Leaning Into The Red: On Beyonce, Nicki, Missy, & Rihanna’s sonic responses to post-feminism

I’m re-upping this post because I’m  giving this talk on Friday 6 January at 9am at the APA Eastern. Hope to see you there, philosophers and Baltimore people!

I’m speaking this Friday at Ithaca Music Forum. Here is the text of my talk. I’m also giving it at this year’s APA Eastern, hence all the prefatory remarks about how this is or is not “philosophy of music.” Here’s the talk’s intro for a preview of the full thing:

Writing in Noisey, Emma Garland says that in 2015 “whether a music video by a female artist is feminist or not has since become the primary yardstick we use to determine its value,” and this yardstick is ill-equipped to assess the “inconsistent maze of sexism and feminism” in work like Rihanna’s 2015 single “BBHMM.” This yardstick comes up short in a lot of ways: it relies on clear-cut distinctions between agency and objectification, it uses respectability politics to make that distinction, and, as Garland suggests but does not develop, it focuses exclusively on videos and ignores the song itself. These oversights are due to neoliberal post-feminism’s reliance on classically liberal feminist understandings of the relationship between political representation and artistic representation. Because white liberal feminism thinks the lack of free verbal expression and inaccurate visual representation are the main impediments to women’s political equality, sound and music appear, from this perspective, to be apolitical…or at least irrelevant to women’s political emancipation. However, as I have argued elsewhere, post-feminism’s inattention to sound lets sound and music work behind the scenes, either to critique or to reaffirm post-feminism’s doubling-down on MRWaSP (Multi-Racial White Supremacist Patriarchy) sexual respectability and gender normativity. Here, I focus on black women’s use of sound to critique and develop alternatives to post-feminist pop’s MRWaSP respectability politics. Because white post-feminism obscures the work sound does, black women musicians can use sound to “turn up” post-feminist rhetorics and politics, to push gender into the red.  

Black feminist music aesthetics often uses sound as the central method for negotiating and revising concepts like agency and practices like respectability, concepts and practices whose apparently clear definitions are designed to oppress black women.  For example, philosopher Devonya Havis argues that “sounding” is a philosophical technique black women use to “feign complicity” with oppressive institution. With respect to neoliberal post-feminism, musical sound is one of these zones. In this talk I consider two ways black women pop stars use sound to negotiate white popular post-feminism’s “Is it feminist?” yardstick, particularly its demand that women demonstrate agency and overcome the negative effects of misogyny. First I argue that post-feminism’s demand for agency is a new type of respectability politics, and show that Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love,” and Missy Elliott’s catalog-spanning use non-verbal sounds to both (1) re-script femininity and feminine body experience and (2) produce bodily and aesthetic pleasures outside the jurisdiction of post-feminist respectability. Each artist uses a distinct technique or set of techniques, but the effect is the same: sounds create femininities beyond the narrow confines policed by respectability politics. Second, I argue that the music and diegetic sound in Rihanna’s BBHMM video redirects the flow of racialized sexual violence that produces and distributes “personhood as property” (Weheliye 2014, 44), in particular, the “personhood as property” post-feminism grants to privileged women who Lean In to the market and the State. Because Rih’s character butchers white patriarchal privilege rather than Leaning Into it, her performance is not legible as post-feminist agency; it redirects white post-feminism’s systematic expropriation of personhood-as-property from black women cultural workers.