Monday, March 29, 2010

On "Booty"

A few weeks ago I read this post on Shakesville. With all of my education in sexuality and gender studies, I can honestly say I had no idea that “punk” had such a long and complex history. When I was teaching high school I would hear my students referring to each other (or their step father, in one case) as punks and I thought it was amusing because I pictured this:

which is especially amusing when you consider that both high schools I have worked at were predominantly African American. Now I realize that that is not what they were saying at all and I am sorry I missed the opportunity to talk with them about it and use it as a teaching moment especially as we spent several weeks talking about sex and gender.

This week on the bus I have been re-reading Gloria AnzaldĂșa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. As I was reading, I noticed that AnzaldĂșa refers to colonized women as “booty” for the victorious nation during times of war and imperialism. Of course, I know what booty means and have heard it many times before, but since reading that Shakesville post I started to think about the ways in which “booty” has been used in our current vernacular. I wonder how “booty” came to mean buttocks: specifically female buttocks. When one considers its original meaning, the correlation starts to seem too insidious to be a coincidence. “Booty,” a term for the possessions gained through violently overtaking a group of people and co-opting their culture, is used today as a description of the female buttocks, suggesting that women themselves are possessions to be won through whatever means necessary. This implies that women are owned by the men of their own culture and can be stolen by men of another culture. It is especially disconcerting if we consider that "booty" is generally used to describe the backsides of black women whose bodies have a long history of being literally objectified and owned by white culture. If we look at the popular culture use of the term this does not seem like a far fetched or radical hypothesis.

There is, evidently, such a thing as booty hip hop.

Booty is sometimes what we call sex.

It is a movie.

It is a song.

Or two.

Beyond that, Rachael and Ross sang Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to their newborn on Friends and I once heard my baby cousin referred to his mother’s bottom as ‘booty’ when he was under one year old! The term "booty" is deeply entrenched in our language to the point that it is completely normal for anyone to say, much like "punk."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Women in Alternative Music

As you could probably guess from perusing this blog, I am a great lover of music. I wrote my master’s thesis about Kurt Cobain which really forced me to dig deep into what music I love and why. The first music I can remember loving was Dolly Parton and that was when I was a very small child. In middle school I developed a fondness for Stevie Nicks (I even managed to convince my aunt to take me to one of her concerts in Chicago when I was barely a tween). Later in middle school I started to break free from what my parents listened to and I loved the Spice Girls. It was around that time that I started a little CD collection of my own. I can vividly remember a day when my father sat down in my bedroom and looked through my CDs. I should note that music led to some of the greatest wars between my parents and myself starting in middle school and ignited battles well into my adult years. At any rate, that day my father said to me “all you have are female musicians here. Don’t you like any men?” I don’t think he meant it in an accusatory way but the vast majority of his large music collection is comprised of male artists. It wasn’t long after that that I began high school. In high school I learned through observation what music was cool and how music and style went hand in hand.

One of the first things that happened when I transitioned from grade school to high school was I grew very rebellious and did not want to be associated with the popular kids. I became friends with a large group of boys who liked alternative music and I made it my music. It was around that time that I started to dress like Kurt Cobain and listened to Nirvana on my discman and in my car all the time.

My CD collection made a dramatic shift from entirely female artists to mostly male artists within the course of just two years. I loved grunge and I can recall listening to Hole in middle school but then when I got to high school and saw the reaction I got when I said I liked Courtney Love, I started to believe that she was a villain murderer and stopped listening to Hole altogether.

In my thesis last summer I examined the cultural reactions to Courtney Love and the narratives around her life with Kurt Cobain. One of the most compelling findings of my thesis was that women are either completely invisible in alternative music or they are demonized as vixens who bring down talented men (think Yoko Ono).

The first thing I noticed in the narrative about Cobain’s life was that Bikini Kill is often completely erased as an influence. Kurt dated Tobi Vail and was good friends with Kathleen Hanna for years. They even moved him to feminist activism. How that part of the story gets erased is nothing short of remarkable. It takes intentional and deliberate storytelling on the part of biographers and music critics. The sheer insidiousness of that erasure stuns me. And it is not only Bikini Kill it is the whole Riot Grrrl movement that is not part of the story.

Of course there are many layers and ways in which fame was deployed as a tool by Cobain who claimed to eschew all of the trappings of his celebrity while at the same time being the biggest advocate for his own success. Part of the “coolness” of grunge was that the artists did not wish to be cool… supposedly. Considering that, it is especially interesting that Cobain used his celebrity as a platform to put forth ideas about queerness, gender, sexuality and feminism. That was part of who he was and that part is completely erased in the biographies, reviews and stories told about him in mainstream culture.

At any rate, all of these things are swirling through my head lately and I get passionately angry when I listen to alternative radio these days. You could go days and I mean DAYS without hearing a single female voice on the alternative radio stations here in Chicago. What I want to know is what the hell is alternative about alternative music? They seem to propound the same old patriarchal stories or worse, the ‘poor me’ stories so popular amongst young white men. They sing about women and heartache all the while real women are invisible. What really set me off what when I realized last summer that Lollapalooza was almost entirely comprised of white male artists. (Kings of Leon, Depeche Mode, Tool, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Decemberists, Jane’s Addiction, The Killers, Lou Reed, Silversun Pickups, and Snoop Dogg.) I cannot think of one excuse good enough for not including any female headliners. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were added last minute or there wouldn’t have been a female presence at all (save for a female band member in the Decemberists and Silversun Pickups). How do we justify that in 2009? It isn’t like these women don’t exist. And what makes it even more insideous is that many of the male artists slated to preform are deeply misogynistic and that ideology has no female voice to balance it out.

Then just yesterday my partner told me that he wants to go to Q101’s Jamboree and he asked if I’d be interested in going. I said if even one of the headliners was a band comprised of at least half women I’d go. Guess who’s not going? This blogger! Three Days Grace, Seether, Hollywood Undead, Papa Roach, Puddle of Mudd, Saliva, Janus, Story of the Year, Flobots, Crash Kings and AM Taxi. I think I might have seen one female face WAY in the back of one of their band pictures but that was all. I am not surprised but I am deeply saddened by it the more I think about it.

Let me assure you that there are many women in alternative music. I like The Gossip and Metric lately. Why are they invisible on these radio stations, at these events and in these publications? The only answer I have is outright and unapologetic misogyny. Alternative music is deeply afraid of women as anything other than muse, groupie or sexual conquest.

Please feel free to suggest any awesome female alternative artists in the comments!