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Performing Asian America: An annotated bibliography

The term “Asian American” refers to people of Asian descent who have settled in North America beginning in the mid-18th century. Encompassed within the term is a wide range of ethnic groups and immigrant experiences stretching from Japan, Korea, and China, to India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Middle East. The earliest Asian immigrants were Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and South Asians who came for economic reasons and worked on building the railroads or in agriculture. Subsequent waves of migration since the 1960s have included refugees escaping from political conflict in countries such as Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Laws passed in the United States such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which barred further immigration from Asia, and Executive Order 9066, which facilitated the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II, highlight instances where Asian immigrants encountered racism and segregation. Many have overcome such challenges by maintaining connections with their homelands, especially through music, dance, and the dramatic arts.

The diversity of social classes and ethnic heritages of Asians in North America are represented in a wide range of performance traditions. Using the term Asian American music, for instance, has been highly contested and can refer to any music made by Asian Americans or simply music made about the Asian American experience (Wong 2004). Some artists have voiced concerns about the phrase “Asian American music” suggesting it could be essentializing or implies a unified aesthetic. Dance scholars have made the case for establishing Asian American dance as a critical field of inquiry bringing topics of Asian American studies into dialogue with dance studies. By interrogating issues of racial belonging and identity, citizenship, and model minority stereotypes in the context of dance, the field offers a framework for Asian American embodiment.

The scope of Asian American music and performance also has a historical component given the different waves of migration. Early Chinese immigrants of the 18th century brought to North America their love of Cantonese opera and narrative song traditions often heard in the Chinatowns that emerged in cities across the continent. From 1890 to 1924, Japanese immigrants brought various folk, popular, and classical music and dance to places such as California and Hawai’i. After 1965, the constituency of Asian America was transformed by an influx of different types of migrants including laborers from the Philippines, China, and Japan, war refugees (Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan), and educated professionals and wealthy entrepreneurs from across Asia.

Active scenes for various genres of Asian music and dance emerged along with newer styles blending Asian and Western musical elements. The establishment of San Jose Taiko in the context of the 1960s Asian American political movement opened a space of racial consciousness even as it forced dancers, choreographers, and musicians to navigate the external pressures of representing the often essentialized ideals of Asian America. Some immigrant musicians enthusiastically learned instruments such as piano and violin and became active in Western art music, citing it as a form of social capital that could lead to upward mobility. Others immersed themselves in jazz and hip hop, creating new experimental genres. Today, Asian Americans are singer-songwriters, metalheads, rappers, and performance artists as well as butoh dancers, taiko performers, and bhangra musicians. Each of these shifting artistic identities has contributed to the nuanced complexity of representation that comprises Asian American music and dance.    

The following bibliography represents selected texts taken from RILM Abstracts of Music Literature that enhance our knowledge of music, dance, theater, and Asian American experiences. It comprises publications that detail varying perspectives, genres, mediums, and activities.

Written and compiled by Russ Skelchy, Associate Editor, RILM

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  • Baily, John and Asif Mahmoud. Tablas and drum machines: Afghan music in California (London: Goldsmiths College, 2005, motion picture). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-17147]

Abstract: A film exploring the musical life of the Afghan community in Fremont, California, with particular attention to issues of cultural identity.

  • Bryant, Lei Ouyang. “Performing race and place in Asian America: Korean American adoptees, musical theatre, and the land of 10,000 lakes”, Asian music: Journal of the Society for Asian Music 40/1 (winter–spring 2009) 4–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-344]

Abstract: The Walleye kid: The musical, written by R.A. Shiomi and Sundraya Kase with music and lyrics by Kurt Miyashiro, was one of two musical productions incorporating themes of transracial and transnational adoption staged in the Twin Cities in the spring of 2005. The musical, produced by the Minneapolis-based Asian American theater company Mu Performing Arts, follows a young Korean American adoptee’s journey of self-discovery while adjusting to life in rural, white Minnesota. The production is used as a case study to examine the creative processes used in contemporary Asian American artistic expression, the Korean American adoption experience in Minnesota, and the use of the musical theater to express complex issues surrounding the transnational adoption experience.

  • Cayari, Christopher. “The education of Asian American music professionals: Exploration and development of ethnic identity”, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 228 (spring 2021) 7–24. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2021-3584]

Abstract: Asian American people make up approximately 5.8% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019) and pursue careers in a variety of musical professions. However, a monoracial view of Asian Americans that conceives of all Asian Americans as a homogenous group without regard to ethnicity or cultural background has led to widespread stereotypes. The desire to acculturate to U.S. culture and Western European art music ideals can pressure Asian Americans to play certain instruments, restrict their involvement to areas of music, or force them to portray their ethnicity in offensive ways. This study looked at the racial and ethnic identity development of nine Asian American music professionals from various career paths in education, performance, curation, and history through a Web survey and subsequent semistructured interviews. Findings pertained to the musical upbringing of participants both inside and outside of school, the social contexts that affected participants’ musical endeavors, pressures from dominant cultures that participants faced while in school and during their careers, and the actions participants took in their careers that were a result of growing up as Asian Americans in various music learning contexts (e.g., school, community, familial, and informal).

