default_mobilelogo

Have you heard, have you heard?: Sound, Sexuality and Missy Elliott's Public Body

 

Jennifer A Woodruff

 
In the March 1997 issue of Essence, a magazine targeted to African-American women, Joan Morgan takes issue with Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, two female rappers better known for their sexually explicit images than for their musical output. Morgan labels Brown and Kim “sistas with the lyrical personas of stay-high juvenile delinquents and hyper-sexed…hoochie mamas”.  Morgan then goes on to advise all rappers and indeed, all women: “…longevity for rappers depends a lot on safe, commercial appeal…. Whether it’s the bedroom or the boardroom, the women who rise to the top are the sisters who selectively ration their erotic power.” Three months after Morgan’s article was published, Missy Elliott released her debut album Supa Dupa Fly. Since that debut, Elliott’s longevity has been undeniable.  She has recorded six albums, produced albums and singles for other artists, formed her own record label (The Goldmind Inc.) and starred in her own reality television series. Part of any celebrity’s success comes from exposure outside of the recording studio—we are likely to know a celebrity by the deluge of coverage on television, the internet, and in print. But for a recording artist, sound is ostensibly the primary means of communication with an audience. Without a doubt, a large portion of Elliott’s accomplishments comes directly from her talents as a rapper/singer/producer. However, in this paper I theorize Missy Elliott as a body mutually understood and created by artist, audience and marketing executives. I use Elliott’s sound, especially her voice, as the primary object of my analysis in understanding this body.

Theorizing women in hip hop

There are two major concerns for scholars studying women in rap: 1. Women are participating in a genre in which men are overtly exploiting women, through a combination of lyrical violence and sexual machismo. 2. Women’s bodies and their sexual capacities exist only to serve said machismo—both in lyrics and in images. Within this paradigm, how do female rappers maintain their legitimacy as (highly sexualized) females and their authority as hip hop artists? How do female rappers gain and claim power? And finally, how can these emcees change the misogynistic paradigm of popular hip hop?
Direct lyrical confrontations to misogyny are read as signs of resistance, and more importantly, of reclaiming a space for females in hip hop.  In particular, Tricia Rose’s work examines the “culturally-reflexive space” in which female rappers dialogue with male rappers.  Lyrics are, of course, full of possibility, as women (if only temporarily) are able to control the discursive space and can define themselves and the terms of the debate.   Other forms of media—videos, for example—are opportunities for female artists to control the nature of their images.  Examining many different levels of performance—“verbal, musical, and corporeal” in Suzanne Bost’s words—yields a greater understanding of the complexity of the female subject position.  These different levels expose the discord between different ideas of female identity and provide potential for contestation.
 All of the above scholars are working primarily with lyrics and images. Indeed, much of the appeal of hip hop as an object of inquiry is the play of the lyrics. But how does sound help us understand these female bodies, and those of their audiences? Following Bost, sexuality is communicated through gestures in image and sound. I use Missy Elliott’s first album, Supa Dupa Fly, to examine the information transmitted about Elliott’s sexuality and her particular body through the sound of her voice and the other voices on the album, most notably that of her producer Timbaland.
On Supa Dupa Fly, Missy Elliott is naturally the aural focus of the album. Jimmy Douglass is credited as the engineer and co-mixer along with Timbaland.  Douglass characterizes his recording style as having ‘up front vocals’, as opposed to bass-heavy beats common in hip-hop.  Indeed, Elliott’s sound is extremely precise on this album—every breath, every vocal flaw is audible. In the song “Beep Me 911”, her sound is so clear that you can hear the hoarseness in her voice. In addition, her singing is littered with glottal onsets—sounds produced when air forces itself out of the fully closed (adducted) vocal folds, or glottis, usually at the beginning of a word (demonstrate). It is a harsh sound—the air is exploding out of the vocal folds—and one that is harmful to the vocal folds over time.  Though it is a normal sound in spoken English, it is unusual in this context if only because many artists, engineers and producers go to great lengths to hide vocal flaws. Missy Elliott’s flaws, however, are emphasized through the engineering. On this song she shares singing credit with 702, a group of three female singers. In contrast to Elliott’s harsh vocalization and hoarse sound, the women in 702 sing with a clearer tone, gliding into words instead of beginning them with the harsh sounds that occur in Elliott’s verses. Here is Missy Elliott singing a verse from “Beep Me 911”, followed by 702’s verse. Notice their different ways of approaching the same initial vowel sounds. (Sound eg. 1 and 2, Slide 1)
The second noticeable feature of Elliott’s vocals is the depth and space in her sound, another self-defined characteristic of Jimmy Douglass’s mixing style. He achieves ‘space’ by ‘spreading’ the vocal tracks. Instead of condensing Elliott’s takes in to a stereo pair, Douglass uses many  different takes, enabling him to manipulate each individual track. As the title artist, Elliott’s voice is naturally at the front of the mix in all the tracks. However, in “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”, a free-association rap loosely built around a sample of Ann Peebles’ 1971 single “I Can’t Stand the Rain”, Elliott’s voice occupies a large portion of the horizontal space. Her vocals are multed, meaning that the voice is recorded on separate tracks. These multiple vocal tracks are spread around the stereo field. One vocal track occupies the left speaker, and another occupies the right.
Douglass creates ‘depth’ by adding delay to these individual tracks, creating an echo, or a space front and back. This processed reverb creates the illusion that the sound occupies a bigger space than it actually does. In “The Rain”, a delayed doubling is audible in the left and right speakers, while the main vocal is in the center. A more perceptible echo trails the last words of each phrase. (We’ll hear an example of this momentarily.)

