SOUNDING LIKE A NO-NO: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era. By Francesca T. Royster. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2013.
In Sounding Like a No-No, Francesca T. Royster provides a theoretically and socially grounded reading of the politics of Post-Soul. Chronologically, Post-Soul follows the Civil Rights Movement. The reformation of black cultural production in this moment acted as a response to the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, which allow new forms of expression for some, but also as a response to the imagination of a unified black body during the Civil Rights Movement, which could be confining for others. At the heart of Royster’s argument is the useful term “Post-Soul eccentric.” Royster situates Post-Soul eccentricity within and against a history of black struggle, survival, and creativity, as well as scholarly fields that take up black aesthetic production, social justice, and feminist studies. The term, sometimes synonymous with queer, quare, freaky, and/or funky, inspires Royster’s readings of artists who push the social and cultural boundaries of gender and sexuality, often as ameliorative to the strictures of black respectability. In doing so, Royster effectively expands the conversation around the possibilities of Post-Soul black aesthetic practices to understand how the reformation of boundaries of gender and sexuality shaped new sounds and visions of blackness. Royster’s nuanced reading of the production of blackness balances her desire to understand creativity, her love of music, and the joy that it can bring, with the ways that cultural production are always already tied to ideas and institutions like “community” and entertainment industries. In this way, Royster retains a love and appreciation of music without losing an awareness of where the limits of cultural production lie within lives simultaneously produced by institutions. In this way, her work fits within a scholarly genealogy marked out by Daphne Brooks, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Fred Moten.
Royster’s chapters explore the works of Eartha Kitt, Stevie Wonder, P-Funk, Michael Jackson, Grace Jones, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Janelle Monáe. In the chapters, she focuses on the power of music to move its listeners and to re-organize bodies and their meanings. She writes, “The best moments in music force us to think about our bodies, moments, and gestures as socially politicized, scrutinized, and shaped. Music questions the boundaries of the body itself. Such powerful moments in music bring to light the ways that all of our bodies are potentially ‘quare,’ producing meanings and pleasures in e excess of our immediate understanding” (65). Here the influence of both E. Patrick Johnson’s work on “quareness” and José Muñoz’s “misidentifications” come to the fore, where the power of performance to change social meanings and realities becomes the focus of her queer readings of performances. One of my favorite parts of the book comes in the chapter on P-Funk and Parliament, where Royster convincingly argues that George Clinton and his bands’ performances of funkiness and silliness provided an alternative to the heteronormative masculinities of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements. In this section Royster uses a compelling mix of sources to read Clinton and company’s music, costuming, and performances with and against ideas of Black Nationalism, community, and corporate entertainment. Overall, Royster’s obvious love of music and her intelligence in combining social history with feminist music criticism make this book a lively and worthwhile read.
Fiona I. B. Ngô | University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign