A Queer Reading of Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do

Last week when Taylor Swift’s new single Look What You Made Me Do hit the airways, I was devastated. While the album name ‘Reputation’ seemed promising, the lyric video seemed to confirm that Tayswi – Queen of the Secret Lesbian Club of Hollywood – was only interested in making a petty jab at Kanye West via a mostly terrible pop song. My god, I thought. Is Taylor just completely basic? 

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Please never watch the lyric video. Ever.

But when the new video directed by Joseph Khan dropped, all of my doubts perished, because THIS IS WITHOUT A DOUBT THE GAYEST TAYSWI VIDEO OF ALL TIME. (And by gayest of course I mean open to a queer reading i.e. seeing things sideways, and reading LGBTQ themes into things). Unsurprisingly the mainstream media are calling this Tayswi’s “shade” video which is simply about mocking all of her haters. They are entirely skimming over all the gay bits that they can’t make sense of (never mind that queers invented shade).

So bear with me for the incredibly long journey that is a queer reading (or really, just the most obvious and true and direct reading) of LWYMMD…

The opening shots lead us to a graveyard:

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This is surely an obvious story about Taylor’s trashed reputation, no?

Well, we are also immediately reminded of Leo Bersani’s famous paper Is the Rectum a Grave?, written in 1987 at the time when the peak of the AIDs crisis was unfolding in the USA. In Bersani’s paper he tracks the homophobic response to AIDS, but also how misogyny is also implicated in homophobia, where femininity is conflated with the “passive” bottom position in gay male sex. Bersani urges us to embrace the subordinate feminine/homosexual position as a way to contest and shatter hierarchies of power.

Here we see Taylor trying to “bury” her gaping grave that reveals her vulnerability/femininity/homosexuality:

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At the bottom of the grave we see 2014 circa Swift in her Met Ball gown, the same year of the peak rumours that her and Karlie Kloss were in a relationship:

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Much like the imagery of the video for Bad Blood (also directed by Khan) we appear to be transported to an “underground” world. We might recall that in that clip the underground involved an Amazonian-like alternate reality:

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But in this underground, Taylor isn’t fighting, she’s in a bath full of diamonds:

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While diamonds symbolise wealth, she’s not sitting in a pit of money – most clearly here we are called to think of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend:

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Not only was Monroe herself a famously closeted gay icon, the original song has some rather queer lyrics: “Time rolls on/And youth is gone/ And you can’t straighten up when you bend”.

Taylor’s bath is also in the centre of a room full of mirrors, recalling the saying “hall of mirrors” where one is not able to distinguish fact from fiction. But we also need to recall the intertextual reference to her earlier clip for Style, which is all about duality:

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We might also note the rainbows evident in this clip:

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And the tension between the internal masculine/feminine:

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A theme which is also represented in Bad Blood:

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But back to LWYMMD, we are met with our first glimpse of snakes:

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Which are mostly obviously a reference to Kimye’s attack on Taylor after the Famous shenanigan. BUT what about the fact that snakes appear on Taylor’s hands in a lot of her earlier video clips? For example, Style:

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Shake it Off:

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And Blank Space:

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The fact that Taylor wears many of these snakes as rings is also significant in light of her earlier ring choices, notably the fleur-de-lis of Our Song, representing chastity:

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So, Taylor has gone from a symbol of chastity, to snakes, which coincidentally are strongly associated with sexuality due to that whole Adam-and-Eve-snake-incident-thing. In other words, snakes are traditionally understood as representing sexual power. For Freud snakes were a symbol of male sexual drive, but lesbian culture has also embraced the snake namely in reference to the ancient matriarchal Minoan society symbolised by the “Snake Goddess”:

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We then see that Taylor is indeed positioning herself as snake queen:

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But she’s not only queen of snakes i.e. queen of sexual power, she’s drinking tea:

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Which seems kind of random UNTIL we recall that tea is associated with the gay community as Urban Dictionary defines: “Used within the urban gay community, ‘tea’ signifies a piece of sensitive and possibly highly sought-after information or tidbit”. Or, as A.J. Musser has argued: “While I do not want to argue that tea functions as the sign of lesbianism, it does serve as one among a collection of possible signs of female queerness”. So, here the tea drinking is not only about recalling a secret, it is a nod to lesbian stereotypes. In light of this we might see the “et tu Brute” chiselled into the columns as not only referencing Kanye as a backstabber, but perhaps also calling him out of the closet – i.e. “and you, Kanye?”