Timbaland’s sound

Elliott’s producer, Timbaland, is not a ‘featured’ artist in the traditional sense, rapping verses here and there; rather, his interjections are a part of the beat. In both “Beep Me 911” and “The Rain”, his utterances are interwoven throughout the tracks. While Elliott holds the lyrical content, Timbaland plays the role of DJ: he stresses the beat, highlights certain lyrics through repetition, and encourages the vocalist. Timbaland’s voice, as opposed to Elliott’s, is farther back in the mix, and it has neither space nor depth. His sound is distinctly background to her foreground. Whereas Elliott’s voice in “The Rain” occupies the maximum possible amount of audio space, Timbaland’s voice wafts around the track, craftily moving back and forth between left and right but never settling into both at the same time. There is no audible delay in his sound—it is thin and nimble. Here is Timbaland in “The Rain”: notice also Missy’s depth and space here. (Track 3, Slide 2)
The timbre of Timbaland’s voice aurally separates him from Missy and the rest of the artists on the album. His sound is EQed. The highest and lowest frequencies of his voice have been removed, leaving only the middle frequencies (around 1000 Hz). Taking out the low and high takes away the acoustic fundamentals of the speaking voice, as well as the upper harmonics produced by these fundamentals. The result is that the frequencies which give the human voice its range of timbral color are gone, and what we hear is a narrow, nonhuman sound.
In Elliott’s singing, the high production quality and technological choices made in the studio allow the audience to hear the physical processes behind her vocal production. Her hoarseness is produced by air escaping through the vocal folds without causing them to vibrate.  The glottal onsets we hear are air literally exploding through her vocal organ. By allowing us to hear how she is producing the sound, she allows us to hear her humanness. She not only invites comparisons with other, better trained singers, but she and her production team let us literally hear her body working.
On the one hand, in Elliott’s sound the body is always present, both in terms of the space it occupies, and the fact that we can hear the body working. In Timbaland’s sound on the other hand, the body has literally been removed. There is an abundance of body in Elliott’s sound and a complete lack of body in Timbaland’s. He is body-less, free of bodily associations. As we do not hear the breath behind his sound, even breath escaping in the form of articulated consonants, and we certainly do not hear his vocal organ working, his utterances only highlight the humanness of Elliott’s sound.

