While Kitty Wells’s publicity depicted her as sweet and subservient, her performances told a different story; her steel-blade voice conveyed a maturity and temerity that was impossible to misread.
Confident but not flashy, plaintive but not abject, Wells tapped into a rich vein of deeply loyal fans who heard the grit and forbearance of her experience as she sang to and about them. A role model for women who felt both fidelity and frustration toward family values, she was a transitional figure who represented changing times: a fierce traditionalist with her band, the career wife in an otherwise traditional marriage, and the voice of women who predated the feminist movement but still embraced women’s universal desire to be heard.
Projecting a toughness and stamina honed by 16 years as a professional musician, Wells forged feminine stereotypes into tools of power and strength. She built her reputation on this contradiction: She would not make waves and she would open doors.
This according to “Kitty Wells, queen of denial” by Georgia Christgau, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 211–30).
Today would have been Wells’s 100th birthday! Below, her signature hit It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels.
BONUS: A classic cover of the song.
Black women’s cultural activism in Lima, Perú, enacts a vibrant geohistory of respatializations of raced and gendered embodiment, advancing deprovincialized manifestations of the historical continuities, transnational ties, and internationalist impulses that connect otherwise localized and specific stories of diasporic cultural formation in the Black Americas.
The analytics and vocabularies of sound studies, critical race and gender studies, and feminist geography illuminate convergences within the cross‐generational work of Peruvian black women performers from the mid-20th century to the present. Despite differences in content and form—and at times in approach or aspiration—their collective work as political activists and cultural producers can be understood as both formed by and formative of performance geographies of feminist diasporicity.
This according to “Afroperuvian feminisms and performance geographies of diasporicity, 1953–2013” by Kirstie A. Dorr (Journal of popular music studies XXIX/4 [December 2017] 21 p.).
Above and below, Susana Baca, one of the musicians discussed in the article (yes, that’s David Byrne on rhythm guitar).
Notoriously difficult to categorize as both a genre of music and as a social movement, riot grrrl has come to be acknowledged as one of the most significant crossovers between politics and sound: feminism as music, music as feminism.
Riot grrrl embraced and propagated feminism through its music, lyrics, performances, zines, and everyday activities. It complicated the notion of gender-based aesthetics in both music and in fashion, demanding attention and pointing out the hypocrisies present in our social norms. In addition, the music and movement worked to expose the social and personal concerns of girls that were habitually excluded from the mainstream, including sexual abuse, anorexia, and body image.
Through its incorporation of feminism, riot grrrl attempted to give a voice to girls, allowing for a self-representation that had never been accessible before. Yet their efforts at reappropriation also led to some alarming contradictions in their feminism. Riot grrrl’s use of irony and reworking of traditional gender roles and mores in some cases actually acted to reinforce those culturally sexist ideas of women. These complications deepened the political and social implications of a group of women trying to re-size control over how gender played out in our cultural landscape.
This according to “I predict a riot: Riot grrrls and the contradictions of feminism” by Shayna Maskell, an essay included in The Routledge history of social protest in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 184–97).
Above and below, the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in the early 1990s.
The jazz singer Jeanne Lee engaged in acts of reclamation of her identity, itself part of a greater project undertaken by creative black women.
Jazz standards with lyrics, written overwhelmingly by men, often reveal male constructions of female identity, even if sometimes seemingly from the narrative position of a woman. They therefore form a culturally important and influential way in which women have been defined by others, usually by men. Lee’s acts of redefinition—the ways in which she altered the ontologies of womanhood presented in standards—opened a possibility of subverting these externally imposed identities in subtle or overt ways.
This according to “This ain’t a hate thing: Jeanne Lee and the subversion of the jazz standard” by Eric Lewis (Jazz & culture I  pp. 49–76).
Today would have been Lee’s 80th birthday! Above, Lee in 1984; below, singing “All about Ronnie” in 1963.
In most genres of Caribbean music women tend to participate as dancers or vocalists, but in Dominican merengue típico they are more often instrumentalists and even bandleaders—something nearly unheard of in the macho Caribbean music scene.
