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Guest Lecturer Robin James Speaks About "Hearing Gender in Music"

Guest music lecturer Robin James presented: "Hearing Gender in Music: Why Ariana Grande's 'thank u, next' Really Is a Diss Track," for an audience of students and school community members in Hubbard Performance Hall on Tuesday, February 5.

After an introduction by junior Manou Crawford, a student leader in the Music Department, Robin, a professor of philosophy and women's studies at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, described the social systems around which society organizes itself, noting that "gender" is one of the characteristics that society uses to sort groups of people.

Gender, she said, was "invented in Europe during the Enlightenment" in order to maintain the elevated patriarchal political status of men. It did not exist universally across global cultures at the time. Gender patterns found in social systems may be observed in cultural expressions such as music, and are prevalent and recognizable in today's pop music, she explained.

Presenting music samples from pop music artists like LMFAO, cardi b, and The Chainsmokers, Robin pointed to and explained some simple components of pop music compositions that may be identified as "male" or "female."

In one example, Robin compared the pop songs "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift and "thank u, next" by Ariana Grande, both of which have been commonly accepted as nods to female empowerment. On close inspection, according to Robin, gender patterns that can be observed in the two songs indicate that Ariana Grande's "thank u, next" is a "diss track" defined in Urban Dictionary as "tracks made by one artist to insult another artist." By using the "chill" or relaxed construct of music that is current in compositions by male artists, Ariana Grande positions herself as different from Taylor Swift and "Shake It Off." While Taylor Swift's song exhibits the typical female constructs of the high-tension "soar" that ends on the downbeat, and lyrics that claim her resilience from heartbreak, Ariana Grande's "thank u, next" "chill" music is "emotionally vacant" and "catalogues conquests" in such a way that suggests she is on "the same level as the boys." In this way, Ariana Grande musically "disses" Taylor Swift, according to Robin.

By diagnosing problems in society, including examining what happens in the messages communicated via music, we can think about ways to make society better, Robin said.

Robin is co-editor of The Journal of Popular Music Studies. She has written three books, including Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, and Neoliberalism, published in 2015; The Conjectural Body: Gender, Race and the Philosophy of Music, published in 2010; and her latest book, Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance & Post-Identity Biopolitics, which will be published by Duke University Press next fall. Her writing on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The Guardian, The New Inquiry, Contemporary Aesthetics, Journal of Popular Music Studies, and a number of other media outlets.

Robin earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Miami University of Ohio, and a master's degree and doctorate in philosophy from DePaul University.

Connect to Robin's website to learn more about her teaching and writing.

A digital sound artist and musician, Robin is also a member of the Loomis Chaffee community. She and her spouse, digital photography and graphic arts teacher Christian Ryan, and their dogs, live in Harman Hall. Her presentation was made possible with support from the Joseph P. Stookins Guest Lecture Fund.