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Madame Liquidator: The Musical Mainstream and Oceanic Pop
I used to visit a homegrown Jamaican Restaurant called Taste of Jamaica during my

graduate school years in the North Carolina Triangle. It was a family-owned restaurant in the

Hayti District of Durham, nestled amidst the Ghanaian grocers and Senegalese hair braiders and

Botanicas filled with Orishas: a microcosm of the Black Atlantic in this business district built by

emancipated African Americans at the turn of the 20th Century. It was here I met Madame Liq-

uidator, an auntie of the owner, Miss Erica. She would put on Derek Harriot records and tell me

about her days as a professional stage dancer in the reggae dancehalls of Jamaica in the 1970s.

When I asked her where she got her name, Madame Liquidator told me that in her hey-

day, her talent was known to “turn all the men to liquid.”

Madame Liquidator’s presence at the restaurant would ebb and flow. With the same style

in which she had once wound her way through the musical circuits of Kingston, she looped

through the growing Caribbean neighborhoods of 1980s New York, and circulated through odd

jobs for her friends in the Jamaican diaspora. Eventually, I headed off to fieldwork in Senegal

and the restaurant closed its doors.

But Madame Liquidator’s stories kept me aware of the relationship of feminine fluidity to

the movement of popular music: when the subwoofer in my Taurus hits is warmest, lowest notes

and all of my stress is sublimated in the bass vibrations; when a gospel singer moves from a

word into a melismatic riff at the COGIC Church in Newport News; when the San Francisco

dancefloor destratifies from a series of individuals into a web of heat and touch. There is a pover-

ty of language with which to study the medium of musical liquidity—this feminine force of mu-

sical flow. I imagine Madame Liquidator’s description of her own musical affect as a cipher for

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the unseen “liquidations”–the destratifications, unravelings, and loosenings–that accompany

women’s and girls’ engagements with music. Amidst a popular music historicism based on

charts, genres, chord structures, and texts, I argue that transformative musical creativity can be

felt in the erosion of formal and discursive fixity at the water’s edge.

Notions of liquidity, flow and fluidity line the history of popular music. They work as

metaphors for sonic qualities and creative processes. They inhabit the musical imagination in the

figures of flowing streams, floating vessels, liquid muses, and drowning teardrops: Blondie’s

“Tide is High,” The Dubliners’ “Irish Rover,” The Beach Boys‘ “Surfer Girl,” Cocteau Twins’

and Styx’s odes to the mermaid Lorelei, Duran Duran’s “Rio.” These songs are not only themed

on water; they infuse buoyant, tidal rhythms and soundscaped instrumentals into their produc-

tions. Liquidity has been a critical space for feminine musical presence and, I will argue, self-au-

thorship, that has always run beneath an overwhelmingly masculine popular music commons.

Madame Liquidator surfaces again and again in the tides of popular music; most recently, she

appeared in a series of ocean-saturated music projects that collected in a loose digital genre

called Seapunk.

Much more than a topic, theme, or form, feminine flow is a musical feeling. A feminist

ontology inspires us to move away from an analysis of products and production to ask questions

about the materiality of musical movement itself—emerging genres, experimental forms, embod-

ied practices, and transpersonal and even transhuman relationalities. In doing so, our research

makes legible and, in turn, recognizes and resources, the creative work that women do. This ap-

proach is especially useful for attending to underground music that may never see the popular

stage or global media industries, but is immensely influential in the tides of musical change and

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stylistic emergence. It also provides a context for imagining musical creativity beyond a par-

adigm of musical development—the notion that a new commercial genre takes from and eventu-

ally supersedes previous modes—and attending to the open field of sounds, styles and sensations

from which all artists are invited to draw.

Given the limitations of conventional critical discourses on popular music and

feminism(s), the notion of liquidation offers a different kind of access to the question of feminine

difference as it works through popular channels. Rather than reproduce binaries that govern pop

discourses (white/black, masculine/feminine, feminist/antifeminist), pop fluidity allows artists to

embody otherwise contradictory modes of self-making; to simultaneously inhabit the mainstream

and its Other. Drawing from work on Black aesthetics, media ecology, and feminist materialisms,

I sound a feminine ontology of musical practice that emphasizes the fluidity of affect, movement

and self-writing over notions of genre or identity. For this volume on the theory and politics of

ambiguity, I argue that this musical movement—this flow—constitutes a different kind of musi-

cal materiality: an always-returning force that, over time, is the wellspring of musical transfor-

mation. I imagine liquidation not as the decomposition of a presumed whole—the dissolution of

a business for the sake of fast cash, for instance—but as an inevitable process of loosening that

any temporary pop crystallization must necessarily undergo. Liquidation is a mode of musical

practice as formidable as that of composition, but it leads us to a different kind of work as we

weigh the action of cultural saturation, suspension, and erosion alongside the politics of pop ar-

ticulation, composition, and representation.

Liquid Materialisms
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Witness the flow—from hip, to limb, to fingertip and tip-toe—that guides the bodies of

young Cuban devotees of the Orishas. In ritual dance, these girls embody the water deity

Yemaya, a figure who winds throughout the belief systems of the Black Atlantic and inhabits the

seam at which the river meets the sea. They wear billowing deep blue silk dresses over seafoam

white skirts, moving with the rippling rhythm of the drummers: a rhythm made from and for

Yemaya herself, who moves through the bodies of these ritual participants.

