Iggy Azalea made her case at the BET awards last Sunday. She hopped uncomfortably to the stage, greeted by mentor T.I., and jumped right into her song with perhaps the most ironic line of the year, in her characteristic drawl: “First things first, I’m the realest.”
The line assumed a new meaning in its context that night. Before, she asserted her authenticity as a rapper to a broader public. At the BET Awards, the audience was narrowed: she made the claim to be the “realest” in front of black people. Funnily enough, the performance with which she would substantiate this opening argument ultimately failed. Her stage presence was tepid. More important, her voice, which has always stood out, sounded even more affected than before. There was more to prove, no doubt. No matter how hard she tries, however, she will never be black. The voice she aims for lets her down every time, her Australian roots creeping up with every other syllable. Despite their arsenal of dance moves and costumes, Miley Cyrus, Macklemore and Robin Thicke will also fail in their attempts to “be down.”
Many critiques of these white artists envision them as reckless, mindless appropriators who know not what they do, but I want to challenge this presumed naïveté. To my mind, white artists are indeed conscious of what they lack, and resolving it is key to maintaining the solidity of their brand. Compensating for this lack means venturing into the realm of comedy, irony, camp and race play. It forms a necessary part of their success.
It was none other than Iggy Azalea herself who suggested to me this line of thought, in an interview with the Guardian from June 28th: “I love the fact that I don’t rap the way I talk – I think it’s completely hilarious and ironic and cool. Didn’t I just recreate Clueless in my video [Fancy], the whitest thing of all time?” Azalea directly acknowledges a certain rift between the voice she assumes during performances and her native voice. This rift is only fodder for comedy because the way she talks (i.e., the accent, vocabulary and idiosyncrasies unique to her race and origins) is so dramatically left by the wayside, and she embraces this comedy as part of her artistry. The white girl talks black but, recognizing that she’ll never completely sound black, she turns her affected vocal trick into a source of laughs. Lack is the same impetus behind Miley Cyrus’ use of black twerking women as set decorations and objects of comedy: they make up for what she cannot provide.
Comedy and racial drag have met very often throughout the history of pop culture. At the intersection between the two, you can find three of the biggest white acts of last year. But if you go back, you’ll find that these stars have predecessors and analogues, interlocutors over time. Take for example, Al Jolson, the star of the first “talkie”—the earliest movie to feature the human voice in 1927.
The first of these was The Jazz Singer, in which Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, a Jew who dons blackface to sing jazz, thus rebelling against his father, a cantor at the synagogue. Thinking about The Jazz Singer right now, what’s funny about is that “jazz” was once the most visible form of black music in the 1920s, the way hip-hop is today. Watching Jolson’s performances today, I see a frightening image of a white man with a tar-colored face, hopping around the stage, producing laughs left and right. He is funny because of the color painted on his skin, because of the race he can only allude to. Sontag once wrote that camp operates as a series of quotations and references, never the embodiment of the real thing: “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’…”
Iggy Azalea participates in a similar art of allusion. Not a black, but a “black.”
Iggy Azalea’s appropriation of the “black” voice, I must admit, unsettles me a bit more deeply than her dance moves or gold chains. The sound of her voice cuts deeper. Black vernacular is used to intimate, to share and to connect. It builds bonds and connects black people to a shared past. Black people also recognize that such vocabularies and accents carry a social stigma, one that has consistently been used to portray us as unintelligent. To speak black is a limitation, as well as a site for kinship. For Iggy Azalea, however, it is a money maker, a key element of her brand. This is the most classical form of white power in pop culture. But, as I have hoped to show, artists like Azalea do not stop at merely speaking black. Iggy Azalea makes fun of black culture and the black voice—“it’s completely hilarious and ironic and cool.”
The same way Miley Cyrus twerks for fun, Iggy Azalea expands her syllables and accents her sentences for laughs. Comedy, however, is not without political implications. It has motivations, causes and origins. It also has consequences.
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