Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Teaching Music and Difference: Music, Culture, and Difference in Globalization

By Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell

The well-meaning comments I received this year from students and colleagues about Cinco de Mayo (which ranged from remarks celebrating Mexican “independence day” to inquiries about authentic Mexican food in Connecticut) reminded me of the last time I taught a world music course in 2014. It was at the end of class, right after the midterm, when I realized something was wrong. I had just finished a presentation on son de tierra caliente in Mexico, followed by a Q&A to reinforce some concepts about instrumentation, geographical origin of the music, and issues related to cultural context featured in the textbook. Once class was over, a student left the room exclaiming loudly, “ándale, ándale, arriba, señorita, margarita!” This was not an isolated case; the class featuring music and culture from East Asia the following week ended with pentatonic calls from students heading to Panda Express for dinner. By the end of the semester, it seemed clear that this introductory course—which addressed general education components in human diversity and global engagement—was a failed attempt in cultural awareness, supported by an industry of higher learning that approaches the idea of “world cultures” through commodified stereotypes of racialized differentiation. That was the last time I agreed to teach such a course.

Around the U.S., different universities, music schools and departments offer world music courses today, in part, to abide by the standards that the National Associations of School of Music sets as essential competencies for undergraduate programs that combine studies in music, business, and music industry (as indicated in pages 178-187 of the NASM 2017-2018 Handbook). As part of these competencies, NASM expects students to demonstrate “[a]n acquaintance with a wide selection of musical literature, the principal eras, genres, and cultural sources, including but not limited to, jazz, popular, classical, and world music forms.” This competency—number 3 in the list—is followed by “[t]he ability to develop and defend musical judgements.” The taxonomical structuring approach established here (i.e., the concept of “literature” as a western index that legitimizes the study of music practices insofar as they are written) could explain the perennial interest to textualize: to codify the notion of “music culture” using a system of representation that relies on clearly defined categories, and leave little room for historical contingency. Considering that world music classes nowadays are viewed as spaces through which students can fulfill general education competencies in human diversity and global engagement, foreclosing the notion of “culture” in such a way seems problematic.

Overall, global engagement competencies in U.S. colleges and universities urge students to take courses that require them to inquire about other societies and cultures, and to reflect about these encounters. These experiences, some institutions say (I have taught at five different universities over the past ten years, and these ideas resonated in all of them) are meant to make students explore themes such as peace, conflict, and security; international economics and development; natural resources and the environment; and comparative cultures, arts and identities, among other things. Thus, global engagement ought to reflect human diversity awareness as a self-reflexive experience that challenges students to explore issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, and social difference. Such awareness, it has been claimed, should relate to the current need to immerse students in the logics of a rapidly changing global environment, which has made it necessary to be “culturally competent,” more than ever (refer to Donna Shalala’s article "A Clarion Call for Cross-Cultural Competence").

By and large, concerns for cultural difference (and cultural competence) in the United States have been largely addressed by the anodyne rhetoric of cultural diversity and inclusion. This rhetoric addresses “culture” as a totalized object that is directly connected to nationalist narratives of identity. Anchored to this view, diversity and inclusion efforts have focused on bringing national “others” into the dominant realm of political discourse. Interests in world musics, ethnic musics, or “other” national musics in American academia resonate with this context, as they remain tied to otherizing ideologies that stem from dominant western cultural narratives, in which the nation-state is the basis of cultural understanding (consider, for example, recent texts on Latin American music reviewed by this author in the Journal of the Society for American Music volume 10, no. 2 (2016). Also, the panel “Strategies and Opportunities for Greater Inclusion of Ibero-American Music in the Curriculum” (American Musicological Society annual conference, 2015) recently addressed the need to diversify the European canon through inclusion. The proceedings of the panel were eventually published by the Journal of Music History Pedagogy.) These publications point to a historical practice of racialization in relation to a western narrative of socio-cultural progress, which informs perceptions of difference on asymmetrical terms. While the need to expose students to the cultural and political imbalances that permeate the experience of globalization has set ethnomusicological curricula in relief, our current approaches need to be revisited, lest we reproduce the very mentalities and problems we are attempting to deconstruct.

Upon my arrival to the University of Connecticut, I was told of the need to implement a course that would expose students to musics from non-western cultures. I was further told that such classes should satisfy the general education, global engagement competency. My immediate reaction was to ask what constituted a non-western culture nowadays, given that the “non-western” (third) world has been historically the fulcrum of the colonial dynamics that shaped the West and its cultural and political project. What if people in different places identify themselves (and their cultural and political way of seeing themselves in the world) with musical, production, and listening practices that are considered “western”? There are important and fascinating things to learn from the context surrounding mbira music, for sure. But if the experience of globalization (and the identity politics that it produces) is of central importance, why not study hip-hop in Senegal? Death metal in Brazil? Or Colombian vallenato in Mexico? If we are to follow this rationale, what are the problems posed by different case studies, which dismantle cultural stereotypes and leave musical, cultural, and political questions unanswered? What if the study of music, culture, and difference in globalization, far from foreclosed, points to uncomfortable dilemmas without clear solution? Such has been my approach thus far, which has managed to hold the attention of students interested in cultural competence.

The study of music and culture in globalization does not necessarily promote a cheerful postnationalism to simply debase cultural stereotypes and the power imbalances they represent. The approach exposes students to the material effects that transnational practices have on people’s lives, showing the contextual specificity of such practices, and the regulatory effects that institutions, and domestic and foreign policies continue to have. In their globalized character, however, these practices challenge the geo-political limits of the nation-state and contest the political forces that mark people as peripheral. It is in this sense that music studies owe attention to the examples of imagination and behavior that go beyond current narratives of cultural representation. Concerns for cultural difference today ought to account for the transnational exchanges that decenter the nation and its cultural ideology, and for the desires that influence such exchanges among individuals. This approach, I believe, illuminates the intricate dialogues that shape globalized music practices, through which people constantly negotiate the political forces that marginalize them, and that upset objectifying ideas about indigeneity, aesthetics, territoriality, language, and ethnicity.
***

Jesús A. Ramos-Kittrell is Assistant Professor in Residence of Musicology and Ethnomusicology, and faculty affiliate of El Instituto: Institute of Latino/a, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Harry Hay, the Mattachine Society, and Musicology’s Role in the early U.S. Gay Rights Movement

By John Gabriel

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, an ideal occasion to think about the intersections of musicology and the long, ongoing struggle for queer and trans liberation. We are used to thinking of musicology as having come late to queer studies, but if we expand our definition beyond the academy, we see that musicology — that is, researching and teaching music history — played a small but important role in the origins of the modern American gay rights movement. Musicology, it turns out, helped inspire the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, the first gay rights (or in the parlance of the time, homophile) organization in the United States after WWII.<1> This musicology took place in the adult education programs of the American Communist Party, and specifically in a course at the Los Angeles People’s Educational Center taught by Harry Hay. In order to design the course, which was to take a materialist approach to music history, Hay had to conduct substantial research. This led him to the historical Feast of Fools and sociétés mattachines of Renaissance France. Hay saw the Fool in these societies as a model for a new role gay men could fulfill in the modern world. Enriched by his background in music performance and continuing work on folk music, this revelation inspired key elements of the Mattachine Society’s organization and became the foundation for Hay’s evolving vision for the future of society and gay men’s role in it.

