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Christine Capetola

Christine Capetola is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and holds a M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University. Her doctoral research investigates how black pop stars in the mid-1980s (and some of their contemporaries) used digital synthesizer and drum machine technologies to sonically, affectively, and vibrationally reroute visual stereotypes of blackness in an age of heightened hypervisibility. Christine also writes about contemporary music on her blog Sound and Queery.

"Vibrational Genealogies: Music Technology, Gender Presentation, and Racialized Sound in Grimes and Janelle Monáe's 'Venus Fly'"
Over one minute into the music video for “Venus Fly,” contemporary indie pop darlings Grimes and Janelle Monáe suddenly flash onto the screen decked out in futuristic and femme-tastic outfits and makeup. Although their eyes are covered by space goggles, they don’t miss a beat in the song. While Grimes slams on the drum pad in her kit with full force, Monáe talk-sings out the verse that begins with the line “Why you looking at me?” In this paper, I explore what happens when Grimes (née Claire Elise Boucher) and Monáe place their whiteness and blackness alongside one another through collaborating on a song grounded in drum machine and synthesizer sounds. Reaching new levels of critical praise with her 2015 synthpop album Art Angels, Boucher, a white Canadian, is renowned for pulling sounds (in this case Roland 808 samples) from black musical genres such as hip hop and house—and, according to her narrative, learning how to sing by emulating mixed race pop star Mariah Carey. The African American Monáe, meanwhile, is acclaimed for blending soul, electronic music, and 80s pop into a sound that celebrates a retro-futuristic blackness. Building on Nina Sun Eidheim’s work on vibration, I posit that the vibrations from the drum machines and synthesizers in “Venus Fly” accentuate contemporary (and mostly white) synthpop’s aural and affective relationality to blackness. Through collaborating with Monáe on “Venus Fly,” Grimes both positions herself in relation to blackness and acknowledges a black musical genealogy behind her sound. Expanding on Kara Keeling’s work on radical black femme-ness, I unpack the racialized implications of these two artists sharing vibrations for the duration of the song. I contend that this vibrational genealogy attempts to reroute histories of popular music that have erased blackness (and particularly contributions from black women) in genres from rock to house to indie.