How to weigh the embodied, feminine flow of creativity beyond conventional modes of

musical textuality—the structures of the rhythm, the watch count on the youtube video, the

length and nature of the live recording, the language of the chant, the accuracy of the dancers’

response to the drummers’ work? It is much more difficult to assign value to the feminine force

that inhabits this music—the power of the feminine deity, the social influence of the priestesses,

the hidden ways in which the dancers themselves guide the drummers. This poverty of aesthetic

language is accountable for the notion of “women’s music” that is secondary to “music” itself:

an echo, dependent on the enunciation of the former. In imagining emerging feminisms, Rosi

Braidotti, echoing Luce Irigaray, sounds an emergent feminist practice that breaks established

regimes of representation (in which the figure of woman represents the absence of masculine

subjectivity) to recognize the primacy of feminine being beyond conventional notions of gender

or genre.

As Irigaray points out, women’s “otherness” remains unrepresentable
within this scene of representation. The two poles of opposition exist in an
asymmetrical relationship. Under the heading of “the double syntax” Iri-
garay defends this irreducible and irreversible difference not only of
Woman from man, but also of real-life women from the reified image of
Woman-as-Other. This is proposed as the foundation for a new phase of
feminist politics.i

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Within the patriarchal regime of binary representation, women’s musical production is femi-

nized—that is to say, marked by its absence of masculine musicality—in essence, by its lack of

music, itself, exactly. Instead, we get something music-like, or music-lite: ephemeral voices, am-

bient sensations, breathiness on the loose.

For a popular music industry based in the historical sale of sheet music, the marketability

of signal-clear radio novelties, and, later, three-minute singles, feminine creativity was often ar-

ticulated to marketable product forms (Edith Piaf and Bessie Smith capitalized on the formats of

their time, using stylized songwriting and voices to oversaturate and innovate upon established

pop genres), while also flourishing in the realm of live performance, where a less measurable

product allows for creative play. Later, the long player (LP) format allowed for greater recorded

experimentation by women vocalists, particularly in the genres of jazz, exotica and, later, folk

and singer/songwriter music, Roberta Flack and Joni Mitchell amongst them. Home recording in

the indie rock era allowed genre experimentalists PJ Harvey and Cat Power, among many others,

to enrich their production with unconventional formats and vocal elements. The digital age,

which offers multimedia experimentation and new models of publicity and distribution, has wit-

nessed immense genre innovation by women artists. A different set of metrics works to recognize

the recurring musical influence of fluid creativity on the pop scale.

Irish artist Enya, a prodigious member of Celtic family group Clannad, found her solo

work marketed in the “New Age” category to phenomenal international attention. Reviews of her

phenomenal 1988 Geffen release, Watermark, and its emblematic single “Orinoco Flow” focuses

on the music’s lack of conventional structure—a common critique of the New Age genre—and

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overlooks the influence of the traditional sea chanties, the phonemic wordplay of the Irish poets,

or the soundscaped aesthetic of Irish folk music that inflect her work. From Robert Christgau:

“Whilst humanizing technology, perpetrating banal verse in three languages (I'm
guessing about the Gaelic after reading the English and figuring out the Latin),
and mentioning Africa, the Orinoco, and other deep dark faraway places, her top-
10 CD makes hay of pop's old reliable women-are-angels scam. At least the
Cocteau Twins are eccentric. At least ELP were vulgarians. D+”ii
Beyond his assumption that the foreign-language verses must be banal, or that the refrain (“Sail

away, sail away, sail away”) becomes less material each time it is chanted, Christgau’s sugges-

tion that the artist is posing as an “angel” and appealing to listener’s orientalist tendencies hardly

seem so condemnable in the crotch-centered world of howled punk verses from which contem-

porary pop criticism emerged in the 1970s. In fact, the delimitation of a Celtic soundscape was

very political for Irish nationals beset with the ongoing violence of the anti-colonial Troubles,

which were met with heavy urban bombing in the year of the album’s release. Under the auspices

of rejecting feminine stereotypes, criticism of the album was overly concerned with what the

music was or was not—discernible, eccentric, vulgar, or grounded—rather than what it did.

What’s missing are the kinds of embodied memories and affects that concern the amateur—and

largely female—critics on the youtube page for the video:

Reminds me of my beautiful mother and when she'd always play this song when
I was young.—aicMadSeason
As beautiful and enchanting as Celtic music and singers are, no one can even
come close to touching how incredible Enya's music is. Her music and songs are
just so rich and deep.—Wildturkey1960
My teacher used to always play this woman's music and nothing else could ever
compare to how relaxing it is. I could never find it because I couldn't remember
the words, only the melody.—Damian Trahan

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I remember this song from elementary school. The librarian always played this
song when I walked in the library. That's when I first heard this song.—Gilligan
One wonders how many women vocalists—particularly those drawing from indigenous musical

aesthetics—have been marginalized to "New Age" by the media industries that mistake sound-

scape for lack of structure, deny the political possibilities of sensory communication, or are un-

aware of the global postcolonial context from which the music arises.

Nearly twenty years after Christgau’s dismissal of Enya’s work, Tyler Remmert from

Pop‘Stache transposes the masculine critic’s stance on Enya to dig into electronic music produc-

er Grimes, a leader in the Seapunk movement who commands a largely female fan base.