Harry Hay
From San Francisco Public Library
https://sfpl.org/?pg=2000517301

Harry Hay (1912-2002) left a complicated legacy. He is widely praised for his role in the founding of the Mattachine Society and later the Radical Faeries.<2> A life-long activist, he was also involved in campaigns for numerous progressive causes including Native Americans’ rights, environmental protection, and nuclear non-proliferation. Yet, even among his fellow activists, Hay was controversial. As a young man, Hay had been a member of the Communist Party, an affiliation that distressed many members of the Mattachine Society in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Hay continued shocking many queer activists by, for example, speaking out against what he perceived as the “machismo” (or what we today might call “toxic masculinity”) in ACT-UP’s confrontational activism or by marching in the 1986 Los Angeles Gay Pride parade carrying a sign in support of the National Association for Man-Boy Love (NAMBLA) after that organization had been banned from the parade. Even his personality could be divisive; personal as much as political disputes led to him being ousted from leadership roles in both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries shortly after their founding.

The Mattachine Society has a comparably mixed legacy in queer historiography.<3> Its historical precedence is uncontested, but as a predominantly white, middle-class organization exclusively focused on gay men, it has come under repeated criticism for class and racial bias, and for what are now perceived to have been assimilationist and respectability politics.<4> The latter of these postdate Hay’s involvement. While Hay’s original plan for the organization was focused explicitly on gay men and largely blind to the concerns of gay men of color, it was distinctly not assimilationist. Instead, Hay envisioned a radically transformed society in which gay men served a unique and essential social function. His removal from his leadership role was the result of an internal struggle over the direction of the organization that led to it taking on the assimilationist agenda for which it is most remembered today.

While the founding of the Mattachine Society is frequently described as a transition in Hay’s activism from Communism to gay rights, in fact his early life was similarly characterized by the triangular interactions of his gay identity, his Communist politics, and his career as a musician and actor. This dynamic began already in his teenage years, when Hay accepted his homosexual orientation, choosing to live most of his young adult life as a discreet, but sexually and romantically active gay man. It was also in his teens that Hay was exposed to Leftist politics. He spent several summers working on a cousin’s farm in Nevada where many of the workers were members of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies). Hay joined the Communist Party in his early 20s, after fellow actor and then-lover Bill Geer convinced him to attend the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. Hay was inspired by the energy of the strike and the violence with which the strike was suppressed further triggered his activist impulse.<5>

In addition to his teenage interest in music and theater, another contemporaneous  connection helped launch his career as a singer and actor. Hay attended the same high school as John Cage, who was a few years older and tutored him informally; they later reconnected when Cage was living with Don Sample in Los Angeles in the early 1930s.<6> The three men spent much time together, often in costume. In Cage’s family house, they would dress in women’s clothes, and when Hay performed Cage’s early songs in Los Angeles, he wore Bauhaus-inspired, abstract geometric outfits. Hay eventually parted ways with Cage and Sample, but the experience cemented his ambition to pursue work as a singer and actor. This work in turn introduced him to various circles of Leftist and queer artists, especially through the Hollywood Film and Foto League, and a homoerotic spiritualist group, the Los Angeles Lodge of the Order of the Eastern Temple. It also occasioned his first experiences in music historical research: he worked as an uncredited ghostwriter on a number of films, including Largo, a full length film on the life of Handel which never made it to production, and an Academy Award-winning short on Handel, Haydn, and Mozart titled Heavenly Music.<7>

By the mid-1940s, Hay’s work in the Communist party and his interest in music brought him into contact with Earl Robinson and other Leftists interested in the political application of folk music.<8> Hay had a long-abiding love of music from around the world; he therefore joined the Los Angeles branch of the organization People’s Songs and even composed a handful of political songs under various pen names.<9> This activity in turn led to his being asked to teach a course on music history at the People’s Educational Center,where he developed a course along Marxist historical materialist lines that traced the development of primarily, but not exclusively Western music with a focus on its social function, and a particular focus on folk music.<10> In the 10-week course, Hay illustrated lectures with titles such as “Feudal Formalism and the Guerilla Warfare of the Carol,” with musical examples drawn from his extensive record collection. He often encouraged students to sing along to the recordings or from sheet music.<11> It was in his research preparing this class that Hay discovered the French Renaissance sociétés mattachines.

“Feast of Fools,” 1559, engraving by Pieter Van der Heyden after Brueghel
Wikicommons Media

The Renaissance French sociétés mattachines were involved in the celebration of the Feast of Fools. Members wore masks, performed an intricate sword dance, and processed through towns, mocking authority figures and social mores.<12> Hay interpreted the Feast of Fools and the cross-dressed, gender-bending “Fools” of the sociétés mattachines as holdovers from Europe’s pre-Christian past, which he idealized as a matriarchy in which gay men were accepted and took on additional responsibilities for the maintenance of society. These ranged from handicrafts, to assisting with child rearing, to officiating rituals. Hay saw the retention of ritual actions like the Feast of Fools as evidence of their importance to maintaining a healthy society, and imagined a role for gay men in contemporary society along analogous lines.<13> Assuming that gay men would be free from the responsibilities and expense of raising children, Hay believed they could therefore “take stock of the communities in which they live and find the services they can undertake that the community needs and that familial households have not the time to do.”<14>

Hay had long been thinking about ways to create gay male communities for fellowship and activism in a way that the Communist Party had done for Leftists during his first experiences with the Party. The Party, however, was not open to out homosexuals (with very few exceptions); moreover, Hay found little support from other gay Communists.<15> In adherence with the Party line, Hay had married a woman in 1938, but his discovery of the historical sociétés mattachines as part of his music history research in 1947 coincided with other events that would lead him to re-embrace his gay identity and enter into gay rights activism. In 1948, a friend from the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign invited Hay to a party consisting mostly of gay music and theology students. There, discussion of the campaign turned into discussion of organizing gay men for the campaign. Hay received enthusiastic feedback from the intoxicated partygoers, but the morning after, he found no one was willing to join a public homosexual campaign organization. Undaunted, Hay continued to privately develop his ideas for a gay rights organization. It took two years before Hay convened the first meeting in 1950. Again, his music course proved central to solving one of the new organization’s greatest obstacles: finding members. Hay recruited students he thought would be receptive, and they in turn recruited friends out of their own social circles.<16>

Harry Hay and members of the Mattachine Society, Christmas 1951.
From Chicago Reader:
https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/mattachine-podcast-lgbtq-history-devlyn-camp/Content?oid=40998822

While the structure Hay proposed for the organization is often said to have been modeled on the American Communist Party, he himself described it as modeled on a Masonic lodge — an organization he had studied while researching Mozart’s life for the film Heavenly Music.<17> As with both the Communist Party and a Masonic Lodge, Hay imagined a secretive organization with hierarchical levels, and his love of opera (his friends remembered him as an “opera queen”) inspired the unofficial name of the highest level: Parsifal. Hay was especially fond of Wagner and idealized the brotherhood of the Grail Knights. (He also appreciated that Wagner’s long operas were conducive to cruising in the standing area in the upper balcony at the Met.)<18>

