My dissertation “Hyperaural Blackness: Black Pop Stars, New Musical Technologies, and Vibrational Negotiations of Identity in the Mid-1980s and Beyond,” explores how black pop stars in the mid-1980s (Janet Jackson, Prince, Grace Jones) and some of their contemporaries (FKA twigs, Blood Orange, Janelle Monáe) utilize(d) digital music technologies to reroute and interrupt stereotypes about blackness and black people, particularly along the lines of gender and sexuality. Beginning with how Jackson, Jones, and Prince used new (for their time) music technologies to carve out spaces for expressions of blackness during the early days of MTV and music videos, I then turn to how Blood Orange, FKA twigs, and Janelle Monáe cite—and repurpose—their work from the 1980s to intervene in their 2010s present. Mobilizing vibration as an analytic, I trace the reverberations across the sights, sounds, and feelings of the aforementioned artists’ music videos. By proposing the notion of a vibrational historiography, I demonstrate how the vibrations of popular music songs can be used to trace both aesthetic and historical resonances between the 1980s and the 2010s. Through making connections between the recent past and present, I unpack the ways in which the political struggles of the mid-1980s manifest themselves in both similar and different ways in the late 2010s. I conclude that feeling with the 1980s through the pop songs of this selection of contemporary artists offers us a means of learning from the past that helps us navigate our present—and imagine a different future.
As a Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow, I am organizing a symposium during the spring 2020 semester that centers contemporary artists from Texas (Austin, Dallas, and Houston) who use digital music technologies to both express blackness or brownness and historically and aesthetically connect to the music of the recent past. Committed to public access to this work, I will be working with filmmakers and documentarians to archive and make this work readily available on the internet.