Next up it’s Taylor in an epic golden car crash, and as everyone has pointed out, she looks just like Katy Perry (but holding the grammy Katy doesn’t have – so shady):

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Up until recently the reason behind Katy and Taylor’s famous feud wasn’t known. Katy has since explained that it was about backing dancers. Are we really to believe that Taylor wrote Bad Blood, which features the lyrics “You know it used to be mad love” just because of a fight about backing dancers?

Maybe Taylor is trying to reference Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholy here – you become what you cannot love…(And, not to mention that Katy came out earlier this year).

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We then see Taylor the caged bird, calling to mind Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores questions of lesbianism among other themes. We might also note that Taylor is in an orange jumpsuit behind bars, a la Orange is the New Black.

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But importantly, Taylor’s “feast” in the cage involves a lobster and a rat:

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While rats are symbolic of new beginnings, and lobsters also represent regeneration, “lobster” is slang for “lesbian”.

We are then taken to scenes of Taylor robbing what appears to be a music streaming company. But this isn’t just about her feud with Apple, she’s also sporting the very pansexual slogan “BLIND FOR LOVE” amongst a bevy of cats/pussies:

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Of course Taylor has been upfront about her obsession with cats for some time (also a lesbian stereotype), as we see in early videos such as 22 (where she just happens to be hugging a woman while making a “V” sign…):

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And lobsters/cats aren’t the only animal symbolism Taylor has used in videos – remember that beaver from We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together who (along with a random woman) beckons Taylor away from her bed/phone call with her boyfriend?

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Back in LWYMMD, things take a turn for the extra gay, with Taylor referencing Dykes on Bikes (a lesbian pride group which began in San Francisco in the 1970s):

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While some have suggested this is undoubtably a reference to Peter Lindberg’s “Wild at Heart” shoot for Vogue in 1991, there is no doubt that the inspiration for that was this:

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We then see Taylor as the dominatrix leader of a “squad” of plastic women (note the cats also on screen – it’s her “pussy squad”), in reference to her infamous girl gang groupies:

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While the figure of “dominatrix” has its own overt sexual connotations, the imagery (as Every Outfit on SATC has pointed out) is clearly referencing the 2016 horror film Neon Demon:

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WHICH notoriously includes an extended scene involving lesbian necrophilia.

Taylor then bursts in to the metaphorical closet:

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Which also calls to mind the “door” in her clip for Fifteen where she is 800% in love with a girl and is just a completely gay story for real (lyrics include “you might find who you’re supposed to be…take a deep breath and walk through the doors”):

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In the LWYMMD closet she doesn’t meet her teen girl crush, but rather a crew of effeminate men in heels, including the notable and openly gay Todrick Hall. A lot of commentators have pointed to the “I ❤ T.S.” on the men’s shirts as a jab at Taylor’s supposed ex-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston who wore a similar shirt when they were said to be dating:

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But I think the real takeaway message here is the association between those who declare their love for Taylor, and being gay/closeted. In other words this whole scene is about Taylor’s beards.

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The finale is Taylor standing on a pile of warring alter-egos (and of course the “T” referencing not only “Taylor” but the “tea” earlier in the clip):

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Up the front we have Taylor in her Swan Lake outfit from Shake it Off, and given that this particular character was chosen out of a cast of many from that particular clip, we might also see this as a reference to the lesbian horror (see a theme here?) film Black Swan:

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With feminine horror also referenced in Taylor’s outfit as she saws the wings off a phallic aeroplane:

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In the final scene Taylor once again meets the many sides of “herself”:

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A theme of self-confrontation we have also seen in earlier clips like Out of the Woods:

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But while Taylor’s previous clips have been about “finding” herself, it is clear in LWYMMD that we the audience have not yet found the “true” Taylor.

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Or, maybe she’s all and none of these characters. Maybe she’s been trying to flag her sexuality for the longest time, with her snake rings, masculine internal duality, tea, rainbows, closet doors, lobsters, beavers and cats. I guess only time, and the rest of Reputation may tell.

(Thanks also to Clare S for helping with this piece, specifically the research on lesbians and tea). 

