrs. Carter’s video album for lecture. While watching “Pretty Hurts,” directed by long-time collaborator Melina Matsoukas, I imagined how its images of competitive female beauty would be used to illustrate concepts like ideology, semiotics, intersectionality, appropriation, and post-feminism. But after reflecting upon the album and the endless discourse it provoked, I was also surprised by how, in some ways, Beyoncé felt like a media product from an earlier time.


The video album takes its name from two culturally obsolescent formats. It harkens back to the late 80s and early 90s, when videogenic pop acts released compilations to curry favor with the home video market and rental chains. The video album transferred to CD-ROM and DVD. However, by the second half of the 2000s, streaming sites like YouTube and Vimeo contributed to the video album’s ossification. In 2011, British recording artist PJ Harvey released a DVD of short films Seamus Murphy directed to accompany Let England Shake. Videos for the album’s twelve songs can also be viewed on YouTube.

I don’t bring this up to suggest that Beyoncé is out of touch any more than I intend to follow Camille Paglia’s example and unfavorably compare a younger female pop star of color against the Material Girl. Rather, I find it fascinating that Beyoncé harnessed the commercial and cultural potential of a largely abandoned format. First, I’m compelled by Beyoncé’s control over access to the album. Because I am so accustomed to using YouTube, I assumed I would be able to watch all of the clips through the artist’s VEVO channel upon its mid-December release. Only “Drunk in Love” and “XO” were available on YouTube three days after Beyoncé‘s debut. Beyoncé’s control aligns with reports that she meticulously archives photographs of herself and scholarly interpretation of the artist’s curated Tumblr presence. I would have to buy the album on iTunes—a service to which I don’t currently subscribe—in order to get the full experience. Luckily, a friend in the field invited me over for a laptop screening during a holiday trip to Chicago.

But prior to my December 23 viewing of Beyoncé—ten days upon its release and therefore a lifetime ago on the Internet—I was already well-acquainted with the album. Certainly, there was quite a bit of trade discourse and political commentary documenting the album’s distribution through iTunes and Wal-Mart, as well as lively debate about power, cultural hybridity, feminism’s racial politics, and black radicalism. I also saw several GIFs and memes built from or referencing individual scenes. After its release, I chatted with fellow contributor Myles McNutt, who argued that a video album allowed Beyoncé to circumvent radio airplay with an album, like its predecessor 4, that is musically adventurous but bereft of obvious hits. While this raises the question as to whether GIFs equate with singles rotation and chart rankings, Beyoncé can now afford to wave away such metrics.

Beyonce Wal-Mart

I’ve avoided addressing the album’s content by focusing on its distribution model. But the visual elements and the collaborations between singer and directors allow the album to cohere. Beyoncé is an artist who fixates on the gendered and racialized contradictions embedded in the labor of beauty, pleasure, marriage, and autonomy. “Pretty Hurts” is as much a thesis statement for Beyoncé as it is for the singer’s career. I’m partial to the red-light disco of “Blow”. “XO” is undeniable, with a chorus that my screening companion said was designed for Olympics promos. I’m curious about her co-optation of Houston’s Third Ward in “Pretty Hurts” and “No Angel,” as I associate her more closely with Bellaire. “Haunted” simultaneously recalls videos for Madonna’s “Justify My Love” and Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma“, while several others fondly reminded me of America’s Next Top Model challenges. I’m intrigued by how the singer was able to integrate video shoots into her touring schedule. I’m fascinated by “Flawless,” a track that fashions a song out of a trap beat, post-feminist swagger, and sampled work from Nigerian poet Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Pretty Hurts

Beyoncé’s dominant narrative is that she doesn’t make mistakes. She can withstand blame over the Super Bowl power outage, accusation over lip syncing, and offense over sampling footage from the Challenger disaster. She was able to drop an album without it getting leaked or scooped. This is nearly impossible, yet consistent with a pop star who simultaneously wants us to focus on her work but make it all look effortless. Earlier this year HBO released her documentary, Life Is But a Dream. I was most intrigued when the film allowed us a brief glimpse into her process, including tense backstage moments between Beyoncé’s creative director Frank Gatson Jr. and her dancers.

But this was also a year when footage surfaced of the singer enduring harassment from male fans at concerts, which is an intersectional concern. Miley Cyrus got to slap burlesque dancer Amazon Ashley’s backside at the VMAs. Beyoncé got her bottom slapped by an audience member at a show in Denmark, even though she had the authority to eject him. Beyoncé situates itself at the intersection of various overlapping, contradictory, constructed, hybrid identities and visualizes them through collaboration. Perhaps it was initially met with surprise, but I anticipate we’ll return to these themes with Beyoncé, regardless of how she chooses to package and distribute them.