After its founding in 1950, the Mattachine Society expanded rapidly across the United States, though not all of its new members shared Hay’s views about Communism, the organization’s need for a secret leadership order, or the special role gay men could play in society. In response to internal pressure, Hay resigned his leadership role in 1953, and the membership voted on new leadership and a new direction, taking an assimilationist approach to gay rights and emphasizing middle class respectability. Disenchanted, Hay eventually moved to New Mexico in 1971, where he became involved in political campaigns for Native Americans’ rights and environmental protection. He pursued his long-standing interest in Native American culture (as part of his work on folk culture) with greater intensity, focusing his investigations on what is today known as Two Spirit identity (Hay used the term berdache, then commonplace in anthropology).<19> The shamanistic role fulfilled by Two Spirit individuals in many Native American cultures became the driving inspiration for his ideas about the special role gay men could play in modern society, much as the sociétés mattachines had been during his Communist period. Hay was also drawn to the New Age movement, and out of this confluence of ideas, the Radical Faeries were born in 1978.<20>

In conclusion, we might return to my observation at the beginning of this post: The musicology discussed here that shaped the postwar gay rights movement was musicology outside the academy. Universities in the 1950s were not welcoming places for out homosexuals or Communists, nor was Hay’s Marxist methodology generally accepted in American academic musicology at that time. Anne Shreffler has argued that East German Marxist musicology prefigured many of the concerns of the so-called New Musicology, a claim that also fits remarkably well with Hay’s music history.<21> For Hay’s music history not only parallels Marxists’ interest in folk music, non-Western music, and social context, but it also adds a concern for gender and sexuality that these other Marxist histories lacked. The story of Hay’s music history class in the late 1940s and early 1950s is thus not just one of musicology helping to shape the early gay rights movement, or of the sometimes unexpected ways that musicological research finds relevance in the world. It also exemplifies a queer and trans critique of academic institutions and the barriers around them. And that is just what Pride is a time for: Celebration and Critique.
***
<1>The first known gay rights organization in the United States was the Society for Human Rights, founded in Chicago in 1924. It dissolved after a few months. The Mattachine was the second. While there is currently no active national Mattachine Society, it arguably continues to exist to this day in various splinter, spin-off, and regional organizations.
<2>The most substantial biography of Hay remains Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990). See also Will Roscoe, Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); and John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
<3>For an introduction to the Mattachine Society, the early gay rights (homophile) movement, and additional bibliography, see Martin Meeker, “Homophile Movement” and “Mattachine Society,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, edited by Marc Stein, vol. 2, 52-56 and 234-37 (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004).
<4>On the historiography of the Mattachine Society and a revisionist take on its work and legacy, see Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (January 2001): 78-116. On race in the early gay rights (homophile) movement, see Kent W. Peacock, “Race, the Homosexual, and the Mattachine Society of Washington, 1961–1970,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 25, no. 2 (May 2016): 267-96. As the Mattachine Society grew, it began to attract female members, but it remained primarily an organization of gay men and other organizations were founded explicitly for women, like the Daughters of Bilitis, or mixed-gender, like ONE. See Meeker, “Homophile Movement.”
<5>Timmons, 33, 54, 69-70; and Roscoe, 326.
<6>On Cage and Hay, see Rob Haskins, John Cage (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 24-5; Roscoe, 319-23; and Timmons, 56-59.
<7>Timmons, 75-76, 80-81; and Roscoe, 70, 72.
<8>Roscoe 357-58. On Earl Robinson’s role in debates among American Leftists over folk music, see Maria Christina Fava, “The Composers’ Collective of New York, 1932-1936: Bourgeois Modernism for the Proletariat,” American Music 34, no. 3 (Fall 2016), 331-36.
<9>Timmons, 128. On People’s Songs, Earl Robinson, and Leftist use of folk music, see Robbie Lieberman, “My Song is my Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); and R. Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971).
<10>Notes for one of Hay’s lectures on music history are reprinted in Roscoe, 120-29. Pace Roscoe, Hay’s emphasis on “the relationship of folk music to daily life tasks” (120) was much in line with many Marxist music histories. See, for example, Hanns Eisler, “The Builders of a New Musical Culture” (1931), in A Rebel in Music, edited by Manfred Grabs, 36-58 (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1978). Except for its focus on folk music as opposed to institutional music, Hay’s music history resembles Hanns Eisler’s music history essays from the 1930s and 40s and his music history course at the New School in 1938. While it seems Hay and Eisler never met, Hay may have had access to Eisler’s work; beyond institutional Communist channels, both men were friends with Earl Robinson, and Robinson also taught at the People’s Education Center in Los Angeles.
<11>Timmons, 127-31.
<12>The definitive modern history of the Feast of Fools is Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).
<13>Timmons, 194: “Harry had taken on an enormous investigative project. His earliest document was a six-page typewritten outline titled ‘The Homophile in History: A Provocation to Research,’ sketched out from 1953 to 1955. Divided into fourteen periodic sections, it traces homosexual prototypes from the Stone Age through the European Middle Ages up to the ‘Berdache and the American Scene,’ where Hay cited Johnny Appleseed as one example of an ‘American Fool Hero.’ Much of the study for this was expanded from the syllabus of his music classes at the Labor School.” My emphasis.
<14>Hay, “The Homosexual and History … An Invitation to Further Study,” reprinted in Roscoe, 94-115, here 114.
<15>Timmons, 54, 69-70, 108-9.
<16>Timmons, 134-35, 143.
<17>Timmons, 151-52. The Los Angeles Lodge of the Order of the Eastern Temple (discussed above), for which Hay had been an organist, was also organized on a Masonic model. While Hay’s biographers emphasize the role of music in the founding of the Mattachine Society, it is almost always excluded from histories focused on the Society or on the early gay rights (homophile) movement. See, for example, Meeker, “Behind the Mask.”
<18>Roscoe, 9; Timmons, 111, 146.
<19>Timmons, 228-47.
<20>Timmons, 248-79. On the Radical Faeries, see David S. Churchill, “Radical Faeries,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, ed. Marc Stein, vol. 3, 7-8 (Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004).
<21>Anne C. Shreffler, “Berlin Walls: Dahlhaus Knepler, and Ideologies of Music History,” Journal of Musicology 20, no. 4 (2003): 504-5.
***
John Gabriel is a postdoctoral fellow in music in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

“An Appropriate and Exemplary Literature”: The JAMS Special Issue on Music, Race, and Ethnicity

Emily Dolan, a member of the JAMS Editorial Board, and George Lewis, co-chair of the AMS Committee on Race and Ethnicity, sat down recently for a discussion of how the recent JAMS Call for Papers for a special issue on music, race, and ethnicity can help not only in broadening the scholarly conversation around these topics, but also in asserting a central role for musicology in exploring the crucial issues of our time in a period of rapid change.

