I’ve been rapping for about seventeen years, okay? I don’t write my stuff anymore, I just kick it from my head, y’know what I’m sayin’? I can do that. No disrespect, but that’s how I am.
-Young Churf, from Ratatat’s “Seventeen Years”
I was rooting around in my basement, and *finally* found notes from my first advisory group with Rachel Pollack at Goddard College. And dang, there’s a reason why the lecture she gave had been sticking in my head for almost four years now.
“Here are three models of the soul and the body,” Rachel told us, seemingly apropos of nothing, after a brief discussion of writing habits. Such an arcane occult topic might seem unrelated to writing, but no. They were intimately connected.
The first model she described was a divisive model: body vs soul. It’s the idea, perhaps spawned by Democritus, that a soul is like a tiny atomic particle rattling around in a body.
“Think of the soul,” Rachel went on, “as the essential quality of the story, while the body is the content and form of the story.”
If I think of writing this way, I imagine times when a single idea has carried into a variety of forms until it found the right one. Perhaps this is like how I function when I write journalistic articles: I query, and when an editor is interested in my work, I then flesh out the piece tailored to the market.
Consider the next soul metaphor: Instead of the body being a container for the soul, the soul instead secretes a body around it during the nine months of pregnancy. An accompanying Talmudic idea is that upon death, the soul is released and can move on to secrete a new body elsewhere.
What this means for writing, Rachel explained, is that what you want to say should be inseparable from the form in which you say it. I’m not sure if this is always true for me, but I like it as a goal. I like the idea that what needs to be said will secrete its own best form. When I am doing my best work, I feel this happening.
Rachel’s example here was Phillip K. Dick: his lifelong obsession over what is real and what is not, i.e. the soul of his work, kept secreting different bodies. So while he wrote a lot of different novels, many if not all of them shared the same soul.
Rather than focusing on What You Want To Express, Rachel suggests, you can open yourself up and let the story be primary in order to short circuit your own authorial control. I think this could be particularly salient when trying to fictionalize stories that are heavily grounded in your own life.
Rachel’s third soul metaphor was this: The soul is larger than the body. The body moves through life to give expression to the soul. “Allow the story to inhabit something larger than itself,” she said. And every story we tell is a part of a larger cultural tale that goes untold much of the time. So when I speak, I hope I am helping to tell a story about not only the time and place that my body is moving through to give expression to my soul, but about a time and place that’s bigger than my one body’s journey. Long story short, I think this is one reason why I write about fairy tales?!
2a. To overthrow (a nation, government, ruler, etc.); to bring down, depose, put an end to; to defeat, vanquish. Also: to overcome (an ostensibly more powerful force).
2c. To undermine without necessarily bringing down (an established authority, system, or institution); to attempt to achieve, esp. by covert action, the weakening or removal of (a government, political regime, etc.).
6.trans. orig. Literary Criticism. To challenge and undermine (a conventional idea, form, genre, etc.), esp. by using or presenting it in a new or unorthodox way.
-Oxford English Dictionary online, 3Aug15
Today I want to talk about subversive music videos. The heyday of the music video began in the 80s, with MTV as the primary distributor of these little nuggets of film. Some music videos were just performance showcases; some told a story. Pop songs now conjured video images in the heads of those who heard the song.
And in every age of music videos, there are videos that are controversial, that cause generations of adults gasp in horror and shield their children’s eyes. “Shock value” is a term often tossed around with these videos. “Sensationalism.” “Excess.” And today I want to look at some videos that have all of those things in one way or another, and analyze them against one other factor: subversiveness.
To be subversive, a video must present symbols in a way that challenges existing power structures. By “symbol” I don’t necessarily mean something overt like a burning cross–which is a symbol used in the videos I’m discussing today–rather, a symbol is any image that represents a larger category of images or tropes. A symbol might be a tree, a building, a cigarette, a sandwich, or something film-related like a close-up or an “ass shot”. i hear you cry “but if symbols can be anything, why are we even talking about them?” Because symbols measure subversion: a single thing like a tree can mean a thousand things in a thousand different contexts. Literary theory, kids, hold on to your symbolic hats, ’cause we’re about to talk about pop videos.
