In March, I presented in the film podcast Bonnie and Maude‘s live show, YOU ARE HAIR. Yes, it was all about hair. Now you can watch the clip, interspersed with my visuals, below. (You *should* watch the whole thing. But to watch mine, select “Playlist” in the upper-left-hand corner and choose video #3.)
In my talk, I discuss the winter wave of celebrity pixie cuts, focusing specifically on Beyonce and Miley Cyrus–how they debuted their cuts, and how they were constructed in their music videos. Enjoy–and he sure to check out the rest of the night’s program here! Special thanks to Kseniya and Eleanor for hosting and producing these clips!!
So, I finally raised my white flag and started listening to Drake. This was on the heels of a lot of Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how each of these three male artists writes and performs songs about female characters. (I’m thinking here of Drake’s Take Care, Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Lamar’s Section.80 and Good Kid, mAAd City). At first, my response was positive, both personally and politically – I felt noticed as a female listener: hey, he’s talkin’ ’bout ladies, he’s male but he cares, he notices the women around him. Cool. Then, my critical impulses jumped in: hey, talkin’ about ladies is great, but I shouldn’t be satisfied by men talkin’ bout women. Where’s the women talkin’ ’bout women? And then, finally, I started collecting evidence, listening to the songs about women more closely. I started wondering about these tracks’ emotional content: why sing a certain song about a female character instead of about yourself? What can these artists achieve emotionally through female characters that they can’t or won’t approach through their own male selves?
These questions are rooted in my longtime interest in gendered values/vices, a subject I’ve discussed briefly here before. To briefly summarize where I’m coming from (and you can read more at the linked post), I’ll just note that traditional Western Christianity tends to see self-sacrifice as a virtue and pride as a sin, a la Jesus Christ. However, in the 1960s feminist theologians began to criticize this vision of virtue and vice as tailored primarily for the powerful, for white, heterosexual men: if you’re in power, self-sacrifice can be virtuous, pride and overreach can be sinful, sure. But for folks who are oppressed, who are voiceless, inculcating the “virtue” of self-sacrifice tends to reinforce their oppression. These feminist theologians suggested instead that for oppressed peoples, self-assertion is virtuous, while self-abnegation is a vice, a revision also taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he asserted that those in power will never give up power willingly, but it needs to be claimed by the powerless: i.e., the virtue of pride.
I mention this all because I’ve noticed in Drake’s work especially a use of female characters to elide pridefulness. On his album Take Care, while Drake is braggadocious, he doesn’t take wholesome pride in his accomplishments and hard work; instead, he ascribes pride to female avatars: mother figures in “Look What You’ve Done” and a female love object in “Make Me Proud.”
On “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake proudly recounts his rise from obscurity to fame, the hard work and the lucky breaks, but repeatedly redirects his pride from his own self to a grateful honoring of his mother and another mother figure who supported him. Of his mother’s health problems, he asks, “But maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard/If you were healthy and it weren’t so bad.” In this moment Drake resists taking pride in his own work ethic. Perhaps a work ethic isn’t manly, but altruism is: so Drake suggests he worked hard not because he was a hard worker, but because he had to be a man and take care of his mother. He continues:
Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on
[Lil Wayne’s] thinking of signing me, I come home
We make a mixtape with seventeen songs
I almost get a Grammy off of that thing
They love your son man that boy gone
You get the operation you dreamed of
And I finally sent you to Rome
I get to make good on my promise
It all worked out girl, we shoulda known
Cause you deserve it
These lines fascinate me because Drake is being playfully prideful, braggadocious: “Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on,” and he alludes to his hard work when he makes a Grammy-nominated mixtape in record time. But these declarations of pride and hard work are quickly redirected from effeminate pride in oneself to manly self-sacrifice, i.e., taking care of Mom: “you get the operation you dreamed of…’cause you deserve it.” What I’m wondering here is, why can’t Drake deserve it? Didn’t he work hard, didn’t he make this music? But recognizing his own hard work in a serious way seems uncouth, and so he transforms his own pride into gratitude and self-sacrifice by using his achievement to take care of Mom.
