IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Summer Kim Lee

by justindburton on March 20, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Summer Kim Lee, whose paper “‘Singin’ Up On You’: Queer Intimacies of the Sonorous Body in ‘The New Sound Karaoke'” is scheduled for the Turn It Up! One: Listening to Difference session, 11:15-12:45 on Friday, March 23 in KC 808.

In Listening, Jean-Luc Nancy considers the affinity between meaning and sound.  This affinity emerges through what Nancy calls “the space of the referral,” a space both meaning and sound share, wherein they refer to each other and back again, producing and figuring the space of the referral as the space of a self, or a subject.[1. Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 9.] Sound and its movement as resonance is that which spreads or seeps simultaneously through the self and beyond, thereby figuring the self to what is felt both within and outside of the self in the act of listening.  Nancy approaches the self, as the space of the referral, through listening, as the means through which the self is made present to and senses or feels in the presence of self.[2. Ibid., 12.] He writes, “To sound is to vibrate in itself or by itself: it is not only, for the sonorous body, to emit a sound, but it is also to stretch out, to carry itself and be resolved into vibrations that both return it to itself and place it outside itself.”[3. Ibid., 8.] Here, “the sonorous body” becomes the self, and the self becomes through and as the “sonorous body.”  In other words, the “sonorous body” of the self “vibrates” with sound both listened to and emitted, and through these sonic vibrations, constantly moves the self to turn and return to itself through feeling, through what is sensed.[4. In a footnote, Nancy explicates his use of the term “sonorous body,” as that “Which is always at once the body that resounds and my body as a listener where that resounds, or that resounds with it”  (70, n. 11).]

I am drawn toward Nancy’s articulation and use of the term “the sonorous body,” wherein sound as movement or as vibration, at the risk of being too literal, implies that to (re)sound and to listen is a bodily sensation that can be pleasurable.  To think, then, of the sonorous body, is to think of a sensuous body that through the resonance of sound is moved to turn and return to the self, bringing what is outside of the self, which is to say sounds emitted by other bodies, and those other bodies themselves, into intimate contact with the self.  In this presentation, I think of the ways in which the sonorous as sensuous becomes a form of queer intimacy, wherein multiple bodies encounter and touch each other through the resonance of their sounding, reaching beyond and against the heteronormative logic of reproductive sex and marriage.  This particular kind of intimacy is what I call queer sonorous intimacy: a way of feeling present to the self and close to others not through a narrative of touching skin or flesh, but through a narrative’s resonance of singing voices and sonorous bodies.

To further pursue what I am calling queer sonorous intimacy, I engage with performance artist Lynne Chan and filmmaker Bobby Abate’s karaoke music video, “Promiscuous,” a parody of Nelly Furtado and Timbaland’s “Promiscuous Girl.”  “Promiscuous” is a part of a music video series made to accompany “The New Sound Karaoke,” a free weekly karaoke open mic night Chan and Abate co-hosted in Brooklyn, New York from 2008 up until this past year as their alter egos, Black Waterfall and Bobby Service.  Waterfall and Service are a converted married couple, who met one night at a voguing competition.  After a night of karaoke, they fell in love, and eloped the next morning.  At their karaoke open mic night, Chan and Abate, as Waterfall and Service, screen and sing along live to their music videos of parodies and mash-ups that tell the story of their marriage.  I argue that Chan and Abate, as Waterfall and Service, enact karaoke performances, which, within their own music videos and songs, and particularly in “Promiscuous,” produce visual and sonorous narratives of queer intimacy through pleasurable bodily sensations felt in singing to and with each other, but not necessarily in sync or in harmony.


Queer sonorous intimacy is a response to, and derives from, Lauren Berlant’s articulation of intimacy as the way in which we relate to each other in (whatever kind and whichever form of) closeness as well as a way of communicating with each other in and through this closeness.[5. Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue,” in Critical Inquiry, 24: 2 (Winter 1998): 281.] What is communicated and enacted through intimacy is a move, or “gesture,” toward each other, but also an act of reaching that is “an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way.”[6. Ibid.] These narratives through and of intimacy in “something shared” are imbued with affect to structure acceptable, or normative, “‘expressive’ relations” within both “public and private domains,” such as heteronormative ideas of love and kinship, reproductive sex, marriage, or patriotism.[7. Ibid., 285.] Such normative structures of intimacy become attachments, what we hold onto as that which we feel obligated to adhere to in order to make sense of, and indeed sense, or feel our lives as always already in relation and close to others.

