#SquadGoals and the Limits of Black Cool

Curator's Note

The #squad is a term and idea that popular music, particularly the Queen Bee herself Taylor Swift, has borrowed from hip-hop culture. Not surprisingly, there have been critiques of this kind of “appropriation” because it threatens to disrupt or dilute black expressive culture. The commodification of collectivity or black aesthetics is certainly not new, but I am not interested in falling into the familiar narratives of cultural theft or inauthenticity. Instead, I would like to consider the discursive turns that make blackness and black culture such a rich source for cool. The frequent translation of hip-hop vocabulary to other parts of mainstream and popular culture does not trouble what we identify as “black culture.” Instead, it gives us insight into blackness as a cultural formation that moves.

I propose that there is no real quantitative or qualitative difference in the blackness of an all white #squad of women, the hip-hop aesthetic in Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” music video, or the off-beat style of an artist like Jidenna, who dresses like a modern-day dandy. Instead, blackness is the aesthetic that is elastic enough look different in different contexts, allow artists to take on varied appearances, and remain coherent. To be clear, this flexibility is not new or evidence of a more open, post-racial world—chattel slavery relied on blackness as a form with the uncanny ability to simultaneously refer to people and objects of sale. Blackness continues to exist as recognizable cultural formation, with no biological basis, precisely because it changes. In other words, maintaining blackness and black culture does not mean insisting it remains unaltered. Taylor Swift’s #squad and Wondaland, the record label and insanely cool crew of Janelle Monáe and Jidenna, look different. But, as I’ve tried to suggest, blackness does not always even resemble itself. Instead, when we think about the #squad as an image, a decision about “the ever-important process of being seen” we are always (already) talking about blackness (the image of hypervisibility). That ability to shape-shift but remain visible, and crucially recognizable, is what allows blackness and elements of black expressive culture to remain in a perpetual state of cool. In the same way Taylor Swift could swap out the starlets in her #squad and maintain the appearance of female solidarity, blackness stays cool.

Comments

Christine Capetola's picture

Hi Lauren, I really

Hi Lauren, I really appreciate how you frame your post in terms of exploring how blackness has become what you call a “source of cool.” Connecting Jidenna to Taylor Swift so as to illustrate the flexibility of blackness as an aesthetic is really powerful. In this way, I see our posts talking to one another; where I’m considering sonic aspects of blackness, you consider a hypervisibility that travels across different aesthetic expressions of black cool. Watching the two clips you shared with us here, I can’t help also noticing something going on with rhythm.

One question I have: Is there any limit to the elasticity of blackness that you discuss? Your mention of how slavery relied on a specific objectification of black people makes me think of Uri McMillan’s book that just came out, Embodied Avatars. I’m wondering how Taylor Swift, given her whiteness, may differently approach or embody this (potentially productive and generative) tension between subejcthood and objecthood. You assert that they must “look different” between Taylor Swift and Jidenna and Janelle Monaé and I’m curious to hear more about how exactly you think that may play out. Thanks for sharing this provocative post!

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