Monday, August 29, 2016

Fighting body shaming through burlesque: the NYC Hot Box Girls expansion to Vienna

by Chanda VanderHart

The New York City Hot Box Girls, pet project of impresario Rebecca Greensteinhave become a New York institution in the five years since their inception, actively touring within the States alongside their regular NYC performances at Duane Park and The Cutting Room. The group, named after Adelaide’s dancing ladies from the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, harvests professional singers and dancers from the worlds of opera and musical theatre and turns them into glamorous triple threats who sing, dance and burlesque through a variety of genres including jazz, opera, operetta and musical theatre. Using this success as a springboard, Greenstein set her sights on Vienna, Austria, bringing her Jazz Burlesque and L’Opera Burlesque formats to Europe and cultivating a parallel troupe of performers to lighten the load on the US group. Austria, like much of Europe, has a much more relaxed attitude towards nudity and sexuality than the States. This should be easy, she figured.

The group has received a largely positive reception -- with recent appearances on Austrian national television for the ORF reality show Die Grosse Chance der Chöre and performances at venues like Porgy and Bess, Vienna’s premiere jazz club -- but it has not been without its hurdles. At a recent performance, feminists  from the organization EGA - frauen im Zentrum accused Greenstein of “setting women back a hundred years” by letting “these girls take off their clothes on stage." Greenstein’s response? “These women feel wonderful about themselves and are allowed to express it however they prefer. I am all about body confidence and fighting slut-shaming – how do they not get that?” 

There is a lot to unpack here. First off, the tension between second-wave feminists and those of Greenstein’s bent, who belong decidedly to the third wave. “I don’t have to burn my bra or cut my hair short to be a feminist," she insists. “I am just as much a feminist as any of them in my lipstick and heels, half-naked on stage." Statements like that may rankle second-wavers who see their sacrifices, struggles and many successes marginalized by later-comers who now nonchalantly gamble through doors they worked so hard to open, yet Greenstein’s is not an isolated voice. While second-wavers have tended to reject the trappings of so-called femininity, which they argue was imposed upon them by a powerfully patriarchal society, later generations feel that they should be able to look and dress however they feel like it. 

Another issue that has to be addressed is whether Austria is as fully feminist as its laws would have us believe. Austria generally legislates progressively in terms of women’s health compared to the US (extensive maternity leave, gender equality goals for the workplace, solid family planning infrastructure and protection), and is also much less prudish when it comes to sexuality and nudity (nude beaches, sex education, legalized and regulated prostitution, acceptance of public breastfeeding). A strong societal conservative streak reveals itself when we consider representation -- there is a very low percentage of women in positions of real power, particularly in the corporate world and academia. Moreover, even generally open-minded individuals have the tendency to conflate burlesque -- a provocative, overtly sexual performance often imbued with a good dollop of scathing social commentary -- with what goes on in your average strip club.

So what is exactly the difference? Like so many things, the intention is decisive: for whom, how and why it is done. Let’s look at burlesque historically. The word “burlesque” is derived from the Italian “burlesco," from “burla” meaning joke or mockery, and came into use in the 17th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used to in connection with forms like pastiche, parody and extravaganza.It poked fun at both societal restrictions regarding womens’ dress, as well as at the popular operas, shows, literary works, politicians and performers of the day. It made the move over the ocean in the 1840s, and in 1868 Lydia Thompson -– a woman no less -- produced Ixion, a mythological parody which was the first burlesque show to take Broadway by storm. Thompson with her gang of “British Blondes” shocked and entranced their New York audiences by presenting gorgeous women, scantily clad in tights – and even playing “male” roles of sexual aggressors. Needless to say it was a hit grossing $370,000 in its first season. By the 1920s and 30s, the incorporation of striptease into burlesque was in full swing with over 150 strip principals engaged in the US, with shows featuring a mix of striptease, song and comedy. Enforced prohibition and aggressive legislation by New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia effectively extinguished such displays in the 40s.

