‘”Farò quel che mi piacerà”: Fictional Women in Villotta Voice Resistance’

My contribution to Sexualities, Textualities, Art and Music in Early Modern Italy ed. Melanie L. Marshall, Linda L. Carroll and Katherine A. McIver (Ashgate, 2014) is now available to the public courtesy of UCC’s institutional repository. Please do download and read it!

‘I will do what I want’, so Toni, a young woman, informs her father about his plans for her marital future. This line from a sixteenth-century villotta by a little-known actor-musician, Alvise Castellino, confounds much of the scholarly consensus around early modern female autonomy. Popular entertainment like Castellino’s villotte bears out the findings of recent archival studies by Linda L. Carroll, and Emlyn Eisenach, that women from the lower echelons of society had significant input into their marriages. Castellino appears to have specialised in solo performances of multi-character songs, and his women characters are outspoken and challenge patriarchal norms. His 1541 collection of villotte—his only known publication, and the only collection of its type to contain so many songs with women’s speech—was dedicated to Duke Ercole II d’Este and may have had particular significance at the ducal court of Ferrara, where the duke and Duchess Renée de France were engaged in battles over her authority and speech. The comic treatment of songs in women’s voice resonates with the fraught relationship between the duke and duchess, in particular Ercole’s struggle to control René and thereby control his relationship with France.


Sexualities, Textualities, Art and Music in Early Modern Italy Coming Soon

The volume on early modern sexualities that I have co-edited with Prof. Linda L. Carroll and Prof. Katherine A. McIver has just been sent to Ashgate’s production department to be printed! I’m very excited! The essays are marvelous, of course, and it now bears a comprehensive index, courtesy of Samantha Bassler. Thank you to our contributors: Catherine Baxter, Paul Schleuse, Catherine Lawless, Anthony Cummings, Flavio Rurale, Christophe Brouard. And a special thanks to my co-editors Katherine McIver and Linda Carroll.

Gaga Out

The volume on Lady Gaga that I co-edited with Martin Iddon (Leeds), Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture, is now out! Exciting stuff! And I’m already thinking about my next dip in to Gaga Studies–still not “Gagad out” yet. That will be a paper on Gaga, liveness and social media. It’s a bit of a change from writing about Gaga, cake and ice cream, and a big change from Italian Renaissance sexualities (my other big project at the moment).

Talking of cake, not long after kissing the proofs of my Gaga chapter good bye, I found that Lady Gaga had indeed sent Gaga cakes to collaborators: V Magazine, Zedd and DJ White Shadow. In my chapter, I note that many Gaga cakes that I read about online are vanilla with buttercream icing—a confection with an interesting gender history, as it was the classic bride’s cake of weddings past (think Miss Havisham, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman). The paleness was no coincidence, as it symbolized the innocence of the virgin bride. Cutting in to the bride cake stood in for another form of penetration. Gaga’s cakes were not vanilla but dark chocolate with butterscotch truffle ganache, and the sugar work Gaga was a skull with ponytail.

Zedd’s cake:


Degrees of Social Justice

In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors sacking and rehiring the President, in part allegedly because they perceived her to be reluctant to embrace online education in the way they wanted, there has been a good deal of discussion of MOOCs and online courses more generally. I felt then, as I feel now, that there are potentially serious problems with wholly-online degrees; that at the moment, campus education, especially at a prestigious institution, carries more weight. And indeed, one of my fears is that MOOCs end up being used as ways to keep campuses free of students with particular kinds of support needs. Instead of breaking down barriers to social mobility, MOOCs and online education could reinforce them. I drafted this post some time ago and then sat on it, so it’s not exactly a timely contribution to the debate. But the recent accusations that Oxford University demands postgraduate students demonstrate a degree of financial security that many people lack has prompted me to revisit this post as the points about social justice remain relevant.

I followed the UVa goings on closely, partly because I’d not long come back from a wonderful week spent in Charlottesville attending a conference and doing a small spot of guest teaching. Something one of the BoV members said really chilled me. He implied that online education could be a way to appease those calling for local students to have better access to UVa. My sense was that he wanted the campus to remain unchanged, while he offered the traditionally excluded communities (presumably including the black kids my colleague Bonnie Gordon has been working so hard to encourage to think of UVa as their university) an online education so they don’t need to be seen on campus. Well, that’s my take on his remark. Maybe he meant something else.