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The Cosmopolitan City and the Carnivalesque in Arcade Fire’s Reflektor Campaign Fri, 01 Nov 2013 14:00:00 +0000 maxresdefaultOn August 1, a mysterious Instagram account initiated the ambitious multi-media, multi-platform promotional campaign for Arcade Fire’s new single and album of the same name, Reflektor. Additionally, the campaign incorporated a Saturday Night Live performance, YouTube clips, an NBC late-night special, Here Comes the Night Time, reminiscent of community public access television (an aesthetic taken up and inserted back into popular culture by the likes of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and a low-quality album stream leaked intentionally by the band. Undoubtedly, the campaign reflects an increasingly mobile and interconnected listening and viewing experience of popular culture, for which its key components of excess and ubiquity were integral to its effectiveness (for more on this, see R. Colin Tait’s thorough account of the ubiquity and virality of The Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right Revisited“). Early in the Reflektor campaign, a series of Instagram photos hinted at the significance of “9 PM 9/9.” The date and time in question ended up being the first of a series of “secret” shows by the band, billed not as Arcade Fire but instead as The Reflektors. These hyped events with costumed guests would significantly anchor much of the campaign as it unfolded and intensified, highlighting the persistent significance and centrality of local sites of production in popular music-making and promotion.


The parameters of the campaign suggest that it is no longer enough to simply promote one’s music through the channels offered and preferred by big industry players (i.e. Arcade Fire’s aforementioned NBC special that starred celebrities like Bono and James Franco and the SNL performance), nor to only draw upon avenues in line (philosophically and practically) with more independent means for circulating and promoting music. We are in the midst of a messy, conflicted, yet exciting moment when new promotional practices are being tested against big industry methods for producing, circulating, and performing music. And thus we get the conflation of an unknown band, The Reflektors, and the Grammy award-winning Arcade Fire.

Arcade Fire’s Reflektor campaign overwhelms all channels of communication and ensures a presence on multiple platforms through which today’s music fan interacts with music on a daily basis, both in-person or locally and online. But the campaign also emphasizes local sites of production and exhibition in popular music-making. And more importantly, the campaign has been centered on cosmopolitan cities with rich and diverse cultural and musical histories, namely Montreal and New York. The cosmopolitan city is reflected in both the campaign and the band’s current musical sound and style, and it is the new location in a series of Arcade Fire albums that foreground place – a Montreal borough on Funeral, a church-turned-studio on Neon Bible, and, of course, the alienating Houston suburbs on Suburbs.

While other cities have been integrated into the campaign, Montreal and New York have been particularly central, each doubling as a significant site of production for the band.

A poster for Arcade Fire's "not-so-secret" secret show as The Reflektors at Salsatheque in Montreal.

A poster for Arcade Fire’s “not-so-secret” secret show as The Reflektors at Salsatheque in Montreal.

Montreal, the band’s home, served as the site for the first show by The Reflektors. A review of the “not-so-secret show” at Salsathèque (a salsa club, not so much a rock venue) was described as “the (local) climax of an elaborate viral marketing campaign for their new single ‘Reflektor.’” The show would become the basis of the late-night NBC special, Here Comes the Night Time (the cosmopolitan city doesn’t sleep), as well as for a number of teaser trailers for the album. Reviewer Lorraine Carpenter points to the Haitian influences that have been added to the band’s look and sound. The band and the city of Montreal are both connected to Haiti. Montreal’s Haitian community is the largest in Canada and band member Régine Chassagne, whose parents emigrated from Haiti, has advocated the country’s need for aid following the 2010 earthquake. The sounds of the diasporas are the sounds of the cosmopolitan city.

Next, The Reflektors headed to Brooklyn, New York, to play two back-to-back events that would, amongst other things, carry the campaign into satellite radio through heavy promotion by Sirius XMU. New York is one of the cities where the album was recorded, with production by New York-based James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem (whose synths and drum beats are very much palpable on not just the single “Reflektor” but throughout the whole album). Artists who have been cited in reviews as standout influences on Reflektor (Talking Heads, for one, a comparison made ad nauseum) evoke a New York as heard through the coming together of sounds and styles both distant and local at key moments in the city’s musical history, namely proto-punk in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s (Bowie’s backing vocals on “Reflektor” are key here) and disco (Studio 54) of the late 1970s.