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Nostalgia, Taste & Looking Backward

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Nostalgia: it’s all the rage

The desire for nostalgia is a funny thing. Studies have found that you’re more likely to seek out nostalgia when you’re feeling down, particularly when you are lonely. Perhaps that’s why society seems to have been on a full-tilt nostalgia trip for some time now: everyone is feeling pretty bummed out about the future to come, and under late neoliberal capitalism more isolated individualistic-thinking than ever before. Here we might turn to Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie to help us. Anomie describes the state of singularity and disconnection felt as a symptom of modernity and rapid social change—anomic societies are highly individualistic and fractured. It would be interesting to take up Durkheim’s analyses of anomic societies here and see just how much financial crises and social upheavals correlate with, say, the sale of Hanson tickets.

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Hanson: still looking twelve years old

Going to a concert on a Monday night is strange at the best of times, and this week was certainly a bit odd when I found myself at the anniversary tour of 90s teen-pop boy-band sensation, Hanson. My friend Patrick contacted me months ago to ask me if I wanted to go, and we managed to secure tickets even though the first show had sold out in seconds. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to get a good old dose of nostalgia. But perhaps my initial response to “Do you want to go to Hanson?”—”Lol maybe!”—should have triggered me to remember: when you were a kid you didn’t actually like Hanson.

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90s band Steps

Here’s the thing: I didn’t actually like Hanson. I was in year five when they got big (feel free not to do the math on that). I had just moved from a small city to a very small town, and everything I knew about what was cool, and what was what, needed to adjust. I had grown up listening to the national youth radio channel Triple J, and that was my cultural world. When I was eight (again, no math please), I remember being shocked when Kurt Cobain’s death was announced on the radio. That year was also my first concert, the Icelandic singer Bjork’s Post tour. But when I found myself in a small town (at least, in this particular small town), I found out that liking so-called “alternative” music was so not cool. Everyone was into surfing and dancing and hanging out at the beach listening to S.O.A.P. I distinctly remember being invited to a birthday party of a girl in my class and everyone knew the dance moves to 5, 6, 7, 8 by the band Steps, except for me of course. I needed to learn, and I needed to learn fast.

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Smash Hits magazine was extremely useful for getting in the know

Luckily my new friend Sally who lived across the road from me knew what was what. And she was obsessed with Hanson. Sally was what they call a “completist“—someone who collects every version of every album and single and other paraphernalia released by a band. In Sally’s case this also extended to buying every magazine and newspaper that featured Zac, Taylor, or Isaac, even if it was a picture of them she already had. Her room was a shrine, perfectly plastered in a way only achievable by meticulously obsessive tweenagers. Sally’s love for Hanson eclipsed any faint glimmer of feeling I might muster myself. Plus, she owned Hanson. Zac specifically.

Nevertheless, Hanson was my gateway drug to the Top 40. I started taping songs off the radio (as you did in those days), and started listening to songs from Aqua, Spice Girls, and Savage Garden. I changed my taste, as much as I could, so at the very least I could get it when the year six girls performed to Backstreet’s Back  (though where they were back from I’m still not clear) in the school talent contest, to a standing ovation. I was the Cady Heron, finally able to say “I know this song!” and I could respond “I’m Posh Spice” when someone asked me how I fitted into the scheme of things.

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Jordan “Taylor” Hanson

As a skinny nerdy kid with a single mother, monobrow and noticeably second-hand school uniform, pop taste could only help me pass so much. But vindication came in year six when Sally and I performed to Hanson’s Man from Milwaukee (we had to choose this song, as Zac sung it) and we won one of the prizes. “Good job” said my crush outside the canteen, licking a chocolate Paddle Pop. “Really nice” he said, as he brushed aside his Hanson-esque long hair. Pop music was the ticket.

That was, until I was in my mid twenties, dating a musician. This was the period wherein I learned that liking pop music was so not cool. According to this theory, if it wasn’t from Seattle in the 1990s, or wasn’t electronic music created while taking a lot of stimulants, it wasn’t really music. I made mix tapes out of love but they were met with derision. I also learned that a lot of this attitude was just thinly veiled sexism and elitism. How could a woman pop singer possibly be a talented musician? Obviously that bad romance didn’t last, and I decided to embrace pop music more vehemently. But in hindsight I had spent so long worrying about taste and how to achieve it, that I had forgotten what I even liked about music in the first place.