  • Chambers-Letson, Joshua. A race so different: Performance and law in Asian America (New York: New York University Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-29192]

Abstract: Taking a performance studies approach to understanding Asian American racial subjectivity, the author argues that the law influences racial formation by compelling Asian Americans to embody and perform recognizable identities in both popular aesthetic forms (such as theater, opera, or rock music) and in the rituals of everyday life. Tracing the production of Asian American selfhood from the era of Asian Exclusion through the Global War on Terror, the book explores the legal paradox whereby U.S. law apprehends the Asian American body as simultaneously excluded from and included within the national body politic. The last chapter examines the group Dengue Fever and the racialization of Cambodian-America.

  • Hong Sohn, Stephen. “Calculated cacophonies: The queer Asian American family and the nonmusical musical in Chay Yew’s Wonderland“, The journal of American drama and theatre (JADT) 29/1 (fall–winter 2017) 20p. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-50880]

Abstract: Chay Yew’s productions commonly address queer Asian American experiences and associated themes, including the struggle to survive amid hostile familial ties and exclusionary social contexts. This article explores such issues through an extended analysis of Wonderland, a dramatic production involving four roles. Three of the roles—a Man, a Woman, and a Son—comprise an Asian American nuclear family. The fourth figure, a Young Man, is revealed to be playing the Son as an adult. Each role bears the burden of expanding the audience’s vision to include the queer Asian American as part of a domestic social construct that better integrates non-normative sexualities as part of its core foundation. The article shows how Wonderland diagnoses this problem through its thematic depictions and offers an intriguing intervention through its deployment of form—what Yew describes as a “nonmusical musical”. I investigate the “nonmusical musical” as a quintessentially queer racial performance form that employs what I term as calculated cacophonies, which elucidates how Wonderland uses dialogic, sonic, and thematic relationalities to undercut the portrayed destruction of the Asian American family. The presence of calculated cacophonies allows Wonderland to spotlight some guarded optimism: there may be a sustained possibility for the queer Asian American son to find a place in the heteronuclear family.

  • Liu, Sissi. “‘Kungfu/jazz’ as a new approach to music theatre making: Fred Ho and ‘manga opera'”, Studies in musical theatre 11/2 (2017) 197–214. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2017-35087]

Abstract: Kung fu and jazz—performing art forms that originated from the racial others—will be used as shorthand for two concurrent, interdependent, and dialectically opposing cultural processes: one that prioritizes boundary formation or reinforcement, and one that favors boundary elimination or crossing. The processes of kung fu and jazz are analyzed in the case of Ho’s Voice of the dragon (2006), and the paradoxical process of negotiating between the two are explored in Ho’s creation of a new genre, manga opera. I propose that in a world of increasing global encounters, racial and ethnic multiplicities, and political and cultural complexities, kung fu/jazz provides a politically progressive and transgressive approach to the process of boundary-conscious musical theater-making.

  • Nguyen, Mimi Thi and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu. Alien encounters: Popular culture in Asian America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-17171]

Abstract: Showcases innovative directions in Asian American cultural studies by exploring topics ranging from pulp fiction to multimedia art and import-car subcultures. Contributors analyze Asian Americans’ interactions with popular culture as both creators and consumers. The volume reflects post-1965 Asian America paying nuanced attention to issues of gender, sexuality, transnationality, and citizenship, while unabashedly taking pleasure in pop culture. Issues of cultural authenticity are raised by addressing Asian American participation in hip hop and jazz, the emergence of an orientalist “Indo-chic” in U.S. youth culture, and the circulation of Vietnamese music variety shows. Taking popular culture seriously reveals how people imagine and express their affective relationships to history, identity, and belonging.