Following the Montreal and Brooklyn shows, The Reflektors continued the series of secret shows in other cities including Los Angeles and Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, with funds donated to Partners in Health and the neighborhood’s cultural center. Only these subsequent shows were not as integral to the campaign itself.

It is important to consider what it means to evoke the cosmopolitan city through sound. Cultural capital is required for navigating and traversing the global and weaving it through the local and this is a privilege attainable through a successful career. Arcade Fire’s cultural accolades and accomplishments (The Suburbs won the Polaris, the Juno, and the Grammy for best album of 2011) are instrumental in this transition from the suburbs to the cultural and musical diversity evoked by the cosmopolitan city. Trips to Haiti, specifically the Carnival in Jacmel, become components of the campaign.

Also connecting the campaign to the cosmopolitan city is a notion of excess, evidenced by the recurring theme of the carnival and Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. The campaign saturates a wide range of media outlets just as the city’s carnival overwhelms the senses. A multi-platform, intermedia campaign is a modern carnival steeped in excess; chaos and humor unfolding in reviews, reader comments, internet trolls, tweets, and blog posts. In person at the secret shows, concert-goers were required to be costumed and masked.

Rodin’s Orpheus sculpture on the Reflektor album cover.

Rodin’s Orpheus sculpture on the Reflektor album cover.

To further drive the point home is the myth of Orpheus that recurs throughout the campaign. Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice is the album’s cover, there is a song titled “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” and the album leak was paired with Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’ 1959 film that takes place during Brazil’s Carnaval. Many reviews of the album have pointed to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as it pertains to the theme of reflection, but what is also of significance is that Orpheus is killed by the mythic agents of the carnivalesque, torn apart by Dionysus’ maenads. And here we can locate an important message that the band communicates through the campaign: to be wary of the ways in which the self is cut and chopped into fragments online and in contemporary culture. Our reflections, of our reflections, of our reflections.


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What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


The Power of Women’s Voices in The Great Gatsby Thu, 09 May 2013 13:00:41 +0000 the-great-gatsby-movie“[T]here was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If his classic novel, The Great Gatsby, is any indication, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved the sound of a woman’s voice. The book, upon which Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film adaptation is based, is like a textual serenade to a thrilling and unique feminine voice that rings out like “a wild tonic in the rain.” Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will hit theaters this Friday, with Tobey Maguire voicing Fitzgerald’s masculine narrator and Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s intriguing feminine voice – which belongs to Daisy Buchanan – will be embodied by Carey Mulligan. Gatsby’s promotional materials indicate that Mulligan’s performance will offer the nuanced physical performance demanded by the role – but if Gatsby’s trailers are any indication, Daisy’s voice will have some impressive help from the film’s soundtrack. Her voice carried little influence or power in Fitzgerald’s day – in an age in which “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool” – but Gatsby’s soundtrack artfully blends Fitzgerald’s 1920s female voices with a cast of contemporary female musical powerhouses, who insistently reclaim Daisy’s silenced perspective.

In an effort that delayed the film’s release substantially, Luhrmann recruited Jay-Z to compile an impressive array of top artists. The most impressive among them are women, performers who intimately express the timeless emotional appeal of Fitzgerald’s Daisy. Beyoncé’s collaboration with André 3000, an eerie rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” is an unsettling confession of compulsive loyalty to an unfaithful partner. The vulnerable honesty of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” begs for reassurance that love can outlast youth. And Florence + the Machine’s intensely powerful “Over the Love” nods to Daisy’s gendered social restrictions, channeling the frustration of a woman “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

On the surface, these songs may not strike a feminist chord. In many ways, they speak to the powerlessness of Fitzgerald’s jazz age women. But while Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch, and Beyoncé, like Daisy, have incredibly memorable voices, their performances are also overflowing with generations of hard-won power. Welch’s voice has been called “hauntingly powerful” and “too loud for the room,” pointing to the brick wall of sound she pushes from her adept Lungs. She describes her music as “something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up,” putting her right at home alongside female mogul Queen Beyoncé’s authoritative style. And while Lana Del Rey’s tender contribution to the musical compilation is more subdued, her industry prowess earned her featured billing. Setting her apart from other contributors, Warner Brothers’ “Soundtrack Sampler” features a still image of Del Rey’s name in the bold, graphic lettering of the film’s title screen.