All of this ran through my head on Monday night as I listened to the epic two-hour set from Hanson, which it turns out, is an ample amount of time for 20 years’ worth of triggered memories. I had come for nostalgia, but I had instead been faced with two decades’ worth of feelings around my inadequacies in taste.

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Heather Love’s Feeling Backward

The whole thing reminded me of the point that Heather Love makes in her book Feeling Backward: we can’t always “move on” from bad experiences, in fact, it might be worth dwelling awhile in some of these feelings to see how the past is still playing out. As Love states: “It is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting”. Love is talking specifically about the feelings that haunt LGBTQ communities in thinking about the past and the need to attend to, rather than forsake, these memories. But this might also be a lesson for everyone: embrace feeling backward, remember the pain of being a misfit or misunderstood that you’d rather forget. In these memories we might learn something about who we have become, rather than looking for a fantasy hit of nostalgia that can’t ever really deliver us from the present.

Brooke Candy and the Question of Queer Femininity

I think we ought to treat pop stars as philosophers (as constructed as they are), citing them in our papers for their insights on the nature of existence and revealing to us the pulse and contradictions of dominant culture. But we must proceed with caution: like all philosophers, pop stars are often deeply problematic. On this note, I think LA rapper/singer Brooke Candy is worth exploring. She shows how all art is appropriation, but is a reminder that cashing in on subordinate cultures is vastly different from trying to rip open a norm from the inside out. She’s also an interesting case for what she does (and doesn’t) show us about the queer potential of femininity.

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Brooke Candy (left) in Grimes’ (right) video for “Genesis

Candy provides the kind of sexual, aggressive, high-femme, esoteric visuals that follow firmly in the tradition of the mega-pop-queens before her, like Lady Gaga and Madonna. However when she first came onto the scene in 2012 with her clip for “Das Me” she was called out for cultural appropriation, along with others like Miley Cyrus who appeared to be cashing in on black culture.

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Candy in “Das Me”

Candy’s stylisation referencing black culture was focused on at the time, but we might also note Candy’s fetishisation of disability as shown in the frame below, which is also clearly referencing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi. As in many cases where cultural appropriation is pointed out, Candy’s would-be fans challenged her to try and speak from her own position instead.

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The woman pushing Candy along here seems to be saying to the director “Really? You don’t see how many levels of wrong this is?”

However, the problem with the demand to “speak only for yourself” is that it’s difficult figuring out what that should (or can) look like. How can we avoid appropriation in art when culture circulates in endlessly reverberating ways in a globalised world? After all, the postmodern turn taught us that truth is multiple, and that meaning ought not be essentialised in bodies or objects or things…right? The solution here might be: why not turn to the “norm” as a focus for your experimentation instead?

We can see this method playing out *some* of Candy’s subsequent work, where she engages with embodiments of “ideal” (white, blonde, pretty, and so on) femininity and amps it up.

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From “Happy Days“: Candy plays on ideas of cuteness and sexual performance

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From “Paper or Plastic“: Candy organises for her sister-wives to shoot their oppressor

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From “Nasty“: Candy blurs the distinction between stripper and Victoria’s Secret Model, with camp sensibilities

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From “A Study in Duality”: Candy thinks through the relationship between sex and death (among other things). Here she is shown wearing her feminine armour, which appears throughout many of her clips

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From “Opulence“: Candy explores issues of greed, death and power. Here Candy appears to be taking the trope “diamonds are a girls best friend” to a new level (though, it could also be argued she is tapping into imagery of Shiva)

Many of her videos contain Candy playing with being grotesque, violent, scary, overwhelming, sad, and hysterical at the same time as “showing” us her objectified body. What we gain from Candy as philosopher is an engagement with the idea of the queer potential of femininity. That is, where femininity can be made “strange”, where the expectations of sexuality and gender cannot be neatly contained. Often this borders into “cultural appropriation”, and Candy fails to cast off the overt symbols and accessories of marginalised cultures (which, really should tell us something about the “norm”).

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Candy has questionable Chola curls going on in her latest clip for “Living Out Loud” but also seems to be channelling Miley Cyrus circa 2013

Candy grew up in a remarkable context—her parents were divorced, and while her mother worked as a nurse, her father worked as the chief financial officer of Hustler magazine. Despite (or perhaps because of) this “duality” of life experiences, it appears that she has been signed to a major label and for all intents and purposes is as corporately-driven as other stars.

