The Cultural Studies PhD Program’s student/faculty Colloquium series features regular presentations by prominent interdisciplinary scholars. CS student, Christina Riley, interviewed Emily Lordi, who came to the program on February 11th, 2016 to talk about her new project on the meaning of soul performance. Professor Lordi is Assistant Professor of English at UMass-Amherst and the author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature (Rutgers UP, 2013). Check out the interview transcript below.
CR: How does soul performance link the singer with her community?
EL: There are many ways in which soul performances bring the singer into intimate relationship with her imagined or actual communities. For instance, in Black Resonance, I read Aretha Franklin's work with backup singers as modeling a form of black female collectivity that is as much about tension and difference as it is about harmony and agreement; through their use of backup singers, Franklin’s songs themselves make audible a community whose movement is dependent on different (sonic) positions and tones. Further, even when she is singing secular music, Franklin is using a repertoire of identifiable gospel techniques: slowing the tempo ("taking her time"), reaching for way-out-there notes ("squalling"), and engaging the audience in the act of call and response. These techniques bespeak her training in and allegiance to black gospel traditions and therefore embody her claim that, even as she "crossed over" to the secular pop mainstream, she "never left" the church. I am especially interested in the erotic, and homoerotic, charge of some of these community-building (or -seducing) techniques – in Franklin and other artists' tactics of suspense, delay, climax, and release.
CR: Could you speak on ways in which the soul singer's performance may stand as an act of sociopolitical protest? I'm thinking of your insights regarding community solidarity via performances of Nina Simone or Donny Hathaway (or perhaps even in your analysis of Erykah Badu's "Window Seat" video).
EL: In the soul era, many singers like Nina Simone are composing and singing songs of protest or solidarity: "Mississippi Godamn," "Four Women," "Young, Gifted and Black." And yet, I am even more interested in how Simone and other artists express political commitments to black communities even in songs that are not explicitly "political." When Simone sings "Life," a song from the rock musical, Hair, for example, I hear her as reclaiming the much-maligned black (woman's) body, claiming every part of it as an object of compassion and a source of sensual pride: "I got my eyes, got my nose, got my mouth... I got my smile." What's more, in light of the murderous assaults on black activists and everyday people, the sheer claim to survival in 1968 could sound like a taunt or a victory. Donny Hathaway likewise, even though he only recorded a few explicitly pro-black songs like "Young, Gifted and Black" or "Be Real Black For Me," nonetheless consistently created affirmative, black-oriented work that literally helped people survive. So I see these soul singers as providing a kind of template for Erykah Badu's work in "Window Seat," which I think is not so much about protesting the U.S. or petitioning for change as it is about rejecting the very structures of protest and petition and instead projecting new possibilities that cannot be "supplied" or "granted" by those in power or even determined in advance.
CR: In reference to Beyoncé's video, "Formation," you spoke of its power in underscoring the sense of stillness and readiness needed to "get in formation." Could you please talk a little more about that?
EL: Sure -- I should say, as I said earlier, that my reading of the video is indebted that of Zandria Robinson, who published a brilliant account of "Formation" within hours of the video's release [http://newsouthnegress.com/southernslayings/]. There, Robinson describes the video's evocation of a kind of stillness, a lying-in-wait, a way of being in a formation that is not yet active--and she especially ascribes this latent social energy to those on the margins of the margins: poor, black, Southern, genderqueer, trans, disabled... So even as Beyonce is clearly *working it* through her dancing in this video--and in this way claiming and re-gendering the soul tradition by positing herself, following James Brown, as the "hardest working woman in show business"--she is also suggesting that the work is not hers alone, and that it doesn't even always look like work. The wordplay of the chorus--"get information," "get in formation"- suggests that the intellectual and conceptual work of gathering information, thinking, witnessing, might be just as critical as the physical act of getting oneself into formation. And this may be one of Beyonce's crucial variations on the soul tradition of building black community through the virtuosic performance of labor and feeling: that call to collective stillness that, as we have seen in the backlash to her video and Superbowl performance, can be just as threatening as direct action. Because who can say what comes next?
March 21, 2016