Please note: The deadline for article submissions for this special issue is 1 July 2018.


ED:  The idea for this Special Issue of JAMS on Music, Race, and Ethnicity came out of the work that the Committee on Race and Ethnicity has been doing.


GL:  Yes. This special issue idea has been a couple of years in the making. Like a number of the interesting ideas the committee has considered, this one came from Judy Tsou, who serves with me as co-chair.


ED:  How did the Committee come to be?


GL: One spur to action was that controversial Musicology Now blog post about teaching Don Giovanni in prison.  I don't think the author really meant to discuss race, but the responses to that post brought out a lot of impatience with models of discursive colorblindness that a lot of humanities and social science fields have abandoned, and which seemed naïve to a lot of people who felt that their experience was being cavalierly dismissed.


Ellen Harris, who was AMS president, published an open letter to the AMS membership, and asked a number of us to formulate a committee to create some effective responses to these and other ongoing issues. Her idea was that one of the models could be the original Committee on the Status of Women, which became the Committee on Women and Gender.  The working title became the rather unwieldy “Planning Committee on the Status of Race and Ethnicity in the Profession,” and Judy and I were named co-chairs.


The Planning Committee’s main remit was to establish the current, permanent AMS Committee, for which a five-part remit was developed.  Perhaps the most crucial parts of the committee’s vision are around scholarship and pedagogy, the lifeblood aspects of what we do.  The others--professional development, governance, and atmosphere--proceed from the first two.  Without scholarship and pedagogy you don't get professional development, and the resulting atmosphere in the profession becomes impoverished. This is because smart people have choices, and if you drive the best people away, what you're left with is the second team. A lot of fields have found this out.


The Planning Committee’s initial effort was to organize the special session on “Race, Ethnicity and the Profession” at the 2016 Vancouver AMS meeting.  What came out of the session supported and augmented many of the positions that were coming out of the responses to the blog post, the #AMSSOWHITE hashtag, and so on, in that was that there was a lot of professional despair out there about whether people of color had any real purchase on the profession. We already had Matthew D. Morrison's article in the 2012 JAMS colloquy, basically warning people that that that the profession seemed to be driving away some of its brightest scholars of color. Concerns were expressed that young scholars, particularly scholars of color, would be or had already been penalized for working on race, or for speaking out about these issues in their writing, or that issues of race and ethnicity were considered a peripheral area of musicological scholarship, which could in turn influence hiring, awards, and grant and subvention decisions.


This meeting reminded me of the session on “The Musical Aesthetics of Race and Ethnicity” at the 2009 meeting in Philadelphia, which Ellie Hisama organized with the Committee on Cultural Diversity. The key questions were about how race and ethnicity mediate musical creation, reception, and understanding, but a lot of issues of atmosphere and professional development also came up, especially after Ellie presented some audio of Eileen Southern expressing her frustration with the profession and with her colleagues--basically, “They don’t care about what I do.”  Hearing that in Southern’s own voice made a lasting impression on me, and speaking with some of the scholars of color who’ve been in the trenches much longer than I have—Josephine Wright, Johann Buis, Gayle Murchison, others--has been very enlightening indeed in terms of the long and complicated history of the profession’s engagement with race.


ED: The idea that questions of race are somehow not central to music and its history seems utterly untenable right now—both in the context of our discipline and in of our current political climate. This also reminds me of questions about the profession and professionalization that I think Bonnie Gordon expressed so well at the 2016 meeting, in terms of what we can do to help the pipeline.  She stressed that it is not just the job market—it goes back even to college, and what we can do to help students prepare to apply for graduate school.


GL:  Exactly. Judy and I brought the findings from the session and the communications we received to the AMS Board, which, under Martha Feldman’s leadership as president, has been very supportive in undertaking a number of substantial actions.  In 2017 at Rochester the Committee was supported in producing a well-attended session on “Critical Race Theory and Music.” The panel included the legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris, who was one of the originators of the field of critical race theory and who is very well versed in music and culture (she is a member of the board of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). In 2018 in San Antonio another session on this topic will be held with the historian George Lipsitz as speaker.  The idea of these sessions, which was originally suggested by Suzanne Cusick, is to present an interdisciplinary context in which people see not only that we in musicology can draw on how race is studied in many other fields, but how scholars in those fields are able to draw upon insights from musicology.


ED: So, what are your hopes for this issue? What are you hoping this issue will do, and what would you hope to see in it?


GL: There’s this great quote from Southern, writing in a special issue on music in the popular magazine Black World in 1973: “If we black folk are serious about our commitment to the rediscovery and the redefining of our heritage in the fine arts, our scholars must take upon themselves the responsibility for developing an appropriate and exemplary literature.”  I think that a special issue like this can take a leading role in establishing that literature.  That's what I want to see. The Board has also supported the establishment of an AMS award in Critical Race Studies, another great idea by Judy Tsou, which again puts scholarship up front and encourages the creation of a community of researchers and critical engagement.


ED: The special issue has a very capacious call, as people will notice.


GL: The call was a collective project that incorporated suggestions from the Committee on Race and Ethnicity and the JAMS editorial board. So there were a lot of bright minds putting this together, and of course, the submissions will be reviewed by the JAMS editorial board, subject to the peer review process and procedural guidelines for the journal.  So we can expect these articles to reflect the customary rigor of those processes, while also opening the window as wide as possible to a great diversity of topics. There is no reason why we can't imagine work on race, say, in the context of 18th-century comic opera and the project of chattel slavery. Jann Pasler and Ralph Locke have been connecting these kinds of dots among race, colonialism, and the Western tradition, as well as Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh’s book, Western Music and its Others. For musicologists to explore these connections enhances the scope of our influence in the massively interdisciplinary and intercultural landscape of modern scholarship.


ED: We’re seeing a wealth of scholarship on race right now. Two influential early volumes were Guthrie Ramsey’s Race Music and Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman’s Music and the Racial Imagination.  More recently, there was Olivia Bloechl’s recent conference on race, empire, and early music, as well as her co-edited volume on difference in music scholarship. Naomi Andre’s new book on black opera has just hit the shelves, there is a new volume by Ana Alonso-Minutti, Eduardo Herrera, and Alejandro Madrid on global Latinx experimental music scenes, and Nina Sun Eidsheim’s work has been very important to many in the field.  Of course this is not even a summary, but a sample.


GL: We’ve had student initiatives already in this regard. When he was editor-in-chief of Current Musicology, Morrison anticipated this special issue of JAMS in 2012 by editing a special issue of the journal on sound, race, and performance. The journal just published another one on Black Sound Studies.


We’ve had JAMS colloquies that have addressed race and ethnicity as part of the overall mix, but this special issue puts the study of race and music in prime time, so to speak, and signals the willingness of the profession to tackle thorny issues that crucially intersect with how we see ourselves as societies. I feel that no one else can do this in quite the same way as musicologists, because of the centrality of music to human experience. If you're going to talk about race as a part of that experience, musicologists should really be able to draw from these wellsprings of experience to do amazing scholarship.