Herein lies one of the major problems of Candy: though she’s just like every other pop star trying to make a buck, she’s pretending she’s something “alternative”. As she stated in one interview: “We can watch the news and see what’s happening in the world or we can have our attention caught by some famous asshole in a red dress…Who cares who wore what at the Met Ball, it’s all fake bullshit. It’s a big fucking show”. The comment reveals (another) limit of Candy’s queer femininity: she thinks that somehow “putting it on” makes her more queer than those women at the Met Ball. In reality, the drag and camp culture that Candy revels in has always referenced the divas and the “assholes” in red dresses—in ways that is often about reverence and worship rather than cynicism.

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What really differentiates Candy from her contemporaries on the red carpet?

If anything, Candy’s attempts to amp up aspects of her style to border on the “obscene” is that you don’t have to do amp it up to see the queer possibilities of femininity. Appropriation of the norm shows us how very contingent and unstable the norm already is in the first place. And if we rely on strategies of “turning up the volume”, we might accidentally fix that (Met Ball) femininity as “natural” and “normal” by comparison. Where does gender stop being drag stop being gender stop being drag? Of course this is Judith Butler‘s old point, but also as RuPaul reminds us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. This isn’t to undermine the experience that gender is an essential part of identity. In fact, it is rather to make a case for seeing gender as at once constructed and as something that we can’t fully choose. So the theory goes, questioning gender makes space for the gender yet to come.

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Maybe this doesn’t recover Brooke Candy from her problems (she’s practically the Heidegger of the pop world). But it is a helpful case in thinking through the limits and possibilities of attempting to enact queer femininity. As it turns out, gender was never not-queer all along.

Katy Perry Does Critical Theory

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Illuminati realness, or reference to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’? You decide.

There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.

Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.

This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.

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Gosh KP, what on earth does it mean?!

But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:

1. The financial crisis and the American dream

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The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.

2. Heteronormativity

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The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.

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On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.

3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban 

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One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.

4. War and nuclear holocaust

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Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:

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Bleak.

5. Climate change and environmental degradation 

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“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.

6. The nuclear family and false appearances

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Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.

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The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.

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The cover of Debord’s classic

During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.

After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.

When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.

But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.

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Marley climbs out of the TV

While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).

But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…

Queer Music Review – Fun Machine’s ‘Bodies On’

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Fun Machine

As a slight departure from the usual gist of BinaryThis (i.e. critiquing dominant discourse and/or pictures of academically-themed cats) I’ve decided to do a music review. While considering music from a queer theory perspective is nothing new, it’s not often that we turn our lens from the pop culture machinations of the super-famous, to what’s being produced locally. So even though I know sh** all about music, I thought I’d take some time to consider a band from my hometown of Canberra, called Fun Machine and their newest album ‘Bodies On’. My feeling is that while we spend so long trying to recover interesting meanings from the big-name songs we hate/love, sometimes we might miss the very queer happenings right under our noses. Also I have a special place in my heart for this band- they did an ode to Skywhale (Canberra’s many-breasted whale hot air balloon) with Hannah Beasley last year, which is probably the best song OF ALL TIME (listen here!).

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in "fun machine"

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in “fun machine”

But before we begin, here’s a SUPER quick run down of what I mean when I say “queer theory perspective” (for a longer explanation of queer theory, see here or here). Questions I considered for this review are:
– How is the fixity of identity (such as sexuality, gender or human-ness) being challenged?
– What are the ways in which ideas of “normal” are being critiqued?
– Are there any other openings being made for ruptures/transformations of the way we usually understand the world?

An image from the band's page: apparently you can "NEVER have too much glitter"

An image from the band’s page: apparently you can “NEVER have too much glitter”

As you might notice from those questions, though queer theory has its historical foundations in gay and lesbian activism, a “queer” perspective (though connected to questions of identity) can be about more than just gender and sexuality: doing queer theory involves challenging the way we think. In this sense, “to queer” can mean to make the familiar seem strange. While I have literally no idea how these guys identify in terms of gender or sexuality, that’s not what a queer perspective necessarily needs to involve – it’s about shaking things up. Having said that, sometimes queer is just about glitter – which incidentally, these guys are definitely into.