This picture of acceptable virtues and vices is expanded on “Make Me Proud,” which similarly resists pridefulness but celebrates and encourages a female other–voiced literally by Nicki Minaj–to take pride in her accomplishments. On this track Drake paints a picture of a girl working hard, balancing her academic/career aspirations with her social/superficial concerns. Remarkably, she pulls it all off, and Drake expresses a kind of sympathy for what a catch she is, how she must be getting hit on at every turn:
weekend in miami, tryna study by the pool
Couple things due, but you always get it done….
You said niggas coming on too strong girl
They want you in their life as a wife
That’s why you wanna have no sex
Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right
Cause you don’t love them boys
Pussy run everything, fuck that noise
That line in there: “Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right” – in invoking the feminist mantras, Drake gently mocks them, mocks this girl he supposedly loves. And this dressing down of her righteous and well-earned pride in herself is continued into the chorus when, first of all, the girl’s achievements are conflated with her physical appeal, and second, her pride in herself is something that appears to need to be validated by Drake:
I know things get hard
But girl you got it, girl you got it there you go
Can’t you tell by how they looking at you everywhere you go
Wondering what’s on your mind, it must be hard to be that fine,
When all these motherfuckas wanna waste your time
It’s just amazing, girl, and all I can say is…
I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so,
I’m so proud of you (x3)
Everything’s adding up, you’ve been through hell and back
That’s why you’re bad as fuck and you…
And then Nicki jumps in – unlike Drake, she can inhabit pride in a way he is not permitted to:
B-b-b-bad I am
All of them bitches I’m better than
Mansions in Malibu babblin
But I never mention everything I dabble in
…Done did the pop tour, I’m the realest deal,
The best legal team so the deals is ill
It’s Mac, OPI and a fragrance too
Apparel, I’m dominating every avenue
Cobblestone, good view, lil gravel too
Gotta pay for the entourage travel too
Cause I’m fli-fli-fly, I’m flying high
Ain’t got time to talk, just Hi and bye
It’s interesting to ask, in this context, whether Nicki’s braggodocious lyrics, above, are qualitatively different from Drake’s. (We’ll look at another song of his in a moment). Taken on their own, I would say they’re not: she’s better than bitches, she has a great team, brand-name deals, she flies her entourage around, etc. Drake brags about the same shit. I think the difference is the context, the introduction Nicki receives. “That’s why you’re bad as fuck,” he says, and she replies, “Bad I am,” as though Drake gives her permission to take pride in herself and she accepts it, as though she condones his validation of her worth.
It’s also fun to watch Drake and Nicki’s genuine chemistry and affection in the video of “Make Me Proud,” above. Because when they are actually rapping the lyrics to each other the song has an even clearer dialogic quality. And we see then that not only does Drake sing to Nicki, “I’m so proud of you,” but she sings it back to him, gesturing to the audience: “I really am so proud of this guy.” It’s almost maternal, a mother saying she is proud of her son. Perhaps that’s the invisible voice missing from Take Care: maternal pride (though actually it does appear, dressed as gratitude, at the end of “Look What You’ve Done”). Drake doesn’t need to be proud of himself; he’ll be proud of the women, and the women will be proud of him.
I compare “Look What You’ve Done” and “Make Me Proud” with a number of other songs on Take Care in which Drake engages with female characters and variously brags, acts falsely humble, appears emotionally unavailable, or alludes to a private emotional self but resists trespassing beyond a set core of manly emotions: sexual appetite, generosity for women and friends, gratitude/blessedness, blase oversaturation at the volume of food, drink, pussy he gets, empty apologies for said emotional unavailability. But never can Drake say, I worked hard, I earned this (only female characters can say that); and while Drake can say I mistreated some women, he is never mistreated by them – he uses them for sex, they use him for money, but his heart is never broken (that is weak): thus, “Cry if you want to, but I can’t stay to watch you, it’s the wrong thing to do.” I.e., Drake’s sin is emotional unavailability, he’s too tough to love you right now, but he’s rational enough, smart enough, chivalrous enough to break your heart to your face, instead of “end[ing] up lying, and say I love you too.”