In the normalization of some intimacies, other kinds of intimacy that do not fit within nor move along with the arc of normative life narratives’ trajectories are discounted.  Queer sonorous intimacy, particularly as it is enacted in “Promiscuous,” articulates an alternative way of relating to each other and follows the movements of an intimacy through the mess of singing voices and sonorous bodies in and as an erotic encounter.  “Promiscuous” is a reenactment of a quarrel between Waterfall and Service in which they, both as the promiscuous wife and husband, sing to each other about their everyday domestic and sexual frustrations with being in a marriage, coincidentally enough, “only for show.”[8. Bobby Abate and Lynne Chan, “Promiscuous,” YouTube, November 11, 2008, http://youtu.be/ch-HvUYR_Wg.] The first half of the song is a dialogue between Waterfall and Service, who each complain that the other is too busy cruising “the ladies restrooms at Home Depot” or “quick-picka-uppin’/ all over our county” to do their domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning.[9. Ibid.] Gradually, through the endless supply of sexual innuendos where food, house tools, and body parts become indistinguishable from each other (burritos, tacos, Toll House Cookies, a lawnmower, an oven), we are lead to the conclusion that neither Waterfall nor Service are sexually stimulated by each other’s bodies.

However, this is not the conclusion of both their marriage and their relationship, for towards the end of the “Promiscuous” parody, Service comes to the realization that what they do share is a mutual pleasure in “singin’ up on you”: of coming into an erotic encounter with each other through the pleasurable bodily sensation of listening to and singing “up,” or against each other.  Waterfall sings “Promiscuous Husband/ I’m calling for Service/ but not out of lust/ our singing will serve us,” to which Service responds, crooning, “Promiscuous Wife/ you’re pleasing me/ tho not in the bed/ but by singing in key.”[10. Ibid.] The song ends with Waterfall declaring, “Promiscuous Husband/ we’re on the same beat/ so we don’t gotta/ play games no more.”[11. Ibid.] In “Promiscuous,” normative narratives of intimacy, which works to regulate and bind their bodies into the married life, or what Berlant calls “the good life,” throws Waterfall and Service off track and out of synch with each other.[12. Laurent Berlant, “Starved,” in After Sex?: On Writing Since Queer Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 83.] However, it is through the erotic encounter of singing together up on each other’s sonorous bodies that Waterfall can satisfyingly say they are back on the “same beat.”

In Time Binds, Freeman writes that the heteronormative family, or the married couple, operates “like a moving watchworks, showcasing the precision of its routines and the synchronicity of its motions as evidence of intimacy.”[13. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 40.] This kind of synchronicity of routine, which extracts “maximum productivity” from heteronormative, reproductive, and laboring bodies in relation to each other, is what Freeman calls “chrononormativity.”[14. Ibid., 3.] It is that which produces and structures the family and other heteronormative forms of kinship as a “moving watchworks,” foreclosing the possibilities of the unexpected in intimate encounters and their narratives.  Intimacy becomes something efficient, a “synchronicity” that is all about good timing.  Freeman’s chrononormativity describes the narratives of intimacy that Berlant critiques, and which Waterfall and Service, in their failure to sync up with each other and those around them, turn into moments of what Freeman simply calls “bad timing.”[15. Ibid., 21.] Waterfall and Service’s bad timing—such as their inability to sync up with each other within the binds of the married life—becomes that which moves along their narrative of a queer intimacy that is sung through karaoke, which is itself a mode of performing “bad timing”: a performance of amateurism and the failed mastery of vocal performance.

A queer sonorous intimacy becomes an alternative means of sensing, feeling, and literally performing the self relationally and collectively within a pleasurable encounter, through and with multiple singing voices, as sonorous bodies.  In my presentation, I will work toward understanding how sonorous encounters, and their pleasurable bodily sensations in karaoke performance, produce alternative narratives and feelings of intimacy that shape and flesh out queer temporalities and alternative rhythms of the body’s (dis)composure.  In other words, I think of the ways in which queer sonorous intimacy produces modes of temporality that bring bodies close together not within an elegantly coherent narrative of romance, but within clumsy, incoherent narratives that through fits and starts, imagine and enact alternative forms of kinship, love, and affection.

Summer Kim Lee earned her BA at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, creating an interdisciplinary concentration in women of color performance artists in New York.  She then completed her MA at New York University’s Performance Studies, studying the aesthetics and structures of racialized feeling and embodiment within vocal performance in popular music.  As a PhD candidate, she is continuing to pursue the line of inquiry established during her time as an MA student.

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