Francesca Royster’s Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era is a fantastic book that explores the intersection of queer and black representation in popular music – specifically in the work of artists who fold transgressive imagery in their music. The slate of performers included – Prince, Eartha Kitt, Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Michael Jackson, Grace Jones, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Janelle Monae – all take on outlandish performance personae and play with expectations of black and queer imagery.
It’s interesting to see which artists Royster looks at – Kitt, Jones, Ndegeocello and Monae are obvious contenders for Royster’s thesis – Wonder initially would seem like an eyebrow raiser, only because as Royster points out, he’s been so embraced by the mainstream that he succeeds in a public atmosphere that “shields” him from the kind of interpretation that visually subversive artists like Jones or Ndegeocello often are subjected to; along with his unquestionable music talent, he also enjoys a crossover, commercial success that is only surpassed by Jackson.
And speaking of Jackson, Royster’s analysis shines brightest when looking at the late King of Pop. In some of the book’s most personable prose, she writes of her introduction to Jackson and her childhood affection for the pop star – particularly his breakthrough album Off the Wall (1979). Royster then delves into an in-depth analysis of the songs, and she proves as adroit a musical scholar as she does a cultural critic. And Royster thankfully avoids the threadbare analysis of Jackson’s physical transformations, instead focusing on his music. And despite this being an academic tome, the language is accessible.
The author’s enthusiasm and interest in the subject comes across – it’s not just a scholastic interest, but a personal one. And it’s not just with the Jackson chapter. Fellow Chicagoans will nod and smile at her inclusion of Chicago trivia, as she shares instances of her childhood – particularly in the Grace Jones chapter, where she recounts tales of traveling on the El to neighborhoods outside of her South Side Chicago; she name checks music shops as part of her journeys (I have to admit I smiled at the Second Hand Tunes – a favorite weekend haunt of mine, when it sold CDs).
When reading Sounding Like a No-No, readers will be struck at just how well-researched the subjects are – the Eartha Kitt chapter is excellent, and gives the book a good historical context, as well. Kitt’s long and winding career is a fascinating example in this book because Kitt’s career predated the Civil Rights Movement, and moved throughout various social movements like the women’s movement and the gay rights movement – all causes that are dealt with in this book.
It’s fitting that Royster ends her book with analysis on Janelle Monae – one of the brightest stars of the urban alternative genre – a style of music that refuses to conform neatly to radio-format urban pop. Monae, an inventive and eccentric performer, plays with gender and race representation in her act (she often performs in a tuxedo, with her hair in a towering pompadour), as well as reaching for other kinds of sounds to incorporate into her brand of pop-soul. It’s a natural progression, and one that is fascinating to watch – thankfully Royster charts this progression with this excellent book.
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