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Joshua Chambers-Letson

Joshua Chambers-Letson is Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America (NYU Press, 2013), winner of the 2014 Outstanding Book Award from the Association of Theater in Higher Education. He has published in journals including the Journal of Popular Music Studies, Social Text, Criticism, and MELUS. With Ann Pellegrini and Tavia Nyong’o, he is a series co-editor of the Sexual Cultures series (NYU Press).

“Punk, Blackness, and the Communism of Siouxsie’s Voice Summer”
Siouxsie’s voice cuts across and through the title track for Canadian Ethopian R&B act The Weeknd’s (a.k.a. Abel Makkonen Tesfaye) 2011 mix tape House of Balloons. The shriek is immediately recognizable as the cascading howl punctuating the chorus of “Happy House,” Siouxsie and the Banshee’s sarcastic rejoinder to the romance of domesticity on their 1980 album Kaleidoscope. Tesfaye’s voice is often described as resonant with the tone and tenor of Michael Jackson, but on House of Balloons Siouxsie’s voice surges forth and curls into the back of Tesfaye’s throat, animating a song about the ambivalent pleasure of sex, drugs, and cohabitation in the 21st century. In this talk, I explore the resonance between Siouxsie’s voice and two contemporary acts: the Weeknd and Santigold, taking the Weeknd’s engagement with “Happy House” and Santigold’s rethinking of Kaleidoscope’s “Red Light” in her 2008 song “My Superman” as a point of departure. Thinking with and alongside the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and performance studies scholar José Muñoz, this talk explores what I describe as the communism of the cross-racial resonance through which Siouxsie’s, Santigold’s, and the Weeknd’s voices resonate across and against each other. For Nancy speech is less a “means of communication, but communication itself, an exposure… the beating of a singular site against other singular sites.” This “beating” of singularity against singularity coheres into a form of being singular plural that is resonant with Muñoz’s theorization of the mosh pit as evocative of a kind of communism rooted in radical difference, or incommensurability. This paper thus posits the resonance between punk and Blackness vis-à-vis Siouxsie, The Weeknd, and Santigold’s voices as an enactment of a communism of incommensurability that moves across different bodily formations (race, gender, and sexuality) without suppressing the significance of such difference.

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