One thing that I really love about this band is the way they switch between different vocalists, styles, instruments and subjects…Listening to their new album in full for the first time, I had no idea what to expect from one track to the next. They’re also certainly not one of those bands where all their songs sound the same (as a side note here, honestly when the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful‘ came out last year, I genuinely thought it was a re-release of one of her earlier songs. Silly me). Point is, Fun Machine are far from boring. But what of their queer themes? Oh god get to the queer themes already! I hear you say. Okay, here goes…

The first song on their album, ‘Naked Body’, has a rather exciting clip filmed right here in Canberra, involving a crowd of sweaty, body-painted locals:

The clip is richly queer: a montage of skin fills the screen in an ode to hands, breasts, hair, feet and sequins. Blending voices, singers Bec Taylor and Chris Endry sing/shout the lyrics Girl it’s just my naked body/You’ll never touch my naked body/Get your hands off this naked body claiming freedom to nudity, and ownership of their own bodies. Then there’s some loud guitary-drumy bits (I said I don’t know sh** about music) and on repeat we hear Don’t trust unnaked bodies followed by orgiastic images of a dancing crowd smeared in paint and glitter. We see the words “naked”, “fun”, and “rock” literally written on their bodies.

Exposed flesh bursts forth in 'Naked Body'

Exposed flesh bursts forth in ‘Naked Body’

The whole scene adds up to a reclamation of the exposed body as something to embrace, but “fun” is located in your own enjoyment and relationship with your body rather than becoming object to someone else’s desires. At the end of the video clip we see a “money shot” of glitter in an orgasmic rock finish. Transcending boundaries of gender and heteronormativity, music is the polyamorous lover that brings bodies to climax. Here, nakedness is not about being seen, but about being “true” to yourself and your own desires, not the expected norms of sexiness.

‘Shave’ is the fourth track off their album, which also boasts a locally made vid. This was obviously done on a shoe-string budget (I love how you can see the pieces of paper they’ve pasted together for the backdrop):

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Brady Bunch for the 21st century in ‘Shave’

The clip starts with a colourful grid of local faces, a kind of modern-day Brady Bunch where “family” is no longer recognisable as the norm of mother-father-children, but rather the connections you have to your community and the people around you. The video involves these faces (also sporting neon makeup and jewels) lip-syncing Come back to me my love/And watch me as I shave. Faces are interspersed with surreal scenes that push the limits of reality: Barbie’s head has been replaced with the Hulk; a plastic wolf is bleeding from the mouth; a monkey mask is covered in candy bananas. The song finishes by asking Are you dancing/Gorgeous/Chaos/Hard Lust? More glitter bursts from a balloon, and a picture of Australia’s Prime Minister is smashed with an egg. ‘Shave’ opens up the limits of what we might take pleasure from and exposes a multiplicity of desire directed at rupturing “reality”. That the PM ends up with ‘egg on his face’ in amongst the scenes of multi-coloured surrealism, suggests that a different political future might be possible – things might be otherwise if we raise our voices up and shout Hey!

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Fun Machine: a veritable glitter-fest

Other songs on their album are also strange and wonderful. ‘In the Jungle’ has helpful tips for what you might want to have handy in the Jungle: You need a hat cos it is sunny/And penicillin never goes wrong, just don’t forget your games console…But I like to play my way/Play Nintendo in the Jungle. With a melody that reminds me of a late 80s sitcom blended with nostalgic videogame tones, this song may seem frivolous on the surface. But I can’t help but think that one message in this is that in order to survive we need more than just the practicalities of life, we need to play. In other tracks we hear about zombie girlfriends (‘Set You on Fire’), how we change each other in relationships (‘Alchemists’) and the possibilities for change (‘Ready for the Fight’). I couldn’t quite understand all of their songs- I think ‘Souvenir Teaspoon’ might be about taking drugs with your grandma, but I’m not sure. The album drifts from gruff deep voices to the softest lilting melodies – this is a musical landscape of difference and transformation.

As a final point, we might note that amongst “80s german minimalist techno” and “pop” they also classify their musical genre as “gay punk” and “genres are weird”. To me, this sums it up: Fun Machine are queer as f*** because you can’t put them in any one box. I encourage you to listen to their new album or go see them if you can: you’ll probably end up dancing around naked and covered in glitter. And as we all know, you can NEVER have too much glitter.

