Music and Historical Femininity

Music, informally, is often conceptualized as something to enjoy, something that confirms or indicates an individual’s specific type of tastes or personality.

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In some understanding, this informal approach to music can be reworked into the idea that the choices in music that we make embody aspects of our identity.

In this sense, music captures pieces of our identity and our identity is in turn constituted and represented by music. This leads to the more complex and intriguing idea that music itself may be responsible for shaping and influencing our identities, at least to some subtle extent.

The ability for music to express ideological power closely relates to its ability to invoke a set of meaningful emotions or feelings in the individual, and this appears to be a consistent theme with much of the examples explored during lecture.

For instance, it African-American blues lyrics explore love, and it is noted in Angela Davis’ work Blues Legacies and Black Feminism that the blues are distinctive in their “intellectual independence and representational freedom” (3).

In particular, Women’s blues — a genre with major singers such as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith — expressed a sexuality in music that touches upon this ability of music to subvert existing power structures. The power of such sexuality in music appears to still exist even today, with its lineage extending to modern singers such as Beyoncé.

The exact details concerning how music asserts cultural agency, and how such cultural agency plays a vital role in the rights of women and their ability to subvert and resist oppressive societal structures and power relations covertly.

Primarily, before we begin our discussion regarding the role of historical female singers such as Mamie Smith and how their music embodied and ability to interface and alter societal traditions and notions regarding the role of women, it is important to explore the concept of how music exerts this cultural agency on its listeners.

In other words, in order to make the claim that women’s blues had an instrumental impact in defining the roles of women and in regards to the unfavorable power relationships that women experienced historically, we must first establish how music works to produce such an effect to begin with.

In their work Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-first Century, Rene Lysloff and Leslie Gay Jr. detail the how technology exerts a sort of cultural agency on society.

This description initially appears irrelevant to describing how women’s blues might exert cultural agency, since it concerns technology. But the functions of the subject of music in how music shapes cultural agency should be similar. The most notable aspect of this argument comes from how Lysloff & Gay Jr. suggest how technology inhabits a degree of cultural agency:

“…we posit three kinds of culturally determined agency closely related to technology: interaction, knowledge, and experience. Interaction means engaging with the technological in a direct way… Knowledge involves understanding the significance of a device or phenomenon…Experience involves understanding a technology in terms of both past and the present…” (11).

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Further, consider how the Lysloff and Gay Jr. describe the mutual interaction between technology and cultural systems: “…technologies become imbedded in cultural systems and social institutions, which, in turn, are reconfigured by those same technologies” (12).

This describes the fluid constitution of technology in time with regard to the cultural understanding and affirmations regarding the role of technology and definitions of technology within society.

Now that we have established how technology asserts and propagates its cultural agency through time, consider that women’s blues operate based on the same principles, except that the aspect of their music that exerts this cultural agency is sexuality. This is to say that the same three qualities through which technology integrates and interacts with culture are analogous to how female sexuality pertains to culture.

Sexuality is so relevant and so pervasive any society in that the act is consistently and directly constituted: everyday, people directly engage with the idea of sexuality when they choose to have sex or when they come into situations that involve sexual recognition and implications.

This is to say that the prevalence of the act of sex itself and its constant recognition and occupation in our private and public lives — our culture and society — lends any medium that renders and interprets sexuality with a degree of cultural agency.

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The “knowledge” of sexuality must be reinvented to accommodate the subject as it relates to music.

Where technology can be more fully examined and its inner principles revealed through careful investigation due to its empirical bases, sexuality cannot.

Instead, sexuality must engender a further exploration of itself. This exploration of one’s sexuality seemingly leads to spiritual insights and insights regarding the state of one’s humanity:

“They [Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith] preached about sexual love, and in so doing they articulated a collective experience of freedom, giving voice to the most power evidence there was for many black people that slavery no longer existed” (Davis 9).