While it’s not an exactly novel approach to songwriting…, a tangential lineage
can be drawn, essentially, from the 20-something grooving to Grimes at the Mer-
cury Lounge and her mother, relaxing in Middle America. Grimes, like Enya, is
noticing that mood and inflection matter more to her art than lyricism, which is
potentially a large step forward for the singular girl making music. By aesthetical-
ly differentiating themselves from the riot grrls [sic], or the singer-songwriters
that bear their soul, Boucher and Rose have stepped onto a road…that might lead
to a trailblazing, atmospheric new way of looking at hip, female artists.iii

While neglecting the instrumental aspects of the music, both reviewers gesture toward a sonic

and vocal lack on the part of these women artists. What of the affective work the music of does

on the listener’s body? The political agency of music is rendered inaudible when read solely

through its status as a standalone product rather than in the substance of its relationality: its

oceanic feeling. By opening up the question of musical affect: of the conversation between the

sensory body of the artist and audience, we open up the question of a different register of the po-

litical: soundscape, production, circularity, or other nontelological modes of understanding the


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How does feminine flow—as metaphor, ontology, and practice—inflect different kinds of

musical form and musical knowledge? In a patriarchal light, the measures of pop success—pub-

lic appearance, the wielding of technology, the decision-making power of studio production,

management, or marketing—are species most often inhabited by men. An alternative approach,

based on the musical senses and musical experience, accounts for the critical importance of mu-

sical flow to new forms, articulations, and projects in popular music, from the enunciation of

novel hip-hop styles to the emergent dance-floor politics of “liquidarity.”iv The embodied, senso-

ry musical realm, Barry Shank tells us, is nothing if not political: “The experience of musical

beauty, when it emerges from unfamiliar sounds or surprising combinations of sounds quite

common, has the capacity to redistribute an auditory sensible and to change, thereby, the sonic

sens of the political.”v This kind of work calls for an embodied, ethnographic, or practice-cen-

tered engagement with its subject matter that overflows the textual, generic, and conceptual cate-

gories that work to discipline popular music studies. A new generation of scholarship traces a

range of musics, including Transatlantic dance pop, European club scenes, global sound tech-

nologies, and American hip-hop in terms of their affect, sound, dance, and vocality.

Cultural studies has turned to philosophies of ontology–that is to say, the question of the

state of being and of relations between beings–of what is and what matters–to ask why we have

historically chosen to focus on certain materials for documentation, analysis, historicization and

contextualization, and why others become immaterial to us. We revisit and interrogate the nature

of where the substance of communication lies, how to make the unseen, embodied, and other-

wise felt dimensions of musical affect legible, and how we account for the materialities of aes-

thetics when we wrestle with a legacy of musical study based on texts. The boom in sound stud-

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ies as a critical inter-discipline evidences this concern; beyond the sonic, ontological questions

access other less-legible aspects of musical experience: its circumlocutions, intersubjectivities,

sensations, ideas, memes, elisions, and anti-texts.

Take Me To The River

After introducing herself as an Aquarius/Pisces for her 1969 performance at Morehouse

College, Nina Simone interpreted the African American gospel standard, “Take Me to the Water,”

which was later reversioned by Reverend Al Green for his hit, “Take Me to the River.” She im-

provised new lyrics atop the refrain of her own recorded arrangement of the song, which ap-

peared on her 1967 High Priestess of Soul:

I don’t mind if it’s turbulent/I don’t mind if it’s calm
I don’t mind if it’s green/I don’t mind if it’s blue
As long as it’s water/Then I feel at home
If it soothes me, it moves mevi
What’s remarkable about the Morehouse performance is Simone’s transition from singer to

dancer in the tumbling refrains of the song, rising from her pianist’s bench to dance an extended

interlude, undulating contrapuntally, hips and shoulders, rolling her arms as if to signify waves in

a style similar to that of the Yemaya devotees in ritual trance. From the musical break, extending

the aural dimension of the music into embodied physical movement.

This performance, and the mixed Creolisms it synthesizes in its instrumentation and

style, evidences the critical historical fluidity of musics. The original recording, undergirded by

sparse production, is lyrically open, leaving room for vocal improvisation. Simone oversaturates

this space with spontaneous pawns to the water, stretching the repeated refrain until it takes on

new rhythmic patterns, taken up by her backing band while she dances across the stage. Her lo-

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cus of musicmaking moves from the instrument and mouthpiece to the swaying feminine body:

the kind of aesthetic fluidity Daphne Brooks locates at the heart of Simone’s work. “As a re-

sponse to these narrow definitions of black sound, Simone turned other corners and crossed over

and out of constricting musical divides, challenging her audiences to consider and perhaps more

importantly to listen for the meaning of liberation in black female performance.”vii

“Take Me to the River” presences the artist’s productive relationship with bodies of wa-

ter, which led her to spend a great deal of time in self-imposed political exile on the beaches of

the Black Atlantic. Simone describes her sojourn in Barbados as a space where she “drifted

along, trying to adjust to changes in [her] life,” enjoying “simple pleasures” on an island where

“surf rolled up outside my window, just beyond the swimming pool.”viii It was a place where the

artist’s imagination became unbound: “Barbados—as usual—tried to convince me that nothing

beyond the horizon existed…”ix Simone spent more time near the tide during her years at another

reach of the Atlantic, in Liberia, where she loved to walk on the beach. Simone’s liberatory mu-

sical praxis drew from these oceanic experiences.

The Morehouse performance drew from the roots of Black vernacular music, the prove-

nance of the “Take Me to the Water” hymn as one of a host of gospel songs (“Goin’ down to the

River of Jordan” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll” among them) that were used for immersion baptisms

and infused with longing for return to a promised land on the “other side.” Many songs of en-

slaved African people in the New World locate waterways as both a space of longing and for

mobility—routes by which they might steal away to freedom. “Wade in the Water” was a classic

spiritual that referred both to the baptism of believers in white or blue robes, and to the routes by

which enslaved people could evade surveillance as they escaped to the underground railroad.