Soundtrack for Hard Time PhD Blues

Doris will sing your blues away

Doris will sing your blues away

It is fair to say that I have reached the infamous “Valley of Shit” stage that people say comes at some point during a PhD. I decided a little while ago to drop a big section of my thesis that I had planned, as it just didn’t fit. That was a hard decision, not least because it was the bit that involved talking about Doris Day, who I am completely in love with.

Of course dropping this section has made me focus on the other chapters, which seem somewhat threadbare now that they’ve got to be the bulk of the work. And while my thesis is interdisciplinary in its approach (marrying elements of feminist, queer, affect and social theory, in an overall framework of cultural studies) sometimes that can just leave you feeling like you’re doing a crappy job of all the disciplines. haters-gonna-hateMuch like that Britney Spears song, my thesis is “Not philosophy, not yet anything substantial…” All this feeling bad reminds me of this lovely encounter I had with a pair of ass-hats from high school that I ran into when I had first quit my high-level public service job to do a PhD. Sipping cocktails in their work suits they asked me what I was doing with my life, and when I told them, they said “Oh…everyone I know that has done a PhD has ended up on antidepressants”. I left the conversation there.

Are you feeling equally bummed out with your study/work/life? Here’s a playlist of songs to try and get you through the hard times, a few go-to songs that are always playing in the background as I write.

Playlist in full:

1. Don’t It Get You DownDeadstar
From a time when it seemed like there were a lot more lady-fronted alt rock bands.

“Well don’t it get you down…It’s like the heat that burns you /  The knife that cut you / The heart that broke you / Just like the first time”

2. Where Is My MindPixies
This one just really sums it up sometimes.

“Your head will collapse / If there’s nothing in it / And you’ll ask yourself / Where is my mind”

3. The Golden PathThe Chemical Brothers
One of my favourite all time songs. I used this as a text in my year 12 exams back in the day. I think I analysed it as a “journey”.
“And I gained control of myself / And I decided to press on / And as I walked along the supposed golden path / I was trembling with fear all the lions and wizards yet to come”

4. HyperballadBjork
Bjork was the first person I saw live. When I was eight years old, my mum said to me, “it’s time you saw a concert”. And it was great. This song haunts me in difficult times.
“Every morning I walk towards the edge / And throw little things off / Like car-parts, bottles and cutlery / Or whatever I find lying around”

5. Suspended in GaffaKate Bush 
When I discovered Kate Bush for myself a few years ago, life changed. I think I was reading Wuthering Heights and then found the song. That was a good day.
“Suddenly my feet are feet of mud / It all goes slo-mo / I don’t know why I’m crying / Am I suspended in Gaffa?”

6. Adore YouMiley Cyrus
Given my first name, I have often been jokingly called “Hannah Montana”. But it’s only recently that Miley has really come into my life. I am pretty obsessed with her to be honest.
“Wondering where you’ve been all my life / I just started living”

7. Buffy Theme Song
Look, if you’ve never watched Buffy, PUT EVERYTHING DOWN AND GO AND START RIGHT NOW. People have been telling me for years to watch it, and I only started in June this year. It is literally the greatest thing of all time. ALL TIME. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.

8. Party in the U.S.A. Miley Cyrus
Another Miley song, in here because it is such a great pop song. Guaranteed to make you feel a bit better about feeling out of place.
“Too much pressure and I’m nervous / That’s when the D.J. dropped my favorite tune / And a Britney song was on”

9. I Make Hamburgers The Whitlams 
I may be vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t dream of making hamburgers to get all the girls.
“My fourth customer was Sandy / She came in for nothing I could see except me / So it was I too, was eating a hamburger of sorts within an hour”

10. This Charming ManThe Smiths
My mum gave me the Smiths Singles CD for my fifteenth birthday, after I said that I really liked the intro song from Charmed. In this video, Top of the Pops insisted that they play a pre-recorded track. So Morrissey came on with gladioli instead of a microphone. Classic.
“I would go out tonight / But I haven’t got a stitch to wear”

11. UndergroundBen Folds Five
BFF were arguably one of my favourite bands as a small child, and this song in particular. I remember sitting in our old Toyota Corolla, listening to it on Triple J as a kid. Still relevant.
“I was never cool in school / I’m sure you don’t remember me / And now it’s been 10 years / I’m still wondering who to be”

12. Hair Lady Gaga
I saw Lady Gaga when she was on tour in Australia last year. Dressed as a unicorn in the monster pit, I feel in love with her. Before that I really liked her as an icon, but after the concert I couldn’t listen to any other music for about three solid months – she has some pretty serious pop voodoo going on. I like this song as it reminds me of a key part of my research. Hair is such an important aspect of identity for people, which is really interesting.
“And in the morning / I’m short of my identity / I scream Mom and Dad / Why can’t I be who I wanna be?”