One thing to note: all of these videos involve personas, as in the singers acting out a role to tell a story in the video. While some of them are based on fact, like how Rihanna’s accountant really did screw her out of millions of dollars with bad financial advice, nonetheless the performances are not meant to represent the artists as much as the artists’ personas. I will refer to the artists by name, but know that in context of the videos I mean their persona for that video.
Madonna: Like a Prayer
The video opens with a flurry of images: Madonna running with sirens in the background, white men assaulting her in an alley, a burning cross, a black man being arrested, a church. Madonna runs off and hides in said church where she has a vision/moment/thought trip that comprises most of the video. In the church, she frees a Black Jesus statue from his special Catholic saint cage; he comes to life.
Then Madonna dances around with a black gospel choir and makes out with Black Jesus, inter-cut with scenes of her singing while crosses burn in the background. About halfway through the video we get the twist: we see the scene of her assault, but coherently this time: three white men assaulted her, the black man shooed them away but was arrested, presumably charged with her assault. Back to gospel choir and burning crosses.
In the end of the video, Madonna’s in the police station talking to the police, who let out the black guy who saved her.Finally, everyone who appeared in the video–muggers, cops, black man, Madonna, gospel choir–takes a theatrical bow and a red curtain lowers with the words “THE END.”
It’s easy to reduce this video to its most “shock value” signs, at least for the time of its release: “Like a Prayer” is the “making out with Black Jesus” video. Ironically, the figure played by Leon Robinson was supposed to be Saint Thomas, but hey, authorial intent often times means less than popular interpretation. The video is chock full of signs rich with cultural meaning: Jesus, the stigmata, weeping blood, burning crosses, the police. The power structures that all of this imagery is working towards dismantling could be the Catholic Church (the Vatican officially condemned the video, so…), or the police, or the systems of institutional racism and injustice in America. And particularly during its release, the imagery was provocative, especially since like most pop artists, Madonna had a following that included children and teens.
Looking at the video in 2015, a few things stand out to me. One: The race relations between police and young black men is more relevant than ever. In that respect, this video has not aged out of subversive use. Two: To some extent, this reads as a white justice fantasy, by which I meant that this is a story by and for white folks that features Madonna being accepted with open arms by the black community and then heroically saving a young black man with her whiteness. If Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was a white vengeance fantasy, then “Like a Prayer” is a white justice fantasy. Three: the theater curtains and curtain call at the end of the video are important, drawing out the constructed, artificial nature of power structures represented in the video.
Lady Gaga: Telephone, ft. Beyoncé
Lady Gaga has been thrown in prison (possibly from killing her murderous boyfriend in the her last video, “Paparazzi”), and gets bailed out by Beyoncé.
The drive away in the Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, and go to a diner where Beyoncé poisons one guy (who she presumably has a bad history with) and Lady Gaga poisons everyone else in the diner including the dog.
There is then an All-American dance party.
Finally, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé escape with law enforcement in pursuit and drive off into the sunset.
Lady Gaga’s obsessions over the course of her career include both fame and monstrosity, thus her album “The Fame Monster,” where we can find this song. I chose this video because like the Rihanna video I’ll be discussing next, it features violent women. Like the Madonna video, “Telephone” sets itself up as another constructed medium: in this case, a film rather than a stage play. Much of what Lady Gaga makes is about the constructed nature of her own fame as well as celebrity culture.
So is this video provocative? Absolutely. There’s enough spikes, near-nudity, death, and nifty outfits to sink a very fabulous ship.
