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.
Amy Beach’s highly polished Gaelic symphony represents her triumph over 19th-century women’s socialization and her honest desire to present a feminine image worthy of imitation.
After the work’s 1896 premiere Beach was described by the critic Philip Hale as “an epoch maker who has broken through old boundaries and presented an enrichment and expansion of woman’s sphere in art.” Even the Boston Brahmin composer George Whitefield Chadwick wrote, in a letter to her, “I am pleased that an American and a woman can produce such strong and beautiful musical ideas . . . You are now one of the boys.”
This according to “Amy Beach: Muse, conscience, and society” by Susan Mardinly (Journal of singing LXX/5 [May–June 2014] pp. 527–40).
Today is Beach’s 150th birthday! Below, the work’s finale.
In 1946 the Hormel company created a unique organization to employ World War II veterans as musicians to market food products.
Over a seven-year period the Hormel Girls, a drum-and-bugle corps, conducted door-to-door sales, worked with local retailers in cities and towns across America, formed a professional orchestra and a choir to enhance their stage shows, and produced a weekly national radio broadcast.
This was possibly the most successful musical-marketing strategy in the history of partnerships between music and industry. The women received outstanding pay and benefits, the company doubled its profits during the group’s existence, and the performers were professional-level musicians on a par with members of other professional ensembles of the era.
This according to “The Hormel Girls” by Jill M. Sullivan and Danielle D. Keck (American music XXV/3 [fall 2007] pp. 282–311). Top, the group ca. 1947; center, in 1952. Below, Elisa Korenne’s Hormel Girls, illustrated with vintage photographs.
Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.
This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).
Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).
Although Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was celebrated as one of 1993’s top records by Spin and the New York times, to some it was an abomination: a mockery of The Rolling Stones’s most revered album, Exile on Main Street, and a rare glimpse into the psyche of a shrewd, independent, strong young woman. For these crimes she was run out of her hometown of Chicago, enduring a flame war perpetrated by writers who accused her of being boring, inauthentic, and even a poor musician.
With Exile in Guyville, Phair spoke for all the young women who loved the world of indie rock but felt deeply unwelcome there. Like all great works of art, Exile was a harbinger of the shape of things to come: Phair may have undermined the male ego, but she also unleashed a new female one.
This according to Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Today is Liz Phair’s 50th birthday! Above, a screenshot from the official video for Never said, the album’s major airplay hit; below, the full video.
When Jane Evrard founded the Orchestre féminin de Paris in 1930 she became one of the first professional women conductors in France. The group was among the most active and well-received ensembles in the French capital from its inaugural concert until World War II.
At a time when female instrumentalists were seldom able to join professional orchestras, the all-woman ensemble provided an important performance platform for talented women string players. The group was distinguished both by the quality of its performance and by its eclectic and innovative repertoire, specializing both in reviving Baroque compositions and in promoting contemporary music.
Looking back on her career, Evrard recalled her bemusement over the mild furor caused by the appearance of a woman at the head of an orchestra: “The great critic Vuillermoz found curious and significant the conquest of feminism represented by the taking of possession of a conductor’s baton. And he compared my orchestra to a battalion composed exclusively of Amazons which I led into combat!”
This according to “On the conductor’s podium: Jane Evrard and the Orchestre Féminin de Paris” by Laura Hamer (The musical times CLII/1916 [autumn 2011] pp. 81–100). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Below, Evrard and the orchestra perform a pair of dance pieces by Lully.
In many societies musical roles are divided along gender lines: Women sing and men play. Men also sing and women sometimes play; yet, unlike men, women who play often do so in contexts of sexual and social marginality.
Contemporary anthropological theories regarding the interrelationship between social structure and gender stratification illuminate how women’s use of musical instruments is related to broader issues of social and gender structure; changes in the ideology of these structures often reflect changes that affect women as performers.
This according to “When women play: The relationship between musical instruments and gender style” by Ellen Koskoff (Canadian university music review/Revue de musique des universités canadiennes XVI/1  pp. 114–27; reprinted in A feminist ethnomusicology: Writings on music and gender [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014]).
Above and below, kulintang, a women’s instrumental genre discussed in the article.