Before I began my fellowship, I was involved in setting up a doctoral programme in Digital Arts and Humanities at my home institution, University College Cork in Ireland. I am interested in digital scholarship, although I wouldn’t say yet that I do it. I do use a lot of digitised resources. I am a member of an online academic peer mentoring group, so I do see there are opportunities for online networking. I’m an avid user of social media (Facebook and Twitter) and I’ve found it really a great way of advancing some of my own research and developing my thinking. (This post started life as a comment on a Facebook page.) And I’ve watched lectures from iTunesU on occasion, too. But personal interest and professional development as something that enhances on campus development, research and networking, seems quite different from taking an entirely online degree programme, and that’s something I have not yet done. In case it’s not clear from what follows, I am not anti-online education per se. I’m well aware that it is possible to have an excellent online learning experience and a terrible on-campus learning experience. Both forms of education need to be excellent, and ideally they should complement each other (blended learning is all the rage in some quarters).

My prime concern is the perceived status at the moment of different forms of education and how that relates to social justice and privilege. I probably am being somewhat polemical.

Higher education in Ireland (where I’ve had most of my professional experience) seems very different from that in the US. My students have  ranged from school leavers to mature students, and includes those who entered our daytime degree programs via our adult education evening access program. Throughout my professional life (and in fact my student life), the majority of my students have been middle class and had a considerable degree of privilege. It could be a reflection of the kinds of topics I chose to teach (primarilly feminism, women, gender; my courses also commonly deal with issues of class, status, race), but many students in my physical seminar and lecture rooms in Ireland were juggling multiple responsibilities–usually a combination of two or more of work, young children, families with alcoholism, poverty, poor mental health, poor physical health including chronic and life-threatening conditions, family violence, and sick parents who need help to run the famiily farm. Some students needed a bit of understanding and some help to take advantage of the same opportunities as anyone else, as best they could, including the opportunity to connect with other students, potential employers, and academics. I’ve heard academics the world over complain about flaky students. In my experience, it’s not usually flakiness, it’s something like parenting while dealing with poor mental health, financial problems, and several generations of alcoholism in the family in a culture that believes these are individual responsibilities entirely divorced from systemic failures of society to provide and care adequately for all its members. I have watched students with these kinds of life difficulties graduate and go on to work or to postgraduate education. It can be done, given the right educational, social and financial support. At least until Ireland’s first emergency budget a few years back there were some supports in place (although not nearly enough) to help underprivileged and non-traditional students get a decent education and have an opportunity to access further/higher education. Sadly, state funding has now been axed at all educational levels (primary school through grad school) for programs that helped students with Traveler heritage, school students with English as a second language, students with disabilities; and because benefits (including child benefit) are being cut, students with children are having a tougher time, too. When I return, I wonder whether I will be teaching a student body as diverse as the one I left. (And the one I left could have been more diverse yet: not only was it very middle class, it was also very white.)

I remain deeply concerned that campus administrators and politicians see online teaching as a way to remove certain students from campus, get rid of a ‘problem’ student who requires a lot of support, and save money by axing the supports needed to help them succeed on campus. In order for non-traditional students to succeed on campus, there needs to be important changes in traditional education. Most times, these kinds of changes improve things for everyone. So, I’m not arguing for the status quo. I am arguing that there needs to be proper social, financial, political support for equality of access to education, and various support structures in place so that students from non-traditional backgrounds can complete successfully: in other words, meaningful social justice on campus.