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Beyond the referential and metaphoric valence of these texts, Caribbean philosopher Edouard

Glissant locates a politics of otherness that, independent of the institution of colonial domination,

lies in the oceanic abyss and moves through waterways. He limns, in the medium of water that

joins diasporas to homelands, a Poetics of Relation:

For though this experience made you, original victim floating toward the sea’s
abysses, an exception, it became something shared and made us, the descen-
dants, one people among others. Peoples do not live on exception. Relation is
not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowledge. This experi-
ence of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange.
Glissant’s work established the discourse of creolité based on the cultural confluences of his di-

asporic home: a global subjectivity based not in notions of distinct, essential identities, but in the

transformative interrelations of an always-emergent cultural ecology. For populations separated

from their homelands by the middle passage, belonging is established through the arts, poetry,

music and movement: an alternative political economy. In approaching Simone’s work as fun-

damentally relational, instead of emplaced, her politic of musical cross-cutting, reassemblage,

sampling, seasoned re/turn, and deconstruction relationship to the body of popular music become


Mami Wata’s Global South
Pop liquidity works through routes: always-already crisscrossed cultures in global trans-

lation and transition. The sea was the medium for capitalist globalization in the form of an ex-

pansive European modernity, which sought first to dominate and control the seas and waterways,

and then to colonize the lands across the waters. The white/patriarchal domination of water

worlds remains present in pop genealogies: on Martin Denny’s exotica album covers, decorated

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by smiling Polynesian women on the beach, in the luxury liners that rush through the history of

music television, atop the Neptune-like domination of the California coast with surfboards and

the colonial sublime of yacht rock. But for populations for whom globalization has meant domi-

nation, domestication, and immobilization—the formation that is the Global South—waterways

are both the route of return to ancestral homelands and toward the possibilities of different fu-

tures. Harry Belafonte’s Civil-Rights-Era “Banana Boat Song (Day O),” the song of a grounded

night-shift dockworker longing for his long-lost ancestral home even as he hides the deadly pres-

ence of a black tarantula in his product, for instance, has a very different valence from that of

Christopher Cross’ Reagan-era “Sailing,” in which the narrator, already rich with daydreams,

imagines a “miraculous” trip to a land in which “serenity” and “tranquility” can be maintained


As digital globalization transforms the media industries, a contemporary cadre of in-

terethnic global pop artists is emerging from populations whom hold water in ritual esteem:

women, the African diaspora, colonized peoples of global coastlines. Mami Wata—or, in Latin

America, Yemaya or Yemanja—is a global figure who appears wherever colonial ships touched

the cultural landscape. Her identity, according to Henry James Drewal, is “as slippery and amor-

phous as water itself,” embodying sacred figures from a host of seaborne cultures—a Hindu wa-

ter goddess, the Catholic saints, a Polynesian snake cult and—most recognizably—Yoruba belief

from the region surrounding the Nigerian coast.x In Bahia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Ghana,

and Liberia, popular music is infused with her devotions, rhythms and movements. Popular ma-

terial culture and fashion in these regions also draw from the Mami Wata persona: sometimes she

is depicted as the three Greek sirens; others, as a Hindu water snake goddess; other times, she is

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said to carry a golden mirror that she uses to lure sailors into marriage in keeping with European

mermaid tails. The diasporic nature of Mami Wata’s character speaks to the long processes of

waterborne globalization that have led to contemporary circumstances of mass global migration

and upheaval.

Mami Wata’s powers, however, extend far beyond economic gain. Although for
some she bestows good fortune and status through monetary wealth, for others,
she aids in concerns related to procreation—infertility, impotence, or infant mor-
tality. Some are drawn to her as an irresistible seductive presence who offers the
pleasures and powers that accompany devotion to a spiritual force. Yet she also
represents danger, for a liaison with Mami Wata often requires a substantial sacri-
fice, such as the life of a family member or celibacy in the realm of mortals. De-
spite this, she is capable of helping women and men negotiate their sexual desires
and preferences. Mami also provides a spiritual and professional avenue for
women to become powerful priestesses and healers of both psycho-spiritual and
physical ailments and to assert female agency in generally male-dominated soci-
According to Drewal, Mami Wata and related water goddess have become more prominent as

rapid urbanization transforms the African coastline and new modes of global migration take root

amidst Black Atlantic populations.

Two artists have anchored contemporary pop movements that surround and collect in

Caribbean creole cultures: Rihanna and Beyoncé, whose vastly differential stylings have been

nonetheless conflated by the notion of a pop “Battle of the Divas.”xii Rihanna, whose Caribbean

homeland is thick with images of mermaids and Afro-Pentecostal water rituals, self-consciously

evokes the figure of Madame Liquidator time and again in her videos, her photo shoots, and no-

tably, in her shimmering, loosened vocal stylings. Her video release for “Pour it Up,” in particu-

lar, evokes an aesthetic of liquidation—in this sense, the relationship between the undulations of

the feminine body and the redistribution of paper money toward circulation exclusively between

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women dancers and patrons (who are, in the end, one in the same). A send-up of the women-as-

exotic-dancer trope in hip-hop, rock, and country videos alike, Rihanna poses here as both sexual

purveyor and consumer in an underwater strip club filled with meticulously-lit, lush, drops of

liquid bouncing off bodies, walls, and floors. In her earlier clip for “Man Down,” Rihanna flips

her thigh-length red weave around her body while dancing on a raft and in the surf, describing

her revenge against an abusive partner, punctuating her story with loose patois wordplay.xiii In

addition to her musical-aesthetic fluidity, the artist is also styled to a mermaid aesthetic for pho-

tos, with her crystal formalwear cut into fishtails and her magazine cover shoots featuring flow-

ing hair and lapping Caribbean beachlines.

