Miss Independent, or Between Women - Reconsidered
by Karen Tongson — University of Southern California
March 12, 2009 – 00:57
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.
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