Saturday, June 23, 2012

Music: Feminine Products & Queer Objects (Interlude)

"You keep Eternity, give us the Radio"
My Chemical Romance, Planetary (Go!)


This post will be different. Part of the challenge of thinking through a diverse set of materials, and having interludes also, is to to explore different ways of writing as well. This post on MUSIC will be more biographical. When I begin to think about MUSIC that produces women in certain forms and compositions, I become overwhelmed with individual experiences. For me, growing up in Chicago, MUSIC is incredibly local; it has a face, a place,  a community of human and non-human things that not only defined the MUSIC but left its marked place in producing me. 

In an interest to widen out the net to other women's MUSIC production, I asked a number of friends to say a few words, and those who responded will be included throughout the following interlude on MUSIC as a form of Material Feminism. When I received their responses, it became incredibly clear that they were going to be the main event, and so in response, my own meditations have been put aside as simply a framing device. And as in theatre or art presentation, if they do their work, you are invited to ignore them. Please enjoy the stories of these 12 ladies!


MUSIC moved my teen years. When my parents were divorcing and I was on the brink of adolescence, MUSIC gave me a literal means of escape. Before I had a cell-phone, but had friends who could drive, I could say with all due honesty, that we were going out. Where? Nowhere. When will I be back? I don't know, later. We just drove.

Karen Tongston in Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries describes the suburbs as a middle place, where things seem to be perpetually in motion; helped in no small way by the dependence on roadways and cars. Things are in perpetual transition, while existing in their own little microcosms; how close she is to being an Object Oriented Ontologist or Actor-Networker! Tongston draws our attention in this book to how the radio and the car creates a moving, cloistered sound-scape; a sense of intimacy while also a feeling of being connected and perpetually on the move; like you are going somewhere, even when you don't know where or why.

One thing I learned on the road is that MUSIC is never the same as when you listen to it cranked up in a car. It is a tired old cliche that teenagers listen to loud, noise-like music that sounds just awful as it bleeds through the walls or the floors at home. Before jumping to blame a mess of motions inspiring bad aesthetic taste, consider the fact that this MUSIC may not have been designed to listened be to at home or softly; or even through the ears. 

That was one secret I was inaugurated into when I first started driving around with my friends E., A., and C., or alternatively with J. and L. Whole genres of music like Emo (or it's later sibling, Screamo) or specific bands like Linkin Park (with songs like "In the End" or "Breaking the Habit") needed the resonance of moving metal for the sound to be complete. They needed the throb of rubber on pavement. They needed Army Trail Road and North Avenue. They needed E.'s rust bucket or C.'s Tweety-Bird pick up truck. They needed my friends. We all went along for the ride.

The lyrics may not be coherent if you tried to listen for them, but jack the volume up so high that the voice itself becomes inarticulate and slams around with the instruments, literally shaking you as the car jumps with the vibrations, and you have a full body experience. Certain sounds which would go unnoticed or come across as back-ground noise, when pumped through sub-woofers reveal that they were never meant to be heard through your ears, but through your ass, sung along through the chattering in your teeth. 

With few private teen spaces, much less ones that allow you to blast music like this without getting yelled at, the car is the ideal moving escape which permits you to take your awkward, obnoxious bodies and music along with you when people want you to go away. Nothing ever really entirely escapes though. As I put my CD's back in the car and roll down Roosevelt Road, forgotten MUSIC surges through my muscle memory, and I make a queer little dance in my seat. Some things which I might have wanted to become oblivion play through me again with a new twist. I am their echo, coming back home, yet sounding different than before.

Now on to the MAIN event!
Thanks to all the ladies that contributed to this brilliant symphony.


I am a musical theatre NERD. That all started when I was a little kid.... Divas and musical goddesses like Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, and Julie Andrews... I admired their ability to express themselves through song and have such powerful emotion. I believe I have that quality today and encourage others to be true to their feelings and themselves. That's the beauty of art and especially music- it is a vehicle for the artist to unleash his or her emotions and...allows us the freedom to feel.

Christina Ferrari


O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti by Hildegard Von Bingen. First western woman composer. Her chant melodies speak of a senusality and feminine quality to monastic prayer that was so radical for her time and speaks wonders for my heart today. This particular chant is for the feast of Pentecost. The English translation:

"Fiery Spirit, fount of courage, life within life, of all that has being! Holy are you, transmuting the perfect into the real....O current of power permeating all, in the heights upon the earth and in all deeps: you bind and gather all people together. Out of you clouds come streaming, winds take wing from you, dashing rain against stone; and ever-fresh springs well from you, washing the evergreen globe... Praise then be yours! you are the song of praise, the delight of life, a hope and a potent honor granting garlands of light."

Megan Burke


I like music that has both an amazing story and an amazing melody. I listen for both. I know a lot of people like one or the other, but if the thing is ugly to listen to, I don't care how amazing the story is. 