Like the critique of Enya and Grimes, a host of articles, tweets and posts mocked Rihan-

na’s liquified, patios vocal play on her 2016 release, ”Work.” Again, a gaggle of lay critics

(something BuzzFeed called, simply, “The Internet” in their article on the backlash against

"Work") reduced the song’s increasingly passionate, affective audibility—inspired by the in-

creasingly destratified movements of a dancehall stage performer, or the climactic arc of a well-

coordinated sexual encounter—to the “problem” of its illegibility.xiv Given the way the song cap-

tivated Rihanna’s digital fandom, evident through a host of high-visibility dance videos dedicat-

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ed to the song by choreographers Kiki Palmer and Matt Steffanina, one wonders whether if it

was the Black woman artist’s sexual self-possession that made the white/masculine gatekeepers

of “The Internet” so uncomfortable. No matter; the song was the artist’s 14th Billboard “Hot

100” chart-topper, ranking her the third-most charted artist in pop history, just ahead of Michael


Beyoncé, a native of the Gulf port city Houston with roots in the Afrodiasporic Car-

ibbean, evokes two distinct water goddesses on her last two releases. The figure of Yemaya

dances through the hidden flows of Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled video album, steeped as it is in

seafoam, sunsplash, and an elusive politics of pop transformation. Most notably, on a song dedi-

cated to her daughter, “Blue,” Beyoncé wears a shimmering blue Carnivále costume and rolls in

the lapping surf, her waist-length blonde hair waving in the water. As the video album draws to a

close with a lullabye, she disappears into the ocean with her daughter in her arms. “Drunk in

Love,” the album’s signature track, features an extended series of shots of Beyoncé as water

goddess, dancing in the moonlight tide as her loving husband looks on, peripheral to the album’s

decidedly feminine cosmology. She will, she says, ride him like a “surfboard.” Critically, the fan

base for this album was largely women, and its market appeal tapped into a feminine market-

place that lovers’ rock has also occupied: body-oriented music, circulating lyricism and thick vo-

cal production, and a certain musical timelessness that sacrifices novelty pop hooks for the sake

of sensational immersion. Whatever the inspiration for these artistic choices, the oceanic aesthet-

ics and imagery of the work offers a certain aesthetic timelessness that contrasts the teleological

impulse of dance music production and hip-hop stylistic innovation alike.

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Beyoncé’s surprise May 2016 video album release, Lemonade, was quickly met with crit-

ical interest in her references to river goddess Oshun, said in many traditions to be the sister to

Yemaya. Wearing the billowing yellow robes of Oshun’s Caribbean devotees and wading into the

slow-moving waterways of the Gulf Coast, the artist, according to Joan Morgan, evokes the per-

sona of artist to powerful ends:

Like the patron saint it claims as its sire, the film utilizes Oshun’s needle to stitch
the album’s singular story into a larger diasporic narrative of community com-
prised of black women’s struggle, sacrifice, survival, and transformation. Of all
the tools Oshun is said to carry, perhaps the most powerful one is her mirror. The
layperson mistakes this for a sign of her vanity. Those of us who know her a bit
more intimately however recognize the mirror as the tool Oshun holds up to our
faces when she requires us to do the difficult work of really seeing ourselves.xv
The artist’s engagement with these watery goddesses likely emerges from the confluence of her

creole milieu on the cusp of the Black Atlantic, from her own artistic interest in Yoruba-influ-

enced imagery, and from the influence of her many collaborators, many of whom themselves

have personal engagements with the legacy of the Yoruba-influenced Orishas. Beyoncé’s work,

steeped as it is in seafoam, sunsplash, watery ritual and an elusive politics of pop transformation,

plays with the question of whether or not she is a feminist—a question that, for all the albums’

representational richness, is an obsessive one for the pop blogosphere. Beyond the neoliberal

strongarm that is bad online cultural criticism, Beyoncé makes space for exuberant women to

locate safety and exaltation in the water: to immerse themselves in performative fluidity against

the soundbytes and clickbait.

Pooling the Pop Undercommons

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Madame Liquidator’s transformative creativity is marked by the erosion of formal and

discursive fixity at the water’s edge, where powerful practitioners of pop are hiding in plain

sight. TLC’s “Waterfalls” has enjoyed an extended commercial life, with nearly 37,000,000 plays

on youtube—nearly 61 times the amount of plays for Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which beat

TLC out for the #1 Billboard spot in 1995, their mutual year of release.xvi The production is un-

dergirded by a buoyant wah-wah guitar rhythm and sparse, rolling high hats; its cautionary lyrics

lull into a loose, unrhymed chorus saturated with motherly wisdom: “Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls/

please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”xvii The visual aesthetics of the video

match the production and theme; the three members of the group are transparent water figures,

dancing in a water world absent any masculine presence. A few years in “Waterfalls”’ wake,

Aaliyah’s iconic, wah-wah and tom-tom saturated 2001 release, “Rock the Boat,” featured her

undulating on the prow of a yacht or emerging from the surf. Her team of white-and-blue-clad

backup dancers pair up and dance together, recalling Yemaya’s bisexuality and love of her own

mirror image. No males appear in the scene. Because Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash just

hours after the island video shoot, she has been memorialized as a mermaid by fans; notably her

album sales skyrocketed after the video’s release in the wake of her death.xviii

Another enduring voice with an unusual pop career arc, Sade, has taken decade-long hia-

tuses between albums while staying true to her singular, aquatic aesthetic: a hazy contralto de-

scribed by Diva Devotee as “rounded, velvety, and effortless.”xix At the confluence of the quiet

storm and lovers’ rock genres—formats that feature women singers largely women fan bases–the

Nigerian-British artist (who grew up near the shores of both nations) often accompanies her hazy

contralto with compositions based on or in the water, including her song on 1992’s Love Deluxe,

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“Mermaid,” and in the video for “Ordinary Love” from the same album, in which the artist in-

habits a mermaid figure on a halfshell who, surfacing to dry land to find a lost love, longs to re-

turn for the water. As she inscribes diaspora and longing into the seascapes of her work, Sade

flips the scripts of the exoticization and fetishization of the creole woman to possess a water-

borne representational mobility.