Right now, it seems like online degrees are shunned by the traditional cohort of single, childless, able-bodied white men and women in their late teens and early 20s from well-to-do backgrounds, with neurotypical approaches to thinking and writing, and allegedly perfect mental health. (I could detour here to discuss the problems with normative masculinity and femininity, but I won’t.) So, the impression is that online ed is second best, because we don’t push the allegedly desirable students toward it. Students from non-traditional backgrounds, though, especially students with caring responsibilities and a job, are often encouraged to consider part-time online education as a solution to the very real problems they have, like finding time to get to a lecture hall. They might be able to find the time if there were adequate structures in place to help, like affordable, good quality child care on campus, a visiting carer to look after the elderly live-in parent, financial support, or day-release from work. I worry that at the moment there is a risk that such students end up in a kind of ghetto. The worst case scenario I can see? If/when online ed (such as MOOCs and so on) start making money, poor and disenfranchised students could effectively be subsidizing the campus educations of the privileged. Of course it doesn’t have to happen like that, and I don’t know an educator who would want to see that happen, but educators often aren’t the people making the policy decisions that ultimately entrench these kinds of social divisions. The prospect of online education becoming an excuse to exclude students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse sets of challenges from campus is very real. I don’t want campus to be a place for the privileged few even more than it already is. And idealist that I am, I can’t help thinking that perhaps Mitt Romney wouldn’t be so clueless about the 47 percent if throughout his life he’d been educated with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse life experiences. And perhaps there would be more students from non-traditional backgrounds and more diverse students entering politics and so on if they had been able to meet, study and socialise with people with those kinds of connections. (Of course, I’m thinking of Bourdieu here.) Perhaps I’m naive and idealistic, maybe even a socialist feminist, but I certainly do not want to teach in such segregated environments. I’ll believe that online education has achieved equal status to campus ed when the likes of the Clintons, Romneys, Bushes, Kennedys, Heinzs, Haugheys, Aherns, Windsors, Blairs, Camerons etc encourage their privileged offspring to take online degrees instead of applying to top ranked universities. In the meantime, I will strive to make my campus university genuinely inclusive, and a place where people from all backgrounds and with all sorts of challenges can get an education and access the same kinds of opportunities side by side.

Thoughts on the Oldenburg ‘Selfhood’ Conference

The Stormtrooper is making a portrait or is it a self portrait?

Prof. Dr. Dagmar Freist’s stimulating three-day conference on self-fashioning/self-cultivation, Praktiken der Selbst-Bildung im Spannungsfeld von ständischer Ordnung und gesellschaftlicher Dynamik, brought together researchers at different stages of their careers from all over the world and working in and across many disciplines. It was very exciting to be exposed to diverse ways of working, new theories of artifacts, material culture, and new research questions. Although there were diverse takes on subjectivity, Bourdieu and Foucault came up a lot. Some people drew freely from both; others stuck principally to one or the other. I think I am right in saying the Foucauldians tended to find Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the way society functions to be rather too prescriptive. I have read and enjoyed both Bourdieu and Foucault; this may suggest that I am an unprincipled opportunist. In any case, it is clear I need to think more about points of agreement, disagreement, and any potential for reconciliation.

I am not going to attempt to summarise the German papers, since my German is not as good as I would like (although it’s certainly better than it was 3 days ago!), and I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. So, here are my brief summaries from memory of a few of the papers given in English.

Mikael Alm (Uppsala) is looking at a corpus of papers written in the 1770s in response to an essay competition for a new national dress for Sweden. They show fascinating divisions of society—some into four estates (noble, clergy, burgers, peasants), others into a combination of classes and estates. One essay was more-or-less entirely concerned with political class, basically dividing people into the rulers and the ruled. For me, what was interesting is where women would fit in to the proposed social orders. The clergy presumably excluded women at that time, and it made me wonder about the other groups—especially since one of the classes were government bureaucrats (again, a group traditionally excluding women). Apparently women were a problem for these ways of thinking. Did they have the same status as their husbands? Their fathers? Or did they stand outside the social order altogether?

The final day, Saturday, was the day set aside for studies of arts and materiality. The keynote address (Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn) was on the function of things in society, I think principally informed by anthropology.

Dr. Ulinke Rublack (Cambridge) gave an excellent paper on an early modern rival to Imelda Marcos: ‘Leather as Matter of Distinction in Hans Fugger’s Material World’. She suggested an alternative title could be ‘How the Oxford Shoe Got Its Holes’. The Fugger family may be familiar to early music lovers as the sometime patrons/clients of Orlandus Lassus, Andrea Gabrieli, Philippe de Monte and others. I had thought they were a banking family, but apparently they were traders. Hans was not the head of the family, or of the family business, and his role in the business has been overlooked historically. It seems his main function was to build and maintain an extensive network. He had well over 200 regular correspondents with whom he exchanged gifts. He needed to look the part, which meant he had to keep his footwear in good condition. It needed to be fashionable and durable yet comfortable—familiar challenges to many of us today. Each pair of shoes was made to order, and sometimes when they arrived they didn’t fit and had to be adjusted–the leather stretched more, perhaps, or a few careful slashes added. But the point is that Hans Fugger attended to every detail of his appearance.