ED: It would be wonderful if this issue could become a kind of landmark, not just in musicology, but also for other fields engaged in critical race studies. Speaking for the editorial board, we hope that this special issue paves the way for future scholarship on race in JAMS. Our work is far from over after this issue.


GL: Of course there is much more to be done, but at these meetings a lot of hope was expressed that something could be done to transform the field, and I think that this JAMS special issue can help greatly in exercising that effect.

***

Emily I. Dolan is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music at Harvard University. Dolan has served on the AMS Council, the Pisk Prize committee, and is currently on the Editorial Board of JAMS and the 2018 Program Committee for the Annual Meeting in San Antonio. She is the author of The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Recently she guest edited an issue of Opera Quarterly (“Vocal Organologies and Philologies”) and she is the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Timbre.



George Lewis is Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Lewis’s other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), and a United States Artists Walker Fellowship. An Honorary Member of the American Musicological Society, Lewis has served on the AMS Council and has co-chaired the Committee on Cultural Diversity in addition to his current role as co-chair of the Committee on Race and Ethnicity.  His 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) received the AMS Music in American Culture Award, and he is the co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016). Lewis holds honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh, New College of Florida, and Harvard University.

See https://music.columbia.edu/bios/george-e-lewis

Friday, June 1, 2018

Bottom Power Ballad: Troye Sivan’s #BobsBoutBottoming

By Matthew J. Jones

Singer-songwriter, producer, and actor Troye Sivan first made a name for himself in the Land Down Under with a hugely successful YouTube channel. Sivan’s cherub-next-door charm, choirboy voice, self-deprecating humor, and sincerity were a winning combination. His videos racked up millions of hits, and soon Hollywood took notice. Sivan landed a role in the X-men franchise while writing the songs for his debut EP. TRXYE (2014) rose to #5 on the Billboard 200, and his acclaimed full-length studio debut, Blue Neighbourhood (2015), confirmed that Sivan was a rising star to watch.  In 2018, he released three singles ahead of his sophomore studio album: MY, MY, MYTHE GOOD SIDE; and the title track, BLOOM.<1>

“Bloom” is what I call a “bottom power ballad.” The punny significance of this term is threefold. First, “bottom” is gay slang for the receptive partner in male-male sexual encounters (“top” describes the penetrative partner). Men on the “bottom” are often stereotyped as passive, effeminate, and powerless, maybe even bent on self-shattering. Second, I’m making a rather obvious pun on the 1980s power ballad, a genre that offers musicians (most often men who otherwise rock) an opportunity to explore their sensitive, and some might say feminine, sides. Musically, however, “Bloom” is not a power ballad but a mid-tempo electronic dance tune. In making a connection between the power ballad and “Bloom,” I draw less from the musical semiotics of the genre than from a discourse that surrounds  the power ballad, a discourse that Spin music journalist Charles Aaron characterizes in terms of male vulnerability, humiliation, and shame. Finally, I suspect that Bloom/ “Bloom” can complicate or queer the notion of “bottom power,” a Nigerian turn of phrase used to describe women’s reliance on sex/sexuality to access male power and privilege. I first learned the phrase from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk, WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS,  and I borrow then playfully misuse it here.


Situating Troye

Journalists trumpeted Sivan’s arrival as the harbinger of a new pop era. As The New York Times recently announced, he’s “here, he’s queer, get used to it,” effectively turning a Queer Nation activist slogan from the 1990s into a retro byline for Sivan’s popstar brand. Comparisons to Freddie Mercury, George Michael, Elton John, and Boy George abound; however, such analogies often obscure crucial differences surrounding each man’s status as a gay entertainer. For these older gay men, midcentury homophobia, Reaganism/Thatcherism, and AIDS created a dissonant buzz deep in the mix of their careers. Mercury’s rise to fame overlapped with the Gay Liberation era in the US and the UK, but for a celebrity of his stature, being out was career suicide. Mercury only had to look at Jobriath, the first out star signed to a major label, to see how quickly the stain of queerness in a homophobic culture could destroy a career. He struggled to balance his larger-than-life persona as the front man of one of rock’s most prominent acts with a semblance of normalcy in his life away from Queen. While Mercury played coy with the press about his sexuality, he released a statement just hours before his death in 1991 in which he acknowledged that he was living with AIDS. Notoriously private off-stage, Michael was outed after his 1998 arrest for lewd behavior in a Los Angeles men’s room, though rumors about his sexuality dogged the singer for most of the preceding decade. He occasionally created music about his experiences as a gay man.  JESUS TO A CHILD (1996) mourns the death of Michael’s partner, Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa (who died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage), while OUTSIDE (1998) responds directly to the scandal of his arrest.

A product of the Internet age, Sivan’s coming out was mass-mediated from the start. At eighteen, he seized control of his digital narrative in a coming out video that spoke to millions of LGBTQ kids around the globe. His family has been openly supportive, and his fan base accepted him as a gay man more or less from day one, evidenced by the fact that his covers of songs by Adele and others, which use male love-object pronouns, have been viewed millions of times. In many ways, he has more in common with Rufus Wainwright, whose sexuality has been inscribed on his music, music videos, album art, and both on- and off-stage persona since his 1998 debut, than with Michael, Mercury, or Elton John. Family and fan support does not mean that Sivan is immune to homophobia; nor do I mean to equate some mythical, authentic queerness with adversity in a simplistic way. Nevertheless, it is important to point out some key differences in Sivan’s status as an openly-gay public figure and those who made such openness possible. Whereas journalists gloss over or ignore this history, Sivan himself has done his homework and acknowledges the importance of previous generations of LGBTQ activism in his music video HEAVEN.

That Sivan’s work speaks directly to gay audiences, especially adolescents, is critically important given that LGBTQ youth often turn to media and popular culture, film, and books for guidance—a process that anthropologist Kath Weston calls “tracking the gay imaginary” (255-62).  Queer visibility is key to reducing elevated rates of depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviors, and suicidal ideation among LGBTQ youth, who also represent the largest number of homeless people under the age of twenty-one. Sivan is helping move the needle. For instance, the BLUE NEIGHBORHOOD trilogy follows a fictional romance between two young men, portrayed by Sivan and model Matthew Eriksson. As of this writing, it has more than 6.8 million views on Sivan’s YouTube channel alone—a remarkable achievement for a young gay artist.

Growing Up Troye
Sivan’s growth from adorable child star to LGBT icon is documented in his social media accounts. In 2007, at  age twelve, he began posting videos, mostly covers of songs by others which Sivan sang in his living room. In 2012, he added a vlog and began to connect with other YouTube stars. Sivan’s youthful YouTube persona was beloved for his wide-eyed innocence, prodigious musical ability, and fearlessness in speaking about a variety of personal and political topics. As he matured into late adolescence, his image evolved into that of an erudite, self-deprecating, but widely knowledgeable young man who still had an undeniable cherubic charm. Blue Neighbourhood positions Sivan as a kind of uber-millennial: stylish, somewhat world-weary, yet still possessing his schoolboy innocence. An Australian Rolling Stone review remarked that Sivan “delivers these quiet gems of young wisdom with enough humility to sound endearing.”<2> However, Sivan is not destined to remain a starry-eyed teen idol forever.