When American vocalist Jhené Aiko tapped into the diasporic/aquatic aesthetic with her

2011 self-released mixtape, Sailing Soul(s), she found heavy critical comparison to Sade for this

very reason: immersed in watery production and fluid vocality, Aiko figures the Global South in

her lyrics and in the nuances of her style, referencing her Japanese, Native American and Afro-

Caribbean heritage. A vocal wash of chorus and echoplexed, waterlogged kick drums muffle

through the song, plucked strings ping like water droplets, and samples of Polynesian instrumen-

tation that recall the sonic trips of the exotica genre punctuate the production: sliding steel gui-

tars, harps, extended unstructured vocal improvisations that call attention to the textures of the

(always feminine) voice. Rhythms become more circular and less punctual, less linear and pro-

gressive, as the ambulatory function of the music is subverted for non-landlubbing movement;

drums are often filtered through phasers that make them sound as if there are bobbing just be-

neath the surface. If Rock’n’Roll’s most enduring, muscular form was by design climactic, built

around the singular, driving masculine orgasm, then the oceanic works differently upon the body,

sustaining an even stratum of aural pleasure. Whispering female voices and other “soft” vocal

techniques are known to stimulate the human ASMR reflex, a rolling sensation of bodily stimula-

tion most like an extended, full-body female orgasm.xx

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The modes of saturation by which these works encounter the pop milieu are an alternative

to the colloquial Billboard “hit” single. They ebb and flow through the history of popular music;

many become timeless anthems used over decades of high-school graduations and American Idol

auditions. Rarely, if ever, do they gain novelty as beacons of new, distinct pop genres; in fact,

they are difficult to place in terms of a genealogy of pop development. Popular music studies,

like most social sciences, cultural studies, and humanities, concerns itself with formations–gen-

res, charts, soundscan tallies. Following Hall, Hebdige, and the Birmingham School, new move-

ments in media and cultural studies are concerned with conjunctures: historical and spatial con-

vergences that Lawrence Grossberg describes as the “articulation, accumulation, and condensa-

tion of contradictions, a fusion of different currents or circumstances.”xxi Conjunctures come to-

gether in the form of a cultural formation: crystallizations, or objects, enmeshed in the sounds

and styles of pop production. While the formations themselves are measurable and subject to

analysis, the processes by which these formations materialize, hang together, and fall away are

not met with an adequate critical vocabulary. But this movement is also material as the fluid sub-

stratum of musical ebbs and flows can also become the subject of pop studies.

Conjunctural analyses of genre formations are the core of what we do in popular music

studies. Their makeup, however, is illuminated by that which emerges between them. It’s a ques-

tion of what counts as material: we can much more easily historicize genres, sublabels, hits,

compilations, and scenes than we can the unquantifiable affect, the cyclical flow, and the move-

ments of pop. So what happens when we liquidate the object of pop studies? I use Madame Liq-

uidator’s description of her own musical affect as a cipher for imagining the unseen destratifica-

tions, unravelings, and loosenings that accompany powerful feminine engagements with popular

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music. These, I hold, are imbricated in the pop milieu. When we pay attention to the contribu-

tions of women to pop, we can now not only study that which is complicit in its formation, or

that which is directly resistant to it, but we can also look at that which is external to pop, which

washes through and infuses it--that which supersedes and outlasts it. This is a question of aes-

thetics and performances that endure, that connect, and flow beyond these points of crystalliza-

tion. As concerned as we are with pop formations, we also engage that which precedes and un-

derlies them. The liquid feminine emerges at times in pop in between conjunctures. It is the

movement between movements.

Sigmund Freud muses on a force he calls the oceanic–a notion inspired by metaphysicist

Baruch Spinoza’s conatus ad motum–the material will toward becoming that characterizes all

bodies.xxii Freud locates this flowing stratum of being beyond the institutions, social structures,

bodies, and psychological complexes that undergird his psychoanalysis. The oceanic is the force

that drives these structures into being and transformation. It is evidenced through feeling—rather

than recording—an event, object, or performance. It opens a clearing to an ontological pool that

lay beneath the formations of civilization, the objects of reality, and our perception of them. In

1927, Romain Rolland inspired Freud’s later work by accessing this notion of an eternal, oceanic

sublime that lay beneath the object relations that structure the ego:

"By religious feeling, what I mean—altogether independently of any dogma, any
Credo, any organization of the Church, any Holy Scripture, any hope for personal
salvation, etc.—the simple and direct fact of a feeling of 'the eternal' (which may
very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and as if oceanic).
This feeling is in truth subjective in nature. It is a contact."xxiii
The oceanic impulse toward social destratification is confluent with the sensibility of a different

age, to be sure, but Madame Liquidator’s is a new age with an edge: a present, liquid utopia. Its

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contours are sounded by women who are less likely to grab the mic than to wait for its noise to

die down so they can be heard doing their thing in their natural register. A sensory approach to

popular music, attuned to confluences, relations, and affects, amplifies the otherwise elusive

work of music’s feminine, and often otherwise-illegibly feminist—forces.

Seapunk Ahoy!
Seapunk, an emerging movement in pop liquidity, took form in the early 2010s and

quickly caught on with the arts blogosphere is a decidedly feminine assemblage of heavily visual

music projects. Awash with nostalgic graphic design elements rendered in the acid-washed tech-

no-utopianism of ‘90s “3-D” digital art—jumping porpoises, sunny ocean scenes, and highly-

saturated, pixellated fluorescents–the genre’s visual culture appeals to millennial women and

girls who once loved the mass-produced t-shirts and school supplies of pop designer Lisa Frank.

