The Gender Difference That Race Makes, The Race Difference That Gender Makes, And The Race/Gender Difference That Music Makes: Joe Calderone, take 2

This post is significantly revised from the 30 August version.

After Lady Gaga’s drag king performance at the 2011 MTV VMAs, many people are talking about the gender politics of her performance, its queerness (or not), and especially Britney Spears’ refusal of Joe’s offer for a kiss (a refusal that, in saying “I’ve done that before”—‘that’ being kiss another female pop star on stage at the VMAs—also refuses Joe’s drag by referring us back to Stephani Germanotta’s “real” gender). But I want to talk about Joe’s race, or rather, his race and his ethnicity. I will argue that race marks Joe’s musical masculinity as “authentic,” and augments/is augmented by his masculine gender identity; race similarly marks Gaga’s musical femininity as “fake”; this musical femininity stabilizes the whiteness of her feminine gender identity, just as her ability to successfully queer/critique femininity both stabilizes and is stabilized by her perceived “whiteness.” As a commenter on an earlier version of this post suggested, gender determines the way Joe and Gaga’s ethnicity gets read, racially. Italian-Americans were only recently, and are still incompletely, included within “whiteness.” Joe’s Italian-ness gets read as evidently “ethnic,” and racially off-white, whereas Gaga’s Italian-ness gets read as invisibly white. To this idea that gender determines the way Joe/Gaga’s ethnicity becomes racialized, I would add the claim that percieved musical authenticity or inauthenticity also determines the way Joe/Gaga’s Italian-ness is situated with respect to whiteness. (Here I want to shout out especially to Latoya Gardner and Afsaneh Samari for calling my attention to the authenticity/inauthenticity issue).

But first, let’s watch his performance:

Get More: 2011 VMA, Music, Lady Gaga

The Gender Difference That Race Makes*

Joe’s masculinity augments and is augmented by his ethnic Italianness; his working-class masculinity encourages audiences to read his ethnic Italianness as racially off-white. First, let’s consider Joe’s gender. Part of Joe’s performativity—his “theatre,” to use his term—is his “doing” of masculinity. He has to walk, talk, sing, dance, and otherwise comport himself in an appropriately masculine way. The drag isn’t just about clothes and hair, it’s also about bodily gestures. Joe doesn’t just have to look masculine, he has to do masculine. So, he throws his hands around in macho gestures (the way he holds his cigarette, the way he uses his hands to gesture as he speaks, including literal chest-thumping, etc.), he shifts his center of gravity up from his waist to his shoulders or mid-chest, he takes up a lot of space and commands space (which, as IM Young argues, is a very masculine comportment; women are trained to not take up space). What I find really interesting about Joe is his use of his ethnicity to re-inforce his performance of masculinity: his hairstyle (the dark pompadour with the sideburns), his subtle 5’oclock shadow, his New York accent, his swagger, even his facial expressions, all of these are pointedly Italian-American…And it’s not the guidos and guidettes of the Jersey Shore, but a more retro machismo, more like a young Brando or Pachino (in fact, Joe’s hairstyle and sartorial choices are sorta Scarface, IMHO). The “retro” quality of his working-class Italian-American masculinity is really important. It is emphasized not only in his performance of gender, but in his stage show, which I’ll talk about in the last section of the post. For now, I want to consider this “retro” quality as a marker of class: it’s a working-class roughness, a John Travolta to Gaga’s Olivia Newton John, so to speak. Class is one factor that leads audiences take Joe’s ethnic Italian-ness as a form of racial off-whiteness. The other, more significant factor is, as I argue in the last section, his musical authenticity. But, for now, I want to stick with the claim that Joe’s masculinity is marked as racially non-(entirely)-white.

Hence, when Joe Calderone performs masculinity, he marks his distance from Gaga’s (white) femininity not only with the performance of masculinity, but also with the performance of qualified whiteness. Italian-Americans were only recently folded into the tent of “proper” whiteness, and often still sit at the very margins of this tent as somewhat less than perfectly white. So, his performance of New York Italian masculinity is racially marked: his whiteness is perhaps questionable. Joe gives us not just masculinity, but machismo. The non-whiteness of Joe’s masculinity marks it as even more distant from Gaga’s femininity, because Gaga’s femininity is read as white. He amplifies his gender difference from Gaga with his race and class. This is the gender difference that race makes.