Sivan, 2007


Sivan, 2015




Blue Neighbourhood, 2015

For decades, artsy pop stars have tapped into the potential of an unstable or evolving star text. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Cher, Madonna, Annie Lennox, and Lady Gaga are all stars for whom reinvention is, or was, a way of life. Notably, many in this list either self-identify as LGBTQ themselves or have devoted queer followings. Likewise, Sivan is revamping his image. From Blue Neighbourhood to Bloom, there’s been a noticeable shift in the iconography of his music videos, photography, live performances, and social media. He made headlines for his appearance at the 2018 Met Gala in New York where he paired androgynous makeup with a sanguine tuxedo and a mesh shirt, and the June 2018 issue of Attitude christens him a “boy wonder” with a “grimy, sexy new sound.”


Sivan, 2018

Sivan’s sexy new androgyne image seems to have been inspired by the work of Melbourne-based 3D artist Jason Ebeyer, who created the Bloom lyric video. Taking inspiration from online subcultures, erotica, and technology, Ebeyer’s digital art explores the worlds of light and color as well as darkness and shadow in trippy, shimmering tableaux that blur the boundary between reality and the hallucinogenic world of dreams.





Earthly Erotica” (2017)

Fortune Queen” (2018)
“Bloom” (2018)

Liquid surfaces, traditionally beautiful physiques, and overt sexual content signal Sivan’s emergence as a “mature” pop star. Similar techniques have been used by many celebrities, but it is especially common for women in entertainment industries to break with their “innocent” pasts and emerge fully sexual(ized) in order to remain in the game. Britney Spears famously transformed from seductive schoolgirl to outright vixen, and Christina Aguilera shocked with her shift from teen pop princess to “Dirty” superstar. Such changes can be empowering or inspiring for celebrities who wish to move on from their status as child stars to adult entertainers, but feminist critics also argue that this can be a trap. According to media scholar Sut Jhally, women in pop culture face two choices: hypersexualization or obsolescence.  Male pop stars have also transitioned from teen idols to music men in this way—though often without the nasty consequences that adhere to women. George Michael, for instance, used macho biker iconography (coded as uber-masculine in straight culture and hypersexual in gay culture) to break with his Day-Glo Wham! past and became a legend.


Wham, c.1984
Michael, c. 1987

Attention to his physical appearance dominates discourse about Sivan. In photos, Sivan’s body is frequently positioned in reclined, open positions that feminist media scholars like Jean Kilbourne identify as the stuff of misogyny: bodies shot from above, posed on beds or on the floor, legs spread, inviting the gaze of men, in child-like poses, often infantilized, subjected to dehumanizing violence, and at the same time hypersexualized and always available for sex. Similar images and body positions dominate gay male erotica and pornography, especially in depictions of youthful and inexperienced men (so-called twinks). Journalists frequently remark on Sivan’s “prettiness” and fawn over his flawless, alabaster complexion, which, according to Dazed, “is enough to make you swoon.” Wonderland magazine makes cherubic connections in this video from a 2018 photoshoot. When directed at women, such comments raise the ire of feminist fans and critics who believe that women should be judged by their work and character, not their appearance. Not so for LGBTQ celebrities. While queer activists also promote self-love and discourage body shaming, it’s also routine for journalists and public figures themselves to discuss the importance of beauty, fierceness, and flawlessness as part of twenty-first century queer visibility. This reveals a tension between feminist and queer discourse—and one that this essay will certainly not resolve. That Troye is a cis-male and gay means that he can, in a sense, have his cake and eat it, too. He’s taken seriously in the pop world as a musical force and his “prettiness” serves as an asset.






American Apparel ads that mimic amateur pornography, naughty Polaroids, and possibly even the aesthetic of child pornography






















 Sivan in Wonderland and Dazed, (bottom, 2018).  Sivan’s boyish looks and poses are used to similar effect in these images.

A teaser promo clip for BLOOM plays with this pornographic imaginary. In a dimly lit motel room, Sivan sits, poised on the edge of a rumpled bed in which a snoozing man tosses and turns. Illuminated by the warm orange glow of a bedside lamp, Sivan’s brow glistens with a post-coital sheen that obliquely references Ebeyer’s aesthetic (a similar glistening effect can be seen in his SNL performance of “My, My, My”) In a playful deadpan, he says to the camera, “It’s about flowers,” then a snippet of the chorus plays as the song’s title flashes on screen. This is a radically different queer representation when compared to the house-party innocence of YOUTH, Sivan’s first hit single that featured him partying with friends, kissing a handsome young man, and dreamily, but platonically, lounging with a group of people on a canopy bed.


BLOOM promo


YOUTH screenshot

By contrast, the teaser’s grainy footage and sweat-kissed bodies suggest sleazy pornography and obliquely references the use of similar effects in the intro sequence of George Michael’s OUTSIDE, in which a sexy, “high-heeled saxophone” (5) plays as a man and woman exchange glances and suggestive gestures with one another against a backdrop of blue-green and pink lights. The clip turns out to be a joke; the buxom blonde changes, deus-ex-toilette, into a sternly unsexy policewoman making an arrest. The visual and musical rhymes between the two clips allow me to read Bloom simultaneously as a kind of queer double-voiced utterance, a song of gay innocence and gay experience.



OUTSIDE intro screenshots

Online speculation about the song’s meaning began immediately, especially around the question of anal sex. Pitchfork described “Boom” as “quite possibly an anthem dedicated to first-time bottoms” and praised the song as “one of the few mainstream pop songs to imagine queer sex as not just a good time, but as something natural, pure, and innocent.” Junkee’s Jules Lefevre concurred. “Let’s be real,” she writes, “this is a straight up ode to being on the receiving end of anal sex for the first time.” Sivan himself was coy when asked to decipher the song. “It’s 100 percent about flowers. That’s all it is,” he told Dazed, adding a playful wink.  Contrary to his cheeky denials, Sivan briefly tweeted, then deleted, the hashtag #bopsboutbottoming. Of course, the eagle-eyes of the Cyberland saved the receipts.
Tweeted, then deleted

As Foucault, Butler, and generations of feminist and queer scholars have demonstrated in well-rehearsed arguments the intimate linkage of sex and power. In white-supremacist, phallocentric, and binary-gender culture, white heterocis men possess the most symbolic, economic, political, institutional, and interpersonal power. They are trained by culture to be top dog, to fight their way to the top, to come out on top, and to stay there. Women can access this kind of power, but as bell hooks points out, its operation remains fundamentally patriarchal. In other words, women with this kind of male power may mistake for liberation what is really just the cross-dressed status quo. Adichie argues that bottom power is illusory because women, lacking their own agency, have only “a good route to tap [a man’s] power.” What happens, she wonders, when he “is in a bad mood, sick, or temporarily impotent?” The implication is that the absence of a sexually-available male from whom she can syphon off some power reduces a woman to powerlessness.  While I have critiques of Adichie’s formulation, they are tangential to the mainline of this discussion. Instead, I will ask what happens in male-male sexual culture, where the dynamics of gender-power play out somewhat differently; is there gay-male bottom power; and what happens when the love that dare not speak its name comes out as on bottom on top of mainstream pop?

