Book review: Queering the Popular Pitch

I just wrote a review of Queering the Popular Pitch, a collection of essays edited by Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga. The finalized reversion of this review will come out in Journal of Popular Music Studies later this year. Here's a preview of the article:

The contributors to Queering the Popular Pitch use “queer” as a verb to represent their commitment to the intellectual enterprise of outing musical subjectivities and signification associated with same-sex desire, sociality, and sexuality. In the introduction, the editors Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga state the volume’s purpose: “exploring the ways in which queering has challenged cultural, social, and musical structures, subverting the gendered heterosexual bias in popular music by invoking a different way of listening, a queer sensibility” (xiii).

Resonating with the ambivalence embedded in the term queerness perhaps, the editors never articulate what they (and the essay contributors) mean by queer(ing). With no literature review, the short introduction does not provide substantial theoretical, social, historical, or political context of queerness as a concept or queering as a critical practice. The editors do distinguish the usage of the term from lesbian and gay to indicate the qualities of taboo-breaking and fluidity in terms of gender and sexuality (xiv). This postmodernist de-centering gesture to refuse definitions comes with a pluralistic approach to the subject matter.

The topical, theoretical, and methodological diversity covered in the volume is noteworthy. The musical genres discussed range from Israeli pop and poetry, to Latin House, to American Emo. This topical breadth leads to wide-ranging analytical treatments of music as text, recorded sound, live performance, commodity, subculture, or as a part of multimedia cultural materials such as music videos, films, and drag shows. The methodological variety allows for a refreshing scrutiny of how people of various genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, nationalities and relationships to music (songwriters, performers, fans, celebrities, impersonators, and academics) engage with musical queerness. The collection’s interdisciplinary perspective is drawn from musicology, ethnomusicology, English, religious studies, Hispanic studies, cultural studies, gender studies, and popular music studies.

The collection contains 18 essays and is divided into four parts. Part 1, titled “Performing Lives, Hidden Histories,” surveys “different contextualizations of gender, generation, community, race, and sexuality” (xiv). Part 2, “Queering Boundaries,” outs hidden histories of popular music in Latin America and Israel. Part 3, “Too Close for Comfort,” delves into yet-to-surface homoerotic possibilities and tantalization with queer sexuality in the public images and music of iconic figures in the music industry. The last part, “Glamorous Excess,” rather ambiguously “considers how the principle of queering can be theoretically supple in many situations” (xviii). This arrangement of essays doesn’t seem intuitive to me. This may have bearing on the tendency of category refusal implied in queer epistemology.

The essays in the collection are theoretically rigorous, particularly with regards to the intersectionality of sexuality and race, ethnicity, and nationality. This is in line with the recent efforts of diversification within queer studies as it considers non-white, non-Euopean-American perspectives. In chapter 8 “Albita Rodríguez: Sexuality, Imaging, and Gender Construction in the Music of Exile,” for example, Mario Rey uses the “double-narrative of gender and ethnicity” to read the songs, images, and performances of Cuban American star Albita Rodríguez within the Cuban exile culture and community in Miami. Rey explores how Rodríguez’s “performance narratives reflect the dialectic of erotic and national discourses, destabilizing the privileged discursive gender positioning in Cuban dance music” (116). Other examples of intersectional approaches include Stephen Amico’s chapter on the queer subculture of Latino House music in New York city; Jeffrey Callen’s essay on the neglected performances of African American female and male impersonators between 1800s and World War II; and Freya Jarman-Ivens’ reading of the homoerotic subtext and desires in seemingly misogynistic, heterosexist rap music.

Most articles in the collection pay close attention to the relationship between gender and sexuality. A notable example of this is Rachel Devitt’s chapter “Girl on Girl: Fat Femmes, Bio-Queens, and Redefining Drag.” Devitt uses the Queen Bees as a case study to highlight the aesthetics, politics, and theoretical implications in drag performances by biologically female femmes. Her theoretical framework rehashes the difficult relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality and points out a sex-based bias in the studies of drag performances. “If drag must entail a cross to the ‘opposite’ of one’s ‘true identity, then that original, that biological sex-based identity becomes normalized and immobile, thus denying both the validity of the performer’s self-identified gender and the power a drag performance has in questioning gender ‘realness’” (30). Contrasting with Devitt’s case study of a grassroots performance practice is Stan Hawkins’ analysis of publicly straight male pop stars in the US and UK. He is quick to point out how queer gender signification can be appropriated by pop stars who don’t identify with queer politics. “When pop stars borrow from queer chic, their self-identification with gender ambivalence can be interpreted as nothing more than gender tourism… At any rate, the queer aesthetics that result from this provide a powerful mechanism for the further heterosexualization of the music industry” (289).

Contributors situate their analysis in thoughtfully crafted social, historical, or political contexts. For example, in his analysis of songs about AIDS-related deaths by artists not typically associated with gay rights advocacy, Paul Attinello illuminates the liberal public’s tolerance for gay men and pity for the HIV-afflicted gay men during the late 1980s and early 1990s. His close reading also reveals the sentiment of “fear and distaste” for gay men covered up by the ethos of tolerance. Other case studies well-contextualized by social factors include: Anno Mungen’s chapter on queer representation in cabaret songs in 1920s Germany; Vanessa Knights’s reading of the queer signification of the transnational history of the bolero in Latin America; Sarah Kerton’s examination of the lesbian representation of Russian girl pop group Tatu; Sheila Whiteley’s exploration of the queer imaging of pop icons in UK and US in the 1970s; and Lloyd Whitesell’s analysis of the aesthetics of glamour in Hollywood film musicals from 1930s to 1950s.

Queering the Popular Pitch adds a substantial texture of queerness to the register of gender and sexuality within popular music studies. It projects and meets the post-structuralist aim to expose the permeable boundary between straight and queer, male and female, gender and sexuality, production and reception, signification and embodiment, the underground and the upperground. The volume’s theoretical rigor contributes to the understanding of the relationship between pop music, identity, and society. I recommend it to scholars and students of queer studies and music studies who wish to examine, question or disrupt the cultural, social, and musical norms revolving around sexuality.

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