This self-consciously aesthetic femmescape was accompanied by a body of electronic music

produced almost exclusively by and for women and girls. The unofficial anthem of the move-

ment was 2012’s “Genesis,” a song by electronic producer and vocalist Grimes. Both the artist,

dressed in white robes and draped with the water goddess’ hefty blonde snake, and her shimmer-

ing seaborne avatar, played by dancer/rapper Brooke Candy, evoke specific aspects of Mami

Wata’s oeuvre, including the Desi bindi that, thanks to Indian sailors on British colonial ships,

was incorporated into original Yoruba depictions of the watery goddess of globalization.

The movement was immediately dismissed by the New York Times in an article titled,

“Little Mermaid Goes Punk: Seapunk, a Web Joke With Music, Has Its Moment.”xxiv Tellingly,

the article focuses on the genre’s most visible male promoters and its trademark fashion trend:

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the flowing, pastel-colored hairstyle that has stuck with millennials for half a decade. But since

its emergence, the not-exactly-a-genre genre has transposed its sound—deconstructed, saturated

with female vocals, themed on oceanic themes–into other non-genres, from the amorphous pub-

licity phenomenon of “witchhouse" to more established realms of chillwave and darkwave.

These latter two categories are both more commercially viable and readily recognizable than the

ambiguity of seapunk; these are also more likely to be inhabited by male producers who sample

female vocalists than women artists in their own right. What remains constant in this cresting

pop aesthetic is the articulation of fluid vocality—those same chorus, reverb and flanged ef-

fects—with visual depictions of women in, on, or of water. As the world wide web solidifies into

a thickly stratified commercial structure, seapunk reminds us of the subaltern possibilities that

these transnational networks engender. The aesthetic is reflected in open-ended beats and rhyme

structures, collaged depictions of happy porpoises and technicolor seashores, and, much more

often than not, women artists experimenting with a feminine, sonic utopia. Azalea Banks, often

citing her devotion to Yemaya, purposefully mines the sea goddess’ image with her mermaid gear

and references to Atlantis, produced a mixtape, “Fanatasea” and an event named the “Mermaid

Ball” in the Bowery Ballroom in 2012. When Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna quickly fol-

lowed suit with their own takes on seapunk, the “inexplicable microgenre” went global.

Drawing from images of the Afrodiasporic ocean goddesses and the self-conscious girli-

ness drawn from the hyper-animated digital 1990s, seapunk and its aesthetic wake speak to an

emergent, ecological, and decidedly queer feminism in which the questions of diaspora and sub-

jectivity are renewed in the digital register. The themes FKA Twigs’ “Water Me,” she describes

her desire to be nourished by a lover who refuses to “water” her and make her grow. SZA’s 2014

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“Babylon” begins on land and follows her, robed in white, into a baptismal pool in the wake of a

heartbreak. Woman producer Tommy Genesis’ “Hair Like Water Wavy like the Sea” places her

and her sister-in-chillwave Abra alone on a rocky shore, while Dutch producer/vocalist Sev-

dalzia’s “Sirens of the Caspian” references the watery folklore of her Iranian homeland. Each of

these artists references Mami Wata style: a serpent around the neck, an ornate nose chain, loose,

flowing hair, a deasturated, blur-tinged ocean setting. Beyond liquid themes, these highly styl-

ized, highly unique compositions have in common an oceanic aesthetic, which saturates and

blurs the lyrical, aural, and visual sensory registers, and leads each artist to an alterity of her


Both the digital realm and the sea hold immense creative potential for millennial women

and girls: the digital wormholes of youtube are saturated with the work of women producers and/

or vocalists who theme their work on the oceanic—particularly in the years since 2010, when

web 2.0 opened up to a new register of highly sensory media technologies, from faster HD sound

to new formats like Instagram and Tumblr. Many seapunk-influenced artists conceptualize their

work in terms of digital art installations, particularly feminist multimedia artists Pussykrew, Sev-

daliza’s visual collaborators, and the “fluid portraits” of FKA Twigs/Bjork collaborator Jesse

Kanda. The subjective fluidity enunciated across web 2.0 articulates new global modes of

brownness and queerness that were previously invisible. As Drewal notes the emergence of

Mami Wata devotion in the growing coastal African city, mermaid themes are emerging wherev-

er the Global South takes root. The mermaid figure–interethnic, interspecies, unconventionally

mobile–enunciates a kind of queerness that makes her, at once, the object of the male sexual gaze

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while remaining, accounting to her fins and fishtail, sexually impenetrable. She is meant to exist

for herself and for other mermaids; interactions with landlubbers tend to end disastrously.

Even as it liberates new modes of subjectivity, digital globalization has mobilized new

modes of—as the blogosphere puts it—“cultural appropriation” as suburban teens gain access to

and fascination with a world of cultural signs and symbols. These modes of gaze and consump-

tion are also a tension present in the presenting of female-vocalized dance music as the founda-

tion of an emerging music-festival culture that is restructuring the global music industry. These

festival fields, on one hand, invite many more female participants than club-based DJ events and

have spawned a fashion industry, saturated with bindis, pastel washes, and shell bikinis. Women

at these festivals, attuned on one hand to the utopian impulse represented by the sampled female

voice and destratified performance space, are subjected to the subjective gaze of masculine sexu-

al longing. Male electronic producers, inspired by an often different approach to the global sea,

turn to Black vocal practices and Afrodiasporic spirituality, to represent their status as cos-

mopolitan consumers: musical tourists. In spaces in which both racialized and gendered bodies

are central to both sound and spectacle—albeit in very different registers— a feminine—and

often—feminist solidarity is emerging, but also, problematically, so is a desire for the consump-

tion, integration, and even dissolution of the global “other.” The tension between these colonial

desires and decolonial impulses are lain bare in the thickness of the musical production: a fusion

of the daydreamy sublime of yacht rock and surf music and the liberatory possibilities always-

already embedded in feminine voicing.