13. PerfumeBritney Spears
I was tempted to post an oldie from our good lady Britney, but I really like this new song of hers. I also take a queer reading – obvs she wants her lover’s girlfriend to smell her perfume because that’s really who she desires. Remember Sedgwick’s discussion of the Ménage à trois? Yeah, it’s like that.
“I’ll never tell / Tell on myself / But I hope she smells my perfume”

14. You are the Music in MeHigh School Musical 2
If this isn’t the best cheesiest heartwarming song ever, then I don’t know what is.
Also, Zac Efron.
“When I hear my favorite song / I know that we belong / Oh, you are the music in me”

15. Secret LoveDoris Day
I used to skip school sometimes as a kid just to watch Doris Day movies that were on during daytime television (this was before the internet you guys). Well, my love’s not so secret – Doris Day 4EVA xox
“Now I shout it from the highest hills / Even told the golden daffodils / At last my heart’s an open door / And my secret love’s no secret anymore”

I hope you enjoyed this mix tape. What songs get you through the hard times?

Cultural Citizenship, Identity Politics and Spaces of Belonging

Music brings people together...and I'm not just talking music festivals

Music brings people together…and I’m not just talking music festivals

A few weeks ago I came across this article on “cultural citizenship” as discussed by a recent panel at Harvard University. What fascinated me was the focus on conceptualising citizenship as not simply related to national identity or civic activity, but to the artistic creation of spaces of belonging with others. More specifically, this article considers how shared creative activities can engender inclusion that isn’t simply about enveloping the other in a predefined space, but is in fact about creating a new space with the other. As panellist Colin Jacobson is quoted as saying, “In order to play with someone else, you have to have a shared common ground on which to stand”.

Notably it seems that cultural citizenship is also explicitly connected with ideas about minority expression, and as this article also discusses, the importance of being able to perform significant traditional forms of music in new contexts. However, the broader theme of creativity as key to emergent spaces of belonging that does not take identity, simple “pluralism”, or assimilation as centralising concepts par excellence for notions of belonging,  I think has relevance to potentially imagining new possibilities of gender and sexuality beyond binaries like man/woman and gay/straight outside of the problematics of identity politics.

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Perhaps we could see painting together as creating a space of belonging too

To test this idea, I racked my brain – could I think of an example where artistic expression is being used to develop such as space related to gender and sexuality? Then I realised, the queer choir I was part of last year does in many ways function as a model of artistic inclusivity in the Canberra community. Though the Qwire (as it is known) is also sometimes called the “Canberra Gay and Lesbian Choir” this is perhaps due more to its sexuality-politics historical roots in the 90s, than its current member base. Qwire was one of the first places where I felt very welcomed in the queer community “despite” identifying as pan/bisexual. There were of course a few people who I felt maybe weren’t so keen to chat to me once they heard I had a boyfriend. But aside from the individual-to-individual differences of orientation and opinion, the point is that as a whole Qwire is a place for singing together and thus creating a space for (literally!) expressing oneself in harmony with others. In choir I was more than just a funny sounding alto line – I was part of beautiful and complex chords.

The possibilities of artistic expression are endless...

The possibilities of artistic expression are endless…

This year I’m meant to be focusing more on study (blogging counts right? *cough*) so I’m taking a break from Qwire and enjoying being on the receiving end of many of their public performances. But when I think about my time there, the more it strikes me as a great thing to have been a part of. Often the Qwire performs at events where there might be a lot of problematic identity politics stuff going down – where questions might be being raised about only a narrow proportion of the queer community being represented, etc – but then Qwire will step up and sing, and for a moment at least those political tensions are put aside. Because Qwire is a veritable alphabet soup, and there’s a lot more joy and playfulness than there is policing of identity boundaries. And it seems to me that even if you’re just listening, you’re part of a new shared space.