I also like lyrics that are vague. Lyrics that are too obvious don't let the imagination work whatsoever. The best kind of song is that filled with metaphors that could mean a bunch of different things, because we listen to music to score our own lives. When we're sad, we listen to sad music. When we're happy, we listen to happy music. We break up with someone, we're going to listen to a breakup song. We move to a new city, we're going to put an adventure song on. We're having a hard time, we're going to put a struggle song on. And when we're having the time of our lives, we put on Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Cassie Jacobs


I'll choose two out of many, many composers who have made me who I am. The first is J. S. Bach. I remember hearing one of his choral preludes on the church organ( when I was a teen) and feeling the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Bach's music is so structured and precise, and expresses pure joy at the same time! I think it's possible to live that way, too, when we're at our best.

I remember hearing my first U2 song back in 1984 ("Pride in the Name of Love") and got the back of the neck sensation again. Everything about their music, from the rhythms to the plaintive guitar strains to the passionate vocals, is moving, and Bono's lyrics talk about love and pain in a way that dignifies those emotions. I'll always be grateful to him!

Lisa Thelen


MUSIC has changed my life. In 4th grade, I started playing the double bass, thanks to the guidance of Mrs. Georgia Glyman-Alemis, & my life was forever changed. I loved playing, I loved everything about the instrument (even moving it!), I love the experience of playing in an Orchestra, I loved the people I met as a result. In high school Orchestra, I had the opportunity to go to Japan, meet my future husband, & prepare myself to get a full-ride scholarship to my 1st choice college, Illinois Wesleyan. I am now an Orchestra teacher, doing EXACTLY what I was put on this earth to do...I would not change one thing about it. I love the way that music makes me feel--like a human.

Christina Hudson


The music that had the greatest impact on me is the music that played a part in my radicalization. I discovered feminist folk goddess Ani Difranco about two days into college and my life has never been the same... Her songs made me question my assumptions, my decisions, as well as my government and society....Anarchist folk-punk bands like Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains and Mischiew Brew. These bands echoed my anti-government sentiments and pushed me to think about how I can live my life according to them. ... how to live outside of the oppressive societal constructs and conventions that bind us. I love the music that pushes me to question, that pushes me to change something about myself or the world that I live in; music that gives a voices to the concerns within my soul, the feeling deep down that something isn't right.

Nicki Reinhardt


Even then, why isn't love enough? Why must there be thought and shaping and effect? Why not simple affect? Maybe that's my answer- music is my escape from thought because for a few minutes, I can just feel, just be/ be with/ be in. I'm thinking of the first ballet I ever saw- "Swan Lake." I was 6, I loved stories, but for the first time I stopped reading/. I saw and I heard and I felt. That's why I love dance, and dancing, of all kinds, because you live in the story- you move, you are moved by the music and you don't just watch and wait for the end of the book.

Shyama Rajendran


I feel like its getting kind of spoiled now with the movie coming out but I remember reading the Perks of Being a Wallflower in my junior year of high school and I thought that it captured perfectly the feeling of listening to music as a teenager. The line "we were infinite" which keeps circling around the internet is from them driving down the road and listening to music... which is exactly how it feels... whenever i'm in the car alone, especially at night, and listening to music I can just let go and let it become a part of me or let me be a part of it.... You just turn up the stereo, feeling the sound waves vibrate inside you and the lights and fields just fly past you. You're somewhere else, you're're infinite.

Emily Hofstaedter


Music has been inscribed in my blood, whether by genes or repeated conditioning. Through music, I have become my mother. It was two Christmas's ago when my sister-in-law cried out as I was walking down the hallway up to the bathroom in my mother's house. She called out to my brother to tell him "M does it too! Your singing thing!" Apparently I had been singing a little diddy to our family Maltese, Jules Verne, changing some pop-song, I forget which, to feature him. When I came back down the stairs later and my mother was in the middle of a song about having the family for the holidays; and my sister-in-law was poking my brother. All I can say is that I will embarrass my children horribly one day, if I ever have them, until they grow up to become like their mother.

M Bychowski


When my mom was pregnant with me, she worked an office job and listened to oldies music on headphones all day. She likes to credit my affinity for music to this. However, my dad would probably try to take the credit with our Sunday afternoon drives filled with the Beatles and Beach Boys. 

The truth is, both of them are responsible... no going back.

There is something completely indescribable about music that is sacramental... In times of doubt or darkness, the sound of perfectly blended voices or a simple piano echoing through a silent church remind me that there is something bigger than mankind that can bring the world to life. 

Emily LaHood


Being a professional musician, I often get asked who/what really inspires me to do what it is I do. Depending on my audience, I have several answers ready... But there is one person who originally inspired my love of music... my mother.

