Disruptive Divas: Feminism, Identity,and Popular Music

Mari Aoki

Disruptive Divas: Feminism, Indentity, and Popular Music written by Melisse Lafrance and Lori Burns published in 2002 is an analysis of music that lie in the intersection of the popular genre and the disruptive genre. In other words, the two are taking a closer look at music that was widely marketed and appreciated by the common youth, yet shows “disruptive, subversive, and countercultural potential.” (xiv) In this way, the analysis aims to show how the artistic expression goes against the white hetero-normative discourse in relation to sex, identity, race, and gender (as well as gender roles). And ultimately this analysis is done as an “attempt to understand the significance of such discomfort.” (3La france)

Before they take the deep dives of musical and lyrical analyses, the two begin the text with a Preface. In this section, they acknowledge a dilemma that exists in validating work that has been mass-produced through capitalistic practices as politically resistant. In addition to this, they acknowledge how disparate the perspectives of analysis are in this text (musical and socio-cultural). I feel that the inclusion of their reflection and self critique of their work is important to share with the reader at this early in the book for two reasons: 1) It allows reader to trust the two author’s objectivity in their analyses and 2) It forces the reader to begin the book with a critical perspective. The Preface is followed by a chapter two chapters called A Cultural Studies Approach to Women and Popular Music and “Close Readings”of Popular Song: Intersections Among Sociocultural, Musical, and Lyrical Meaning. In support of my last point, I feel that these chapter also show the keen objectivity of the authors. For example, the first chapter consists of Lafrance’s definitions of: the title of the book, how it invites analysis from a specifically feminist point of view, the methodical approach to interpretations of the book and therefore the problematics of interpretation, and the links between cultural and musical study. Their choice to add these specificities before presenting their analysis showed me, as a reader, just how legitimate their analyses would be. Again, another great way to gain the trust of the reader. Following these two sections are the socio-cultural and music-theoretical analyses are the music of Tori Amos, Courtney Love, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and lastly PJ Harvey.

With such a meticulous musical and lyrical analysis, constructed with academically advanced vocabulary, this book is not for every reader. I feel that this book is aimed at Feminist Theorists, Activists, and Music Theorists seeking an understanding of the societal impact music has the potential to make. I found myself with Google pulled up on my i-Phone in my right hand with the book on the left to make it through a chapter having understood it. With this said, having had the patience, I now have a very deep understanding of many complex socio-cultural concepts that I feel are important to have. Will every reader walk away from a 5 page per hour reading session feeling happy? Definitely not. So, this is something to consider before picking the book up. In addition, each chapter focusing on an artist includes music-theoretical analysis. Because this section, too, is filled with vocabulary and concepts only musicians would understand, I feel that listening to the songs as the analysis is being read would be helpful. Fortunately, the structure of the book is in such a way that a reader with specific goals (diving into either socio-cultural or music-theoretical study) can skip to necessary sections of the book.

With that being said, I will now review the organization of the text. I feel that the Preface, followed by the critical acknowledgements of the two authors’ analyses happening before the analysis of the work itself is effective. By laying down these considerations upon analysis of any ideas or works at all sets the reader up with a very objective mindset for the rest of the book. One thing I found particularly helpful by Burns is her focused manner in making multiple sub points under one main point. This can be observed in the section of the second chapter called, “Meaning” In Music: Toward a Culturally Informed Analysis. Here, her main point is the fluidity of musical codes and readers’ competences according to Middleton and Walser. She then breaks it down to three important concepts. She does this with many other concepts which makes it easier to understand such complex ideas. In addition to this aspect of their organization, I feel that it is also helpful that Lafrance’s short bio of each artist (including their niche, their societal reputation, overall themes seen in their discography) is placed before any lyrical or musical analysis. On the other hand, within the questions and contradictions they explore in their first two chapters (written to show the authors’ awareness of the vastness of analyzing art), the two can go very deep into each topic. Sometimes, it felt as though I was being pulled too far away from the objective of analyzing and understanding art for their popularity and subversity. So, it is possible that one would find the text to over-explain, and others may appreciate the consideration. Either way, the format of acknowledging context of analysis followed by the analysis was very effective.

Referring back to the authors’ intentions to, “read these musical works for their disruptive, subversive, and countercultural potential.” (xiv) and “make sense of multitudinous mechanisms through which four women have contested the discursive regimes of sex, gender, and race organizing late-twentieth century mass culture.” (1 Lafrance), I feel that, conclusively, they were very successful. As a female musician, and one that is also interested in the intersection of everything from dance to vocals, from bright and shiny top 40 sounds to alternative basement sounds, and my identity of being the Asian-American oppressed/oppressor, I loved their consistent acknowledgement of complexity in music. For example Lafrance acknowledges this possible argument in P.J Harvey’s chapter, “Some may argue that Ndegépcello’s fantasies of Magdalene are not completely unlike typical heterosexual make fantasies… I argue however, that because Ndegéocello’s fantasies are accomplished through discourses of same sex desire and against discoursed of heterosexual desire, Ndegéocello’s fantasies must be understood as fundamentally disruptive to heteronormative regimes.” (144 Lafrance) These kinds of arguments are ones I make in my mind often when trying to critically understand representation and identity. However, I never get a real explanation of the argument and why it is or is not necessarily valid. So reading such deep dives into gender and identity relations in art both popular and subversive, help me as an artist create art with great awareness and intention. In addition to the critical considerations the authors make about arguments, I feel that they accomplished their goal of helping readers make sense of gender and identity through simply awakening readers to new concepts. Though I did say previously that the two can go too far off track from the main point of the book, these deep explanations of concepts by other scholars truly awakened me to information I didn’t know of before. From varying schools of thought in regards to analysis frameworks to differing definitions of emotional components found in lyrics, I now have a more defined way of interpreting art in general.

While reading this book, I felt an urgency from Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance. This urgency was to be heard as not only valid, but objective. I understand that this was written in the early 2000’s, a time when female artists like the ones spotlighted in this book, were seen as overly emotional or out of their minds. I think of Courtney Love especially, when I say this. I wish I could say this is not the case now, but unfortunately, this stereotype of the emotionally driven, hysterical, airhead woman still exists today. Sometimes, I cannot help but observe this lack of criticality in women around me when expressing thoughts and ideas. Could this observation be a result of my own internalized misogyny? Absolutely. However, I see what I see and I also believe that when women are represented in a hysterical way through media or through the media operators’ (magazine writers, journalists, publicists, and now influencers) interpretation of women, we as women internalize what we see. And from this, a self perpetuating cycle of an inaccurate narrative of what women are, is born. It is a sort of karmic, self fulfilling prophecy where we as women deny ourselves the potential to be anything outside of the box that social media puts us in. My point is that Burns and Melisse are the opposite of this. And in their extremely well supported and self critiqued arguments, I see this urgency to be seen as thoughtful, intelligent, and objective. I, as a female in 2022, wish that more women do read this book to learn, from these two authors, how to see the world for what it is, and speak it boldly. Though women are ridiculed or questioned for their capabilities all too often by men, I strongly wish for us as women not to fall into a place of victimhood because of this. I hope that other female readers observe the confidence and unshaken belief that these two authors present in their thoughts and ideas.