“I Can’t Believe We Made It”: Romanticism and Afropresentism in Works of African-American Women Hip Hop and R’n’B Artists

Another problematic of Romanticism for rock (and therefore North American pop music in general) is Romanticism’s pernicious racism, which I will show instigated the very origins of rock and roll. Romantic ideologies of racial categories and hierarchies fed into the mythologies of white artists drawing from supposedly vulgar, primitive Black music for sexuality, physicality, and authenticity… As the intention of this book was to ensure that women rockers had representation in the discourse around Romanticism and rock music, this chapter was conceived with the objective to make sure that African-American women’s performances and voices were not overlooked in this “elite” space.

Kirsten Zemke, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 190

Kirsten Zemke’s contribution closes out Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism with a discussion of the work of Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, and Beyoncé in the light of Romanticism and Afropresentism. Zemke focuses on these artists’ videos, incorporating discussion of their visual aesthetics in addition to their music, particularly Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control,” Erykah Badu’s “On & On,” and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Rock music has long been associated with Romanticism, at least since the 1960s, as a predecessor of rock music or as an inspiration. But this legacy is deeply fraught with both Romantic-era racist thought, specifically in Gobineau for Zemke’s purposes. These rock and Romanticism studies, including Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, extend the argument by claiming that rock and roll is a continuation of Romanticism into the present: not just influenced by Romanticism, rock music is a contemporary Romantic musical form and perhaps the most important incarnation of Romanticism since World War II.

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

I would add the concept of authenticity adds to Romanticism’s tarnished legacy. It arises in part from Wordsworth’s drawing inspiration from “Humble and rustic life… because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak plainer and more emphatic language” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads) as well as from a longstanding, pre-Romantic concept of the “noble savage,” a concept Zemke cites as presented by Rousseau, which is a deeply ambivalent formulation in itself. It positively ascribes to the “uncivilized” the best features of essential humanity, nobility, but requires them to be savages to begin with, denying to the “savages” civilization or sophistication.

The legacy of Romanticism and race is not entirely tarnished, of course. The Romantics were anti-slavery and overwhelmingly pro-democracy. Blake engaged the psychological legacy of slavery in poems such as “The Little Black Boy” and the social consequences of slavery in his illuminated book Visions of the Daughters of Albion. So Romanticism’s legacy on race is tarnished and ambivalent, rather than exclusively racist or exclusively emancipatory.

Rock music extends the ambivalence of Romanticism’s legacy: Zemke relies on Robert S. Pattison’s The Triumph of Vulgarity and other sources to draw a line from the Black roots of rock and roll to the concept of the noble savage, describing how rock imagined itself to be a “musical return to the primitive” (p. 193). This discursive history is well-documented as part of the history of rock; church youth groups across the country have been warned for decades how the rhythms of rock are used in African ceremonies to summon demons.

Zemke sees in Afropresentism a Romantic response to Romanticism’s racist legacy. She sees in Missy Elliott’s video for “Lose Control” a nostalgic barn dance — nostalgia being a primary characteristic of Romanticism — combined with “‘New World’ Black music” that enables “Black communal solidarity” (p. 195). Erykah Badu’s “On & On” is placed in “rural Georgia in the early 1900s” and features a “pastoral setting” that draws from The Color Purple to affirm “a pre-existing Edenic norm that must be restored” (pp. 195, 196). Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an ambitious, well-received project that “incorporates and displays multiple layers of history, Black history — the Gullah people of 1902, the 1991 woman-axis film, the slave souls of film locations,” does so not to present utopian pasts or better futures, but to reinvent the present (p. 198).

Afropresentism in Zemke’s chapter is the antidote to nostalgia and Afrofuturism that affirms “cross-culturalism and unity between Afro-descendents” (p. 198). It emphasizes Black “diasporic representation, elevating hybrid identities, people and cultures ‘forged over time'” (p. 198). All three of the videos Zemke discusses are set in the twentieth century rather than ancient Egypt or outer space: the present is being recovered in a way that incorporates the past while also projecting itself into a better future.

