Rearguard Opinion? (Slackness b/w Sexism & Sexuality)

I’ve been meaning to share my reflections on the smut/slackness symposium I participated in @ Penn for some time now, but, well, you know how the end of the semester can go. Many of the themes that emerged in the panel have been ‘verberating in my head, however — ideas which seem to resonate with recent debates elsewhere on the ‘osphere, not to mention previous thoughts on booty-bass (esp received as “foreign”).

Grades are in, tho, so time fi get this off my to-do list. Pardon the prolixity — this is a long one.

In my talk at Penn, I first made a point of acknowledging and affirming that something like “slackness” in Jamaica — i.e., an attitude about publicly performed sexual mores and morals — can work to challenge a hypocritical, Eurocentric hierarchy of value and culture of “respectability” with its frank, healthy, humorous take on sexual and gender relations. As some Jamaican observers such as my fellow panelist Carolyn Cooper have argued, slackness can be understood as a trenchant response to official (i.e., church and gov’t) discourse about sexuality and the control of the body (politic). Slack lyrics and dances are strong gestures of opposition in a country still so scandalized by bad words. Slackness thus pushes against a public culture of respectability and decency that masks the enduring disrespect and indecency perpetrated against the disenfranchised (black) masses. Moreover, beyond any pushback, many will argue — Afrocentrists among them — that such ways of dancing, singing, talking, and relating are part of a rich cultural heritage that recognizes the power and importance of (sexual) pantomime (if often in a heteronormative fashion), not to mention both frankness and sly (or crass) innuendo, and — on the flipside — the problems that come from repressing our desires, our (second) natures, and ourselves.

I followed this rehearsal of the merits of slackness, however, by proposing a possible limit case (and hence inviting accusations of conservatism, of being — indeed! — rearguard). I wanted to see whether my co-panelists and the other participants in the symposium might hesitate in giving license to any and all forms of representation in the context of dancehall (or, more generally, musically-mediated) performance. I wondered whether certain examples might strike us as unredeemable from a progressive or playful perspective, tipping so far into suggesting sexual(ized) exploitation and domination that we’d have to recognize it, if not chant it down, as something beneath the basic level of humanity that we can also celebrate, dignity intact, as liking to get low, u feel me?

The panel was titled “Smut/Slackness in Caribbean Music,” and I had to admit that the term smut was puzzling to me in this context (before I was enlightened by fellow panelist and ethnomusicologist Shannon Dudley, who explained that smut has operated in Trinidadian discourse the same way slackness has inna JA). With regard to Jamaica, I found smut a suspicious term to throw into the mix. Why would we describe the practices we’re discussing in that way? Or better, who would describe them that way? What might be lost or gained, politically / epistemologically, from employing such a term, such an analysis, such a judgment?

For me, smut refers to porn, but slackness does not. And I was worried about what might get lost in the conflation of the terms (at least in a US-based discussion). Does the debate around morals, and whether one adheres to them tightly or slackly — especially in the performative, spectacular site that is the dance hall — disappear when we move to the category of smut? Well, only if we think of smut as coterminous with porn, of course. Nevertheless, it seems important, to me, to maintain a distinction between slackness and pornography. (Sidenote: this is a line blurred increasingly by pop-chart hip-hop and r&b — a related and interconnected, if often implicit, topic in our Carib-centric conversation, to which I’ll return).

Like everywhere, one can find porn qua porn in Jamaica: there are “titty bars” and resorts called “Hedonism” and such; there’s imported pornography; there’s even the occasionally rather racy, but not XXX, spread in the X News; and sure, dancehall artists’ descriptions of sex and certain dances or ways of dancing can lean toward the pornographic in their explicitness. Along these lines, it’s worth noting that the video recordings of dancehall events such as Passa Passa, recordings which circulate internationally, and overlap with and inform local scenes in the diaspora (e.g., Florida), offer up-skirt perspectives a good 50% of the time — one may as well call it the “punaany cam.” (But I should note, as well, that the subjects of such shots are as often exhibitionist as evasive.) Still, the term smut is rarely, if ever, so baldly associated with reggae. So it seemed a little inappropriate to me, perhaps problematic — distracting at best — to conflate these terms.

As I thought more about the title of the panel, however, it occurred to me that it might be better to see “smut” and “slackness” not as coterminous, as synonyms, but instead to see the slash between them (“smut/slackness”) as expressing a threshold, a line that might be crossed. (And, yes, this entails ignoring the meanings of smut in Trinidad, but bear with me for the sake of argument.)