Is it subversive? Well, kind of, kind of not. While I find Lady Gaga’s overall commentary on fame, appearance, spectacle, and monstrosity intriguing and oftentimes subverting of its own celebrity structures, this video spends more time recreating structures than breaking them down.
Take the prison scene, for example. Mostly, it recreates the women-in-prison tropes of 70s exploitation films, just with an updated look: butch female wardens punishing Lady Gaga, catfights between prisoners, makeouts between prisoners, and a dance number in leather thongs. Bitch Planet this is not.
Take, also, the Quentin Tarantino references. In Kill Bill, the Pussy Wagon was driven by a rapist man, then stolen and co-opted by Uma Thurman’s character Beatrix Kiddo to wreak bloody vengeance on those what done her wrong. In “Telephone,” it’s presumably Beyoncé’s car. The other Tarantino reference is that Beyoncé’s name/nickname in the video is “Honey B,” a reference to Honey Bunny, one half of the diner holdup duo from Pulp Fiction. This foreshadows what the duo will do at the diner. They poison folks using service and sweetness (honey). The deaths of everyone except for Honey B’s awful man (played by Tyrese) are ultimately gratuitous, unlike the death Rihanna’s video. The brutality is unexpected and subverts the structure of women as automatically sweet, kind, and servile.
Ironically, the most subversive part of the video was the All-American Dance Scene at the end. Juxaposed with the brutal poisoning, its use of the American flag and an enthusiastic dance routine make it an ironic end to the story. This is the performance you’ve come to expect of us, the dancers seem to say. So were the murders just a part of that performance?
TL; DR: The meat dress was subversive. The women-in-prison was not. The murder-and-dance-away was kinda subversive.
Rihanna: Bitch Better Have My Money
(video is NSFW )
Rihanna’s 2015 video, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” or BBHMM for short, was met with Like-a-Prayer-esque shock and horror after it dropped.
The video opens with an image of a trunk with bloody legs sticking out of it. Then we see a white woman in sheer lingerie getting ready, kissing her husband, and leaving her house with an ornamental dog. This is inter-cut with Rihanna dragging a large trunk into an elevator that the white woman enters…ding, when the elevator opens at the bottom floor, it’s just Rihanna, the trunk, and the dog.
The video then goes through a series of tortures that Rihanna and her two flunkies are doing to the white woman: stripping her, hanging her upside down in a shed, Weekend With Bernie-ing her (knocking her out and pretending she’s conscious) in front of a cop, almost drowning her, and making her drink and smoke drugs. There are several shots of Rihanna on the phone.
Throughout, the lyrics:
Bitch better have my money!
Y’all should know me well enough
Bitch better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff
Pay me what you owe me
Ballin’ bigger than LeBron
Bitch, give me your money
Who y’all think y’all frontin’ on?
Like brrap, brrap, brrap
Louis 13 and it’s all on me, nigga you just bought a shot
Kamikaze if you think that you gon’ knock me off the top
Shit, your wife in the backseat of my brand new foreign car
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like blah, brrap, brrap
Pay me what you owe me, don’t act like you forgot
The turn of the video happens at 4:50, when Rihanna and company return to the house of the rich woman. We meet the “bitch” that the song has been talking about: not the woman, not any woman, but rather the accountant, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who we learn has ruined Rihanna’s credit and stolen her money. We see him tied up, gagged. We see Rihanna selecting weapons that are labeled with different sins (“cheater,” “ruined my credit,” etc), inter-cut with re-plays of the scenes we saw before of Rihanna on the phone. This time, though, we see the flip side of the conversation: Rihanna’s been asking for her money, using the wife as collateral, but the man doesn’t care. He’s sleeping with sex workers, wasting cash, living a life of excess. To him, his wife is just as much of an object as Rihanna and gang have been treating her.
The final scene of the video goes back to the opening image: the trunk with the bloody legs. The camera turns and we see that the legs are not those of the wife, but of Rihanna, who is naked, covered in blood, lighting a cigar with money, and lying on the trunk full of cash. Presumably, the wife lives, and the accountant is dead.
