This event has ended. Visit the official site or create your own event on Sched.
avatar for Eric Lott

Eric Lott

Eric Lott teaches American Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has written and lectured widely on the politics of U.S. cultural history, and his work has appeared in a range of periodicals, from The Nation to American Quarterly. He is the author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford UP, 1993/2013), The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual (Basic Books, 2006), and the forthcoming Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism (Harvard UP).

“Backup as Foreground”
20 Feet from Stardom, as engrossing as it is, misnames what it shows: the racialized ventriloquism of African American, often female, backup singers who endow white male rockers with much of the vocal power and authority they possess. Seeming to support and enhance the lead singer, they are in fact prior to and necessary enablers of the persona for which he reaches as well as exemplars of the cultures he has mined (and often mimed); he is as much their puppet as their master. This is, then, much less a matter of call and response than of the backing singers’ simultaneous undermining and erection, dissolving and establishing, of the rock star as such. These singers’ racialized incitements throw the white lead into blackness, which is to say into the background that surmounts him: they are the stars, but in more than the vulgar sense of fame that 20 Feet constantly laments eludes them. They function as something like the imaginary worldview and wellspring of cultural fantasy in which the music resides. Summoning fairly typical examples of this dialectic from Mick Jagger to Lou Reed to David Bowie to Jack White—and looking briefly too at what happens when each of these singers back up other artists—I will examine backup as foreground: what makes the star singer possible is in many ways what has always already broken him down.

“Throwing Voices”
Throwing the voice is a ventriloquist’s trick. Cast it off and it comes back strange, remade, another’s. This panel will collectively propose that this is in fact the condition of all voices. Voices are not singular, essential, and unitary but are shot through with the voice of the other, from the ones that schooled it to the ones that surround, mediate, and remake it.  Voices are blood and guts made machine, instrumentalized matter suffused with other voices and other states and structures of being.  We investigate some of these, from cross-racial ventriloquism to Black Pentacostal resonances to healing erotic raptures to ventriloquial reverberations of fictional voice. Hilarie Ashton reads the liminal sonic grammar of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” particularly in its recent iteration as an acoustic tribute to victims of the Paris terror attacks, as a rapturous playing with power and authority in several registers, affirming camp and sexual innuendo as part of its healing power. Ashon Crawley attends to the Black Pentacostal intensities of the Hammond B-3 organ as it resonates otherwise, activating vibrations of spirit, breath, and voice that verge on the mysterious beyond of undetected worlds. Joon Oluchi Lee contrapuntally explores the novelistic voice of Mary Gaitskill and the pop musical voice as she deploys it in order to think about her ventriloquizing of pop as a sort of fictional reverb. Eric Lott takes up the racialized ventriloquism of the Black backup singer, who enables the white male lead singer’s voice by throwing it off, breaking and entering it, thereby producing its truth.  In one way or another these presentations see the pop voice as supplement of the other—other states, cultural others, other machines.

Twitter Feed