If we consider the ol’ “i know it when i see it” test — an infamous phrase associated with Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in the 1964 Supreme Court case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, which hinged on whether a French film could be deemed obscene by the state of Ohio — if we consider that test (admitting that who the “I” that knows and sees is, of course, quite important), than it might be productive after all to interrogate the boundaries between smut and slackness, especially in such a cross-cultural, transnational conversation as this one.

And so I proposed a limit case, something to pose the question: is this slackness or smut? where do we draw the line? where do dancehall participants draw the line? and what are the implications — for gender relations, for questions of interpersonal and international politics and power — of deeming something obscene or not. Such a judgment is a conferral of value, and because I think we can argue for the value of something like slackness in the way that it publicly pushes against certain strictures and structures, while the value of smut is perhaps more dubious, I think these are crucial questions to consider.

My limit case, as I reported back in April, was a (then) recently coined song&dance weh dem call the “Titty Wine.” An obvious play on the “Dutty Wine,” a very popular dance of the last couple years, the “Titty Wine” takes the duttiness, I think it’s safe to say, to another lebel. The “Dutty Wine” is hardly very dirty; sure, it demands some rather vigorous waistline (and neck) gymnastics — win[d]ing is always about the movement of the hips — but it still leaves plenty to the imagination. The “Titty Wine,” on the other hand, essentially calls for the gyal dem simply to rub their breasts, with a fair amount of freedom (or disregard) for what happens around the waist and below. To my eyes, and to other observers’ (and lovers of dancehall, I hasten to add), the “Titty Wine” hardly seems like a dance at all, but rather the beginnings of a strip-tease, or worse, a “breast self examination“!

I played some examples (but do do your own YouTube surfing) — among them, a Trini version; an impassioned introduction by the Brooklyn-based song&dance-engineer, CV; as well as two eager avatars and early adopters, the white/farin dancehall queens, Lisa No Mannaz and DHQ MoMo

Clearly the dance is interpreted differently by various dancehall participants: it’s either beyond the pale or in the tradition, though — as this exchange indicates — even then the dance is not criticized as scandalous, just wack/stupid. I suspect that for many outside observers, esp if one’s focus is the lyrics and the images rather than the surrounding discourse and debate, the “Titty Wine” is easy to dismiss as pure objectification, fantasy fulfillment on the part of the men calling the shots — perhaps, even, as smut (in the non-Trini sense). To wit (?): CV’s latest song&dance, the “Kattapila” — an attempt to encourage the kind of below/around the waist activity which many Titty Winers were forgetting — is hard to interpret outside the realm of pr0n: the promotional video doesn’t even feature women actually doing the dance to the title track, it simply sets the song to a series of win(d)ing/striptease videos culled from around the YouTubosphere. I don’t think it’s coincidental — or insignificant — at all that some of the clips employed are actual softporn / amateur / YouTube-safe (but NSFW) stripteases, rather than videos of girls, y’know, dancing to dancehall (never mind to the title track). I’m sure we can still argue over whether or not this fits the slackness bill, but is there really any question here as to whom this is being made for and whether it can be extricated from the category of smut/porn?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carolyn Cooper responded by noting that the “Titty Wine” (the “Kattapilla” hadn’t buss yet) seemed to contain a fairly strong dimension/connotation of self-pleasure. I can certainly see that. (So does a lot of porn, of course.) And I should note that I’ve sometimes found myself on the other side of this argument, against “rearguard” critics — such as last summer in Mexico City when, during a panel on reggaeton and wrt perreo, I enlisted dancehall scholar Sonjah Stanley Niaah to help me make the argument that a lot of this is simply (if, yes, complexly) a form of play. Or as I wrote when I returned from a brief trip to Kingston last summer —

I’ve been in several conversations lately about reggaeton’s perreo and whether or not it is misogynist / patriarchal / phallocentric. Obv there’s no easy answer to that big question. But it’s kinda yes and no, IMO. Seems fairly ambiguous at any rate. At the least, we could use some ethnography around perreo before we all try to speak for the girls doing the deed. To the whatever-wave feminists who worry that the whateverrr-wave feminists have left the cause behind, I’ve been trying to argue — alongside colleagues such as Raquel Rivera and Sonjah Stanley-Niaah — that there’s a whole lotta play going on in this. Dance a dance. Sex is something else. Drrty dancing’s nothing new & does not necessarily lead to the nasty.