As Zemke mentioned, my goal with this collection was to ensure that women were well-represented in this discourse about rock and Romanticism. In the preface to my first Rock and Romanticism collection I express regret that only about 25% of the material is about women, either as contemporary musicians or as Romantic-era authors. I sought to correct that imbalance with this collection. But just as rock has been overwhelmingly male, despite its Black roots it is also overwhelmingly white, and for that reason I can’t express enough gratitude for Zemke’s contribution.

Kirsten Zemke is a Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her teaching and research explore hip hop, Pasifka popular musics, and popular music history, looking especially at issues of identity, race, gender, and sexuality.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

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“Laughing with a Mouth of Blood”: St. Vincent’s Gothic Grotesque

Many of St. Vincent’s songs, videos, and stage acts use grotesque scenarios and images to examine the roles we play and the identities we create and embody as well as the anxieties associated with them. They employ “exaggeration, distortion, or unexpected combination” to construct and inhabit subjectivities that are inescapably hybrid and often monstrous: simultaneously life-giving and death-dealing, ethereal and bestial, feminine and masculine, self and other.

Sherry Truffin, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, pp. 161-2.

Sherry Truffin’s contribution to Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism explores St. Vincent’s experimental music against the background of theoretical approaches to the gothic and grotesque associated with Romantic literature. Truffin observes that St. Vincent not only seeks “liberation from received identities via self-conscious self-creation,” but more importantly asks, “why would a free person consciously choose to construct and embody a grotesque self?” (p. 162). That question not only gets to the core of the grotesque in St. Vincent, but so much of women’s music and beyond that to popular music in general: metal and goth and their numerous spin-offs and subgenres. To answer it, Truffin explores the grotesque as the core of the Gothic aesthetic from Renaissance Italy to Romantic-era novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The emphasizes the hybridity in St. Vincent’s work and personae and how it expresses itself in the grotesque in her performances.

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

The grotesque in Truffin’s analysis of St. Vincent is a site of self-construction and liberation, but she also recognizes that in St. Vincent it’s also a painful site of disappearance, destruction, and isolation. She ends by asserting that St. Vincent’s body of work “invites us to regard grotesque others and selves with empathy and kindness. She also invites us to laugh with them, even if we are “laughing with a mouth of blood” (p. 173).

Looking back over Truffin’s chapter on St. Vincent, I recall a moment in the virtual book launch where I regarded St. Vincent as a guitarist and realized that I considered her, along with Jack White, as one of two of the most significant guitarists of our era. They both explore possibilities for guitar music beyond genre, noise, and melody, teaching us how the guitar can reinvent music over and over again, even in the 2020s. This also reminds me of how I once heard St. Vincent complain in an interview about how guitars are invented for men’s bodies, not for women’s — so notice the unusual shape of her guitar.

Sherry Truffin is is a Professor of English and the Honors Program Coordinator at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. In addition to her monograph Schoolhouse Gothic, she has published extensively in the Gothic, on popular culture, and on the music of Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders in Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

“Our Generation”: Gender, Regeneration and Women in Rock

The rock revolution was often connected with male performers and masculine energy; as critics of gender and rock have noted, “rock’n’roll in excelsis… [is] male ferocity, resentment, [and] virulence” …as rock was the aesthetic of masculine energy in the 1960s, the French Revolution expressed its aesthetic energy in Romanticism, which dominated art, literature, and music of the eighteenth century.

Linda Middleton, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 143

Linda Middleton’s contribution to Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism focuses on Alanis Morissette, Natalie Merchant, and the Indigo Girls as performers who “confront one of the central challenges posed by rock, Romantic culture, and modernity by foregrounding the vexed issue of women’s identity and subjectivity in the face of their objectification” (p. 146). She fruitfully compares women in rock and their “deferred recognition” to the deferred recognition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers and artists, drawing particularly from the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. Cites the riot grrrls and the Lilith Fairs of the 1990s as moments when women took control of their artistic lives and identities, she makes her argument about women, rock, and Romanticism in different subsections of the chapter devoted to each artist.

