Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, we publish an interview, or a conversation, with an outstanding scholar in American Studies. This issue we are featuring Stacy Holman Jones, an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida.
We interviewed her about her interest in performance studies and her 2007 book Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf (AltaMira Press).
What brought you to performance studies? Why are you a performance studies scholar?
I began my work in communication studying organizations. My master’s thesis project was a study of a non-profit folk music coffee house. What began as a study of organizational culture quickly morphed into a study of the women’s music performances offered there and women’s music more generally. (Women's music is connected to the women’s folk music movement of the 1960s and 1970s and a feminist commitment to creating a music produced, distributed, and performed by and for women. For more on women’s music and this project, see Kaleidoscope Notes: Writing Women’s Music and Organizational Culture). Through this project, I became intensely interested in how feminist sensibilities are communicated in and through performance and how women’s lives and stories intersect in performance. When I went to the University of Texas at Austin to do my doctoral work, I did so in order to pursue these questions. Texas is one of a handful of doctoral programs in communication in the US to offer a performance studies concentration.
I am a performance studies scholar because the context of performance and theories of performance allow me to ask and to explore possible responses to the questions that are most interesting to me as a scholar: How are women’s lives enacted as a series of performative, storied becomings? How are such becomings both constrained and unable to be contained by canonical narratives of what women’s lives are and are supposed to be? How do such becomings rewrite and write over such narratives?
Tell us about the journey that brought you to write Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf. Why did you write this book?
While I was doing my doctoral work at Texas, I knew I wanted to pursue and extend my interest in music in my dissertation work. While I was thinking about what sort of music I might like to write about, I kept listening to torch singers and torch singing. A torch song is a narrative of unrequited love, sung most typically by a female performer. “Man Man,” the quintessential torch tune (derived from the French chanson “Mon Homme”), contains the lines:
It cost me a lot
But there’s one thing
That I’ve got
It’s my man
Two or three girls has he
That he likes as well as me
But I love him!
I don’t know why I should
He isn’t good
He isn’t true
He beats me too
What can I do?
Now, this was not the overtly stated or even implied feminist message I’d encountered in women’s music. It certainly wasn’t the resistant, critical musical performance I thought I wanted to research. And yet, I kept listening, most notably to Billie Holiday. What I discovered in her voice, in her performance, was a subtly sounded questioning, an ironic distance that asked me, asked her listeners, to listen again. To ask, as James Scott puts it, whether “things are not as they seem” (200). In her singing, I heard Holiday questioning the literal lyric surface of the torch song. And so, I began working on Torch Singing, asking a very simple question: Can performances in which critique is sounded furtively underneath and within lyrics that batter down women’s voices be easily dismissed or ignored? What if, instead, we imagine that it’s possible for a torch singer to critique the lyrics she sings and thus to sound the first notes of resistance, of change, in her performance?
Chapter One "Interpreter of Lies" does not read like the typical opening to a scholarly text. You use a Whitmanesque style of repetition, almost incantation, and the first person. It's very conversational, even musical. Talk to us about the decision to open in this style.
In addition to writing about performance, I wanted to use performative writing. Most simply, this is writing that performs its subject in the creation of Torch Singing. A torch song has many musical influences: English parlor songs, the French chanson, US ragtime and swing, and, most notably, French cabaret, and US blues and jazz. From cabaret, torch inherits a first-person emotionality (features of the cabaret ballads that punctuated an evening of biting political and social satire). Torch also capitalizes on blues and jazz, in which innovations in melodic structure and phrasing created openings, spaces for audience interpretation and participation. In bringing cabaret’s theatricality and blues phrasing and melodies to torch songs, the performers I consider in Torch Singing revise and reshape the standard torch song to fit their performance style and political agendas. If considered as and in performance, songs of unrequited love become torch singing, the embodiment of a relationship of intimacy that is both provocative and participatory. So, in writing Torch Singing, I wanted to create a compelling emotional experience that exists alongside an intense critical and analytic journey. I wanted to write a text that clearly invites my reader’s interpretation and participation. In other words, I wanted to write to perform a torch song about torch singing.
At times, your book even reads like creative writing – a short story – with description and dialogue and a protagonist: "Alice is seeing red. The theater is voluptuous and desperate in crimson curtains and candy apple carpets." It is experimental and experiential.
Torch Singing is performative writing. I love what Della Pollock in her essay on performative writing asks about this work: “It is for writing, for writing ourselves out of our-selves, for writing our-selves into what (never) was and may (never) be. It is/is it for love?” (98). For me, this text is, and asks the question, is it for love? It is interested in what Gilles Deleuze calls “love’s signs,” "signs which can be addressed to us only by concealing what they expressed: the origin of unknown worlds, of unknown actions, and thoughts which give them meaning" (9). The performance of this work is to interpret love’s signs by asking after the unknown, the possible, the selves in this text in all of their radical becoming. And so yes, it is an experiment, and experience, and perhaps, above all, a critical looking into what might be under the cover of a torch song.