Dualism

The philosophical history of the hierarchization of mind over body and the resulting correlation of male with mind and female with body has been well explored. It is because mind and body are separate that the mind is privileged—if it is completely outside the body, it is not vulnerable in a way that a body is. The mind is not susceptible to physical danger. Centuries of thinkers and philosophical movements have placed the mind in a struggle to overcome the body, to compensate for the body’s weaknesses. In this line of thought, women’s bodies have been rendered even more vulnerable because of their reproductive capacities. Elizabeth Grosz writes: “The coding of femininity with corporeality…leaves men free to inhabit what they (falsely) believe is a purely conceptual order while at the same time enabling them to satisfy their…need for corporeal contact through their access to women’s bodies and services” (14).
In the typical Top 40 hip hop track by a male artist, women’s “bodies and services” are desired, expected and exploited. Elliott’s body in the first part of her career was very different from those bodies fetishized on hip hop radio, MTV and BET. This body is not immediately coded as desirable, and indeed, her early videos emphasize her large shape.  But Elliott’s sound, because it so explicitly references her body, places her in a position similar to that of the “video-hos”. Even though her body is not “typical”, the accessibility of her female body, as represented in her sound, marks her as more corporeal than any male rapper. Thus, even though her large body is not marked as sexy, she is not equal to the “conceptual order” of hip hop—an order delineated and defined by male artists, an order reified by scholars and critics where lyrics are privileged and celebrated over hip hop’s more bodily manifestations.
Timbaland’s sound reinforces Elliott’s accessibility as a female object. Missy has body where Timbaland does not. Her excess of breath is emphasized by Timbaland’s lack of breath. Her emotion is accentuated by his non-emotion. As producer, Timbaland ostensibly controls Elliott’s product. His sound in these recordings reinforces the idea that he is the one in control—he is not merely the man in this man/woman team, he is the mind, occupying a conceptual order without the burden of a body. His sound cannot be pinned down in the way that Elliott’s must be; whereas she must be grounded in the center of the track, her sound and body the center of everyone’s attention, Timbaland’s sound can wander around, seemingly monitoring her sound and body. His iterations remind the listener of the differences in their sounds, as well as their different roles in the music’s production. Sound produces Elliott as a sexual subject (Butler 1993).  Sound reinforces Timbaland’s role as man, producer, mind. Sound reinforces Elliott’s role as woman, artist, body. And as body-less producer and virtual DJ, not only is Timbaland presented as a “subject of knowledge,” he seemingly has full regulation over Elliott’s sound—and thus her body. He regulates the sense of Elliott’s physicality while presumably shaping the consumable product.
Timbaland does not have, and has not had, full control over the production of Elliott’s sound. Even on her earliest album, she is credited as co-producer, and by all accounts their work together has always been extremely collaborative.  Missy Elliott is in a position to pick and choose with whom she wants to work. It is likely that a portion of her audience is aware of the influence she wields as producer, for her own albums and those of others. A much larger portion of her audience and beyond is aware of her status as entertainment ‘brand’—her print ads with MAC cosmetic (double click) and her commercials for the Gap with Madonna (click).  An audience understands a celebrity like Missy Elliott through her music and through her “image”—a combination of all the television and magazine appearances, business ventures, and everything else save the music itself.
Because Missy Elliott is a recording artist, her celebrity is built first and foremost on her music. As such, her sound is the gateway to her public body. It gives her audience “corporeal contact” in a way that glossy photographs and occasional live appearances do not. Whereas Elliott’s body is always seen, it is always in a very public setting. Her sound offers the illusion of a private setting, the illusion of access to her body and its services.
The tension between the sexuality in her music and the sexuality in her public persona is not only about Missy Elliott. It is about her audience and the marketing executives who sell her as a brand. “Missy Elliott” means music, television, advertising, products. Her sound and body are what connect these things together. They are part of what she and her record label are selling. The objectives of Missy Elliott’s management and label—who have expressed an interest in transforming her image into a larger ‘brand’—underscore the fact that Elliott, as celebrity, is a public commodity. As such, understanding who is making choices about body and sound and why and how these choices are made, help us understand how female bodies are understood in hip hop and in celebrity culture.