There’s more to say, but I’ll stop here. I’m interested to hear what y’all think – all fictional characters are in some sense avatars of their authors, and I’m hoping to create space for us to notice the different characteristics rappers care to occupy as themselves versus as female fictions in their work. We also see this going on in Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and lots of Kendrick Lamar tracks, but I’ll save that for another day. Peace y’all.
I was so surprised, last December, to read Sasha Frere-Jones’s scathing dismissal of Rihanna’s singing voice. “Rihanna’s voice isn’t big or compelling,” he wrote, “and it works mostly by sounding relaxed and drooping, with a hint of a West Indian accent, a descending twang that sounds a bit like moaning. Her voice has a distancing effect, and it conveys not emotion but, rather, a position of powerful detachment.”
To my ears, Rihanna’s voice is leaded with emotion. When she’s lazy, her stillness reads boredom, but when she’s working, and she was at the Grammy’s last night, all I hear is pain, her voice big and moving but its brilliance dulled by hurt, as though she can’t breathe deep enough or smile wide enough to let her vocals glimmer. She sounds contained, clipped.
Like millions of Americans, I find Rihanna incredibly compelling. In her performance of “Stay,” at the Grammy’s last night, she sings like a woman who means it: she really does want him to stay. We know who she means: Chris Brown. The Grammys producers help us out in this interpretation by cutting to him, clench-jawed in the audience, whenever Ri performs.
Anne Helen Petersen explains that “[a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen…with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip)…. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.” Petersen offers examples like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts to illuminate the creation of a star. Rihanna is a severe contrast to those to fun, wholesome white women, because Rihanna is creating an image of herself as a domestic abuse victim. This has been reinscribed most recently by “Stay,” but also very explicitly in her guest vocals on Emimen’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Drake’s “Take Care.” Suddenly, what Frere-Jones sees as “detached” suddenly reads “disassociated.”
The chorus of “Stay” tells of ambivalence trumped by physical desire.
Not really sure how to feel about it
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can’t live without you
It takes me all the way
I want you to stay.
As on Eminem’s track, Rihanna is performing the role of a woman stuck in acycle of a violent love. These lines are all about physicality trumping, and ultimately melding with, emotional truth. A man who can “take me all the way” colors what she wants, not needs: “I want you to stay,” whether or not that’s good for her. “Stay” doesn’t have to allude to violence for us to fill in the blanks. A quick mention of “dare” and “around we go” and we know this is about her addiction to Chris. She loves him even though he’s bad for her.
On “Take Care,” Drake promises to “take care” of a girl with some baggage. No one mentions domestic abuse, but again, we read it in. Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is more explicit, with talk of burning and hurting. Again and again, Rihanna reifies our image of her as a woman pulled into abusive relationships, needing to be saved. And we keep watching, because the Rihanna in pain is increasingly the Rihanna we know and love.
In her performance of “Stay” on SNL, emotions move across Rihanna’s mannequin face in suggestions: the suggestion of fear, of anger, of lust. Her vowels are closed off and her lips are full and red. As a viewer invested in Rihanna’s image, I get the sense that summoning this genuine pain from inside herself, which I do hear playing across the timber of her voice, takes whatever energy another performer might devote to reaching the audience. But instead of complaining that she doesn’t dance enough, we should shut up and feel lucky to get to watch this sexy, masochistic performance. We’re perverts, voyeurs, watching this beautiful woman squirm.
By comparison, Rihanna’s Grammys performance last night was more emotional. She seemed to have a hard time looking at the audience, where Chris Brown sat waiting to be shown on camera. When she sang, “All along it was a fever,” she looked sick, in pain, and we knew it was for him. “I put my hands in the air, and said, ‘Show me something.'” This is a woman dying for the thrill of experience, and we’re living vicariously, buying into every flinch. We want her to want it. We want her to fall. We are the sadists to Rihanna’s masochist. When she mimes her lover’s words, scrunching her perfect nose in pain, “If you dare, come a little closer,” she could be speaking to us.
Someone behind Rihanna, maybe herself, is very smart, and very sick. Who keeps picking these autobiographical songs for her to sing? Who keeps her recording with and appearing with Chris Brown? Is this really love, or a brilliant publicist who understands how stars work, and that as consumers of Rihanna we want to see her struggle and lose?