The collective experience of freedom is a subjective effect that seems to result from this extension of sexuality discussed above, but it is interesting to also note that the above passage indicates the third quality of cultural agency, experience.

By invoking the issue of slavery as it figures into sexuality, Davis suggests that it represents the recognition of a turning point in black history past the point of slavery and into a new age.

Experience is referenced, shown, and constituted through recognition of historical circumstances. In these three ways, sexuality, like technology, takes on the role of cultural agency.

Moving on, let us explore how each of these three singers — Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith — each demonstrate these three aspects of sexuality and the cultural agency that occurs as a result of that demonstration. The general idea of how sexuality interfaces with the idea of the fall of segregation, the theme of this class, lies in what Davis expresses as the theme of “the expression of socially unfulfilled dreams in the language and imagery of individual sexual love” (9).

As Davis also notes, this theme of a lack of social fulfillment does not only pertain to the African American experience in slavery, but also in the deprivation of the Western individual in general through capitalist circumstances. She writes:

“In the context of the consolidation of industrial capitalism, the sphere of personal love and domestic life in mainstream American culture came to be increasingly idealized as the arena in which happiness was to be sought. This held a special significance for women, since love and domesticity were supposed to constitute the outermost limits of their lives” (Davis 10).

This prizing of personal love and intimacy in an increasingly impersonal society became the common ground between majority American popular culture, women, and the African American experience all at once.

This common ground allowed women’s blues its role in interfacing with societal values through its cultural agency, and for it to have greater relevance as it expresses issues through sexuality regarding social dissatisfaction that resonate across race and gender.

This blending of social and racial boundaries across the similar grievances of different groups of American culture through the sexually charged aspects of music appear to be demonstrated in the publication of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”. Mamie Smith arguably ignited the blues movement and allowed blues to legitimize as a form during the 1920s despite racial relations. Adam Gussow comments on the historical moment, noting:

“The story of how black New York songwriter Perry Bradford convinced Fred Hager, a white executive at Okeh Records, to let Mamie Smith record Bradford’s composition ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920s, thereby inaugurating a decade-long race-records boom, is a oft-told tale…” (9).

However, the more important aspect to consider regarding the popularity of Mamie Smith’s records lies with investigating why they became so widely disseminated and well-received in the face of strict racial boundaries in the early 20th century.

As we have identified previously in the essay, the primary mode in which the songs of women’s blues relate to general society appear to be how they address an aspect of social dissatisfaction through sexuality either in love or intimacy. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” ostensibly does just this, as Gussow remarks that:

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“When Mamie Smith sings of the pain of romantic abandonment, the black male lover whose absence she bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of ‘bad news’… threaten to take him away for good” (12).

It is incredibly interesting to note how exactly the issue of love gains cultural agency through its legitimization in addressing or representing an aspect of society. For Mamie Smith, her personal loss becomes legitimized and gains impact and cultural agency through its connection to larger institutionally wrought injustices that are responsible for her romantic deprivation to begin with.

Moreover, the social ramifications of Smith’s music and the power it commands is seen in its subsequent popularity and a multitude of other effects pertinent to its reception. Its ability to subvert the racial boundaries between black and white music and dominant power structures, without drawing substantial criticism for that subversion:

“ ‘Crazy Blues’ was a quiet riot — one that drew no white disapprobation, yet managed to second the new spirit of violent black resistance visible in Washington, Chicago, and elsewhere during the Red Summer of 1919…” (Gussow 12).

Gussow goes on to suggest that Mamie Smith appeared to be able to avoid criticism for this subversion due to her female identity, and this ability is notable, as Smith advocates for a very direct, violent revenge on police officer in response to the murder of her husband in one of her songs. As Gussow points out:

“A population of roughly a hundred thousand black Harlemites, young and old, southern- and northern- born, purchased tens of thousands of copies of Smith’s record at $1 apiece within a month of its release…” (13).

