BIG FEELINGS, QUEER PHENOMENOLOGY, AND THE OPHELIAS

I’m giving a lecture on The Ophelias next week for an entire hour. I am really excited about this, not only because I will be able to try out some new ideas for the first time in public, but also because I’ll get to talk about many of my favorite things: feminist rock, music history, Rancière, Ahmed, and affect.
My basic aim is to start thinking seriously about feminist indie rock that is not the riot grrrl movement–that is, indie rock that a) doesn’t sound like punk, b) doesn’t have an explicit politics, and c) nevertheless produces political affects through their sounds. My working hypothesis at this point is that this type of music can be thought of through a large umbrella concept I call “Big Feelings”. This is a term that aims to describe how lyrical content centering the feelings of women and girls comes together with a certain sound to create feminist affect in the absence of an overt feminist position. I am still in the process of researching what this “certain sound” is, and when/how it appears in feminist rock. But at this point, it has a lot to do (in my mind) with chord extensions.
In the early 1990s, Susan McClary famously argued that classical music contains a sexual politics in its formal qualities insofar as it a) narratively constructs a conflict that is staged and eventually overcome; and b) insofar as this conflict is gendered. Building on her analyses of opera characters and the music that helps to construct their narratives, McClary shows how chromaticism and minor-key movements are coded feminine and are presented as challenges that both male protagonists and (coded male) tonic key centers must overcome. In middle movements, where  “madwomen”, “hysterics”, or sexually deviant female characters present conflict in the narrative, the eventual triumph of the male character is musically signaled by the return and re-assertion of tonic major, read as sanity, moral clarity, masculine rationality, and so on.1 As Anne Carson writes, this dynamic stretches to the Greeks, and has to do with the way that (gendered) sound factors into the notion of sophrosyne, a certain model of virtue and sound-mindedness that translated differently for men and women.2
I see something of a similar dynamic happening in feminist indie rock. Of course, it is not expressed in the same way as in classical music, and it does not mean exactly the same things. One of the central premises of all my work (e.g. 20182020) is that music is fundamentally relational, interdependent, and contingent. Therefore, this framework of thinking gendered sounds can’t be uniformly applied to all genres, but must shift into each respective social context, changing in the process. In the context of indie rock, that means two things: 1) feminist excess will be achieved through different musical means, means that conform to the inside/outside conventions of the rock genre; and 2) each band that participates in or produces this feminine excess will do so in different ways.
My theory is that feminine excess, centered around emotionality, expresses itself in many ways, but that one of the important commonalities (in rock music) is the chord extensions that intrude on or break through the relatively diatonic sonic space of masculine rock. This excessive sonic emotionality is not only coded feminine, but is overtly expressed as such, given that it is premised from the very beginning as coming from a woman’s voice and is not necessarily subject to the same types of compositional control that feminine excess was in classical music (because, in short, this  “excessive” emotionality is appropriated and polemically deployed by feminist groups). The type of feminine excess that I call “Big Feelings” is also not the same kind of excess that riot grrrl bands produced, which had more to do with co-opting explicitly masculine sounds from punk and post-punk. The sound of Big Feelings is something different.3
I think that The Ophelias are one of the bands that produces such a feminist affect. How they do so, however, is extremely distinct. As I will address in my talk, their music produces, in my view, a sophisticated musical version of Ahmed’s “queer phenomenology” where our bodies are directed differently in (social/musical) space. That point starts to bring this post into new territory, and so I’ll leave it here for now.

1 If this sounds like a stretch to you, consider “The 1970 edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, for instance, [which] includes the following entry:
Masculine, feminine cadence.  A cadence or ending is called ‘masculine’ if the final chord of a phrase or section occurs on the strong beat and ‘feminine’ if it is postponed to fall on a weak beat. The masculine ending must be considered the normal one, while the feminine is preferred in more romantic styles (in McClary 1991, 9).
Later, McClary elaborates: “Similarly, chromaticism, which enriches tonal music but which must finally be resolved to the triad for the sake of closure, takes on the cultural cast of ‘femininity.’ The ‘feminine’ never gets the last word within this context: in the world of traditional narrative, there are no feminine endings” (16).
2 “Female sophrosyne is coextensive with female obedience to male direction and rarely means more than chastity. When it does mean more, the allusion is often to sound. A husband exhorting his wife or concubine to sophrosyne is likely to mean ‘Be quiet!’” (Carson 1995, 126).
3 Other bands I hear in this “different” vein include Land of Talk, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast, Fazerdaze, Van Dale, Alvvays, Yuck, Girlpool, Broken Social Scene and more. One interesting challenge is to think about why this affect seems to emerge from 2010 on, and on what historical developments it is predicated (including riot grrrl, grunge, shoegaze, post-punk, etc).
Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Carson, Ann. 1995. Glass, Irony, and God. New Directions Paperback.
McClary, Susan. 1991. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

