By Tavia Nyong’o (reblogged from Hear is Queer).
The 10th Annual EMP Pop conference wrapped up over the weekend and, against my fears, hosting it at a university didn’t alter the ‘secret recipe sauce’ of journalists, academics, and musicians. Is it me or did we actually gain a new and welcome constituency of students? I can’t think of another conference I go to in which people from 18 to 60+ are in the audience and at the podium, carrying on overlapping conversations about a single topic with such enthusiastic passion.
Others, notably Ned Raggett, have offered copious documentation of specific papers. And a couple conference reviews are coming online, including one by my co-panelist Oliver Wang. I am going to offer my own scattered thoughts on presentations that struck a chord in me but before I do, I have to give a “wag of the finger” as Stephen Colbert likes to say to myself and the EMP community for a group that, upon reflection, was seriously underrepresented this year: queers.
Where were the queers?
I don’t mean the queer presenters: because there were plenty of us. My question is not about a head count but about where, in the discussion of popular music today, queer and transgender topics figure. Homosexuality is apparently a big enough topic that Congress has recently passed legislation on it, people have fought and died for it at home and abroad, artists are singing about it, and sex columnists are making sentimental YouTube videos about it. Is it important to us too when we gather annually to talk about music?
It’s possible — even likely — that I missed some great conversation on queer music happening in some other room. (I missed the Idol panel. Did Adam Lambert come up in relation to queer performance or music there?) But here’s my evidence based on what I do know. In the printed program (which would have attracted or kept away potential attendees), only a single paper title (mine) including the words lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer. And that paper wasn’t even about a queer artist, exactly, although Gaga has, as my co-presenter Jack Halberstam pointed out in his talk, provocatively declined to disavow the transgender body imputed to her by some hostile fans. So while I don’t ordinarily do this kind of thing, I got out my rusty essentialist bean counter and looked for honest to goodness out musicians announced in paper titles (I started to go through abstracts too, but got tired. I’d never make it as a sociologist!).
The results (aside from my and Jack’s paper): Ann Powers’ creative use of the closet as a metaphor for thinking about genre; José Muñoz’s (sadly missed) paper on Darby Crash, and an interview with the man who signed The Smiths. I do have to throw in one attendee: Phranc showed up to the Work It! pre-conference (and asked, incidentally, are we going backwards or forwards? Is there any progress? Part of the trigger for this post.)
Gerrick Kennedy’s LA Times review of the pre-conference Work it! (organized through the prodigious energies of Karen Tongson) was appreciated. But it reproduced the annoying (to both feminists and queers) equation of “sexuality” and “female sexiness in some vicinity of the conventionally heteronormative.” (as the accompanying illustration of Beyoncé, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga suggested). Homosexuality or bisexuality was not mentioned in the article.
I embrace the selfishness of my criticism: I want more people to talk to at EMP about stuff I care about! It’s why all of us keep coming. But me aside, its obviously not the case that sexuality is irrelevant to the theme of money and capitalism, or that we did it a couple years back and now we’re through. We need to talk about it every year, especially if the mainstream media and scholarship doesn’t, or does so in simplistic ways.
So here, in the spirit of productive suggestions, are some ideas for next year:
- Queer as Format: Logo TV runs “gay themed” video shows. Virgin America has a “Pride” channel featuring a range of artists from Ricky Martin to Joan Armatrading. What’s that about? Do you have to be gay to be featured on Logo? What if you aren’t gay? Have artists ever objected to their videos being shown on a gay channel? I’m thinking perhaps about glass closeted artists. What’s the history of gay labels (including the one that the original “I Was Born This Way” was on: the amazingly titled Gaiee Label!)
- After the Closet. Speaking of Ricky Martin: where is the reflection on the momentous change (is it a momentous change?) in the last year or two where established and up and coming artists coming out to increasing indifference? K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through in the 1990s. Was it harder for male artists to come out? What about trans (does Antony (& the Johnsons) count)? Is indifference a non-story, ie: sexuality doesn’t matter now? Or are new things happening with queerness precisely in the space where, for instance, straight female fans feel free to adore gay male singers and male frat boys groove on Kaki Kings’ guitar stylistics (HT Tina M on that last one).
- Boys who do Girls. Speaking of new things happening, someone (ID anyone?) did bring up one EMP conversation the start that Darren Criss got a start performing Disney Princess songs on YouTube. Learning that completely opened my eyes to the canny sexual orientation striptease Glee has going on now, in which an openly straight actor plays an openly gay character who is given all these songs of female empowerment (Bills Bills Bills, Teenage Dream) to sing. Isn’t there an emo genealogy to trace here (paging Dr. Tongson)?
- It Gets Worse: But maybe this is just a bigger question: where was Glee at this year’s EMP? Isn’t its commercial revivification of the TV musical and its impact on the pop charts and digital downloads worth checking out from a C.R.E.A.M. perspective? How do we think about the clash that the show constantly stages between musical theatre and contemporary pop/hip hop, both in its plot and in its contemporary impact (and its problematic whiteness)? Glee has used music to put forth the powerful idea (connected to neoliberalism in ways I could spell out) that life after the closet isn’t necessarily easier. As the adults on Glee intimate: life often gets worse, so endurance is not about normative futurity but about a kind of indefinite, lateral childhood (which is why the bratty Sue Sylvester remains the heart and soul of the show). The braggadacio of pop and the pathos of musical theatre meet in uncanny and uncomfortable ways on Glee that seem to have a lot to do with accommodating the growing social visibility of queers.
I shouldn’t be giving away all my ideas here because really I want to write a book on Glee and the unmaking of the American Dream. But really, it would be swell to have more stellar minds than mind helping me think these things through. I’m jealous of how much platonic love record collectors, eminent rock critics, and the term “authenticity” gets.
Or, as Darren Criss, channeling Princess Ariel, sings: “wish I could be part of your world.”