The sheer violent imagery of the video shocked a lot of folks. Unlike Lady Gaga, from whom “Telephone” was an expected spectacle, Rihanna got blasted for such a tonal departure from some of her previous work. The violence in BBHMM was exaggerated and theatrical in the way that rap video violence is exaggerated and theatrical, but it had one less step of hyperbole and showmanship than “Telephone.” I think that’s why many folks condemned the video so strongly: it’s too violent/graphic, they said, meaning that it’s unironic violence that’s not being played for laughs coming from the hand of a black woman.
There’s been a lot of critical commentary on the video, including Karley Sciorentino’s thesis that the white woman and the white man represent the idea of whiteness more than actual people, and the idea put forth by HuffPo’s Barbara Sostaita that the video is a metaphor for reparations. My favorite commentary on the video’s scenes of violence towards a woman comes from the brilliant Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous: That a white woman (specifically) is turned into the object of a vengeance fantasy to help the survival of a black woman is putting White Feminists’ shorts in a knot. If it were the accountant’s brother, McKenzie points out, certain white women commentators would not feel so uncomfortable because, y’know, dang men, and we’re all in this together and stuff. The critical commentary surrounding the video is a part of the measure of its subversiveness, much like “Like a Prayer.”
I think this video does very clever things to subvert the following power structures: race, gender, rap video tropes, and the male gaze. Rihanna doing things that many men have done in many movies, music videos, and video games is subversive to begin with: why do we decry her but not other artists with similar content in their videos? Why is this terrible, but not Grand Theft Auto or Eminem’s “Kim”? Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Hannibal the cannibal on the NBC show Hannibal, is an interesting choice for the accountant. His presence seems to ask: Are you offended? If so, why this? Why now?
The nudity in the video is by and large non-sexual. The stripped white woman is not there to be sexy, she’s there to be meat, an object with which to earn money. Twice we see Rihanna nude or near-naked: once at the end, and once when she’s in a pool. There’s one sexualized shot of her butt in a thong swimsuit, but it’s only half the frame: the other half of the frame is the white woman being hidden from police, underneath a pool floatie.
Were you looking at her butt? Because then you are just as dumb as the cop, and as powerless as the woman under the water. Rihanna has the power in this situation.
A powerful black woman who is willing to act in a violent, monstrous capacity in order to ensure her own survival is a subversive image in the USA in 2015.
What did you think of these videos? Do you find them subversive, or not? What other pop videos do you find subversive? Tell us in the comments, preciousss.
As someone who writes, I am well aware of the need for an author to have a public persona. What I put out on this blog, on social media, at local readings and events–this defines me as a writer as much as what I publish.
As a reader, I am aware that I care about who the people are behind the words and stories. I won’t buy new Orson Scott Card books, and find myself much more critical of his work, because of his rampant homophobia and ties to the National Organization for Marriage, i.e. a hate group dedicated to making same-sex marriage illegal. (AIthough apparently he resigned from the board after getting professional fallout.) I am disturbed by news that Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child molester, and that makes me read the sexual excess of The Mists of Avalon in a different light. It’s awful. When news like this comes to light, I feel betrayed: how could someone whose work I admire be so horrible? (Perhaps I wonder what that says about me, that I liked a thing made by an awful person.)
Not every case is so dramatic. I still like Ryan Boundinot’s novel Blueprints of the Afterlife, even though Boudinot recently wrote a mean-spirited article that perpetuates some of the more inane myths about writing. It’s beencommented on a lot, and I don’t feel the need to go on and on about it. I know I’ll think twice before buying a new Ryan Boudinot book, but I probably still will because I like his fiction. Nontheless, the ripples within the Seattle writing community are affecting him already: his board resigned for the project he started, which was getting Seattle recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature. Now that project is on hold.
