Miss Independent, or Between Women - Reconsidered

Curator's Note

The bubblegum R&B world was rocked by the violent altercation between Chris Brown and his girlfriend Rihanna in the wee hours before this year’s Grammy Awards broadcast. While I was cruising down a small stretch of freeway called the “2,” connecting L.A.’s Echo Park to Eagle Rock (a Pinoy enclave since gentrified by the reproductive hipsterati of both queer and hetero persuasions), I heard a radio interview with the couple’s mutual pal and fellow hitmaker, Ne-Yo.  Ne-Yo was ambushed with news of his friends’ woes in a backstage interview with the Access Hollywood correspondent, radio host, and W’s cousin, Billy Bush. Although Ne-Yo was able to respond in apt phrases befitting the title of his most recent album, Year of the Gentleman, he was goaded by Bush into saying he would phone Chris Brown’s mother for an intervention, as he expressed his support (if ever so obliquely) for women’s rights.

Ne-Yo’s radio hits, especially his PG-13 puppy love pop, like “Because of You” and more recently, “Miss Independent,” offer gentle reassurances as well as sexy paeans to his female addressees: the “baby boos” that have him “strung out” on their love. And yet his music videos present alternate narratives about his wandering eye, as well as his fondness for categories of women rather than individual girls. The cinematically driven video for “Miss Independent” (the first on the left) for example, stages a sexy office scenario in which Ne-Yo is a well-heeled exec surrounded by an alluring all-female staff. 

Queerly—in a very literal sense of the word—Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” was covered on YouTube by a Pinay-American duo of gal-pals based in the San Francisco Bay Area called “Rin on the Rox.” Mashing up their two first names, Erin and Roxanne, to form their screen moniker, the duo have racked up over 2 million views on YouTube with their duets of R&B pop hits recorded in the bathroom for better acoustics. Their repertoire consists largely of songs recorded by the likes of Rihanna, Beyonce and Mariah Carey, with occasional cross-gender nods to the music of Chris Brown, Extreme, and of course, Ne-Yo. While there’s much to say about ROTR’s song-choices and their rise to fame through the same diasporic viral video networks that made the dancing inmates of the Cebu Provincial Rehabilitation and Detention Center global sensations, I’d like to end this short piece with some thoughts about their emergence through the song “Miss Independent.” “Miss Independent” became ROTR’s signature tune after their video captured Ellen DeGeneres’s attention and earned them a guest spot on her daytime talk show.

 

By turning the song into a duet and addressing “Miss Independent” to one another through gestures like pointing, ROTR short circuits the elaborate choreography of hetero-desire in Ne-Yo’s original video. Rin points at Rox when she sings the lyric “there’s somethin’ about her,” and Rox returns the complement by taking over the melodic echo of the line. Each gestures at one another while singing, “that’s why I love her.” In Ne-Yo’s monovocal version, we hear these call and response moments orchestrated as repetition, as a foreshadowing of the virtuosic R&B vocal riffing that will transpire later in the song. But in the choreographed and harmonized—dare I say it?—sisterhood of ROTR’s “Miss Independent,” we are offered a glimpse at what it might mean to reclaim something like queer/citizenship through gentle gestures of female friendship and mutual respect.

I leave a slash between the two terms “queer” and “citizenship,” because the very notion of both is unreconciled by ROTR, neither of whom (at least to my knowledge) are gay, and both of whom are (presumably) a generation of several removed from their families’ migrations from the Philippines to the U.S. And yet in frustrating both of our thematic keywords this week, ROTR offers other ways of configuring the concept. We are so worried about securing “citizenship” for queer subjects (whatever that might mean), that we fail to think about the term’s loaded meanings vis  a vis the virtual circulation of bodies recognizable from elsewhere. We are so concerned in queer studies with critiquing the couple form, that we forget other configurations of love—like friendship—that carry other affective promises. We forget the fun and joy possible in the intimate re-enactments shared between women as feminism becomes more and more beleaguered, freighted by its own fears while acting out against extinction.

As we all know, Chris Brown and Rihanna never made it to the Grammys. But Rin on the Rox were there; “Miss Independents” who earned their tickets by not worrying about what people would think of two girls singing love songs to each other in a bathroom. From the gutter to the stars, indeed.    

