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Maureen Mahon

Maureen Mahon is an associate professor in the Department of Music at New York University. She is the author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004) and is at work on a new book, Beyond Brown Sugar: Voices of African American Women in Rock and Roll, 1953-1984, under contract with Duke University Press.

“Not Like a Girl: Tina Turner’s Vocal Sound and Rock and Roll Success”
“I always used to sing along with men singers,” Tina Turner told a reporter in 1972, “so I didn’t really sound like a girl.” Turner’s tone and timbre, her shouts, screams, and high volume, created a rough and raw sound that departed from traditional concepts of a feminine voice. The result was a vocal style rooted in a compelling gender ambiguity that paralleled her visual image. Clad in revealing stage costumes, her body gleaming with perspiration after an onslaught of furious dance motion, she accentuated a forthright sexuality long assumed to be natural to Black women and, consequently, unfeminine. As the Queen of “Raunch and Roll,” to use a Rolling Stone writer’s phrase, Tina Turner developed a sonic and visual style that resonated with the late ’60s rock scene’s celebration of musical and sexual liberation. In this paper, I discuss how Turner used her distinctive voice and “raunchy” style to wend her way into rock as the star of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue in the late 1960s and to achieve superstar status as a solo artist in the 1980s. Through a discussion of her vocal sound on key recordings from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, I show that the blockbuster commercial success Turner ultimately achieved with her 1984 album Private Dancer was the result of years of mobilizing her vocal talent and navigating the recording industry’s expectations of Blackness, Black female difference, and musical genre that had circumscribed so many other Black women vocalists.

“(En)Gendering and (Em)Bodying Black Voices Differently”
The three papers of this panel consider the importance of thinking intersectionally about the Black voice in and across African American music. Far too often, scholarly and journalistic discussions about the effects and textures of vocalism in Black music are either grounded within one genre, or they use or reference gendered and sexualized language to describe such voices (e.g., silky, rough, raw) without fully interrogating the axes of power and difference undergirding and shaping these analyses and the bodies accompanying such voices. Thus, this panel seeks to situate Black vocalism within and between the strictures and structures of race, gender, sexuality, and the body. In particular, this panel is invested in analyzing ambiguous and liminal Black voices, Black voices that interrogate, challenge, and blur the boundaries between male/female, feminine/masculine, straight/queer, and human/nonhuman. Moreover, the three papers on this panel develop an interdisciplinary approach to (via ethnography, textual analysis, archival research) Black vocalism, and theorize its heterogeneity through various genres like rock, gospel, and hip-hop. In so doing, this panel aims to capture the multiple and multidirectional histories, lived realities, and meaning-making practices that Black vocalism encapsulates, enacts, and traverses. In all, through intersectional, multi-genre, and interdisciplinary analyses, this panel seeks to imagine Black vocalism differently.

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