Burlesque’s legacy, according to Robert G. Allen, author of Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture is:

“[i]ts establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen. . . The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the "place" of woman in American society.” (Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991, pp. 258-259)

If burlesque’s beginnings involved a female troupe of women, led by a woman choosing to buck social norms and make a killing while looking absolutely fabulous, that sounds like a great deal of empowered fun. And however intellectual we get about burlesque, it has always been driven by sex. What we might want to be asking ourselves as a society is why people get so worked up about women reveling in their own sexuality? Female nudity and sexuality has been overtly used by men since the dawn of time, though we shrug and say, "Boys will be boys," whether it be in terms of pornography, or every television or magazine advert. We use breasts to sell everything from ice cream to terrible television shows, but the only women shamed are those who are willful participants. Jayn Griffith’s piece for The Establishment on Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie this past March hit it on the head.

The Hot Box Girls’ take on burlesque harks back to genre’s roots by combining extravaganza in the form of opulent costumes, well-known “serious” music, dance, and scantily clad performers, often incorporating striptease and comedy. The inspiration of Adelaide’s gang, whose perceived charm and innocence lies in contrast to the direct, sexual connotations of the group’s name, is also present – a mixture of open sexuality and playful charm. Greenstein is particularly proud of the range of ages and body types her groups incorporate. The women span an age range of well over 20 years, and though all of them are beautiful, most of them have heard at one point in time that they are not. The HBG stresses body positivity, their performers only disrobing to the degree to which they feel comfortable. What's not feminist about that?

The Hot Box Girls upcoming performances include September 1st and 3rd shows at Porgy and Bess and on September 13th within the concert series Mosaïque in Vienna:,

Chanda VanderHart is a pianist, lied accompanist and chamber musician concertizing regularly throughout Europe, Asia and America ( She reviews and writes for ( and MET on demand and is artistic director of the innovative concert series Mosaїque ( and the initiative Talespin: Musical Tales for Big and Small ( Chanda is on faculty at the Performing Center Austria (, the Pädagogische Hochschule ( and the Univerisity of Applied Sciences “Technikum Wien” ( She looks forward to defending her PhD Dissertation, “Das Kunstlied im Wiener Konzertleben zwischen 1848 und 1897”, at the University of Music ( in Vienna this fall.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Care-Oriented Musicology

by William Cheng

Art by Jess Landau (2016)

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the author’s Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (University of Michigan Press, 2016, foreword by Susan McClary), available both in print and Open Access. The goal of OA has been to democratize the book’s accessibility, regardless of readers’ income, class, employment, institutional resources, or professional status. Reprinted with permission from the University of Michigan Press.

Leading up to the 2009 conference for Feminist Theory and Music, Lydia Hamessley shared this memory:
The genesis of the first FTM can be traced to the American Musicological Society annual meeting in Baltimore, MD in 1988. At that conference, there was an unprecedented critical mass of panels and papers that focused on “women in music.” . . . At a Committee on the Status of Women meeting, Rosemary Killam rose in anger when a male audience member (I absolutely cannot remember who it was) suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night. “Oh yes, it is, sir; yes, it is!” she shouted.
What institutional and intellectual alibis could lead a scholar (or any person) to voice a disregard for students’ safety? We can try to guess where this male audience member believed his priorities lay: in musicology, in the study of music—its beauty, import, intricacies. Music served as an out, enabling him to run from extracurricular care.

Maybe this man didn’t mean what he said. No doubt, we all say bad things and lamentably sound off from time to time. Maybe he regretted his words and quickly reformed his views. Most of us would agree, after all, that a professor does bear responsibilities for students’ well-being. It’s common sense and basic decency, an implicit clause in the job contract. Actually, it’s more than just a clause: arguably, it’s the moral bottom line. Students, not least women walking alone at night, have legitimate reasons to be on guard against incident of rape and violence. In September 2015, the Association of American Universities published results of a massive survey on sexual assault. Across twenty-seven universities, “the incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation among female undergraduate student respondents was 23.1 percent, including 10.8 percent who experienced penetration.” Although some writers have since criticized this survey for its methodologies and possible inaccuracies, the disseminated results have helped boost awareness and action across campuses. Skeptics are entitled to continue quibbling about the infamous one-in-five or one-in-four statistic (the percentage of female college students who allegedly experience sexual assault), but at a certain point, the hairsplitting starts to sound apologist. Numerically, any study contains margins of error. The point is that ethically—when it comes to our collective obligations to address these injuries—the margin of error should be zero.