Bottom Power/ Power Bottom

All gay men risk accusations of being a bottom/effete/powerless, or worse, of enjoying it. That is, they risk being perceived as feminine. The threat of this accusation creates quite a bit of anxiety and no small amount of gender trouble among gay men. Need evidence? Cruise on over to any app that gay men use to find sex/romance and count the number of times you see words like masc only, the hashtag #gaybro, or any number of more subtle ways gay men police their fragile masculinity. In our culture’s wildest homophobic nightmares, gay cisgender men relinquish their macho power when, as Leo Bersani memorably described it, they hoist their “legs high in the air, unable to resist the suicidal ecstasy of being a woman.” (18) Effeminate queer icon and author of The Naked Civil Servant Quentin Crisp once quipped that in Western culture,  “there is no sin like being a woman.” From the erastes (adult male) of Classical Antiquity to the total tops of the digital age, “real” men, straight or otherwise, get (it) on (from the) top. Here’s an old joke that Bersani recounts:

The butch number swagger[s] into a bar […] opens his mouth and sounds like a pansy, takes you home, where the first thing you notice is the complete works of Jane Austen, gets you into bed, and—well you know the rest. (14)
An updated version goes something like this: His profile says “total top,” then he shares his private pics. There’s even a campy send up by a trio of drag queens called THAT BOY IS A BOTTOM that makes fun out of this queer cultural conundrum.

Some gay male bottoms have reclaimed their stigmatized identity, breaking the stranglehold of sexism, misogyny, and (internalized) homophobia that equates being penetrated with powerlessness by speaking back in a voice that echoes that chants, shouts, and cries of other marginalized groups who have found strength and intelligibility at the margins. I am tempted to call this phenomenon “bottom power,” but the boundless creative energies of queer sexual culture beat me to the punch. Enter, the power bottom. Another term from the queer lexicon, a power bottom is assertive, unashamed, unapologetic, and (stereo)typically sexually aggressive. Power bottoms range from the fey and ephebian to the ruggedly masculine. A more radical form of an always-already denigrated gay-male stereotype, power bottoms resist the shaming of men who enjoy penetration by daring any potential top to try and keep up. This is a very different use of “bottom power” than that described by Adichie. In her formulation, women savor some fleeting male power which they gain by using sex and sexuality. By contrast, the power bottom possesses male power and privilege which he uses to counter accusations of effeminacy. His sexual voraciousness, stamina, and assertiveness become much-admired assets, not liabilities or limitations.

Flowers in an Intertextual Garden

Which brings us to Sivan’s power bottom ballad. Much of the online chatter about “Bloom” misses the rather obvious fact that Sivan’s song utilizes the most humdrum and obvious imagery. Throughout, the green world serves as a metaphor for sensuality, sexuality, and love. In the chorus, Sivan sings, “I bloom for you,” likening the singing subject’s sexual awakening to a flower opening its petals for the first time (there is no indication that this song is, or is not autobiographical). While Sivan’s choice of imagery may be banal, it’s planted in fertile soil. This  fairly standard muso-poetic language has a longstanding association with the feminine (Mother Earth), female genitalia (the art of Georgia O’Keefe), and sexuality more generally (Shakespeare even got in on the game in Sonnet 18). These works create a complex intertextual web for “Bloom,” one that extends to vernacular and concert music as well.  A few examples, chosen more or less at random, illustrate the use of flower imagery in different song contexts:

  • Schumann’s setting of Heine’s “Du bist wie eine Blume” uses the image of a flower to describe the beauty of a beloved, and the composer’s romantic music imbues the idyllic imagery with an intense yearning that borders on the sexual.
  • Delibes’ “Flower Duet” (“Duo des fleurs/ Sous le dôme épais”) from Lakmé is a duet for two women in which the voices move in sensual parallel motion as they sing of a “thick dome of jasmine” beneath which “the rose […] blends with the rose” and drifting downriver together.
  • In popular music, Liz Phair’s “Flower” (which was covered by homocore band Pansy Division) reverses the gender association of flora with the feminine. To a male lover, Phair/ Pansy Division sing “Your face reminds of a flower/kind of like you’re underwater/ hair’s too long and in your eyes/ your lips are perfect ‘suck me’ size.”

Jason Ebeyer incorporates flower imagery in BLOOM, which takes place in a greenhouse filled with exotic plants and illuminated by phallic neon lights whose colors change from cool greens and blue to hot pink. On one hand, this could exemplify what Andrew Goodwin would call an amplification of the song’s lyric content—the music video for song about “blooming” features plant imagery. However, against the intertextual backdrop of flowers/nature as metaphors for sexuality and Sivan’s new queer/ sexually mature star text, the song and its video blossom with significance.

Sivan’s greenhouse

Sivan’s lyrics abound with references to flowers, gardens, plants, and water—elements of the natural world typically associated with femininity and female sexuality.  At the same time, flower imagery has a very specific place in corners of the kink communities—although I suspect that few homonormatives want to own up to knowing about such things. In hardcore parlance, a “rosebud” refers to an intentional rectal prolapse achieved through stretching, the use of larger-than-average sex toys, or fisting (the insertion of a hand into a bodily orifice—a practice, it must be noted, that many straight people also enjoy). Some power bottoms occupy a special place in the kink milieu for they are prized for the ability to achieve a “rosebud.” The polymorphic perversity of queer sexuality rewrites the coordinates of “normal” bodily pleasure onto parts of the human corpus generally considered pleasure-neutral or abject. Oral and anal sex are perhaps the two most benign forms, now more widely accepted in our culture. Others include a variety of practices grouped under the BDSM banner but also, as Douglas Crimp argues, the multitude of pleasures assembled under “safe sex”: the routine use of condoms and dental dams; mutual masturbation and frottage; non-penetrative role play and fetishes; pornography; and a seemingly infinite variety of ways to manipulate the body to produce new intensities and pleasures. Since the 1980s, BDSM has inspired heated debates about the dynamics of sexual power, most notably in the works of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, their radical foil Pat Califa, and Tim Dean. Contrary to stereotype, hardcore kink communities emphasize consent and safety through practices like Safe Sane Consensual (SSC) and Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). These terms refer to kink subcommunities who prioritize consent as part of a hardcore ethic while also encouraging participants to make informed, safer-sex choices and mitigate risks according to each individual’s level of comfort. While innocent ears may hear Sivan’s pleading to “take it slow” and “hold my hand before it goes down” as the platitudes of a virgin on the cusp of sexual experience, experienced queer ears hear those same lyrics as descriptions of a very specific, subversive sexual practice.