  • Sharma, Nitasha Tamar. Hip hop desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a global race consciousness. Refiguring American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-5669]

Abstract: Explores the worldviews of young U.S. people of South Asian descent (self-identifying as Desis) who create hip hop music. Through their lives and lyrics, hip hop Desis express a global race consciousness reflecting both their sense of connection with Black Americans as racialized minorities in the U.S. and their diasporic sensibility as part of a global community of South Asians. The author emphasizes the role of appropriation and sampling in the ways that hip hop Desis craft their identities, create art, and pursue social activism. Some of the Desi artists at the center of her ethnography produce what she calls ethnic hip hop, incorporating South Asian languages, instruments, and immigrant themes. Through ethnic hip hop, Desi artists such as KB, Sammy, and Bella Deejay express alternative desiness, challenging assumptions about their identities as South Asians, children of immigrants, minorities, and U.S. people. Desi artists also contest and seek to bridge perceived divisions between Black and South Asian Americans through racialized hip hop. It is described how they uncover connections between South Asians and Black Americans, highlighting in their lyrics links such as the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Mahatma Gandhi. By taking up themes considered irrelevant to many Asian Americans, Desi performers including D’Lo, Chee Malabar of Himalayan Project and Rawj of Feenom Circle create a multiracial form of Black popular culture to fight racism and enact social change.

  • Villegas, Mark R., Kuttin Kandi, and Roderick N. Labrador, eds. Empire of funk: Hip hop and representation in Filipina/o America (San Diego: Cognella, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-5390]

Abstract: Gives long overdue attention to the most popular cultural art form practiced by recent generations of Filipina/o American youth. The anthology features the voices of artists, scholars, and activists to begin a dialogue on Filipina/o American youth culture and its relationship to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. The text also offers the opportunity to question the future of hip hop itself. Individual chapters explore Filipina/o American hip hop aesthetics, community-building, the geography of hip hop in Filipina/o America, sexuality and power, activism and praxis, visual culture, and navigating the hip hop industry. This text gives readers a thoughtful introduction to an often-overlooked aspect of American society and culture.

  • Wang, Oliver. Legions of boom: Filipino American mobile DJ crews in the San Francisco Bay Area (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-13936]

Abstract: Armed with speakers, turntables, light systems, and records, Filipino American mobile DJ crews, such as Ultimate Creations, Spintronix, and Images, Inc., rocked dance floors throughout the San Francisco Bay Area from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. This book chronicles the remarkable scene that eventually became the cradle for turntablism. These crews, which were instrumental in helping create and unify the Bay Area’s Filipino American community, gave young men opportunities to assert their masculinity and gain social status. While crews regularly spun records for school dances, weddings, birthdays, or garage parties, the scene’s centerpieces were showcases—or multi-crew performances—which drew crowds of hundreds, or even thousands. By the mid-1990s the scene was in decline, as single DJs became popular, recruitment to crews fell off, and aspiring scratch DJs branched off into their own scene. As the training ground for a generation of DJs, including DJ Q-Bert, Shortkut, and Mix Master Mike, the mobile scene left an indelible mark on its community that eventually grew to have a global impact.

  • Wong, Deborah. Louder and faster: Pain, joy, and the body politic in Asian American taiko. American crossroads (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-7730]

Abstract: A cultural study of the phenomenon of Asian American taiko, the thundering, athletic drumming tradition that originated in Japan. Immersed in the taiko scene for 20 years, the author has witnessed cultural and demographic changes and the exponential growth and expansion of taiko particularly in Southern California. Through her participatory ethnographic work, she reveals a complicated story embedded in memories of Japanese American internment and legacies of imperialism, Asian American identity and politics, a desire to be seen and heard, and the intersection of culture and global capitalism. Exploring the materialities of the drums, costumes, and bodies that make sound, analyzing the relationship of these to capitalist multiculturalism, and investigating the gender politics of taiko, the book considers both the promises and pitfalls of music and performance as an anti-racist practice. The result is a vivid glimpse of an Asian American presence that is both loud and fragile.

  • Wong, Yutian, ed. Contemporary directions in Asian American dance. Studies in dance history (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-1207]

Abstract: The definition of Asian American dance is as contested as the definition of “Asian American”. The term encompasses not only a range of national origins but also a dazzling variety of theoretical frameworks, disciplinary methods, and genres—from traditional to postmodern to hip hop. Contributors to this volume address such topics as the role of the 1960s Asian American movement in creating Japanese American taiko groups, and the experience of internment during World War II influencing butoh dance in Canada. Essays about artists look closely at the politics of how Asian aesthetics are set into motion and marketed. The volume includes first-person narratives, interviews, ethnography, cultural studies, performance studies, and comparative ethnic studies.

  • Yoshihara, Mari. Musicians from a different shore: Asians and Asian Americans in classical music (Philadelphia: University of Temple Press, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-5967]

Abstract: An examination of the phenomenon whereby musicians of Asian descent enjoy unprecedented prominence in concert halls, conservatories, and classical music performance competitions. A confluence of culture, politics, and commerce after World War II made classical music a staple in middle-class households, established Yamaha as the world’s largest producer of pianos, and gave the Suzuki method of music training an international clientele. Soon, talented musicians from Japan, China, and South Korea were flocking to the U.S. to study and establish careers, and Asian American families were enrolling toddlers in music classes. This historical backdrop is punctuated by interviews with Asian and Asian American musicians, such as Cho-Liang Lin, Margaret Leng Tan, Kent Nagano, who have taken various routes into classical music careers. They offer their views about the connections of race and culture and discuss whether the music is really as universal as many claim it to be. A Japanese translation is cited as RILM 2013-34104.