The Race Difference That Gender Makes

Though Gaga obviously problematizes her “femininity,” this problematization comes off as successfully as it does because she is read as white. Similarly, this reading of her as white is encouraged by the performance of a recognizable if destabilized femininity. Contrast Gaga’s ethnic whiteness to Kim Kardashian’s repeated insistence that she’s Armenian; Gaga gets read as more fully or “perfectly” white than any of the Kardashians do. Gaga’s work does not address race; in fact, she appears as explicitly white only in her collaborations with Beyonce. Gaga plays with images and ideals of white female pop divas (Madonna, most notably); she never really compares herself to, say, Whitney Houston, or even Sylvester. Those referents just aren’t there. She does complicate her femininity and often plays with queerness, but Gaga never overtly performs race…because, as a white woman, her whiteness is only reinforced by its implicitness, by its invisibility. In fact, her femininity as a white woman is reinforced by its/her whiteness. Which is to say: insofar as idealized femininity is normatively white, Gaga’s identification or disidentification with femininity is also an identification with whiteness. She is lauded for “critiquing” and “challenging” dominant gender norms; Rihanna, for example, is chided for being “too sexual” (with “S&M”) or “too violent” (with “Man Down”), and Beyonce, whose work is at least as important and interesting as Gaga’s, is only ever framed as an “entertainer,” never an “artist” or “revolutionary”. Part of the reason Gaga gets a huge license to play around with gender is because she is understood to be white; her femininity (and to some extent her hetero- or homo- normativity) is not already qualified by her non-whiteness (as is the case with Rihanna and Beyonce). In his 1997 book White, Richard Dyer argues that the “abnormal”—queers, disabled people, whomever—are normatively white. Same with Gaga: her queerness/posthumanness both reinforces and is enabled by her implicit whiteness. So, in spite of her professed Italian-ness (e.g., Ragu at Nona’s on Sundays), Gaga’s Italian-ness, her ethnicity, is racialized as white. Not off-white, but white.

Why does Joe’s ethnic Italian-ness get racialized as off-white, but Gaga’s ethnic Italian-ness get racialized as fully white? Looking to social identities alone (like gender, class, or sexuality) won’t help much. The key to Joe’s and Gaga’s differential racialization is not so much about gender or class as it is about musical authenticity.

The Race/Gender Difference That Music Makes

Joe’s ethnic Italianness is racialized as off-white because he is read as musically authentic. Gaga’s ethnic Italianness is racialized as off-white because she is read as musically inauthentic.

In the US and the UK, notions of musical authenticity are both gendered and raced: whiteness gets read as inauthentic, as does femininity (but white men who successfully appropriate blackness are read as authentic), and blackness and masculinity get read as authentic (but black female pop singers are often derided as inauthentic, as are too-white men, or insufficiently masculine or overly bourgeois black men).** I’m not going to go too extensively into the racialization and gendering of musical authenticity, because most of my published work already establishes these claims. I’d suggest THIS, THIS, and THIS as starting places. Class is also a factor in pop music authenticity: class status and musical authenticity generally have an inverse relationship. Given the associations between musical authenticity and white-men-appropriating-blackness, Joe’s perceived musical authenticity gets him read as, in the words of James Chance, “almost black.” Given the associations between musical inauthenticity and white femininity, Gaga’s perceived musical inauthenticity gets her read as white.

So how does Joe establish “musical authenticity”? First, in his monologue, Joe establishes himself as part of the “depth” to Gaga’s “surface”: Gaga “is theater” and Joe is “just the rehearsal.” He’s the “real life” behind her “mere” performance. Obviously the kinging complicates any claims to personal “real-ness”, but in terms of musical authenticity, it’s precisely the performance that is considered more or less “real” (i.e., we’re not contrasting music as performance when with real life, but different musical performances as varyingly authentic). Second, (and this is what most people are picking up on) Joe does not make use of elaborate costumes, staging, or dancing. He seems to be “just about the music” rather than “mainly about the image.” This read is, of course, totally incorrect: the kinging shows that the supposed “directness” of Joe’s musical presentation is actually at least if not more INdirect and mediated than Gaga’s performances. Nevertheless, Joe’s performance is clearly thought to be more intimate, more “purely” musical, than Gaga’s.

