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Karen Tongson


Karen Tongson
 is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online. She has a forthcoming book with ForEdge Press on Why Karen Carpenter Matters, and has two books in progress: Normal Television: Critical Essays on Queer Spectatorship after the “New Normalcy,” and Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time. You can also hear Karen talk about pop culture, the arts, and entertainment on the weekly Pop Rocket Podcast, hosted by Guy Branum. Twitter: @inlandemperor

Roundtable: The All-Star Charity Single, Reconsidered
“Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” was the plaintive query of Band Aid, the British pop stars who joined forces in 1984 to benefit Ethiopian famine relief. If the question betrayed what may politely be described as a certain myopia, there is no denying the farsightedness of Bob Geldolf, Midge Ure, and company when it came to the business of pop altruism. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was followed in short order by USA For Africa’s “We Are the World,” and the age of all-star charity single was upon us. Three decades later, the corpus of charity singles has grown to dozens of songs, and possibly a greater number of parodies. The aesthetics of these records are widely mocked, and their efficacy as money- and consciousness-raisers is debatable. Yet the charity single remains a hardy pop perennial. Examples from this past year alone include a song benefitting First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn”; two all-star singles recorded in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting; the blockbuster mash-up “Forever Country,” commemorating the CMA’s 50th Anniversary; and the celebrity sing-along version of “Fight Song,” which served as the anthem of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

This roundtable will consider the politics—and, yes, the art—of this often-derided and under-theorized musical staple. Possible issues of discussion include the place of charity singles in the wider history of protest song and pop music activism; the relationship of the charity singles to gospel, Adult Contemporary, and other traditions; questions of nationalism, colonialism, and a pop musical “white man’s burden”; and the shifting role of benefit records in the era of Internet and social media activism.

Panel participants promise to check their egos at the door—but not their ids.

Short presentations on particular charity singles will be followed by general discussion and Q&A.

“The Indigo Girls and the Politics of Lesbian Sentimentality”
What springs to mind when I utter the words, “Indigo Girls?” Do you clutch your heart and wax nostalgic about the 90s, when you wallowed in the murkiness of Swamp Ophelia, and marveled at the intersectionality of Amy Ray’s “gypsies, queers, and David’s stars?” Or do you laugh, assuming I’ve prematurely spilled the punch line to a joke about lesbian style and lesbian politics—or more precisely, a lack thereof? A second wave feminism out of touch, and out of time; well-meaning, but off the mark?

Over the last three decades, the Indigo Girls have fiercely, unrelentingly made political pop music in support of First Nations causes, Queer/LGBT rights, and our enduring struggles for civil rights in the U.S. And yet few, except for their most loyal fans, would describe the duo as a significant political band who maintain their robust touring schedule in order to champion these urgent causes. Instead, the Girls are tossed into the bargain bin of pop history: a happy accident of the unplugged, acoustic-loving 90s; the harmony-loving, guitar-strumming lesbians whose cameo singing “Hammer and a Nail” on season two of Transparent, strikes just the right note of anachronism to set-up the transphobic, spiritual violence of the show’s season finale.

This presentation takes seriously The Indigo Girls’ efforts at enacting grassroots political change through their music. As I argue, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray perform the dialectic between the “sentimental” and the “vernacular” in their songwriting styles. Nevertheless, their association with what Elizabeth Freeman calls the “temporal drag” of lesbian forms (of music, style, and even politics) consigns their efforts to the feminized spheres of sentimentality, thus dampening their resonance in the masculinist sphere of “the political.”