Prof. Beverly Lemire (Alberta) is engaged in fascinating research on the global trade in printed cotton and the response (I’m tempted to say ‘typically insular response’) to the arrival in Britain of these beautiful fabrics. In ‘Fashioning Early Modern Socieies: Indian Cottons, Material Politics and Consumer Innovation in Tokugawa Japan and Early Modern England’ Lemire described how English fabric-related guilds (woollen guilds, weavers) tried competing with the new cotton fabrics but printing on wool is not a successful endeavour so their final response was to lobby for a ban from British shores, and to oppose it in the most violent way imaginable. Women wearing this cotton in public could literally have the cotton ripped from them, and the women were often beaten; some protestors threw sulphuric acid at women wearing printed cotton; and there is one tragic account of a women wearing printed cotton being set on fire while walking across a square; she burned to death. It seems incredible now, but actually women’s bodies are still sites of political argument and control—sometimes related to clothing, as in the ‘keep your face uncovered/ban the burqa’ arguments which restrict every woman’s right to wear what she wants, as in the cover-your-hair/wear-a-burqa-or-you-don’t-leave-the-house policies of conservative Islamist governments (under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were beaten if they didn’t wear a burqa, and even beaten for pursuing an education), and sometimes related to women’s right-to-choose, as in the new law coming into force in Virginia this week which will force all women wanting to have an abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound; they are not asked to consent to this procedure. (In a transvaginal ultrasound, the doctor or ultrasound technician inserts a thick-ish probe into the woman’s vagina and moves it around to get a picture of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It’s an uncomfortable experience even when consent is given and the procedure is medically-necessary. Since Virginia’s law will apply even if the woman does not want an ultrasound, it is effectively state-sanctioned rape of women. The party sponsoring these medically-unnecessary laws claims to be in favour of small governments that stay out of people’s way. In reality, they are getting in to women’s bodies.)

The thing that really struck me about Rublack and Lemire’s papers is just how far material goods traveled and how international trade was. People may conveniently forget about, say, the Atlantic slave trade (European-made goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, sugar, chocolate, cotton and other luxuries from the Americas to Europe), or colonialism, and instead think of the international trade in consumer goods (by which I mean sugar, chocolate etc—not enslaved people) as a recent thing, but it’s not at all.

A second point I’ve been pondering (and I asked about a few times!) is the sound of clothing and shoes. We can often guess the gender of a person from the sound of their walk because of the gendered shoe and clothing practices of our times. Women are more likely to wear heels than men, and women are more likely to wear jangly jewelry than men. (In my teenage years when I had a few prized ‘Goth’ clothes, one of my favourite items was a skirt with bells on. And now, one of my suit jackets has beaded cuffs that make a clicky noise when I rest my forearms on a desk. Noisiness was something I hadn’t considered when I bought the jacket.) So, did the sound of clothing and footwear differ according to gender or perhaps status? Dr Rublack had come across a letter or note in which servants were required to wear soft-soled shoes indoors because they were not to be heard as they went about their work. And one conference delegate mentioned to me that a clergyman had complained of the noise of wooden shoes (worn by lower-classes) on the cobbles outside the chapel. That would be an interesting topic to look at in the future, perhaps. Maybe I should put some thought into the soundscape of certain streets in early modern Rome.

Image credit: Photo titled ‘The Stormtrooper is Making a Portrait, Or Is It a Self-Portrait’ by Kristina Alexanderson (kalexanderson) on Flickr.

Update: Virginia’s Governor did not make it compulsory to have a TV ultrasound before abortion.

