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Hilarie Ashton

Hilarie Ashton is a freelance writer, academic, and cultural critic. She has published her academic work in a variety of journals, including Resonance, Women & Music, Style, and the South Atlantic Review, and her freelance writing has appeared in SPIN, the New York Times, the Believer, Ms., and NPR's Turn the Tables series, among other venues. She's working on her first academic monograph and a volume of essays on pop culture and gender. She earned her Ph.D in English (and rock 'n' roll :)) from the CUNY Graduate Center. She enjoys teaching, tattoos, gender stuff, mutual aid, and dogs.

Hilarie Ashton, “Doing Two Voices: Gender Performance and Sonic Drama in Pop Duets” Duets are an intensely fertile sonic space, because of the interplay of two voices, and sometimes also because of the mingling of two very different audiences. They're inherently dramatic, in the sense that they introduce new elements to both artists' sonic work, and they can be even more dramatic still; think of Brandi and Monica's iconic rivalry in "The Boy is Mine" or Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock's fictionalized selves one-upping their way through "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" in Annie, Get Your Gun. They are also interestingly restrictive: by definition, they require only two artists and those people can't already be in artistic community together. Two bands can't duet (or at least they haven't yet).

Gender, in all its messiness, power relations, assumptions, confusion, and beauty, is also a dramatic mingling, but of a different kind: it melds socially influenced embodied experience with cultural mythologies and expectations. And since mainstream American pop music tends to want listeners to confirm, and through its at least surface hetero lyrics, to receive gender conformity, and sexual conformity through them, the spaces where other things sneak out are interesting and dramatic, too.

In looking at and listening to a curated selection of duets from the '70s to today, what are the small, subversive undercurrents different artists singing together can bring out? Through the ways lyrics treat gender roles and expectations, how do duets expand our conceptions of what gender is or could be? And what kind of new spaces for listening and identification do they create under the radar of the systems? I'll focus primarily on four pairings: Mama Cass & Johnny Cash, Celine Dion & Barbara Streisand, Lady Gaga & Beyoncé, and Meghan Thee Stallion & Cardi B. (The larger project that this paper anchors includes many more, crossing and combining several gender identities, and I'll happily take suggestions from the audience for others!)