At the end of his article, Frere-Jones wonders whether “appreciating Rihanna’s work may demand that we accept the idea that her disregard of herself is a source of freedom, or of power.” Frere-Jones’s “power,” I think, refers to some kind of feminine self-assurance, that is, empowerment. He is wondering whether Rihanna’s blasé, as a kind of self-expression of her own boredom, represents empowerment in the same way that Beyonce’s self-objectification as Stripper Queen of the Superbowl does. I don’t know whether Rihanna’s ennui means she’s empowered to not give a shit or whether, as her handlers might have us believe, she’s seriously hurting. But her inaccesibility is certainly central to her star power, because her stillness leaves blanks we color in with pain. Someone is inventing Rihanna as a tragic woman, the kind of sad sex kitten Marilyn Monroe turned into when the light was wrong. Rihanna’s songs are for us, and about us, about this fucked up relationship we’ve found ourselves in with her. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?” she asks us, then answers herself, “That’s all right, because I like the way it hurts.” Rihanna’s not the only one who loves her pain: we do, too. We’re watching every moan. Rihanna wants us to stay, and we will.
After I wrote my post on 9th Wonder’s lecture at Michigan, in which I argued that 9th modeled producing skills for the audience, I started thinking about what skills I could model for my students. I was already aware that I try to model respectful, specific language when talking about touchy subjects like race or sexuality. But what I really want to model is skills – and my skill, the reason I teach a writing class, is that I’m a writer. But it’s frustratingly hard to model writing practice in the classroom. Usually I’m either lecturing or reactive, giving tips or offering feedback. It’s rare that I actually write something my students see. I have one short close reading that I hand out, but that’s it.
Yet lesson planning is a kind of writing I do before class every day. By arranging a set of texts and a set of questions in 120-minute chunks, I’m using my writing skills of argument, research, evidence, and structure to arrange materials for students so that the texts tell a story and build an argument. When students make connections between texts in class, the secret is that I did a lot of the work for them already – I arranged the texts for that class.
This semester, my advanced class English 225 had an A/V hookup, so toward the end of the semester I began experimenting with putting my lesson plans up on our class blog, instead of keeping them private on my precious looseleaf. And I like to think that by making my lesson plan public, I’m modeling the early work of argument: following the hunches that put texts in dialogue with one another, explaining their links, formulating questions. Making space for argument to begin. Anyway, I did this twice this semester. The first time was about falling masks in Afrodiasporic literature + music, and the second is about 50 Cent and hiphop masculinity, below.
The text that follows is what I posted on our class blog and showed on the overhead projector during class. I had students get into small groups. After each video or audio clip, I asked students to discuss some of the questions I raised in their groups, and then we talked over the same issues as a class.
Marc Lamont Hill writes that (perhaps falsely) outed rapper “Big Daddy Kane was hip-hop’s playboy extraordinaire. With his good looks, braggadocious lyrics, a flashy persona, and even a pimp-like name, Kane’s very identity signified a carefully crafted and extravagantly performed masculinity” (Hill X).
A decade and a half later, another rapper who “extravagantly perform[s] masculinity” is 50 Cent. In his lyrics and videos, 50 Cent’s performance of masculinity makes specific claims about what it means to be a man. This masculinity is in relationship to oneself, to material goods, to women, and to other men.
Examining a selection of 50 Cent’s music and videos, we can ask what values his image projects. What does it mean in this universe to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What is the nature of heterosexual courtship and relationships? Which characteristics are valued and which are scorned?
Listen: “Many Men”
Many men, many, many, many, many men
Wish death ‘pon me
Lord I don’t cry no more
Don’t look to the sky no more
Have mercy on me
Have mercy on my soul
Somewhere my heart turned cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me
Watch: “Candy Shop” ; “Window Shopper”
Byron Hurt’s mini documentary “Barack and Curtis” explores the impact of 50 Cent’s masculinity on the American conception of black masculinity, and then compares that image with the image of then-new President Barack Obama. According to Hurt, how does the appearance of Obama challenge the vision of masculinity presented by 50 Cent?