  • Zhu, Ying and Quynh Nhu Le. “Body, time, and space: Poetry as choreography in Southeast Asian American literature”, Dance chronicle: Studies in dance and the related arts 39/1 (2016) 77–95. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-26748]

Abstract: This collaboration between a dance scholar and a literary/critical race studies scholar engages cross-disciplinary strategies of reading poetry to complicate contemporary discourses surrounding Southeast Asian American cultural productions. We offer an analysis of Phayvanh Luekhamhan’s Rubber bands and Diep Tran’s Schools, focusing on their incorporation of elements integral to both dance and Southeast Asian diasporic poetry: body, time, and space. Choreographic in form and content, these poems shed light on the embodied repercussions of imperialism, war, and migration, and call forth the moving body as central to both recording and cultivating the formation of communities in diaspora.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Analysis, Asia, Dance, Dramatic arts, Ethnomusicology, Jazz and blues, Musicology, North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music, Uncategorized, World music

Olympics and music: A brief history. I

The Beijing Winter Olympic Games have become one of the biggest hot spots in the world’s attention at the moment, and among musicians it is no exception. The Olympic Games and music have always been inextricably linked. In ancient Greek times, music was an essential part of the Olympics. The large crowds brought by the Olympics made it an ideal venue for musicians to perform as well. At the same time, many competitions were called by trumpeters to start.

For the modern Olympics, music is even more ubiquitous. Coubertin‘s Olympic ideology was directly inspired by the opera libretto L’Olimpiade; the Olympic Games from 1912 to 1948 included musical competitions and medals were awarded like sporting events; and today’s Olympic-related musical events are a constant source of cultural and commercial competition.

Let’s take a glimpse at the relationship between music and the Olympics through relevant literature included in RILM.

– Qian Mu, Editor, RILM

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  • Segrave, Jeffrey O. “Music as sport history: The special case of Pietro Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade and the story of the Olympic Games”, Sporting sounds: Relationships between sport and music, ed. by Anthony Bateman and John Bale (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2009) 113–127. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-1570]

Abstract: Pietro Metastasio’s popular 18th-century libretto L’Olimpiade publicized and transmitted a particular ideological and historicized conception of the Olympic Games that would ultimately contribute to the rationalization and legitimization of Pierre de Coubertin’s own idiosyncratic Olympic ideology, a philosophical religious doctrine that embraced a noble and honorable conception of sport at the same time as it served discrete class, race, and gendered ends. The hegemony of the contemporary Olympic Games movement is grounded in part on the appropriation of the classicism and Romanticism transmitted in Metastasio’s work. Musicological readings of opera, sociolinguistic conceptions of meaning, and postmodern social perspectives on material culture are addressed. Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade, in narrative, music, and production, sustained a particular image of the games, an image that nourished Coubertin’s own ideological formulation at the same time as it paved the way for further musical representations of the Games that to this day lend authority to the hegemony of the Olympics by appealing to a musically transmitted, mythologized, and Hellenized past.

  • Charkiolakīs, Alexandros. “Music in the first modern Olympiad in Athens in 1896: Cultural and social trends”, Mousikos logos 1 (January 2014) 51–64. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2014-4634]

Abstract: Music, without any doubt, has been one of the main features during both the opening ceremony and on the concert that was given in the end of the first day in the Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens. Actually, there were two new works commissioned for performance during that first day: the Olympiakos ymnos (Olympic hymn) by Spyridōn Samaras on a text of Kōstis Palamas and Pentathlon by Dionysios Lauragkas on poetry of Iōannīs Polemīs. Here, we show the cultural and social trends that are implied in these two works and are characteristic of the developing ideologies in Greece of that time. Furthermore, we emphasized our scope towards the impact that these two works had on the contemporary Athenian society of that time.