Let’s pose the question of scholarly priorities in a more challenging way. Is musicology about the safety of a female music student? No, it isn’t, if we define musicology starkly as the study of music. But yes, it is, if we envision musicology as all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicology community. In a post-Obama yes-we-can era, Killam’s yes, it is! can serve anew as a disciplinary rallying cry. Beyond overtly activist work, what if we regularly upheld care not just as a bonus activity or a by-product of scholarship? In a world where injuries run rampant, what if care is the point?

Riffing on Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol, Phil Ford has characterized the discipline of musicology as “anything you can get away with.” By this, he means that rather than categorically insisting on what topics do or do not fall under musicology, let’s conceive of musicology as whatever self-identified musicologists choose to do. Disciplinary boundaries incessantly shift and shimmer anyway—so why not justify their flexibility via people’s diverse, quirky interests? “The primary pleasure that scholarship offers is the chance to encounter other minds and thereby expand one’s own,” Ford muses. “The full range of other minds constitutes the true horizon that bounds the humanist; nothing human should be alien to us.” But if musicology is anything we can get away with, a caveat is that the discipline must simultaneously encompass everything we cannot afford to run away from—care, compassion, and interpersonal concerns that don’t always sound scholarly as such. In other words, the purpose of disciplinary belonging isn’t to get away with your choice of labor, so as merely to survive. The purpose is to thrive and to enable others to do so in turn. For scholars fortunate enough to land on tenure tracks or obtain positions of influence, doesn’t the task of caring become even more pressing? Cynthia Wu declares that we shouldn’t “forget about the original purpose of tenure—to protect academic freedom.” Yet Wu also implores us not to forget the duties of academic freedom—namely, to advocate for people who do not possess such freedom and its privileges. Tenure, Jennifer Ruth believes, “enable[s] you to endure unpopularity for something bigger than yourself.” Academic freedom, then, isn’t a license to be carefree. It’s an opportunity to care widely, assertively, and generously.

Ford points to Susan McClary as an example of a scholar who endured unpopularity for her trailblazing overtures in feminist musicology. McClary’s initial adversity can remind us to “appreciate the license her work gave to all of us coming up behind her. She took a lot of crap—the critical response to Feminine Endings was perhaps the most epic bout of mansplaining in the history of musicology—but she . . . did it with style, and she got away with it.” The flair of McClary’s prose, Ford emphasizes, went a long way in boosting the influence and controversies of Feminine Endings. As academics know, writing and speaking proficiently can carry enormous cachet. Sounding good grabs attention. It gets people to care.

With this in mind, Just Vibrations asks a small question with big answers: what is the purpose of sounding good? Rhetorically, sounding good entails writing and speaking in a seemingly intelligent manner, which can impress people, win arguments, and elevate one’s status. Paranoid criticism, as described by Sedgwick, exemplifies some of these dazzling tactics. An ability to reason artfully and communicate efficiently reaps rewards. Even in our most banal exchanges, we’re constantly navigating tricky tides of verbal and sonic propriety. Recognizing the importance of language to our self-presentation, we choose words and sounds that minimize our risks of being shamed or shot down. Fear of sounding bad, sounding off, or sounding wrong can deter expression altogether. If you write eloquently enough, will your paper get accepted by a top-ranked journal? If you speak normatively enough during a phone interview, can you pass as straight, able-bodied, white, and American, potentially improving your chances? If you sing melodiously enough, will your amateur YouTube recordings go viral? History has shown how mighty pens and silver tongues—just ink on a page, just vibrations in the air—can move mountains and make leaders. In this regard, sounding good is a means of doing well in society, if by well we mean claiming positions of power.