This rapid purchasing of Smith’s music, despite the revolutionary tone of her message shows how one a song gains access to cultural agency, interested portions of the population can respond and magnify that agency by replicating the songs through buying them.

This point regarding cultural power seems to be how black and white boundaries on music began to merge as the population affirmed the cultural agency of particular songs.

This idea of women’s blues being reliant on sexuality seems central to its ability to capture cultural agency. Davis explains the philosophical ground behind such an idea, stating:

“In women’s blues, which became a crucial element of the rising black entertainment industry, there was even more pronounced emphasis on love and sexuality” (11).

As we have seen above with Mamie Smith, her “Crazy Blues” which detailed her love for her husband skyrocketed in popularity, indicating its role in promoting the expansion of the rising black entertainment industry and how to situate the song within the context of a de-racializing with respect to the music industry, or at least the beginnings of it.

Along with these de-racializing elements, the cultural agency that the form of women’s blues suggest also create and popularize the idea of the power of women, as is evident in Bessie Smith’s rendition of “Sam Jones Blues”.

On this song, Davis explains that Bessie Smith’s “performance of the song satirically accentuates the contrast between the dominant cultural construction of marriage and the stance of economic independence black women were compelled to assume for their sheer survival…” (11). Notice how Bessie Smith’s subversion of these gender binaries and expectations through satire appears to mirror Mamie Smith’s subversion of institutionalized injustice towards African Americans in the American experience.

There is also an affirmative aspect of Bessie Smith’s work that Davis notes is only constituted in the actual attendance and live performance of Smith’s works:

“…Smith no doubt evoked in her female audiences, responses that affirmed working-class black women’s sense of themselves as relatively emancipated, if not from marriage itself, then at least from some of its most confining ideological constraints” (12).

In this way, both Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith comment on institutional injustice, though they arrive at their subversions of different institutions using different methods.

In addition, Bessie Smith’s cultural agency was so expanded by her performances that she became dubbed as the mythical empress of the Blues. Her music itself was not the only performative aspect, as we have noted in Davis’ observations, but also her character, manner of speech, and image itself:

“Smith’s voice and stage presence furthered a blues music craze which began in 1920 and lasted through the 1930s. Smith’s blunt, independent attitude, sexually explicit behavior, and love for alcohol are as legendary in African-American cultural history as her power voice” (Scott 1).

The interaction between the medium of music and the performer constituted a complex relationship where each may mutually constitute and enhance each other. This identity of the performer, their personal lives, and the music that they crafted appeared to be notably representative of a set of themes that were felt by a larger proportion of the population.

For instance, in her book Black Peals, Daphne Duval Harrison lists themes such as “advice to other women; alcohol; betrayal and abandonment, broken and failed love affairs…”, characteristics which all seem to confirm Scott’s description of Bessie Smith’s persona in performance .

The expression of these characteristics in themselves, as Davis notes, contrast greatly with the societally conceived ideal notions of a family: “It is revealing that she does not include children, domestic life, husband, and marriage” (13). This contrast, again, functions in the idea of the subverting effect that these musical performances and their actor’s identities have on standard societal conceptions. Davis writes regarding this idea of subversion in saying that

“The absence of the mother figure in the blues does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such, but rather suggest that blues women found the mainstream cult of motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives” (13).

This is the character and nature of how music, when holding cultural agency, is associated with personal identity, rendering and propagating that identity as it increases in popularity. Being able to render the role of the female with her music and performance illustrates the impact of Bessie Smith ability to present and define her own sexuality.

Finally, we consider the third singer in this time period, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who played an even more important role to these subversions and redefinitions of gender roles through the sexuality of her music.

It may be interesting to note the parallel that we see between sexuality and technology in the continual nature of their constitution, where changing notions of technology that arise from new discoveries mirror changing notions of sexuality with the introduction and popularization or recognition of new ways in which that sexuality is rendered.