Conclusion

Part of Elliott’s labeling, according to a Newsweek profile, includes her slimmed-down and sexed-up image. (She very publicly lost around 50 pounds around the time of the release of her album Under Construction in 2002.) Joan Morgan, the author quoted at the beginning of the paper wrote about Elliott in 2000: “Missy has attained full grasp of that coveted triumvirate that so often eludes women—money, power and respect.”  Though this may be true, the respect Elliott has earned does not preclude the necessity to align herself in some way with paradigmatic understandings of women as sexual objects. I am not suggesting that Missy Elliott is a victim of misogyny, nor am I suggesting that she is the answer to hip hop’s woes. Rather, I see her as a good starting point in thinking about the complex relationship between a celebrity’s sexuality and an audience’s understanding of it. In her music Elliott walks a line between strong and independent female, and the kind of highly sexual/sexualized subject that women are expected to be in hip hop. She does not shy away from sexually explicit lyrics, sounds and images, yet she has control over her image and sound in a way that many other women do not.
As a sexual object, Missy Elliott would seem unequal to the task of changing the dominant discourse surrounding misogyny and feminism. However, because she is also understood as someone who earns large quantities of money and controls her own production (and controls her own body—the weight loss), this analysis is too simple. As Tricia Rose points out, theoretical analysis without any application in the “real world” is practically useless.  Undoubtedly it is important to think about the strategies necessary for combating misogyny in hip hop and in popular culture in general. Scholarly analyses of discursive power are apropos, but does this discursive power mean anything to hip hop’s fans? (How) can an artist really change, or even fight, the misogynistic paradigm? An analysis that assumes full agency on the part of the artist can only go so far. Only by examining the space of the public body, the space where audience and celebrity meet, can we even hope to have an answer to this question. The drive to sell records, magazines, clothing, cosmetics means that the audience is at least as important, if not more, than the artist’s artistic vision or her personal connections to her work. The connection between the artist and her audience is where bodies are truly understood and identities defined.

 

Notes

  1.   Joan Morgan, “The Bad Girls of Hip-Hop” Essence March 1997. Accessed online at Lexis-Nexis Academic 17 June 2004.
  2.   Elliott’s awards include three Grammys (two for Best Female Rap Solo Performance and one for Best Rap Solo Performance, an American Music Association Award for Favorite Female Rap/Hip Hop Artist and an MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year (“Work It”)).
  3.   Nancy Guevara,. 1996. “Women Writin' Rappin' Breakin'”, in Droppin' Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, ed. W. E. Perkins (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1996; Cheryl Keyes, Rap Music and Street Consciousness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
  4.   Tricia Rose, Black Noise (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 296.
  5.   Beverly Skeggs, "Two Minute Brother: Contestation through Gender, 'Race' and Sexuality," Innovation: The European journal of social sciences 6, no. 3 (1993); Jason Haugen, "'Unladylike Divas': Language, Gender, and Female Gangsta Rappers", Popular Music and Society 26(4).
  6.   Robin Roberts, "'Ladies First': Queen Latifah's Afrocentric Feminist Music Video", African American Review 28, no. 2 (1994); R. A. Emerson "'Where My Girls At?': Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos." Gender and Society 16, no. 1 (2002): 115.
  7.   Suzanne Bost, “‘Be deceived if ya wanna be foolish’: (Re)constructing Body, Genre, and Gender in Feminist Rap” Postmodern Culture 12, no 1 (2000).
  8.   Douglass is Timbaland’s primary engineer/mixer, and thus the primary engineer/mixer for all of Elliott’s albums. 
  9.   Maureen Droney, interview with Jimmy Douglass in Mix Masters: Platinum Engineers Reveal Their Secrets for Success (Berklee, Mass.: Berklee Press, 2003), 70-5. Unless otherwise stated, all of the information on Douglass’s mixing process, including direct quotes, is taken from this interview, cited as having taken place in October 1999. At the time of this interview Missy Elliott had released two albums: Supa Dupa Fly and Da Real World (1999). Douglass is credited as mixer and engineer on Da Real World, as he is on all of Elliott’s subsequent albums and most other Timbaland-produced tracks.
  10.    Clifton Ware, Basics of Vocal Pedagogy (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 107. “Glottal (hard) onset is created when breath pressure builds up below the strongly adducted vocal folds and explodes them apart. A light glottal onset (hiatus) is normal for clear articulation of many initial vowels in words and is especially needed in certain languages, such as English and German…. A frequent tendency of using glottal onset normally produces pressed phonation.”
  11.   Ware, 101.
  12.   The videos for “The Rain”, “Sock It 2 Me” and “She’s a Bitch” present Missy in blown-up trash bags, bulky spacesuits and puffy Michelin-man type outfits.
  13.   Judith Butler defines performativity as “the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.” Reiteration and citation are the necessary repetitive acts through which the subject is materialized. It is only through continual performance that the sexual subject (Elliott) is produced.
  14.   In an interview with NPR’s Neda Ulaby, Timbaland credits Elliott as one of his biggest influences. (Interview 21 June 2004, accessed online at www.npr.org)
  15.   Her latest business venture is a line of shoes with Adidas, Respect M.E.
  16.   Joan Morgan, “The Making of Miss Thang!” Essence March 2000.
  17.   Rose, 1990.