Regardless of whether these musicians should be considered feminist or not, these songstresses’ massive voices bubble up under the story’s surface, threatening to overturn the masculine narrator’s perspective in favor of Daisy’s lilting voice. Some of the film’s trailers even seem to take on Daisy’s point of view, layering Carey Mulligan’s beautifully nuanced facial reactions to the violence she both witnesses and perpetrates over contemporary female performers’ driving vocals. Daisy’s voice may not have had much power in the jazz age, but with singers like Beyoncé, Welch, and Del Rey to offer their vocal prowess to the character, Daisy’s perspective takes on a whole new meaning for feminism. United with these musicians’ vocal power, Daisy becomes an illustration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Fitzgerald describes Daisy’s as “the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” I like to imagine the woman whose lilting speech compelled him to craft such a lovely phrase, but like so many women – both historical and contemporary – her voice has been silenced. In performances that truly speak to the power of a musical message, Florence Welch, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey have taken up her cause. Together, they remind us of the hope in a powerfully insistent voice. They remind us that some voices are forever silent. And, most importantly, they remind us that our voices – and media soundtracks – can be important feminist tools as we “beat on, boats against the current.”


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The Velvet Light Trap CFP: On Sound (New Directions in Sound Studies) Tue, 05 Mar 2013 14:00:39 +0000 HearingThe medium of sound, long placed in a secondary position to the visual within media studies, has experienced a considerable increase in scholarly attention over the past three decades, to the point that “sound studies” is now a distinct field of scholarship. Within media studies, sound-related research today expands well beyond the film and television score or soundtrack to include a broad range of scholarship on radio and popular music. And while sound studies still tends to cohere around media studies departments, an increasing amount of sound media research is interdisciplinary in nature. A “sonic turn” is under way across the humanities and social sciences with sound studies work coming out of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, science and technology studies, cultural geography, American studies, art history, and cultural studies. Recent issues of differences (2011) and American Quarterly (2011) and anthologies like The Sound Studies Reader (Jonathan Sterne, 2012) are just a few examples of this expanding range of interest.

Issue #74 of The Velvet Light Trap aims to build upon many of the new lines of inquiry that are coming out of this intersection between sound media and various other scholarly perspectives. In that spirit, we are seeking essays for an issue on the research and study of sound in and across a range of media.

Potential areas of inquiry may include, but are by no means limited to:

  • analysis of music, voice, and sound effects in film, radio, television, video games, podcasting, and other digital or “new media,” including significant developments in audio aesthetics and style
  • convergence of sound and visual media
  • sound art and experimental forms of sound media
  • materiality of sound, including sound reproduction and other technologies of sound
  • media industries, production cultures, and issues related to sound labor, audio production practices, or the commodification of sound
  • histories of audio media and archaeologies of mediated sound
  • aural representations of identity, power, difference and the politics of sound media
  • mediation of voices and language, noise and silence, and muteness, deafness, and other issues of the body and disability
  • listening practices and sound media in perception and everyday life
  • psychoacoustics and cognitive studies of sound media
  • architecture, acoustics, and space, including “soundscapes” and sound media in relation to public health and public policy
  • theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of sound media

Submissions should be between 6,000–7,500 words (approximately 20-25 pages double-spaced), formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a one-page abstract, both saved as a Microsoft Word file. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The journal’s Editorial Board will referee all submissions. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to All submissions are due August 1, 2013. (Update: deadline has been extended to September 1, 2013.)

The Velvet Light Trap is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal of film, television, and new media studies. Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Texas-Austin coordinate issues in alternation. Our Editorial Advisory Board includes such notable scholars as Charles Acland, Richard Allen, Harry Benshoff, Mark Betz, Michael Curtin, Kaye Dickinson, Radhika Gajjala, Scott Higgins, Barbara Klinger, Jon Kraszewski, Diane Negra, Michael Newman, Nic Sammond, Jacob Smith, Beretta Smith-Shomade, Jonathan Sterne, Cristina Venegas, and Michael Williams.


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Different for Boys: Frank Ocean and the “Problem” of Male Bisexuality Wed, 01 Aug 2012 13:00:17 +0000 One of the things that has been driving me bonkers over the past several weeks is the assertion that Frank Ocean came out as gay. Because I have been knee-deep in reading for my impending comprehensive exams, I simply took the assertion that Frank Ocean declared that he is a gay man on Tumblr at face value. declared rapper “50 Cent Supports Frank Ocean, Gay Marriage,” while Newsday asserted that “Frank Ocean Reveals He’s Gay,” E! Online said “Frank Ocean Not Alone, Five Other Singers Who’ve Come Out as Gay,” and finally, the New York Times asserted that “Hip-Hop World Gives Gay Singer Support.”