  • Segrave, Jeffrey O. “‘All men will become brothers’ (“Alle Menschen werden Bruder“): Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Olympic Games ideology”, Sport, music, identities, ed. by Anthony Bateman. Sport in the global society, contemporary perspectives (London: Routledge, 2015) 38–52. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-99]

Abstract: First performed in an Olympic context as part of the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become a popular mainstay of modern Olympic protocol. Part of a ritualized entertainment spectacle that enhances the appeal and popularity of the Games, the Ninth Symphony elevates the prestige of the Games and helps to sustain the Olympic Movement’s political and commercial dominance within the panoply of institutionalized sport. It is argued here that the normalization of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games not only transmits and reinforces the traditional Olympic ideology, but also reaffirms the ascendant hegemony of the Olympic movement within the world of elite international sport. This study is a critical reading of the Olympic musical ceremonial as a site of ideological production, especially as it pertains to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

  • Dümling, Albrecht. “Zwischen Autonomie und Fremdbestimmung: Die Olympische Hymne von Robert Lubahn und Richard Strauss”, Richard Strauss-Blätter 38 (Dezember 1997) 68–102. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 1997-52827]

Abstract: When the Olympic Games were to be held in Berlin in 1936 Strauss was chosen as composer of an Olympic Hymn. Early in 1933 he agreed in principle, but on the condition that he was provided with an appropriate text. Four poems out of 3,000 entries were selected and sent on to Strauss with no mention of the poets’ names. He decided on a text, written by the hitherto unknown poet Robert Lubahn. Despite the favorable response of committees and German music critics, the belongs to Strauss’s weaker works.

  • Barney, Katelyn. “Celebration or cover up? My island home, Australian national identity and the spectacle of Sydney 2000″, Aesthetics and experience in music performance, ed. by Elizabeth Mackinlay, Denis Collins, and Samantha Owens (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2005) 141–150. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-18443]

Abstract: Addresses the conflicts and complexities inherent in musical statements of Australian national identity as represented by Neil Murray’s My island home and Christine Anu’s performance of it at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Her performance functioned simultaneously as a site for celebration of indigeneity and Australian national identity yet also as a concealment or cover-up of the social and political positioning of indigenous Australians within Australian history and contemporary society. As it celebrated localized Torres Strait Islander culture and identity as part of the Australian national imagination, it also concealed the realities of indigenous issues and race relations within Australia.

  • Newman, Melinda and Michael Paoletta. “Goodsports”, Billboard: The international newsweekly of music, video and home entertainment 118/5 (4 February 2006) 22–23. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2006-2393]

Abstract: Established stars including Andrea Bocelli, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, and Lou Reed, as well as new and developing acts like James Blunt, Switchfoot, Flipsyde, Morningwood, the Donnas, Rock ‘N Roll Soldiers, We Are Scientists, and OK Go are hoping for a career boost from their ties to the Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. By using hip, under-the-radar acts, NBC hopes to connect with the much-coveted youth demographic. NBC uses music in four ways for the Olympics: network campaigns in advance of the Games; co-branding opportunities; features and interstitial footage broadcast during the athletic events; and nightly concerts.

  • Lawson, Francesca R. Sborgi. “Music in ritual and ritual in music: A virtual viewer’s perceptions about liminality, functionality, and mediatization in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games”, Asian music: Journal of the Society for Asian Music 42/2 (summer–fall 2011) 3–18. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-12007]

Abstract: Concepts such as liminality, functionality, and mediatization were clearly exemplified in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The fascinating use of the ancient practice of liminal integration of music and ritual in a modern mediatized performance illustrates both indigenous Chinese and contemporary Western performance theories. Despite the spectacular nature of the opening ceremony, however, it is doubtful that international viewers fully understood the complex messages communicated through this modern ritual performance.

  • Juzwiak, Rich. “Village Person says Y.M.C.A. isn’t about gays, is probably lying”, http://gawker.com/village-person-says-y-m-c-a-isnt-about-gays-is-pro-1493380284. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-293]

Abstract: A common reading of the Village People’s Y.M.C.A. (1978) posits the song as a post-Stonewall stealth attack on heteronormative America. From discos to weddings to sports arenas across the country, millions have contorted in acronymal glee, singing the praises of the male-only fitness center/boarding house where you can “hang out with the boys” and “do whatever you feel”. The song first appeared on an album titled Cruisin’. Despite the seemingly obvious subtext, members of the Village People deny any subtextual intent. Victor Willis, the first lead singer of the Village People who played the role of “cop” and co-wrote Y.M.C.A., recently spoke out against using the song as Team USA’s entrance music at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics–intended in protest of Putin’s anti-gay mandate and the rash of violent hate crimes in its wake (not to mention the Sports Minister’s threat to jail gay athletes). The author notes that “the inherent gayness of the Village People has been a point of contention between the people who were (and are) in the group and its creators, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo. Morali, who died in 1991, was gay and in last year’s documentary about the politics of disco, Secret disco revolution, Belolo said that the Village People were Morali’s statement of his own gay pride, as well as an exercise in double entendre”.