My mother majored in voice and had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard. Most children go to bed listening to stories; my mom played the piano until we fell asleep. My mom was the choir director at our church, and her music inspired me so much, that my 2-year-old self couldn't help but sing at the top of my lungs over the choir's combined volume. And then my mom had voice surgery (the kind that Julie Andrew's had), and the doctor paralyzed on of her vocal chords. She couldn't talk at all for months. Though she went through years of therapy, she still cannot always control her voice, and is never sure what is going to come out every time she goes to sing or speak. But she never gave up her love of music, and she passed down that love to my sisters and I. 

I know that I would not be doing what I am doing if it weren't for her.

Suzanne Gillen


I can tell you that Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, and classical Spanish guitar music played the largest role in helping shape me today. Tom Petty's songs have probably affected me the most, especially "Alright for Now" and "Wildflowers." I danced with my father to "Wildflowers" at my wedding, actually. These bands and genres may be why I'm such a calm, laid back person. One of the most consistent things my friends tell me is that I am the most relaxing person to be around because I don't fret over the little stuff. I'd like to think that a lot of that has to do with my parenting, but especially the music that surrounded me growing up. Even Tom Petty's depressing songs are upbeat, so when I find myself falling into self-pity or wallowing, I kick myself in the ass and move on with my life. Petty would, and life could be far worse than earning a B+ on a stupid paper. 

Carla Thomas



While this song initially annoyed me, but in its most recent production, on a show that frequently annoys me, Glee, like many listeners, I heard "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" in a new way. Slowed down in a mournful and masculine voice, all I could hear was the story of a trans* woman, her body transposed along with the music, however still marked with octaves from past interactions.

I have been told that I have strong hands, a gendered quality, but one which I share with many of my musical sisters from my highschool bass section. Playing the bass for over twelve years, beginning just before the brink of adolescence, I had to daily stretch my fingers around the thick neck of my contra-bass. With such large, long strings, needed to get the volume and low octave out of the instrument, you had to stretch your hand extra far to get the fingering right. Then you had to really press hard to make the sound come out clear, and in time, be able to delicately shake them to unleash a smooth vibrato sound. Meanwhile my other hand became practiced in the yoga of different bow styles and the skin-peeling practice of plucking the mammoth strings with enough effect to be heard amidst an orchestra. Along with carrying the instrument and its myriad of accessories, my hands became shaped by the music. My hands are soft and nimble, but extremely strong and prone to arthritis, contradictory gender signs which still mark me.

Like the strings of my bass, my vocal strings echo with gendered contradictions. While never formally trained, in Jr High and High School, I spent enough time around music and theatre performers to become self-conscious enough to attempt to teach myself in order to avoid embaressment. As hormones had their impact on my body, including my vocal cords, I one day got the note that if I "sung in the right octave" I would sound better. Until the end of high school I tried to train myself to sing higher parts and usually spoke in what became the upper limits of my voice range. Here is where material feminism meets those who somehow think gender performativity is all free floating signs on a blank canvas. I couldn't comfortably or convincingly sing or speak in the octave I wanted.

When I finally consented that my voice, like my other string-based instrument, was a bass, I suddenly got compliments on my voice performances. Over time, I realized that in order to sing or speak loudly and clearly, I had to go even deeper. My words just came off as whispers or mumbling unless I ripped into my vocal cords and utilized a solid masculine tone. To this day I speak and sing in a variety of different voice ranges, and while the gendered signification of these octaves are not always so apparent (I am thankful for Miley Cyrus and Cher, among others for pushing through the music world with deeper voices), music still marks me. More often than any other material part of me, I get the most looks and listens when people give me the once over, code me in a certain way, and then hear me speak. The recalculation going on in their head is usually visible.Thus, sometimes, but not usually, I chose just not to speak in certain circumstances.

One way that I found around these very gendered bodily performances, was to opt for another which I could control. The same person who had commented about my voice octave, also commented that point for point that my body seemed to be built for other ways of engaging with music. "I am not the singer that [I] wanted, but a dancer. I refuse to answer, talk about the past, sir" (My Chemical Romance, Sing). From the show-dances that I learned in Highschool to the ballet and pole classes I took in college, I found that I had a lot more control and ability in dance than in singing. Not only did I feel stronger in it, I began to enjoy it more. To this day, I can't even write a talk, essay, or blog post without some dancing. 

The effect of the dance on my body was also really pleasing to me: my waist got thinner while my legs, butt, and chest grew and tightened. Music, through dance, feminized my material existence. Learning to dance in a variety of heights and heels likewise added to this effect. And as I learned from experience and acting classes, movement, from the way we walked to how we slouched in a chair, gendered us in a variety of ways, and if practiced, different identities could be enacted like a dance. Music, broadly considered, has had its material hand in producing me, my body, my limitations and my liberations. I am who and what and how I am today because of it.


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