Third, Joe’s performance of musical masculinity associates him with established hip-hop “legends,” and distances him from other men of color, who generally perform avowedly “pop” music. In the same way that “hip hop” is seen as more authentic and more “masculine” than pop, Joe is seen as more authentic and more masculine—and also less white—than Gaga. Joe’s monologue and musical number present Joe’s masculinity very differently than many cis-male musicians establish and reinforce their masculinity. We can contrast Joe’s performance with the other male musicians at the VMAs. For example, Chris Brown establishes his masculinity in a few ways: (1) he has control over women (the dancers, esp. in the beginning; (2) he has control over other men (his gestures seem to ‘direct’ the dance performance of other male dancers; (3) he has exceptional mastery of his vocation—he’s known as a skilled dancer, and here he not only dances well, but incorporates acrobatics into his act. Ne-Yo and Pitbull use the control-over/desirability-by women schtick. However, it is most productive to compare Joe’s performance with Yeezy and HOVA’s, because they are structurally most similar. Both are relatively bare-bones and underproduced: neither use many lasers or special effects. Both begin from far, far backstage and follow the performers as they promenade out towards the front (and thus make us aware that it is all about the “theatre,” so to speak). Both call on the work of 70s/80s male stars: Otis Reading, Billy Joel, and Queen (with Brian May’s guest appearance in Joe’s set—this obviously means we need to think about the Freddy-Mercuriziation of Joe…). Both have a few absurdly macho, ultimately unnecessary props: Joe has a beer that he tries to spray the audience with, and the Roc-a-fella boys have that flag (whose white stripes are, interestingly, cross-hatched or blackened). Jay and Ye establish their masculinity as one of tradition and, more importantly, authenticity: they don’t need to emphasize musical or artistic mastery, because their mastery is presumed; they don’t need to establish their power over women, or over money; unlike the less-seasoned male performers of color, Jay and Ye treat their masculinity as something assumed, unquestionable, and implicit. Their status as iconic musicians stabilizes their masculine gender identity: their music is authentic, so their masculinity is authentic. Moreover, in the US, judgments of musical authenticity are completely and totally imbiracted with some crazy racial politics: “blackness” is perceived to be an index of musical “authenticity.” I’ll talk more about this idea later in the post. For now, I want to focus on the fact that Joe’s performance, as a stage show, was most similar to the one by the middle-aged black dudes. Joe’s set is most comparable to the old black guys’ set—not the young upstarts, not the trendy flashes-in-the pan, but the old school dudes rapping over someone fully ensconced in the 20th c soul canon. (It’s also worth nothing that the opening shot of Joe, in the black suit, under the single spotlight right above his head, evokes images of Michael Jackson.) Joe’s performance is most similar to the one by the musically authentic, and authentically masculine rappers. So, Joe’s performance of a retro masculine gender identity is meant to signal the same sort of “authenticity” that Jay and Ye play on. Importantly—and this is key—Joe’s shared musical authenticity with Jay and Ye also qualifies Joe’s whiteness. Joe, Jay, and Ye are all trading in notions of musical authenticity that associate blackness and black masculinity with increased musical “realness.” So, Joe’s off-whiteness comes from his musical authenticity: Joe’s performance calls on norms that use blackness as an index of musical authenticity. To put it in a syllogism: In contemporary US pop music, musical authenticity is associated with blackness. Joe Calderone is deemed musically authentic. Thus, Joe is associated with blackness (or at least “almost blackness”). Joe’s ethnic Italian-ness is read as off-white because he is capable of musical authenticity.

Gaga, on the other hand, is interested in authenticity (musical or otherwise) only as something to critique. Even when she busts out her serious, Tish-School-trained chops, she usually does so in performative contexts that very much distract us from the “purely musical” elements of her performance. For example, if it’s just her at the piano, she might be sitting at a piano elevated tens of feet above the stage. Lady Gaga promotes the idea that she is all style, no substance, all surface, no depth. Nietzsche would love her. I don’t think I need to establish Gaga’s perceived and crafted musical “inauthenticity” because it is already well-known. The relevant point here is that Gaga’s perceived musical inauthenticity encourages audiences to read her as a white woman. As many feminist scholars of pop music have noted, white femininity is considered the least oppositional, least musically capable or valid form of femininity. For example, Britney Spears and Beyonce are both highly talented singers, but only Britney is targeted with the vehement derision as inauthentic, as plastic, as a puppet. White femininity is a sign of musical inauthenticity not only because white women are devalued as musical producers and critics, but also because whiteness itself, when not moderated by a masculinity strong enough to domesticate blackness, is the epitome of musical authenticity in US/UK discourses of pop musical value. As I argue in the hipness article in Contemporay Aesthetics, only white men can successfully appropriate blackness, because their masculinity overcomes the threats posed by blackness; white women, lacking this masculinity, cannot successfully appropriate blackness. Because we in the US and UK associate blackness with musical authenticity, white women are destined to musical inauthenticity because they cannot appropriate the requisite blackness. Thus, because Gaga is read as musically inauthentic and feminine, her ethnic Italian-ness is interpreted as racial whiteness.

Sooo, the larger, underlying point here is that we cannot rigorously or successfully think about race and gender without also thinking about their relationships to music. In doing work on gender, race, sexuality, and music, we cannot just analyze music for its race/gender/sexual politics; rather, we need to also analyze race/gender/sexuality for their musical politics. I make this argument much, much, much more extensively in the first half of The Conjectural Body.

There are still some questions that I need to think more about:

1. Where is the queerness here (if it is in fact here)? Is it in Joe’s erstwhile “blackness’? Is it, at least in part, in the ersatz Freddy Mercury position Joe puts himself in as a foil to Brian May?

2. What does Gaga get from this performance as Joe? How does it reflect on/impact her identities, her situation(s) in relation to power?

3. WWJHT?, or, What Would Jack Halberstam Think? I’m guessing that Jack will let us know. But, it does seem that JH attributes an important element of humor to “kinging” (I’m thinking of the Austin Powers chapter in IAQTAP), and somebody needs to think about whether or not Joe’s performance uses that humor, or if the performance lacks it, etc. etc….

* Though my choice of phrasing may possibly suggest that I have a non-intersectional or non-interlocking understanding of race/gender/music, this is not the case. As I argue HERE, I think race, gender, and music are fully “intersectional,” mutually determinative, and absolutely inseparable. I chose to separate them out conceptually—emphasizing race, gender, then music—only for the sake of clarifying my argument. I’m sacrificing some accuracy for clarity (i.e., being a bit overly reductive of complex phenomena), but especially in a blog post, clarity wins.

** I know I’m being really reductive about a black/white racial binary, but I’m not talking about actual racial politics—I’m talking about racialized musical discourses. These musical discourses overwhelmingly tend to adopt a black/white binary (as empirically and politically problematic as that may be).