  • Cottrell, Stephen. “Glad to meet you: North Korea’s pop orchestra warms hearts in the South”, The conversation (UK) (9 February 2018) https://theconversation.com/glad-to-meet-you-north-koreas-pop-orchestra-warms-hearts-in-the-south-91499. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-52079]

Abstract: Describes a performance by Samjiyon Band, a well-known fixture from North Korea’s cultural scene, on the first night of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

Part II is here.

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Queer musicology: An annotated bibliography

Drummers of Fogo Azul perform at the New York Pride Parade on June 30, 2019. Photo credit: Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York daily news

The word queer originally meant strange, or odd, and was used as a derogatory term for non-heterosexuals. Beginning in the 1980s, scholars and activists began using the term to refer to sexual or gender identity minorities, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc., as a way to combat social stigma.

Since the emergence of queer theory in the 1980s, a growing number of music scholars have begun to focus on the connections among gender identity, sexual orientation, and music/sound. Critical of biologically-based orientations, and emphasizing social gender roles and sexual orientations, queer theory has inspired music scholars to re-examine musicians, music, sound, narrative, and aesthetics through the lens of sex and gender. Below, we share some literature of queer musicology collected by RILM.

– Qian Mu, Editor, RILM

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  • Moon, Steven. “Queer theory, ethno/musicology, and the disorientation of the field”, Current musicology 106 (2020) 9–33. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-13066]

Abstract: Examines the development of ethno/musicologies’ (queer) theoretical borrowings from anthropology, sociology, and literary/cultural studies in order to historicize the contemporary queer moment both fields are experiencing, and demonstrates the ways in which it might disorient the field. It traces the histories of this queering trend by beginning with early conceptualizations of the ethno/musicological projects, scientism, and quantitative methods. This is in relation to the anthropological method of ethnocartography in order to understand the historical difficulties in creating a queer qualitative field, as opposed to those based in hermeneutics. The first section places the problematics of this enumeration in dialogue with the ethno/musicologies’ tendencies towards nationalizing and globalizing narratives that often run contrary to a queer project. The second section steps back in time to understand how music studies, broadly, entered the queer conversation through early feminist literature in ethnomusicology and historical musicology, as well as literary/cultural studies and anthropology.

  • Maus, Fred Everett. “Classical concert music and queer listening”, Transposition: Musique et sciences sociales 3 (mai 2013) 11p. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2013-31866]

Abstract: The norms of the classical music concert, familiar from the 20th century onward in European and United States contexts, favor an apparently uniform practice of attentive, silent listening, the audience seated in rows with a uniform visual focus. However, within this appearance of quiet conformity, listeners have diverse, intense experiences. The discontinuity between experience and demeanor reflects powerful cultural oppositions between inner and outer, public and private. The discontinuity is particularly stark in light of the erotic qualities of music, as described in brilliant work by Susan McClary (Feminine endings, 1991; RILM 1991-2755) and Suzanne Cusick (On a lesbian relationship with music, 1994; RILM 1994-2517). My essay returns to their work, expanding their accounts to consider a broader range of sexual subjectivities, including bottom subjectivity as described by Trevor Hoppe and femme subjectivity as described by Ann Cvetkovich.

  • Hankins, Sarah. “Ethnographic positionality and psychoanalysis: A queer look at sex and race in fieldwork”, Queering the field: Sounding out ethnomusicology, ed. by Gregory F. Barz and William Cheng (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020) 353–363. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-170]

Abstract: Explores the queer dynamics of heterosexual interactions, thinking through issues of race by way of gender. The author further complicates matters by weaving ethnographic discourses of positionally together with psychoanalytic theories of sexuality and the subject. She seeks to bring psychoanalysis—a process she has relied on in her private life to address painful experiences—into some kind of consonance with the academic discourses that have long been touchstones of her professional life. By investigating the multivalent, confusing, and sometimes contradictory dimensions of her own fieldwork, she hopes to encourage further conversations about how sexuality and race intersect in known and unknown ways for other queer ethnographers, in other cross-cultural contexts. Her case study of the Rasta Club in south Tel Aviv is a vivid reflection on queer identity within the context of heterosexual interactions, especially violent ones.

  • Künzig, Bernd. “New queer music: Homosexualität und Neue Musik—Eine Ästhetische Spurensuche”, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 178/1 (2017) 12–16. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2017-40456]

Abstract: The degree to which sexual orientation affects artistic production has been discussed in various contexts—especially in the anglophone world. However, with respect to composition it remains an open question. This is true of homosexuality, too, which could be openly discussed after the sexual revolution of the 1968 movement. Even today, if one pursues the inquiry, one comes across many not so obvious connections between music and sexuality.