FOUR PROPOSITIONS RE: FEMINIST ALT-ROCK

I am starting to do some work around feminism in indie-rock. This spring I’ll be road-testing some ideas, primarily through conference presentations on the music of The Ophelias. I’m sure I’ll write more about this band here at a later point, but I also want to think through where I see a band like The Ophelias fitting in a broader popular music context. To this point, my thinking on that context looks like this:

  1. In the earliest days of grunge, women were centrally involved in the genre both musically and politically. This is partially due to how grunge overlapped or was entwined with other genres (post-punk and post-rock, specifically, and later, what would become the riot grrrl movement).
  2. Popular music discourses (as they played out in mainstream institutions such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, etc) were unable/unwilling to deal with this complexity, and as a result bifurcated what was happening in rock, giving us two apparently mutually-exclusive categories (Strong 2011): grunge (written about and understood as a masculine genre space) and ‘riot grrrl’ (written about and understood as basically any women playing any type of rock music). 
  3. From there, “rockism” continues to stand for rock writ-large, and remains popular music (arguably) until recently, when its hegemony at the top of the charts has been replaced by pop and hip-hop influenced music. Meanwhile, the riot grrrl movement was quickly appropriated (Spiers 2015; Schilt 2003), leading to the corporate, neoliberal version of (post)feminism that we are familiar with today.

    In my head, the process can be represented as I have drawn below, where the black text represents an actually-existing complexity, and the colored texts (maroon, purple, pink) represent media framings that became reified. The most controversial point might be the blending of the purple line into the pink, or the idea that riot grrrl ‘gave way’ to neoliberal postfeminist music. The reason that I have represented the relationship in this way is only because of widely-known statements from Tobi Vail and others, attesting to the fact that their message had become perverted and commodified; that is to say, there seems to be awareness within the riot grrrl community itself that this shift had in fact taken place, even as the movement or elements of it continued to exist outside of mainstream appropriations.

  1. Most scholarship on women in 90s alternative rock has focused on the riot grrrl movement because of its explicitly feminist aesthetic and political project. But overlooked in this framing are the women playing rock who did not recognizably fall into the riot grrrl camp, whether considered from the media’s perspective, or from the way that these bands sounded. Riot grrrl bands were explicit about their politics, and more often than not, sounded their politics through an aggressive co-option of overtly masculine, punk-derived sounds. But women were active in other forms of rock all along, rock that was neither explicitly political, nor which sounded like riot grrrl rock. Whether post-rock, grunge, or otherwise, I am interested in thinking about women’s roles in these other alternative rock spaces, or put another way, in that other sound. I am also interested in tracking how that sound has continued, evolved, and influenced a current flourishing in women-centered rock bands (Wye Oak, Snail Mail, Land of Talk, The Ophelias, Girlpool, and others). In a pop-music world in which rockism has all-but collapsed, this flourishing that has existed outside of mainstream media attention has risen to the surface. That is: the sound of independent, local rock bands with women at the center is now the sound of rock period. And it warrants further study.

Sources

Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility”. European journal of cultural studies, vol. 10, no. 2: 147-166.


Kristen, Schilt. 2003. “’A Little Too Ironic’: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians”. Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 1: 5-16.

Spiers, Emily. 2015. “‘Killing Ourselves is not Subversive’: Riot Grrrl from Zine to Screen and the Commodification of Female Transgression”. Women: A Cultural Review, vol. 26, no. 1-2: 1-21.

Strong, Catherine. 2011. “Grunge, Riot Grrrl and the Forgetting of Women in Popular Culture”. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2: 398-416.