On the flip side of the coin, I love it when authors (and other creators) do awesome stuff. Comics authors like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue Deconnick are vocal champions of women working in comics and diverse representation in comics. Jordie Bellaire (a colorist) spearheaded the Comics Are For Everybody campaign, which is about diverse fandom in comics. The late, great Terry Pratchett publicly championed his favorite causes, including preservation of orangutangs and research into curing Alzheimer’s. I have become interested in the works of authors like Saladin Ahmed because of their Twitter presences. I like authors who are interested in issues that I also care about.
But let me complicate the issue: many revered authors of the centuries were terrible people. Heck, my perennial favorite Dante Alighieri was a political panderer (putting his patrons in Paradiso and his enemies in Inferno) and a creeper towards Beatrice in his actual life. But it’s illogical and unfair of me to put modern morals on older writing or writers. I can’t expect Shakespeare to have the nuanced feminism of a modern writer. I can’t expect medieval writers to have any kind of a concept of homosexuality as an identity rather than a behavior. The context of history matters, and analyzing an author’s life is significant, but only one part of what to look at when it comes to their work.
Coming from a literary theory perspective, there are two things at play here: biography, and authorial intent. Looking at the biographical information of an author is one way to look at their work, but it’s limiting if that’s all you do. When an author writes something, that work exists outside of them, released into the world. How it fit into their life and what they intended to do with it are worth considering, but not the be-all and end-all of literary criticism. Because words are slippery creatures, there are layers of meaning in any “text” (words, images, film) that the authors may or may not have intended. And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter what the author meant, not on the reader end of things. One could argue that a measure of craft skill is how closely the author has transmitted their thoughts and feelings to the reader. But many, many schools of critical thought have moved past authorial intent as a particularly significant aspect of a work.
Is one of these more valid than the other?
So what of it? What authors meant to do in a work, what they do with their lives: these both affect and don’t affect my reading of the text. My relationship as a reader to the author is not the same as my relationship as a reader to the text. I think it’s easier to separate the author from the work with time. In the now, real political forces are really affecting my personal writing career as well as the lives of writers and people around me. The political is often intertwined with the personal. I want to help writing communities I’m a part of become more just and equitable. I also don’t want to cause more harm than I fix, becoming quick to cry j’accuse and exclude anyone I don’t perceive to fit with my values, perpetuating Call-Out Culture. At the same time, some things that happen in the author communities I’m at least peripherally involved with are truly awful, and I won’t suffer that silently. So how an I affect positive change as an author? How can I deal with the barriers that are put in front of me? How can I reconcile authors and their texts?
I don’t write all this to give you The Answer to anything. I write this to ask questions, and to delve into the stickiness that comes up in my head when I think about this stuff. What do you think? Let’s chat.
So what am I doing in this “writing outside your demographic” series? I realize that by “outside your demographic” I secretly mean “a demographic more socially marginalized than you.” So what’s my intention?
I want authors to think about issues of representation, demographics, and Othering in the work that they read and write. This includes both critical engagement with what you’re reading/watching and critical engagement with your own work.
In this series, I’m mostly focusing on writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction that has an element of world building. I think many of the topics covered are relevant for wider reasons, but if I’m being self-aware of my own secret agendas, that’s it.
However, here are things that I am not trying to do:
Keep my focus solely on works written by or written about white folks, straight folks, male folks, able-bodied folks, etc.
Neglect critical voices and theory by traditionally marginalized populations.
Reduce creative works down to their creators or the creative intent behind them.
So with that in mind, I want to start featuring some resources that may help writers illuminate how demographics, power, and privilege function in literature.
This is a collection of three essays of Morrison’s that look at how race plays out in “canonical” U.S. literature written by white folks. It’s short, important, and revelatory. It was written in 1992, and I am sad that I didn’t discover it until this year, because it gets to the essence of some very important stuff.
[…] I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions […] circulated as “knowledge.” This knowledge hold that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States.