My proposal, simply put, is this: what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn’t to do well, but to do good? In competitive economies, doing well tends to mean pulling ahead of others. Doing good would involve reaching out and reaching back, lending help to those in need, and seeking opportunities for care and repair. Repair is a crucial word here. Its many significations include physical reassembly, bodily rehabilitation, restorative justice, monetary reparation, and disaster relief. But repair also attaches to crass synonyms of fix and cure, notions easily co-opted by a capitalist ethos of purportedly healthy competition and its reinvestments in inequality, resilience, and normativity. In Just Vibrations, I’m interested in the ethical tensions within repair’s connotations, and specifically in reparative horizons where speech acts and other sonic matter converge. Literate societies put huge stock in rhetorical ability—yet for reasons of alterity, disability, or disenfranchisement, some people do not speak well (by societal conventions), some are admonished for speaking too much (oversharing and making noise), some do not speak frequently (due to, say, shyness), some speak unusually (slowly, or with a stutter, or via conspicuous technological assistance), some do not speak at all (from injury or trauma), and some speak but nevertheless go unheard. By the same token, some people hear (neuro)typically, whereas others hear less (by normative standards), hear differently (Deaf Gain), or hear too much (sensory overload, hyperacusis). None of these conditions should be grounds for depriving individuals of compassion and connection. Try to recall a time in your life when you found yourself speechless or supernoisy, whether from joyous news or devastating injuries, from a gorgeous sight or a terrible deed. Amid crushing silence or the din of shouts—at the apex of emotion—you felt, as the saying goes, beside yourself. As such, sounding good likely also felt beside the point, as you stayed mute or snorted or sobbed or hollered. Yet these are often the precise moments when we most desire companionship, consolation, and leeway. Beyond questions of words and feelings, Just Vibrations reimagines the viability of solidarity and optimism through our pressures to sound good and hear good in daily life, where sounding and hearing signify more capaciously than as the literal faculties of able minds and bodies.

As a musicologist, I’ve sometimes heard colleagues from other disciplines tell me how lucky I am to spend my days (they assume) listening to and thinking about music. Studying music, these envious comments imply, must be a labor of love. I’ve been led to wonder, therefore, whether musical skills ever enable or prime us to listen better to people and to take up love’s labors more broadly. Do musicians and musicologists—having undergone so much ear-training—possess any specialized aural capabilities or inclinations when it comes not just to music, but also to human interlocutors (how they sound, what they say, and unvoiced concerns)? People and musical pieces are obviously different entities, yet people routinely identify with music and identify as musical, sounding out subjectivities through melodies, lyrics, and bodies. Without painting an exceptionalist portrait of musicianship, is it possible that people who work with music for a living can lead by example in agendas of interpersonal care and communication? Could we go beyond modest understandings of empathy as a complement to musicality, and venture empathy as a resonant form of musicality? If part of musicianship can involve listening for better worlds, then musicology has the potential to initiate various progressive currents in ethics and critical thinking. To be clear, this isn’t saying that music makes us good people. It’s saying that certain aural positions may hold profound uses outside the music classroom, and that as much as anyone else, musicians and music scholars already recognize the immense challenges and rewards of listening creatively and caringly.

As evidenced by Musicology Now and many other websites (see here, here, here), questions of care and outreach have lately assembled under the umbrella initiatives of accessible musicology and public musicology, both of which push scholars to teach and learn from people outside the academy. Public musicology’s label is recent, but the practice is not. Agendas of justice, social change, and environmentalism have radiated through many of musicology’s siblings and study groups, from music education and music therapy to ecomusicology and applied ethnomusicology. By all appearances, public musicology has been happening for a while. And how could it not, given this wired era of social media and rapid informational exchange? Borrowing from Nicholas Cook: we are all public musicologists now. The only question is what kinds of scholars we choose to be and how to lead by example.

William Cheng (@willxcheng) teaches at Dartmouth College. His most recent book, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (University of Michigan Press, 2016), calls for an ethics of care, compassion, and outreach in music and musicology. Website here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Pokémon GO: The Music

by Simon Morrison

My office at Princeton University became a point of pilgrimage this summer. Tourists, pre-frosh campers, local teens, procrastinating grad students, and even my own five year old stalked the halls of the music department hunting miniature pastel-colored avatars from Kyoto, Japan – aka Pokémon. For some reason a bevy of these virtual critters seemed to have nested there, mostly tame ones, although a poisonous Oddish did appear on a colleague’s desk.