Comments

Ronald Becker's picture

Productively irreconcilable

Great clips and commentary,  (I can’t wait to use them in class next week; thanks for the help with my lesson plan!).  In particular, I appreciate your final discussion about the pitfalls of the notion of queer/citizenship.  Your discussion (like the Nadya Suleman situation) point out that those two terms can (should?) remain productively irreconcilable.

ROTR’s "straight-forwardly" queer duet (or perhaps your persuasive framing of one possible reading?) also provides a refreshing counter-point to the kind of "queer" moments we so often get from mainstream culture industries that come packaged in the winking-cover of irony (e.g., Scrubs’ "Guy Love" duet between JD and Turk.) 

 

instability, et al.

See, now, when I sing along with Ne-Yo, I don’t sound *nearly* that good.  But that’s a different story.  This is really provocative, Karen.  I particularly like your point "We are so worried about securing “citizenship” for queer subjects (whatever that might mean), that we fail to think about the term’s loaded meanings vis  a vis the virtual circulation of bodies recognizable from elsewhere."  This made me think of (another) line from Edelman — "politics in the symbolic is always a politics of the symbolic." I take issue with some of the more nihilistic tendencies in queer criticism too (incl. in fact, the very way that Edelman deploys that statement) , it’s hard to stage a revolution at every moment….  Which isn’t to take a step to the center, but just to underline your point that in (post?) postmodernity, the circulation of feelings and publics requires an array of critical apparatuses to really unpack what it means to be "queer" and what it means to be "a citizen" — of any kind.  Related to what Ron says above re: "citizenship" stabilizing the otherwise unstable idea of "queer" — to what extent is "citizenship" itself unstable?  You point to the loadedness of the binary queer/citizen, but when talking about it in terms of affect, does "queer," perhaps, stabilize an unstable notion of "citizenship" as feeling?  Just a thought…..

Dana Luciano's picture

slashing the covers

I’m interested, as I said earlier, in the way this vid and the one Dana posted might talk to one another. As a deliberately (and “seriously”) repurposed piece of femslash, itself a genre of repurposing, “El Cazador de la Inmigrante” picks up on suggestive moments to generate a new narrative, whose sexual and political meanings are fairly legible and cohesive, if not entirely stable. But what do repurposings like Rin on the Rox’s do to that genre? I’m thinking here also of Karen’s question, “We are so worried about securing “citizenship” for queer subjects (whatever that might mean), that we fail to think about the term’s loaded meanings vis a vis the virtual circulation of bodies recognizable from elsewhere.”

Another question for Karen, though: could you say a little more about what you mean by feminism “acting out against extinction”? I’m intrigued but having a hard time filling in what you might have in mind here.  

Karen Tongson's picture

Thanks, all, for the

Thanks, all, for the commentary and questions (and of course, of your own contributions throughout the week). I’d like to offer a brief answer here to Dana L’s question about my allusion to a feminism "acting out against extinction." First and foremost, I have in mind the institutional contexts in which I regularly see how feminism functions through potentially violent models of citizenship—one that relies on very particular notions of "good citizenship" and decorum that seem to hinge upon intergenerational power struggles over disciplinarity and sometimes also on prioritizing one identitarian formation over others, especially in the name of "survival" (or more often than not always invoking this trope despite achieving institutionalization and remaining befuddled about what to do with it). Race inevitably becomes the target in this hierarchical form of feminism. One that has been institutionalized, but finds itself struggling to retool a "message" between the reactionary and its "posts" (see Ariel Levy).

 

We also witnessed these dramas play out viz. citizenship in this last national  election, when everyone felt comfortable discussing openly which identitarian agendas should be prioritized in the spirit of a reparative citizenship after W’s totalitarianism (race trumps feminism, feminism trumps race, race trumps gay rights, gay rights fights racism, etc. etc. etc. as long as we win!). Immigration, meanwhile, remained the bogeyman of all parties and candidates…a source of the economy’s collapse and security’s peril.

 

What does ROTR do for us or a least for me as we think about citizenship, femslash and repurposing? Well, I suppose in some sense I’m thinking of them or reading them in the vein of that opening moment about the Hepburn poster in Amy Villarejo’s Lesbian Rule. As a signpost to forms of queerness (and forms of Filipinoness for that matter) that may activate something queer (desire, the imaginary, even a politics) without being made for it.  A bit simplistic, I know. But I like to go to there.

Karen Tongson | University of Southern California | www.ohindustry.com

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