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RJ

Robin James

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC Charlotte. She is author of Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero, 2015) and her writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Noisey, SoundingOut!, Cyborgology, and The Journal of Popular Music Studies. She’s writing a manuscript that argues neoliberal political economy, algorithmic culture, post-identity politics, and even string theory ontologize acoustic resonance. She used to play oboe, but now plays mostly Ableton.

“Started From the Bottoms Now We Hear: Queered Voice in the Era of Post-Feminist Pop”
Both in music criticism and in common speech, “voice” is a metaphor for agency and subjectivity. Likewise, pop songs use apparently unrestrained, unrehearsed vocalizations to express rebellious, individualistic agency. Taylor Swift’s vocal flourish in “Shake It Off”’s drop and Poly Styrene’s screamed “O Bondage, Up Yours!” use vocal excess to show women busting out of misogynist stereotypes. In the era of post-feminist pop, when, as Noisey’s Emma Garland puts it, “we [have] created an environment in which female artists are being judged only on their feminism,” we expect our women pop stars to do just that. But what happens when they don’t? What techniques do they use, and what does it sound like?

My talk considers two groups of queer women who use musical voice (singing voice, authorial voice) to perform something other than agency or subjectivity. Brooklyn “gender-problematizing goth dance band” bottoms and Berlin techno collective Decon/Recon each develop musical voices that are alternatives to post-feminist narratives of voice-as-agency.

A band named “bottoms” obviously isn’t too interested in agency. With phrasing and diction that echoes Bikini Kill, and instrumentals that call on the history of queer EDM, they refashion sounds that are traditionally liberatory and resistant into an aesthetic experience that is queer because it neither succumbs to nor overcomes oppression, but reimagines pleasure and its conditions (kinda like bottoms do sexually). Decon/Recon’s compositional methods make it impossible to attribute any track or sound to a particular artist. Decon/Recon takes up gender and sexual identity at the level of epistemology and power relations: we hear them not as voices, but as sonic relationships affected by cisheteropatriarchy. Whereas post-feminist pop wants us to hear that women also have a voice, these groups queer what voice means and does.


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