In general, I’ve decided that the best feminist I can be is one who respects women’s rights to do what they deem appropriate with their bodies and selves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have reservations, perhaps even condemnations, that I think are important to bring into the public conversation, especially when certain acts are perpetrated by men. I often have trouble hearing crunk, for instance, as anything more than barking at strippers, which is hardly an ideal model for the kind of healthy sexual acculturation (against Euro-Christian repression & hypocrisy & squirminess) that many of the participants in the symposium saw as a positive dimension of a great deal of Afro/diasporic music and dance. (Nor is criticizing the dudes/dogs in question at odds with allowing a woman the right to be a stripper/sex-worker, or simply the right to take pleasure in playing certain roles — in the (non-strip)club or the bedroom — some of which may be submissive, exhibitionist, or downright “freaky,” as they say.)

It’s worth noting that our views on such topics can’t always be cool, abstract, and disconnected from our (emotional) relationships with friends and family. My own talk was preceded by Raquel Rivera’s cautionary tale of defending the extreme vulgarity and symbolic violence of some proto-reggaeton artists only to want to withdraw her support after hearing from her little sister about a dancefloor encounter that had slid quickly into harassment and abuse. And Raquel’s confession / discussion was anticipated by Shannon Dudley who, after offering a history of “smut” in Trinidadian carnival & calypso, described the challenges and delights of listening to Calle 13 — a group that deliberately confronts the elite/mainstream value system in their music — with his pre-teen kids in Puerto Rico last summer. Thinking about the “Titty Wine” from a parental perspective puts a whole ‘nother spin on it, even for those of us who are quite comfortable with the notion that sex/gender play is a part of life, throughout life, and that frank discussions and depictions of sex can help us to shape healthier attitudes about ourselves than, say, Victorian-era notions or Catholic/Protestant/Puritan dogmas.

I get a sense that the liberty some of us — whether “outsiders” or “insiders” — see/feel in dancehall’s or reggaeton’s or soca’s slack side is akin to what Kevin Driscoll heard/felt in booty-bass, at least for a while. As he writes in his recent paper for Henry Jenkins:

If the dancefloor is a place where it is safe to move one’s body in unusual ways, perhaps it is also a space where the embodiment of the sex act can be exposed, toyed with, and manipulated.

Part of me wonders what happens, however, in the YouTube era when we move from dancefloors into each other’s bedrooms, kitchens, etc. (i.e., domestic/intimate spaces) — when virtual communities are not just imagined but actually interfacing, exchanging media and ideas, & sometimes phone numbers. Does what Kevin calls “the liberating potential of a construction of sonic space in which sexual desire, fetish, and perversion are no longer taboo” hold true when the sonic space in question — which is, of course, always a (special) social space — increasingly extends into other social spaces? (To some extent, it’s worth noting, the overlap between sonic and social space can sometimes seem total, even without — though usually with — the penetration and ubiquity of new media technologies, as in the way that dancehall culture reflects and informs Jamaican sociability and sociality in general.)

We might also ask, to turn to a probing comment by Unfashionably Late Gavin on Kevin’s post, does this liberating potential hold if it’s all about patriarchy and heteronormativity?

The nature of sexuality at play is incredibly important as well. Disco and house were gay musics, or at least queer, and many of the important originators were gay men. Electronic music in general is seen in the U.S. as “gayer” than other types of music. During my ethnography for my thesis, I discovered that techno (made by straight black Detroiters) currently has a gay connotation in Detroit. Ghettotech and bootybass producers (all hetero) are quite consciously claiming dance music (their first love) for heterosexuality — they are not breaking down the walls of sexuality so much as shoring up a very traditional notion of heterosexuality, in tune with contemporary commodified sexuality such as porn and strip clubs. In effect, they are making dance music that allows audiences to NOT question their sexuality — they are comforting conservative hetero audiences. It is interesting, however, that the music seemed revolutionary to a liberal feminist such as yourself — I think that is worth considering further. To me, the queer and open sexual politics of disco are more revolutionary than the concentrated hetero domination in booty bass. In any case, I think we can safely say that the era in which flaunting bourgeois sexual values can be considered revolutionary is definitively over.

That last statement seems like something of a knock for defenders of slackness (and perhaps undercuts a lot of what I’ve said above). I think Gavin raises some trenchant points here, as well as when he questions whether camp and pleasure may potentially undermine a straight-forward reading of booty-bass practice.

The truth is, I really can’t say. And that’s one reason I resist imposing anything like a definitive interpretation on — never mind a call for censure or censorship of — something like perreo (or even the “Titty Wine”). Who am I to say? Who is anyone to say? In order to get a better understanding of what all of this means, we need to bring more voices, more moments of meaning-making, into the conversation. (Where are all the dance ethnographies/autobiographies we so badly need?) I want to hear from more women and girls, from more people of color, from fewer gradschool-educated white dudes. Sin duda, “dame mas gasolina” — eloquent as it may be — is hardly the last word. And while a musically-mediated breast exam may speak volumes, it also seems profoundly silent.