This redefinition is most clear in how Rainey does not give priority to her marriage or extramarital sexual relationship in “Blame It on the Blues”, rejecting the sexual exclusivity of marriage and the foundation of marriage as an institution (Davis 15). Rainey’s songs such as “Shave ’Em Dry” or “Gone Daddy Blues” deal mostly with how the issue of infidelity is conceptualized, and sexuality plays a large part in this conceptualization because of its relevance to infidelity.

Significantly, it appears that Rainey’s problematic take on the standard notions of infidelity and commitment arises from her belief that marriage acts as an oppressive institution on the women. However, not only was Ma Rainey’s message controversial, but it was also well-received. As Paisley Harris succinctly summarizes:

“The blues, particularly as sung and recorded by female blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, achieved national popularity in the early to mid twenties, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full flower… Between roughly 1900 and 1920, the blues grew from an essentially localized folk form to a nationally popular entertainment” (5).

The massive growth from 1900 to 1920 to women’s blues should illustrate an important concept with regard to how popularity of music influences its cultural agency, its power. The scope of the audience for women’s blues during this time period constitutes an immense consideration with regard to our discussions of the cultural agency of a genre and its messages, as the more people that are exposed to and receive a certain music, the more it colors the identity of the collective consciousness and redefines how we understand aspects of society such as marriage, race, sexuality, and so forth.

In contemporary contexts, no other singer than Beyoncé appears to embody a direct parallel between a massively successful and influential minority individual who has redefined culture through their music, especially starting from a musical genre that was initially not as popular or influential in culture as it is currently (hip hop). Consider Beyoncé’s ability to inhabit a number of identities and appeal to a great and diverse proportion of individuals, as well as the uniqueness of her position:

“Unlike her hip hop contemporaries, Beyoncé successfully performs a range of Black femininities, speaking at once to Black working and middle class sensibilities while fulfilling her dynamic roles as both a hip hop belle and a US exotic other globally. The music video emerges as the celebrity-making medium by which the form and function of the spectacular Black female body is rearticulate” (Durham 35).

In a directly analogous fashion to the performances that Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, or Mamie Smith participated in and utilized to as a platform for the expression of sexuality during some of their songs, Beyoncé’s use of provocative music videos that show the black female body in the context of various contemporary social issues reasserts the power of sexuality and how it can be wielded.

Marriage, like the historical women’s blues artists we discuss, is discussed for Beyoncé in her famous “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” single, which appears to discuss a female right to commitment and security.

Beyoncé also subverts the power relationships between men and women in her songs through the use of very sexual metaphors: “I got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips / Hold me tighter than my Dereon jeans”. Here, and in the given context of “Single Ladies”, the man is seen as another material possession that Beyoncé holds as part of her sexual image.

Ultimately, it is evident that through their sexuality, both historical and contemporary minority female performers are able to subvert cultural structures that oppress them and to effect change in how certain societal expectations are held based on their popularity and reach.

The use of sexuality is an important quality in these performative acts of the individual singer and in their music because sexuality, through its bearing on society and its pervasiveness, imparts a degree of cultural agency to that music. When the message of that music links sexuality with some other subject of life, for instance the institution of marriage, the singer can exercise the cultural agency afforded through this link and through their popularity to alter social perceptions surrounding that subject.

References and Further Reading

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon, 1998. Print.

Durham, Aisha. “”CHECK ON IT”: Beyoncé, Southern Booty, and Black Femininities in Music Video.” Feminist Media Studies 12.1 (2012): 35. ProQuest. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Gussow, Adam. “”Shoot Myself a Cop”: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” as Social Text.” Callaloo 25.1 (2002): 8–44. ProQuest. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Harris, Paisley Jane. “I’m as Good as any Woman in Your Town: The Interconnections of Gender, Race, and Class in the Blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.” Order №1357421 University of Minnesota, 1994. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988. Print.

Lysloff, René T. A., and Leslie C. Gay. Music and Technoculture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. Print.

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