But as I have re-engaged with the story of Ocean’s alleged coming out, it occurs to me that he did not really come out as gay on his Tumblr page. Certainly, Ocean asserting that his first love was a man does not conform to hegemonic notions of masculinity, particularly black masculinity, but by his admission that he had once loved a man, he is thus culturally ascribed the moniker “gay,” even though he has not used that word (to my knowledge) to describe himself. Perhaps the prevailing logic here is, as Anthony J. Lemelle, Jr., asserts in his book Black Masculinity and Sexual Politics, “…Many hold the view that any homosexual act at any time in life means the person is homosexual, a status from which they could never fully recover” (136). In some sense, this is a sexualized turn on the one-drop rule.

Ocean’s failure to use the word “gay” can be understood within the notion that some black gay men embrace calling themselves “same gender loving” rather than gay to escape the racism they perceive within white gay communities. And it cannot go without saying that Ocean has not (to my knowledge) “defended” himself against the charge that he is gay. But, by not using the word “gay,” he could also be trying to have a nuanced conversation about sexuality as fluid, rather than fixed.

What becomes problematic is that hegemonic understandings of masculinity disallow men to select “both” when asked one’s sexuality particularly within mass mediated notions of black masculinity wherein the discourse of HIV/AIDS is inextricably linked to black men having sex with other men on the “down low.” In the popular imagination, the “down low” is socially constructed as black men sneaking around and having sex with men behind their girlfriend’s and wife’s backs. The “down low,” and bisexuality by extension, becomes the way in which we develop a cultural understanding of the seemingly rampant spread of HIV/AIDS among black women. Because our culture still understands HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease,” the “down low brother” becomes Enemy No. 1.

But despite cultural antagonism, Ocean attempts to be sexually both. On his CD Channel ORANGE, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, selling 131,000 copies, he lyrically vacillates between imagined male and female lovers. I allow that this bisexuality could be rooted in the notion that men, particularly those within the masculinist musical forms of rock, hip hop, and rap, must assert aggressive heterosexuality. Thus, Ocean may have been working mostly within the hegemonic confines of these musical forms. On the other hand, we are culturally uncomfortable allowing Ocean to, as he does in his song “Monks,” speak about an:

African girl [who] speaks in English accent likes to fuck boys in bands
likes to watch westerns
& ride me without the hands

while one track later, the lyrics for “Bad Religion” find Ocean lamenting “I could never make him love me.”

Perhaps the connection between Ocean and gayness can be understood because his network television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon found the singer performing “Bad Religion,” an ode to homosexual unrequited love. It is my contention here that we are culturally uncomfortable with male bisexuality. Certainly, homosexuality is “bad” because it deviates from the culturally constructed sexual norm, but bisexuality is more problematic because of the sense that it remains unfixed.

But if his alleged coming out never mentions the word “gay” or “homosexual” and his music expresses desire for both same and opposite sex partners, how do we culturally make the leap there? We can make the leap because men, particularly black men in the popular culture imagination, are always already heterosexual. The only place for a man to go once deviating from heterosexuality is homosexuality. Unlike Katy Perry who can kiss a girl and like it (and tell her imagined opposite sex betrothed about it in order to titillate him), if Ocean kisses a boy (or desires to do so), he cannot fit within the hegemonic notions of heterosexuality–despite his attempts to lyrically straddle the sexuality fence.


An Incomplete History: “Women Who Rock” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Thu, 01 Mar 2012 14:20:15 +0000 I found myself in Cleveland last week.  My friend Amy Rigby, a musician who plies her trade in one of the parallel music industries that I talked about in my recent post about the Grammy Awards, had things to do in Cleveland.  I’d been threatening for months to take advantage of being on sabbatical to see the “Women Who Rock” exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a few hours from where I live, before it closed on February 26, although the thought of it made me queasy.  A road trip was born and Amy and I visited the exhibit.  It was all that I expected, which is to say, not much.

