In my dissertation, I explore how black pop stars in the mid-80s (Janet Jackson, Prince, Grace Jones) and some of their contemporaries (FKA twigs, Blood Orange, Kelela) utilize(d) digital music technologies to reroute and interrupt stereotypes about blackness and black people, particularly along the lines of gender and sexuality. In each chapter, I mobilize the sounds, vibrations, and images of a particular artist as a lens into some phenomenon in the 1980s: Janet Jackson and hypervisibility, Prince and what James Baldwin called “the androgynous craze,” Grace Jones and diasporic cultural production, and FKA twigs and Blood Orange and the repurposing of 80s voguing and queer culture. I then tie points from all the chapters together in an epilogue about Kelela. Through these examples, I contend that sound and vibration can do work in excess of the (hyper)visible—and in a special way during the Reagan/MTV era. Since inspiration for this research comes out of observing how much contemporary artists such as FKA twigs, Blood Orange, and Kelela sonically and aesthetically cite the 1980s, I additionally make connections between the political situations of the 1980s and today.
As a Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow, I will be developing a database of cultural performances of the 1980s alongside this doctoral research. Additionally, I will be creating public syllabi that pair some of these performances with academic readings. Committed to a public conversation about the political and cultural implications of popular music, I blog frequently about music.