  • Sullivan, James. “The queer context and composition of Samuel Barber’s Despite and still“, Twentieth- and twenty-first-century song cycles: Analytical pathways toward performance, ed. by Gordon Sly and Michael Callahan (New York: Routledge, 2021) 79–96. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2021-264]

Abstract: The author’s approach to Barber’s Despite and still (1968) foregrounds Barber’s autobiographical connection to the cycle, particularly his sexuality and his relationship with Gian Carlo Menotti. With regard to the texts that Barber chose, which include poems by Robert Graves and Theodore Roethke and an excerpt from James Joyce’s Ulysses, the author shows how each text touches upon a particular point of tension in Barber’s relationship with Menotti. Musically, he then demonstrates how Barber’s settings dramatize that tension through the manipulation of perceived meter, especially via close imitation. The essay thus integrates musical analysis with poetic structure and biography.

  • Jones, Matthew J. “‘Something inside so strong’: The Flirtations and the queer politics of a cappella”, Journal of popular music studies 28/2 (June 2016) 142–185. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-19760]

Abstract: Initially formed in 1987, The Flirtations billed themselves as “the world’s most famous, openly-gay, all-male, politically active, multicultural, a cappella singing doo-wop group”. Over the course of the next decade, The Flirts—as they were affectionately known—recorded three albums, crisscrossed the globe to perform at gay pride events and AIDS rallies, sang in small theaters and concert venues, and even appeared in a Hollywood film (Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia released in 1993). Committed advocates of LGBT rights, feminism, multiculturalism, and AIDS activism, The Flirtations used the nostalgic sounds of close-harmony a cappella singing to deliver political messages, enlighten listeners, and entertain audiences. Through fluctuations in membership, personality conflicts, and the AIDS-related deaths of two founding members, The Flirtations kept singing and left behind a unique repository of queer music at the end of the 20th century. Drawing on previously unavailable archival materials, new interviews with surviving members of the group, and close readings of select musical examples, I situate The Flirtations within the history of U.S. close-harmony singing and examine the queer politics of a cappella in their music.

  • Doyle, JD. “Queer music radio: Entertainment, education, and activism”, Journal of popular music studies 18/2 (2006) 215–219. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2006-5846]

Abstract: Queer music heritage, hosted by the author on KPFT-FM, Houston, Texas, seeks to educate and entertain audiences in the name of LGBT activism. The radio program is designed as a way to share music from a variety of genres—including blues, country, and disco—with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning lyrical themes. Music and interviews are organized into themed shows that address issues such as the concept of “gay music”, expressing sexual identity, and the shifting cultural place of sexual identity in history.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Ethnomusicology, Musicology, Popular music

Beyoncé and the politics of looking

A close reading of Beyoncé’s Video phone illuminates the strategic interplay of subjectivities in a video that essentially disrupts and complicates heteronormative notions of viewing.

In this analysis, the workings of female power versus the male gaze lead to a theoretical conception of gender that contextualizes masculinity and hegemonic femininity. Ultimately, it is in the aestheticized landscape of Video phone that a counter-argument to mainstream heterosexual male imaginary emerges, one where the posthuman figure, in all its hyperreality, is musicalized in a way that defies all conventions.

This according to “Gender, sexuality and the politics of looking in Beyoncé’s Video phone (featuring Lady Gaga)” by Lori Burns and Marc Lafrance, an essay included in The Routledge research companion to popular music and gender (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, pp. 102–16).

Today is Beyoncé’s 40th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Jack Cole’s double bind

Jack Cole is often called “the father of theatrical jazz dance”, and “Cole technique” has strongly influenced both film dance and American theatrical dance generally. In his heyday he was one of the most powerful choreographers working in Hollywood, with contractual control over the movement design, camerawork, costuming, lighting, and editing of his dance numbers.

Cole’s status as an “invisible” gay man is crucial to more than an understanding of the satiric, parodic, or camp elements of his film work; it is also a necessary precondition for his particular mode of deployment of so-called Oriental dance practices.

Cole engaged the double bind that both women and men are prisoners of gender roles. His use of the body’s physical beauty to stand for more than spiritual power combined the theatricality and spirituality of Denishawn, the voluptuousness and intensity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles. His approach to dance and gender had profound effects on mid-20th-century hegemonic dance culture.

This according to “The thousand ways there are to move: Camp and Oriental dance in the Hollywood musicals of Jack Cole” by Adrienne L. McLean (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement XII/3 [spring 2003] 59–77; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-42184).

Today would have been Cole’s 110th birthday! Above, a portrait by Carl Van Vechten from 1937 (public domain); below, the Denishawn parody “Greek ballet” from Down to earth (1947).