She focuses her discussion of Morissette’s agency on her use of anger and irony to subvert modernity, reading her song “Jagged Little Pill” as a direct response to The Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.”

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

Her section on Natalie Merchant emphasizes collective agency and the regeneration of nature, suggesting that her song “Wonder” “celebrates women’s individual and collective identity” (p. 151), seeing her regenerated Eden as a specifically woman’s space in her own version of revolutionary Romanticism.

Middleton’s section on the Indigo Girls emphasizes feminist humanism and utopia, arguing that the Indigo Girls “synchronize performative masculinity with their women’s voices, music, and messages” (p. 153). She sees in the song “Romeo and Juliet” an attack on the “commodification of love”; in “Galileo” “hints at the shifting permutations of self and time,” and in “Virginia Woolf” the fleshing out of a feminist quest for truth (p. 154).

Linda Middleton taught literature and writing at the University of Hawaii, Manoa English Department until her retirement in August 2017 after teaching English there for 26 years.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

“A Woman with an Attitude”: Male and Female Gothic and Siouxsie and the Banshees

Notably, the [1976 Thames Television interview with the Sex Pistols] also showcases Siouxsie’s measured response, one that encapsulates what her life and music has always been about — a challenge to patriarchal structures through measured control mixed with playful dismissiveness.

Diana Edelman, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 123

Diana Edelman contributed chapter 6 of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, in which she analyzes Siouxsie Sioux’s lyrics and performances from about 1979 to 1988 in the light of scholarship on the Gothic, both male and female. The Gothic posits relationships between “physiological horror,” so that horror is focused on the body, and “psychological terror,” so that terror is focused on the mind, and defines the Gothic itself as “a family romance in which the patriarchy defines what constitutes otherness and difference, but the Gothic itself is what challenges this framework” (p. 126).

Edelman presents a Siouxsie who says she “enjoyed being a freak in a middle class suburb” (p. 128), but who also suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father and was molested by “someone in the area” when she was nine (p. 128). She explores the “horrors of the female body consistent with both male and female Gothic” (p. 132), and in songs like “Placebo Affect” she “exposes the ‘cracks’ in the patriarchy of the medical profession in general” (p. 133).

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

Edelman presents a Siouxsie who doesn’t fit neat categories: she displays characteristics of both male and female Gothic, invites and resists the male gaze, employs masquerade to deflect it, but all in all presents a vision of “woman unbound” that is “consistently Gothic” (p. 136).

Diana Edelman is Chair and Professor of English at the University of North Georgia specializing in British Romanticism and the Gothic. Her monograph Embryology and the Rise of the Gothic Novel was published in July 2021.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

“There Is No Pure Evil, Nor Pure Good, Only Purity”: William Blake’s and Patti Smith’s Art as Opposition to Societal Boundaries

Patti Smith’s Blakean influence deviates from the infamous excess that has come to define rock; rather, Smith presents the alternative, individualized responses to Romanticism that illuminate the spirituality present in rock singers. . . This chapter investigates the connections between Smith and Blake and thus hopes to remind readers that female artists should be discussed in as much detail as males have been.

Alicia Carpenter, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 103

Alicia Carpenter contributed chapter five of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022), in which she brings together Patti Smith and William Blake on the basis of their shared upbringing in dissenting traditions — William Blake as a Moravian, Patti Smith as a Jehovah’s Witness — and how their identities as artists helped them both escape their religions of origins but still express their spirituality.

Smith is of course a significant figure in the reception of William Blake in the late twentieth century and in rock. Besides nods to Blake’s influence on her in songs like “My Blakean Year,” Smith has published her own edited collection of Blake’s poems and served as president of the UK Blake Society for a year.

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

Alicia Carpenter is a graduate from King’s College, London. Currently, she is the Editor of various independent music fanzines, including Live Circuit and BOLD.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

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