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Barry Shank

Barry Shank is professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He is the author of Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Scene in Austin, Texas, The Political Force of Musical Beauty and other encounters with the structured feelings of life in America. He has served as President of the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.

“The Voice in Memoir"
In her recently published how-to book/fourth memoir of her own, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr states boldly, “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” Karr insists that the voice has the primary responsibility for presenting the author. “So above all,” she continues, “a voice has to sound like the person wielding it—the super-most interesting version of that person ever—and grow from her core self.” This linkage of voice to “inner truth” maps the psyche of the author onto the text on the page. The burden falls on the author to reveal herself fully but also craftily, always focusing on the super-most interesting version of her core self.

The recent spate of memoirs by women musicians puts an interesting twist on Karr’s conception of the authorial voice. Life-writing scholar Julia Watson praises Patti Smith’s Just Kids for its ability to create a “personal voice,” which she describes as “a fractured polyphony of voices… a textured performance that is different from the utterances of a historical ‘I’.” Watson’s critical attention acknowledges the centrality of a performing self that does not map so neatly onto Karr’s core self. Indeed, Smith’s more recent meditation on loss, impermanence, and the sacralizing function of art, M Train, reads like an extension of her musical work, shouting a secular prayer to heroes and lovers who have left indelible traces for her to point to and for her readers to follow. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl situates her work for Sleater-Kinney in an unruly universe of action and feeling, fundamentally refusing the question of “what it’s like to be a woman in a band.” Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs provides perhaps the most traditional celebrity memoir of the recent books, but even here the core self remains permanently elusive, under construction, the revelation of which is not the central purpose of the writing.
 
These memoirs point outwards towards networks of influence and cultural significance, not towards an interior constructed of domestic concerns and psychic conflict. This paper will examine how these authors (and perhaps a few others) transform the gendered requirement to reveal the personal into voices of cultural authority. 

“Voicing the Uncontainable Feminine”
Beyond the notion that music can “give voice” to the “voiceless,” this panel asks how popular music amplifies the vocal power women, girls, and feminine or feminized people already possess. We examine how songwriting and song-voicing can work as a process of self-making and network-building. How have feminine voices been heard and interpreted in ways that dampen the richness of their politics and the fullness of their expression? What are the relationships between these restrictions and particular genres or modes of artistic production? Finally, how do transnational audiopolitics further complicate these relationships? Here, we engage the modes by which voice, irreducible to word, text, or performance, is a medium of self-writing that has a special relationship to the empowerment of women, girls, queer, and otherwise feminized bodies. The creative work of these people has often been reduced to merely direct reflections of their domestic realities, or perceived as narratives of (hetero)romance coerced by a sexist industry and consumed by a feminized/inauthentic public whose unarticulated vocalization comes in the form of screams. Songs and memoirs are particularly rich sites for investigating the tension between voicing the conditions of one’s life and creating/consuming imagined alternatives to those conditions. The voice registers authority as it builds new realities through its creative efforts. The texts these voices carry are only one mode of vocal possibility: here, we locate the work that unfolds in their sensory textures, hidden registers, and embodied meanings.


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