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Filed under Dance, Performers

Queering Bruce Springsteen

 

The narratives of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonate with many queer people, who are well aware of the possibility of a life-altering freedom that presents itself as the reward for stepping into your true self (even when that freedom comes, as is often the case, at great cost).

Springsteen is far from gay; some might argue he is one of the straightest men alive. Nonetheless, some fans regard his work as, in Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel’s words, “homoerotic or queerly suggestive”.

There’s also Carmen Rios’s “We’re here and we’re queering Bruce Springsteen” at one of the longest-running sites for queer women, Autostraddle; the queer writer Tennessee Jones’s short story collection Deliver me from nowhere, based on the album Nebraska; and the many queer Bruce Springsteen zines, from Because the Boss belongs to us to Butt Springsteen.

What exactly is so queer about Springsteen? Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler? Do many queers love Springsteen because nearly every song he has produced in his 50-year career reflects a crushing, unabiding sense of alienation and longing—and what could be more queer than that?

This according to “Things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town: The queerness of Bruce Springsteen” by Naomi Gordon-Loebl (The nation 6 November 2019).

Below, Springsteen’s Tougher than the rest, a song (and video) discussed in the article.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Meshell Ndegeocello, pushing boundaries

 

The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”

In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.

“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.

This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).

Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Queercore and all-girl bands

Queercore is a loose community of like-minded individuals who have developed a culture of fanzines, films, art, and music. Initiated in Canada and the U.S. during the mid-1980s, queercore spread throughout North America and Europe during the 1990s and 2000s.

The movement was inspired by feminist, postmodern, and queer theories that rejected binary understandings of sexual identity as homosexual/heterosexual and gender identity as man/woman. These theories were put into punk practice to confront heterosexist society.

Central to queercore are all-girl bands whose music confronts lesbian invisibility, misogyny, homophobia, and sexual violence, and who create vital spaces and communities for different ways of doing and being queer. These bands and artists draw on discourses of girlhood, femininity, womanhood, lesbianism, and queerness within radical music-making, lyrics, and performances affiliated with DIY queer culture.

This according to “Queercore: Fearless women” by Val Rauzier, an essay included in Women make noise: Girl bands from Motown to the modern (Twickenham: Supernova books, 2010, pp. 238–58). Above, Team Dresch, one of the bands discussed in the article, in the 1990s; below, the band in 2012.

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Filed under Popular music

Ancient metaphors of love

Toward the middle of the 13th century B.C.E., shortly after a granddaughter of the great Hittite king married the Ugaritic ruler, a matrimonial scandal shook the kingdom. The first lady of the city-state of Ugarit was accused of disporting herself with the nobles, of “ceaseless enjoyment” with them: the Akkadian word ṣiāḫum (to laugh joyfully, to flirt) was the discreet description of conjugal infidelity.

“To laugh” had been the euphemism for sexual intercourse and physical love for at least 700 years, as is attested in Paleo-Babylonian love songs. Already in Sumerian songs of the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., the verbs “to delight” and “to utter joyful cries” were used to describe amorous play.

The language of love in Aššurian songs is one of metaphors and discreet allusions; carnal love is mentioned only indirectly, through stock literary devices stemming from a long tradition. Amorous metaphors include “the scent of cedar is your love”, “she seeks the garden of your opulent love”, and “today my heart is full of play and music”.

This according to “La musique des amoureux” by Brigitte Groneberg (Dossiers d’archéologie 310 [février 2006] pp. 50–54).

Above, a Paleo-Babylonian plaque; below, Peter Pringle performs his recreation of an ancient Egyptian song that uses similar metaphors.

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Filed under Antiquity, Asia

The Dancing Queens of Mumbai

For many Indian hijras—a casteless and classless queer minority—badhais (ritualistic music and dance) are the only available means of revenue aside from sex work and bar dance; this has been the practical reality for hijras for nearly two centuries of legal persecution.

While the current reality does not bode well for the continuation of hijra badhais as we once knew them, newly emerging transgender ensembles like Mumbai’s Dancing Queens are introducing new possibilities for hijra performativity and empowerment.

Established within a reconstituted urban Indian context, new adaptive strategies are predicated on the exchange of devalued ways of encoding hijra difference for updated, modern ones based upon the distinctly LGBTIQ discourse of pehchān (acknowledgement of the self, or identity). The Dancing Queens’s staging of pehchān empowers hijras through a global transgender lexicon while simultaneously renewing particular preexisting performance repertoires of homo-sociality.

This according to “The Dancing Queens: Negotiating hijra pehchān from India’s streets onto the global stage” by Jeff Roy (Ethnomusicology review XX [2015] pp. 69–91). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, the Dancing Queens in action.

BONUS: Ready for more? Here’s a full performance.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Dance