Emergent Pop Formations

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How to approach the very real political possibility of a Madame Liquidator: rarely recog-

nized as an artist in her own right, but nonetheless fundamentally substantial to the creation of

musical formations, communities, and worlds? This is an explicitly feminist intervention, work-

ing to nourish a conceptual lexicon by which critics can articulate both the musical work that

women, girl, and feminized subjects—particularly those of the Global South—do, but also en-

gage practices that have been cast as feminine—backup singing, stage dancing, improvising, re-

versioning, inspiring—by conventional discourses on popular music. In doing so, I argue that the

figure of a hidden field of work–one largely authored by women practitioners–will come to light.

By opening up the feminine as a primary space of musical creativity that precedes and resists the

patriarchal system of musical valuation, commodification, representation and classification, I

hope to also enrich the vocabulary by which we can recognize the work of the rarely recog-

nized—but deeply influential—work of popular music’s Others. It should be noted that, given its

marginalization by critical gatekeepers, musical flow has been historically constituted an unrec-

ognized space in which feminine and feminized people are free to cultivate new aesthetic modes.

The object of musical study is the materiality of its movement, rather than the forms that

seem to crystallize from it. As we have seen from generations of musical performance, the most

rigid musicalities are the ones that fall away, while its plastic counterparts: fragments, riffs,

styles, samples flow more readily through time and space. Given the limitations of conventional

critical discourses on popular music and feminism(s), the notion of liquidation offers a different

kind of access to the question of feminine musical power as it works through popular channels.

Rather than reproduce binaries that govern pop discourses--binaries based on colonial formations

and power relations (black/white feminine/masculine, feminist/antifeminist), pop fluidity allows

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artists to embody otherwise contradictory modes of self-making; to simultaneously inhabit the

mainstream and its Other. Drawing from work on Black aesthetics, media ecology, and feminist

cultural theory, I illustrate a feminine ontology of musical practice that emphasizes the fluidity of

affect, movement and self-articulation over the politics of subjectivity.

Rosi Braidotti with Judith Butler, Feminism by Any Other Name Interview, differences july
1994, 27-61.

Brooks, Daphne A. "Nina Simone's triple play." Callaloo 34, no. 1 (2011): 176-197.

Christgau, Robert. Christgau's Record Guide: The'80s. Pantheon, 1990.

Henry John Drewal, “”Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” 2008
Fowler Museum at UCLA; First Edition edition (April 25, 2008)

Katherine Dunham, Carnival of Rhythm, 1941.

Nadia Ellis, New Orleans and Kingston: A Beginning, A Recurrence 387-407 Journal of Popular
Music Studies, Volume 27, Issue 4,

Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Civilization and its discontents. WW Norton & Company,

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Luis-Manuel Garcia, Liquidarity: Vague Belonging on the Dancefloor AUGUST 6, 2011 https://

Edouard Glissant, Betsy Wing Poetics of RelationTranslated by Betsy Wing University of
Michigan Press, 1997

Grossberg, Lawrence. Cultural studies in the future tense. Duke University Press, 2010.

Elyan Jeanine Hill, “Bodyscripts: Mami Wata, Diaspora, and Circum-Atlantic Performance”

Richard Iton In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil
Rights Era Oxford University Press, 2008

Robin James, The Conjectural
Body: Gender, Race,
and the Philosophy of
Music Lexington
Books, 2010

Robin James Resilience &
Melancholy: Pop Mu-
sic, Feminism, Neolib-
eralism John Hunt Pub-
lishing, 2015

Madhu Krishnan, Mami Wata
and the Occluded Fem-
inine in Anglophone
Nigerian-Igbo Litera-
ture, Research in African LiteraturesVolume 43, Number 1, Spring 2012

Moten, Fred. "Blackness and nothingness (mysticism in the flesh)." South Atlantic Quarterly
112, no. 4 (2013): 737-780.José Esteban Muñoz “Cruising Utopia,”

Otero, Solimar, and Toyin Falola, eds. Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality, and Creativity in the Latina/o
and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas. SUNY Press, 2013.Harvard

Vermorel, Henri, Sigmund Freud, and Madeleine Vermorel. Sigmund Freud et Romain Rolland.
Presses universitaires de France, 1993.

Shank, Barry. The Political Force of Musical Beauty. Duke University Press, 2014.

Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I put a spell on you: the autobiography of Nina Simone. Da
Capo Press, 2003.

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i Butler and Braidotti, 39

ii Christgau, Robert. Christgau's Record Guide: The'80s. Pantheon, 1990.


iv Luis

v shank 833

vi footnote Simone’s Morehouse performance

vii Daphne Brooks p. 177

viii Simone, autobiography,(123-130).

ix Simone, autobiography, (129)

x Drewal, 62

xi Drewal, 61-2


See the history of a similar dismissal of reggae as “jungle music: because its use of patois was “in-
comprehensible” to white gatekeepers; In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in
the Post ..."
By Richard Iton p. 239.



xvi Accessed 5/11/16 3:43 p.m.

xvii cite “Waterfalls”

xviii Forbes, Death Becomes Her, 9/10/2001



xxi Grossberg, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, 40-41

xxii Freud Civilization and its Discontents,

xxiii Vermorel and Vermorel, 1993, p. 304

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