Critiquing it is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s just too easy.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reflects the worldview of Rolling Stone magazine and major players in the commercial music industry.  The “meta” issue at play is how to put rock and roll, or any type of music, in a museum.  What good is looking and reading about music when you haven’t heard it?  Posting individual listening stations at each display would make progress through any exhibit impossibly slow, compromising an institution’s ability to remain financially solvent.  Curators have to assume that we know what the music, at least some of it, sounds like.  The cultural authorization that results from exhibits of this type is also problematic, as are issues of inclusion and exclusion.  Who gets recognized, who doesn’t, and why?

These problems are especially germane to an exhibit about women and rock.  I imagine that although some of the people who saw the exhibit were music nerds like me and Amy, most were not.  Those of us who are already familiar with the music could “play” it in our heads.  What would everyone else do? We were there on the President’s Day holiday, and the majority of visitors in the galleries were either middle-aged couples or moms with their pre- or just-teen daughters.  The solution proffered by the Rock Hall was to focus on performers who visitors might be familiar with.  Hence a couple of displays devoted to Lady Gaga (the meat dress!), pop stars from the 80s on, the most well-known punk, new wave and “alternative” acts, several rap, hip-hop, and nouveau girl group artists, and some appropriately reverential educational videos about early blueswomen and R&B singers from the 50s and 60s.  Emphasis was on singers.  “Wait,” you may say, “I thought you were talking about rock?” Indeed.  “Rock” here is stretched so thin as to be a meaningless term – a common discursive move.  “Rock,” the exhibit claimed, is an attitude, and apparently these selected artists all have it.

We were a bit amazed by some of the performers who were barely recognized, or left out entirely. Wither the Slits? The Raincoats? Poly Styrene?  Patsy Cline? Emmylou Harris? Exene? Mo Tucker?  Oh yeah, listed in a paragraph on a small sign, maybe.  Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, and Liz Phair were there, but where were the rest of the women from the 70s to the 90s and beyond who made or continue to toil in the rock trenches? Where were the non-Americans? (Joni Mitchell was included, but she’s lived south of the 49th parallel for a long time.) Pioneering female rock group Fanny was represented with a group photo on a swinging door that led to a side exhibit; Amy and I were relieved that it was not the entrance to the restroom, which is what it looked like.

After a while, it seemed that artists who were able to donate “stuff,” usually in the form of stage attire identified by the name of the designer, were the de facto focal points of the exhibit.  That wasn’t necessarily the case, as it turns out.  Upon my return, I asked June Millington of Fanny whether she’d been contacted about the exhibit. She hadn’t, although she knew that her photo was being used and that the curatorial staff had her contact information.  Too bad, as Millington has plenty of stuff, in the way of guitars, other instruments, and memorabilia that I’m sure she’d have been happy to lend and that could have formed part of more interesting exhibits. (I also emailed one of the Raincoats with the same question; if I get a response I’ll post her answer in the comments to this piece.)

The exhibit was accompanied by a PBS documentary, so upon my return home I watched that, hoping that it would fill in some blanks.  I’m sorry to say that it did not.  (It streams here: Although narrated by leading male and female critics, and hosted by Cindy Lauper, it omitted even more artists in order to create a smooth narrative from Bessie Smith to Janelle Monae, culminating in an implied celebration of “poptimism,” currently a vogue amongst writers, bloggers and some academics who think critically about popular music.  I think that the critical turn to poptimism is well intentioned, as it attempts to break down hackneyed binaries that as much as we don’t want them to continue to inform discussions of popular music (e.g., authentic/commercial, male/female, white/black, rock/pop), but believe it does not deal adequately with other things, for example: the political economy of the industries; entrenched sexism; the tyranny of playlists, Pitchfork, and tightly constructed radio formats that shut down possibilities for artists like Amy, a long-time critical favorite whose music has always fallen between the cracks; the tracking of women away from rock and into softer or more “appropriate” pop listening practices as they age; the myth of the “middle-class musician” who can actually afford things like health care and a guarantee of a decent living; and the politics of representation and identity in their myriad configurations.[1]

Calling it all “rock” does not attenuate or explore these and other issues.  Ultimately, the story of “women who rock” is not all about clothes and good feelings. Writing so much and so many out of what could, because of its institutional status, become the foundation of the sanctioned and commonsense history of women and rock threatens to erase or trivialize their past, present and future contributions.  We scholars and critics have our work cut out for us if we want to capture the more inclusive and nuanced history that the subject deserves.

[1] Yes, this is a bit of a shameless advertisement for Amy, a woman who most definitely rocks yet is, in my opinion, criminally unknown.  Check out her music and blog at, or legally download her albums from or iTunes.