Musicological Conformities and Whiteness in Modern Early Music Performance

No, I’m not quite done with my posts following on from the American Musicological Society meeting in San Francisco yet! As with any productive conference, I have plenty of thinking to do as I work through new ideas and revise my own in response to comments and questions.

My paper was in an evening session organized by the AMS Committee on Women and Gender. Bonnie Gordon and Laurie Stras put together a fabulous panel, chaired by Jane Bernstein, considering Musicological Conformities. The idea was to think about gender, race and class from within marginal groups. (The abstract is on page 69 of the conference book [PDF].) Craig Monson interweaved entertaining and sobering stories of seventeeth-century convent choirs with thoughts on the family networks and with readings of the visual, textual and musical environment. Musical networks included competing family groups of musicians—aunts and their nieces might try to have a monopoly on certain types of music-making (the organists stuck in my mind). Emily Wilbourne opened her paper with an arresting account of stalking her subject (Virginia Andreini) through the archives. (Archival research has a creepy element. To be honest, I love reading [dead] people’s private correspondence.) Sindhumathi Revuluri brilliantly highlighted the colonial treatment of folksongs in her paper on “Civilizing Harmonies: Folksong Collection in Fin-de-siècle France”.

My paper considered whiteness in British early music vocal performing practice. Is it operating? If so, how? Is it in the sound? There’s a substantial body of scholarship demonstrating that, for example, the early music movement is about modernity (e.g. Richard Taruskin, John Butt), the British early music vocal sound comes from the Anglican cathedral and Oxbridge choral traditions (e.g. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, John Potter, Christopher Page, Donald Grieg), and that there are significant gender and class issues too (e.g. Kirsten Yri, Don Grieg). My contribution is to consider the operation of whiteness in this, particularly in relation to vocal conformity. Yes, it’s elite in terms of class, as Grieg and Page have demonstrated.  All I’m doing is considering the possibility that the practice in Britain is racialised as white, in part because of the history of institutional racism and the “possessive investment in whiteness,” to quote George Lipsitz’s book title, that has meant that the sound has been developed in particular ways.

I’m not going to recap my paper here. All I’m doing is briefly recording some of the directions for further research that came up in discussion and conversation. (I’m working the paper up for publication, and in due course a version will be available via my institutional open access repository.)  Some people shared personal stories that shed further light on British vocal culture in the mid-20th century. One person generously said I’d explained her childhood vocal training. Others talked of how they had felt excluded in Britain—even people who came from privileged backgrounds in the US and Canada found that they didn’t have the “right kind” of whiteness in Britain: their gender, ethnicity or religious heritage meant they didn’t quite fit. This does not mean that the whiteness angle is null and void, rather it highlights how whiteness operates differently in different times and places—it is not a cross-cultural constant, and needs to be considered with intersecting axes of difference. (Gwen Sharp posted a great discussion of this at Sociological Images.)

Some took issue with the idea that early music is racist. That is not precisely what I claimed: I was not insinuating that musicians who participate in early music deliberately discriminate against those who do not fit the current cultural ‘definition’ of white. Rather, there is a history of structural discrimination (perhaps better known in Britain as institutional racism) and the sound that now dominates British early music vocal performance originates in those very institutions. The sound cannot be entirely divorced from the social contexts which developed it.

I am concerned that the discourse of purity and simplistic ideas of authenticity are often based on an understanding of an imagined European past that was entirely Christian and white and in which the musicians were male. This denies the diversity and complexity of the past and it denies the diversity and complexity of the present, too.

Female Femininity, Female Masculinity, or Beyoncé Gets It Right, Gaga Gets It Wrong

I don’t have a TV so I missed the 2011 MTV VMA awards in Los Angeles the other night, but I was on Twitter and news travels fast there. I heard about Beyoncé’s pregnancy and Lady Gaga’s drag act pretty quickly. What interested me as I read my timeline and followed up with some news items later is the different attitudes to Beyoncé and Gaga’s performances. Everyone is thrilled by Beyoncé’s bump, while there’s been a fair bit of criticism of Jo Calderone. Perhaps that would have happened anyway. One of my fave comic book writers, Brian Michael Bendis, tweeted that he has nothing against cross-dressing, he just doesn’t like bad performance art, but that is not what has exercised the right-wing press. It seems that the side-by-side performances of female femininity and female masculinity prompted pointed remarks about the disavowal of conventional femininity by one of the protagonists. One the one hand, there was Beyoncé, happily performing her reproductive heterosexuality with Jay-Z (and congratulations to them), and on the other, Jo’s kiss being refused by Britney with the phrase, “I’ve done that already”.