In a complex nexus of class, race, and artistic tradition that unsettles the typical binary between the masculine and feminine, female musicians have developed a feminine counterpart to the classic male figure of the tíguere, a dandified but sexually aggressive and street-smart tiger: the tíguera, an assertive, sensual, and respected female figure who looks like a woman but often plays and even sings like a man. These musical figures illuminate the rich ambiguities in gender construction in the Dominican Republic and the long history of a unique form of Caribbean feminism.
This according to Tigers of a different stripe: Performing gender in Dominican music by Sydney Hutchinson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Above and below, Fefita la Grande, one of the tígueras discussed in the book.
Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî (generally known as Dilhayat Kalfa, d.1737) was raised in the Ottoman royal palace, as indicated by the adjectival Kalfa, which also denotes important administrative tasks. She played the tanbur, and historical sources contain information on nearly 100 of her compositions.
Her surviving works are counted among the most important examples of the technique and aesthetic of the Ottoman classical school. The flow of her makams and her prosody are exemplary. Two works in the evcârâ makam, a peşrev and a saz semaî, exhibit a very individualistic style. She was exemplary in her setting of texts, showing great care in arranging the relationship between meaning and melody.
This according to “Dilhayat Kalfa” by Meral Akkent (İstanbul Kadın Müzesi, 2012). Above, a Romantic-era depiction of the composer (no contemporaneous portrait exists); below, the saz semaî discussed in the article.
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.
Since it emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s funk has played an important role in American music and culture, in its foregrounding of polyrhythmic interplay, improvisation, and community formation, and in addressing issues of discrimination and marginalization.
Recent scholarship has examined funk from a feminist perspective, highlighting female musicians’ participation in the creation of black feminist thought and in rejecting externally defined roles and identities. An expansion on these feminist approaches focuses on the particular ways that sound organization helps to address the gendered nature of funk performance and discourse; the concept of Afro-sonic feminist funk demonstrates how female musicians use the sonic and performative tenets of funk to complicate the gendered politics and discourses surrounding funk music.
This according to “Janelle Monáe and Afro-sonic feminist funk” by Matthew Valnes (Journal of popular music studies XXIX/3 [September 2017]).
Today is International Women’s Day! Above, Janelle Monáe’s Q.U.E.E.N.; below, her Tightrope. Both songs provide case studies in the article.
The members of the Goree All-Girl String Band, all inmates in the Texas state prison system, used country music’s gender iconography in their struggle for greater autonomy and ultimately freedom in the 1930s and 1940s.
Their incarceration and past violations of the norms of feminine passivity and virtuousness placed them beyond the pale of country music’s prevailing image of valued femininity: the sentimental mother, who embodied home, domesticity, and a lost rural past. But through the alternative roles of dutiful daughter and cowboy’s sweetheart they performed their way to rehabilitation, both symbolically (as women who had returned to their proper place) and literally (as convicts who had served their time or gained clemency).
Though largely forgotten today, the Goree Girls’ popularity during their broadcasting years demonstrates that while country audiences may have venerated the sentimental mother, they also identified with and embraced women whose relationship to dominant gender ideals was fraught with complications.
This according to “As if they were going places: Class and gender portrayals through country music in the Texas State Prison, 1938–1944” by Caroline Gnagy, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 126–45).
Below, a selection from a musical based on the Goree Girls’ story; information on the 2017 production is here (scroll down). A film produced by Jennifer Aniston is reportedly in the planning stages; information on that topic is here.
Playing on male-gendered instruments, the members of the all-women Original Pinettes Brass Band contest the male domination of the New Orleans brass band scene, queering the normative relationship between instruments and musicians and carving out a space for female musicianship.
The group’s songs and performance decisions present agential and subjective sites of black feminist thought put into action to subvert the brass band patriarchy. The Pinettes force us to view the New Orleans brass band scene as an intersectional site where gender is a central element in the construction and consolidation of power relationships.
This according to “Street queens: New Orleans brass bands and the problem of intersectionality” by Kyle DeCoste (Ethnomusicology LXI/2 [summer 2017] pp. 181–206). Below, the Pinettes in 2016.