The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.”
(from her essay “Black Matters”)
Morrison’s arguments are profound and subtle. She engages with race in American literature in a way that incorporates, yet is more than, literary theory. She looks at works by Poe, O’Connor, Melville, Hemingway, and more.
Morrison introduces the term “American Africanism”, which is a shorthand for “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify [in the U.S.] as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, reading, and misreading that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.” (also from “Black Matters”)
Yesterday I was sitting with the human Peter Quill on The Milano and he asked me what had my panties in a bundle. This confused me greatly; I was wearing no panties nor underwear of any type. When I told him this, he said “Whoa, so Drax flies commando” and I was again confused because Gamora was currently flying the ship and while I am a mighty warrior I am not specifically a commando; this does not change when I fly.
At this point, Rocket interrupted Quill and offered to further explain figurative language to me.
I dislike figurative language. It is cheating. Words have meanings. I feel irritated when people tell me that single word has not only more than one meaning, but meanings which are not “literal.” This is confusing and stupid*.
After our recent battles, I now understand the concept of metaphor: one thing means a different thing. And not just any different thing, but something related to the first thing in what human scholar Thomas McLauglin describes as “some shared category of meaning.” He also says that metaphor is a “word-for-word substitution,” but sometimes it is a gesture-for-word substitution. I know this, because finger on throat means death. Metaphor.
Rocket tells me that there are even more kinds of figurative language than metaphor. He explained a few of them. I like similes because it is like metaphor but easier to understand, because a simile contains both the word and the other word that it’s substituting. For example, once when I threw a Kree warrior into a large chasm, Quill told me I was a beast. I thought he was insulting my genetic heritage, so I moved to throw him in as well, whereupon he corrected himself, saying, “No, no, I mean STRONG like a beast!” You can tell if it is a simile because the person will say “like” or “as” in the sentence. I do not mind similes so much.
There are other types of figurative language that make even less sense than metaphors, though. When we were having systems failure and Quill asked me to get my ass over here, he thought I mocked him when I turned my posterior in his direction. Instead, he was using synechdoche, I learned later. Synechdoche is when you name part of a thing but mean the whole thing. He said “your ass” but meant “you.” Once the Milano was being pursued by a fleet of Kree warships, and Quill referred to them as “those assholes,” meaning neither the anuses of the Kree nor even the Kree themselves, but the entire fleet.
On the other hand, by which I mean another related idea because in this case hands are metaphors for ideas and since two hands are connected to a single body that means they are related, there is metonymy. It is sort of like synechdoche except instead of referring to part of a whole, you refer to something related to another thing instead of just saying what you mean. Quill gave me an example by referring to the loss and regret he felt after after a failed love affair as “heartbroken.” I did not understand at first, but then understood that he was talking about the body but meaning the emotions. Feh. Humans.
Rocket says there is another type of figurative language called irony, but despite his efforts I still do not understand it as anything more than a particularly confusing form of lying. Rocket says he will keep trying. For his own safety, I am not sure I will let him. I feel very angry in the presence of irony.
I enjoy Groot because Groot does not use confusing figurative language. Rocket says I am wrong about this and keeps talking about a thing called Poststructuralism, but I do not think that little furry creature is mighty enough to dig a post hole, much less build a structure.
Until next time, humans.
*In fact, sometimes I think a word means one thing, and it turns out it means a different thing. For example, I thought that the word “whore” meant “woman.” This is why I once described Gamora as a “green whore.” However, Rocket later informed me that the word “whore” means “person who has a lot of sex, often with multiple partners.” I corrected my error immediately. However, Peter Quill was somewhat annoyed when I began to refer to him as “pink whore.” I am unsure why: this seems accurate to me.
Next time on Understanding Literary Theory, Representations And Help In Popular Culture (ULTRAHIP-C), we’ll look at Lacan’s concept of significance with the help of that rascal Teen Dog.