What is abundantly clear is that Gaga/Jo’s performance troubled gender categories more than either Britney or Beyoncé’s. There have been grumbles (from the usual quarters) that she went over the top, took it too far. Much has been made of Jo reportedly using the men’s loos, thus crossing a physical gender boundary. I will leave it to other feminist or pop culture bloggers to pull these complaints apart and interrogate them in detail. Here, I just want to look briefly at a couple of quotes .

FoxNews’s report not only gets exercised about the performance extending beyond the stage to off-stage zones (the male restrooms get a mention in the title) but cannot resist mentioning the masturbation reference, and the kiss. It uses the classic strategy of including titillating details in a moral admonition. The piece ends with comments by two men in the music industry.

“Gaga’s shtick wore out its welcome in the first two minutes. In her effort to be original and run away from the cube hat wearing copycats, like Katy Perry, I think she might have pushed the audience too far,” said Los Angeles-based television and music producer, Edward Paige. “People originally embraced Gaga because in all her quirkiness was authentic in that she didn’t fit in. But stepping outside the more comfortable vixen role could hurt her. Does MTV or its throngs of little girls’ fans want a diva that looks like Ralph Macchio doing a Lenny Bruce routine? I doubt it.”

The complaint is apparently that Gaga-as-Joe is inauthentic whereas Gaga-as-Gaga is not. However, Paige immediately contradicts his statement of the authenticity of Gaga’s quirkiness with his observation that Gaga was performing a “vixen role” and thus it was neither authentic or particularly quirky (because it’s a recognisable type). So, Gaga’s performances are all inauthentic, but some are more inauthentic than others. Female performance of highly sexual femininity++ is less inauthentic than female performance of highly sexual masculinity++, presumably because of a perceived alignment between the body and the role (sex & gender). [Plenty of theorists have debunked that distinction; if you’re looking for reading material, I recommend Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter and Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies.] Clearly Paige feels that aligning body and role/costume makes more business sense. (Did he miss the speculation that Gaga was a drag queen, I wonder?) It’s kinda hard to subject the paragraph to much in the way of analysis because bits of it are really quite unclear. Did Paige mean the fans were little girls, or that the performers, the divas, were little girls? The apostrophe could be an error. One thing’s for sure: it really reeks of condescension toward women—performers and fans.

Fox’s second music business response comes from Jed Smith, who opens up a slightly different dimension.

“Gaga’s persistence as ‘Joe Calderone’ degraded an otherwise enjoyable VMAs, and stood in stark contrast to tasteful and classy presentations by the likes of Adele. Gaga’s performance art philosophy may excuse this, but it remains a poor execution of what, at this point, falls squarely into predictably ‘random’ pattern of behavior,” added Jed Smith, head of music composition company, Beta Fish. “If Gaga’s going to be a guy, she should be the biggest bear on the stage, not some sleazy beta karate kid knock off!”

The main complaints here revolve around class. Adele gets the thumbs up for being “tasteful” and “classy”. Gaga’s performance was not well done and in poor taste, apparently in part because it was for the duration of the event; one wonders whether Adele ceased being Adele at some point during the show. ‘Predictably “random”’ evokes the classic figure of the unruly woman who just ruins everything. The complaint here appears to be that Gaga was not classy as a woman. I found the last sentence a little more surprising: Jo Calderone was not classy as a guy, and Gaga’s mistake was to perform the wrong kind of masculinity. I am kinda curious whether Gaga as, say, George Clooney would have made much difference (assuming that his is the right kind of masculinity).

The International Business Times is ahead of Fox News: they did a bit of research. Turns out Jo made his debut in Vogue Hommes Japan in 2010. Jo is a mechanic from New Jersey (his family is Sicilian, from Palermo) with a penchant for muscle cars and an ambition to own his own car shop. One things seems certain: Jo Calderone will be making future appearances.