Did you get any resistance from peer reviewers, readers, or publishers writing in this style – rather than the traditional scholarly style?
There are always tensions around what kinds of writing best suit what kinds of questions and for what kinds of audiences. For some reviewers, readers, and publishers, this work does not constitute the kinds of work that interests or intrigues. However, there are many venues which are interested in publishing the kinds of work that Torch Singing represents. I think that with AltaMira and publisher Mitch Allen (now of Left Coast Press), in particular, my work has had an enthusiastic and supportive audience.
You argue: "Thus, where some front-stage creative work was loud in the sense that it announced its resistive intentions, there was also a hidden – though not silent – backstage resistance in the cultural work of the 1920s and 1930s. This work is exemplified in the singing of Billie Holiday, and later Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan (and many others) – torch singers who turned love songs into subtle but public protests. Understanding how Holiday and the others refashioned their love songs into hidden transcripts means understanding something of torch as a musical and commercial innovation, standard club fare, and critical commentary."
This passage builds on Michael Denning’s characterization of political cultural work he terms the “popular front” and James Scott's notion and Robin Kelley’s use of “hidden transcripts” to make an argument about the resistive possibilities of torch singing in the context of their rise to popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to the “frontstage” cultural work of the popular front (the creative production of an alliance of the antifascist, labor, and leftist movements during this time), we must also consider the backstage work created by writers, painters, filmmakers, and musicians who were not activists or who did not consider themselves political artists. Kelley writes that hidden transcripts are conversations, storytelling, folklore, jokes, and songs which are used to create an active political culture, though almost always in disguised forms (8). Underground and undercover, this backstage cultural work engaged a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant and constituted a “silent partner of a loud form of public resistance” (Scott xii, 199).
The torch song, as a musical form, became popular during the 1920s and 1930s in the US with the mass production of music during the Tin Pan Alley era and due largely to the intimacy in performance created by the advent of amplification and the microphone. This is also a time of head-spinning social change: the period between two world wars, the realization of women’s suffrage, the industrialization of the US economy and workforce, the New Deal era when assimilation became a national, cultural, social, and political goal. And yet, it seems on the surface at least that the torch song (and popular music in general) remained untouched by such contextual developments, and instead remained focused on the benefits of white, middle-class, heterosexual romance. Of course, advertising such romance was a way to reinforce the virtues of isolationist politics, capitalism, and patriarchy. Some torch singers of this era, and it was no mistake that these performers largely did not fit the white, middle-class, heterosexual ideal, used their performances to do the backstage political work of voicing a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant. Rather than refuse to sing such misogynist material (and deny themselves careers), these torch singers create a hidden transcript on abuse, misery, and desire inside the sweet and sleepy melody of a torch song.
At times, your text is intimate and confessional: "I put on my one Holiday record and stare at each photo all over again, lip-synching your pout, your grin, your open-throated wail. I paint my own lips and press them into notebook paper, trying to write your sound. I place these traces of myself between the pages of the book, pinning my lips to yours in a textual kiss." Your research seems very personal to you. A mission?
My love of torch singing persisted and outlasted the questions I had about its relevance for my research or my life. Like the torch song and like torch singing in performance, the personal is inseparable from the political. And, certainly, my love of torch singing is inseparable from my research and scholarship.
Tell us about "diva discourse" and "contentious conversation."
Even with my focus on the performance of torch singing, rather than the torch song, I could not understand torch as performance apart from torch singers, the women who sing these sad songs. Everybody knows that torch singers are “fallen angels,” “damaged divas,” “tragic victims,” “suicide queens,” “ethereal sonic documentarians of our romantic dark sides” (all adjectives taken from one article by Robert Gonzales on torch singing). Don’t they? Perhaps not. In Torch Singing, I ask whether torch singers can be self-conscious about the radical possibilities of their art. Can they be stars and create performances that move audiences to hear a critique, rather than settle for a thrill over cocktails?
In doing so, I argue that torch singers engaged in a diva discourse, what Wayne Kostenbaum characterizes as an acquired dialect, a means of connecting with others in and through invisibility and oppression (85). In and through such diva discourse, a torch singer is able to overcome the collapse of her self into her star personae into the characters in her songs, all untempered autobiography, all failure in love and life, to participate in a contentious conversation over and about women’s lives. She does so through an ironic interpretation of her material, in her multi-voiced performance style that speaks competing perspectives on her lyrics, in the ways her living becomes an enfleshed and visceral contradiction of any one characterization and interpretation.