An Oddish in its natural habitat.
I atavistically joined the hunt across campus, and then, for a couple of afternoons, through ridiculously overcrowded patches of Poké-rich Manhattan and on the streets of Philadelphia. I conceded contributing to the monetization of a phenomenon raking in the billions, but I had to turn off the sound as I played.

The audio on this “slow game” as initially released by Nintendo is a smorgasbord of smarminess – repetitive, ridiculous, reminiscent of low-budget late-70’s game shows and late-80s action flicks. Leave the app idle, and the portentous pulse that lures users to Pokémon prey seeds to a series of “success” stinger chords from the soundtrack of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It’s a brightly diatonic bricolage, capturing, I suppose, something of the unavoidable peripateticism of the game’s players, but it soon becomes tedious.

Game sound and music is now a sub-discipline in our field, and ludomusicologists like William Cheng and Roger Moseley have produced beautiful work on interactivity through the ages. The subject is also, of course, taken up in the blogosphere and countless online gatherings. I spent some time browsing these sites, and left feeling both full and still wanting, like a child who has overindulged on Pixar or squandered a week’s allowance at Chuck E. Cheese.

Fulfillment took the form of the HYPETRAK Pokémon GO Playlist, “songs to accompany your journey into becoming a Pokémon master.” I might include it in in my Introduction to Music course this fall, as part of a Cheng- and Moseley-indebted lecture on music and games. This particular crowd-sourced playlist comprises ironic parodies of commercial jingles, the quasi-fascistic strains of alpha-male blockbuster films like Top Gun, arena anthems like “Eye of the Tiger,” some weird orientalisms courtesy of the interval of the augmented second, hip hop off-beats and agogic accents along with jingoistic lyrics that encourage Team Valor to the next level. Here we have a present-day example of the timeworn technique of contrafactum, wherein something new is reset to something old. The contrafactum reference in our college music textbooks is to a Medieval motet, but my students will likely better grasp the concept through HYPETRAK.

From the perspective of the previous two thousand years of music-making, the Pokémon playlist is woeful, a mashup of the worst music you really shouldn’t hear all at once. A slow jam crashes into the gym with minimalistic arpeggios beneath cartoon laughter set against nightmarishly reimagined detergent ad jingles. The music of vaunted American experimental composer John Cage, who put screws into piano strings to transform the sound of the instrument into something at once primitive and futuristic, becomes purely synthetic rhythm. An insistently masculine narrator intones, “I will win.”

But some of it, to quote the title of the cleverly curated third track, is “the very best.” Gospel singers hang on a suspension before resolving on the last syllable of Poh-kéh-mohn. The wasteland of the opening incantations is luxuriantly reafforested in the middle of the set as the samples grow more lushly eclectic. Yet the sound never forgets its purposeless purpose. The playlist is the product of bots: no thought has gone into the making of the beats. The closest we come to the expression of human feeling is a brief sample from “Moments in Love” by Art of Noise. Yet even as you might try to parse the various layers of sound to find meaning, ultimately you hear only an echo—the echo of the moment, of the present soon to be not just past, but passé. We are now at a point where our synthesizers can recall those of decades ago; electronic sound can be wistful. Game music now samples game music in an enclosed semiosphere, an emojipedia of digital clichés. There is no time, no place, in this sound as in our world as seen and heard on a five-inch phone screen, no longer animate but anime.

Simon Morrison is Professor of Musicology at Princeton University.  He specializes in 20th-century music, particularly Russian, Soviet, and French music, with special interests in dance, cinema, aesthetics, and historically informed performance based on primary sources.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins Collection at Schubertiade Music & Arts

Schubertiade Music & Arts (a former employer of one of MN's curators) is offering a special collection of material about Florence Foster Jenkins on the occasion of the premiere of the biopic starring Meryl Streep. Since so much of the public imagination about musicians is shaped by this genre of film, it is worth remembering how public musicology can be carried out on the silver screen.

Read Schubertiade's press release here.