Imagined Intimacy

Although he acknowledges that “Bloom” is about anal sex, Sivan dismisses any naughtier implications or interpretations of the song as nothing more than a dirty “little inside joke” about which he and his producers had good laugh. Singing as the blushing virgin who saved himself for his one-and-only, Sivan envisions a homo-happily-ever-after in which those who do not fit society’s prevailing standards of beauty, body image, wealth, whiteness, cisgender-ness, monogamy, and matrimony simply do not appear. Typically, I hesitate to equate an artist’s private life with their public works. More often than not, such a project devolves into little more than a quest for biographical trivia and ignores the complex dynamics involved in the construction of a star text through performance, multiple media forms, and songwriting. However, the discourse surrounding Sivan is dominated by notions of authenticity and sincerity.  As a YouTuber, he found fame by speaking directly to fans, often in a darkened bedroom illuminated by the white light of his computer screen. This is a staging choice to be sure but one that over-emphasizes the personal or confessional face-to-face intimacy between best friends or lovers. Sivan literally grew up before our eyes and gave us weekly videos through which he documented his transition from precocious child to international star, and much of his fan base grew up alongside him. His music videos and promotional materials re-emphasize his face in close-up, an effect we might call  imagined intimacy because it reinforces the convenient fallacy that Sivan looks, speaks, and sings directly to individual listeners in the imagined community of his fans.  BLOOM visualizes this trope by putting Sivan’s body and face on display in ways that mimic a moment of hyper-intimacy: the loss of virginity or the first sexual encounter between lovers.

Goodwin asserts that “one way into the topic [of dance in music video] is through its attempt to visualize [the] music” (68), and he notes several ways in which dance, music, and lyrics function to create the idiomatic media language of music video. For instance, many music videos over-emphasize the gestures of a lead guitarist shredding a solo or maybe just playing air guitar instead of using their actual instrument. In other contexts, dance can render the lyric content or the story of a video. In a number of iconic videos from the 80s, the awesome power of a shimmy, directed at a video villain from a chevron of dancers is enough to reduce him to powerlessness (see Pat Benetar’s LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD for the classic example, though Michael and Janet Jackson have used similar choreography in several of their videos). In MY, MY, MY Sivan uses his own signature amateur dance moves to conjure the image of millions of young gay boys lip synching and dancing to the music of their favorite divas behind securely locked bedroom doors around the globe. Choreographed movement and camera work in BLOOM reinforces the lyric narrative of sexual experience in a number of ways while also fostering a sense of extreme intimacy. Ebeyer creates a digital avatar of Sivan, complete with trademark blond hipster cut and skinny jeans, but this avatar glows with the iridescence and luminescence reserved for saints and angels and certain sexual sinners. The avatar’s position and body language convey passivity and resemble the movements of gay sex: flat on his back, legs rising into the air (an echo of Bersani’s rendering of the cultural nightmare); head thrown back ecstatically, shot from above as if from the perspective of a lover. The camera lingers on the avatar’s feet, hands, hips, and face—all parts of the body associated with either sensuality or vulnerability. Sivan accentuates this vulnerability by placing the word “bloom” on a high pitch, which he could comfortably belt, but instead he sings it with a breathy softness evocative of the way lovers might speak during their first sexual experience together.

Passive body position
Passive body position
Tumescence

Sivan’s doe-like eyes are frequently mentioned as part of his cherubic appeal, and Bloom is also preoccupied with eyes, gazing, and looking. The avatar features exaggerated versions of his trademark oculus, and each time Sivan sings “I bloom just for you,” its eyes open, perhaps a stand in for the opening of bodily orifices during sex. This association is made explicit in two pivotal moments.  The video begins with a wash cool green and blue hues, but at 1:52, the color changes to red and pink as the avatar flings open his arms and legs, opens his eyes. Then, his neck extends and his head grows visibly larger—cranial tumescence here a rather cheeky way of representing an erection. Spring—a well-worn metaphor for sex and sensuality—has arrived, and Sivan’s avatar glows with all the warmth that metaphor implies. An extreme close-up of the avatar’s left eye at 2:47 allows viewers to see the full “bloom” of his pupil, a visual analog for the dilated vagina (in sex or childbirth) and the dilated anus (in gay sex). The cumulative effect of imagery, color, and choreography is a kind of plasticine vulnerability of the male body.

Blooming Pupil
Full Body

Checking Troye’s Privilege

“Bloom” celebrates male-male sex from a perspective seldom seen or heard in popular culture. As such, it is transgressive because it enacts a form of bottom power through which a power(ful) bottom claims his identity, sexuality, and bodily agency without shame, hesitation, or apology. For this, both Sivan and “Bloom” must be applauded. However, I stop short of calling Sivan a queer poster boy, and this is where my analysis introduces a dissonant note into the chorus of near universal praise.

Neither the song nor the video advances a political or aesthetic agenda that could, with a straight face (pardon the pun), be called queer. Queer, according activist and author Kate Bornstein, is a more radical form of gay/lesbian. Queer is militant, angry, resistant, irreverent, kinky, slutty—the very opposite of the politics of respectability that surround the Sivan image, no matter how much makeup or gender-bendy clothing he puts on. Sivan’s work explores themes of love, heartache, friendship, family, and sex from a position that is cisgender, monosexual, white, able-bodied, middle-class, and male. Across his larger oeuvre, he repeatedly imagines a world in which two such men can fall in love, marry, and have children without fear of abuse or molestation. Recently, Sivan and Jacob Bixenman settled into just this sort of non-threatening same-sex domesticity, and Sivan openly praises his parents for their acceptance and respect for his gayness. Although this is one laudable vision for the gay future, it is also part of a broader trend toward what Lisa Duggan has called homonormativity—the very antithesis of queerness. LGBTs who most closely resemble the heteronorm can purchase (often, literally) their safety and acceptance by distancing themselves from the very “deviants” whose radical lifestyles and sexual practices, ironically, fueled the engines of Gay Liberation that made such assimilation possible in the first place. Assimilationist gays frequently ignore or denounce radical sexual cultures, non-monogamy, unsafe sex, genderfuckery, and a variety of other subcultural practices that seem shameful when viewed through normative-colored glasses. While Sivan paints a lovely portrait of normative gay male sexuality in bloom, there are more exotic flowers in the garden that deserve their moment in the sun.

***
<1>A note on song, album, and video titles. Throughout, I borrow conventions established in Andrew Goodwin’s Dancing in the Distraction Factory, using the familiar quotation marks for songs, italics for album titles, and small caps for music videos. This helps orient readers toward specific media and clarifies ambiguity when discussing different media forms (song, album, video) that may have the same name. I use the same convention to distinguish between the text, book, and TedTalk video by Adichie.
<2>Jules LeFevre, “Troye Sivan—Blue Neighbourhood,” Rolling Stone Australia 4 December 2015. At present, the magazine’s website is offline as publication, including digital archives, has ceased.

***
Matthew J. Jones (PhD: Critical & Comparative Studies of Music, UVA 2014) is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Miami University of Ohio. His work explores intersections of American music, sexuality, illness, and social justice. He is a recipient of the 2017 ASCAP Deems Taylor/ Virgil Thomson Article Award for Concert Music Criticism for his essay “Enough of Being Basely Tearful: ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and the Camp Politics of Queer Resistance” in The Journal of the Society for American Music. His work also appears in Women and Music and The Journal of Popular Music Studies as well as the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness and Joni Mitchell: New Critical Readings. He is currently at work on a book project about music, affect, and AIDS activism.