Rather than qualify the torch singer’s voice and her performance with a reminder of a victim’s biography or her material, I propose another reading (and hearing) of the torch singer’s performance and her life. A torch singer’s life, like her voice, isn’t a case of metonymy, a single quality. A torch singer is an irony, a composition of multiple subjectivities (woman, star, character) that try, by the interaction of terms upon one another to produce a life and art that, as Kenneth Burke says, uses all the terms (512). Torch singing creates an ironic space that makes it possible for multiple voices, personalities, positions, and subjectivities to have the contentious conversation necessary to complicate matters (Ferguson 157).
In Torch Singing, I posit that listening to, knowing and writing the torch singer differently as female strength, as critic, as the embodiment and enactment of a multitude of contradictions helps us (helps me) imagine other possibilities not only for and of the torch singer, but also our own lives and worlds. Here, torch singing becomes not only or merely performance, but the realization of a life’s work. Simultaneous, multiple, contradictory. Unfinished and uncertain.
Talk to us about "gear shifting."
Gear shifting is a metaphor Chela Sandoval adopts in her book Methodology of the Oppressed to animate feminist “oppositional consciousness.” Gear shifting focuses on the movement within and among critical consciousnesses and politics. The gears represent points of contact among forms of oppositional ideologies and the usefulness of being able to move in and out of subject positions depending on our goals and abilities to speak and act (Ferguson 161). Gear shifting represents how subjectivity and representation move and change, as well as how various “modes of resistance” (ranging from working with existing structures, calling for revolution of those structures, claiming superiority in the quest for change, protecting and nurturing difference by separation from dominant order) are used by the subordinate to resist domination and oppression (Sandoval 64). Those who learn to shift among these positions create a fifth position, a mobile “differential consciousness” that works as a clutch, a medium and mechanism that “permits the driver to select, engage, and disengage gears in a system for the transmission of power” (Sandoval 58).
Sandoval’s gear shifting was helpful in hearing how differential consciousness functions in the politics of torch singing, enacting the “recovery, revenge, and reparation” of a failed romance, a recording industry, a star’s discourse, a dominant ideology (Sandoval, US Third World Feminism 14). I hear the various modes of resistance in how the torch singers I consider in the text, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, k.d. lang and many, many others, perform inside and outside a torch song, a music industry, and many shifting and changing cultural and political contexts. I also shift through modes of consciousness as I am listening and what I hear at any given moment is a tactical move. In some positions, a political critique is clear and deliberate – direct music is a form of opposition and political action (Mattern 26-28). In others, I hear strains for community building and boundary marking. Music is a site, an opening, a space for deliberation, connection, and contention (Mattern 29-30). And sometimes between and among notes and lines and fixed positions, I hear everything at once. I am writing to make room, to create a space for what happens between note and line, emotion and intellect, thought and action.
You write: "In performance, singers and audience members might be moved out of passive subject positions – by the confrontational nature of the lyrics, by the participatory aspects of the form, by a voice that says, wait a minute; think again, feel again. And if audiences are listening to that voice, they can hear its hidden but ringing challenge: Do you hear an opening for another sort of conversation? Can you imagine how things might change?"
Given what I hear and see and feel in torch singing performance and given the simultaneously confrontation and invitational nature of torch signing as a mode or style of performance, it makes sense that I would move beyond my own listening and critique to ask the audience, the reader, if she hears what I hear. If she hears a voice that asks her to think and feel again, to desire another kind of conversation, to hope for how things might change. And so, in Torching Singing, I ask for that participation, for the listener and reader to supply his own (different) ending. And I’ll ask it here, of you, too. Do you hear an opening for critique, for another sort of conversation, for an active search for hope? Listen.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.
Deleuze, Gilles. Proust and Signs. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Braziller, 1972.
Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 1997.
Ferguson, Kathy E. The Man Question: Visions of Subjectivity in Feminist Theory. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Gonzales, Michael. "A Torch Song Soliloquy: One Man’s Poetic Tribute to Ladies Who Sing the Blues." Mode February 1998: 52-55.
Holman Jones, Stacy. Kaleidoscope Notes: Writing Women’s Music and Organizational Culture. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: Free Press, 1994.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon, 1993.
Mattern, Mark, Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998.
Pollock, Della. “Performative Writing.” The Ends of Performance. Eds. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York UP, 1998. 73-103.
Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Foreword by Angela Y. Davis. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.
---. “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World.” Genders 10 (1991): 1-24.
Scott, James C. Domination and the Art of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1990.
Willemetz, Albert, and Jacques Charles. Lyrics for “My Man.” Translated by Channing Pollock. Music by Maurice Yvain.In The Great American Torch Song. Miami: Warner Bros. Publications, 1996.
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