Paper Session
Nov 11, 2021 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM(America/Chicago)
20211111T1300 20211111T1350 America/Chicago Portraying Disability AMS 2021
“The Worrying Rise of Misery Music”: Representations of Depression, Anxiety, and Suicide Ideation in the Music and Reception of Billie Eilish
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/11 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/11 19:50:00 UTC

With her melancholic "whisper singing," "death-haunted" lyrics, and disaffected, goth-like image, 19-year-old pop singer Billie Eilish has established herself as pop's clinically depressed "misfit." In the music video for her ballad "When the Party's Over," the blue-haired Eilish, clad in oversized white prison clothes and metal chains, drinks a glass of black viscous liquid before black tears hemorrhage rapidly from her eyes and down her cheeks as the song builds to a climax, a gruesome outpouring reminiscent of self-harm. While Eilish speaks candidly about how her mental health informs her music and desire to support her fans, many critics caution that she glamorizes depression from a position of extraordinary white privilege at the expense of impressionable young fans, exacerbating the so-called "trendification of suicide" in pop culture.

Eilish is among a growing number of pop artists – including self-proclaimed "lonely stoner" rapper Kid Cudi, "sad boy" singer-songwriter James Blake, and emo rappers Lil Uzi Vert and the late Lil Peep – who explicitly center personal accounts of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation in their music, whether by championing a message of nihilistic resignation, vulnerability, solidarity, and/or resilience. Yet even as depression expressly enters pop on an unprecedented scale, it figures as predominantly masculine, due in no small part to the veneration of "madness" as authenticity in male musicians, and its stigmatization among women (McKay 2015; Cheng 2018). Indeed, Eilish is without a woman precursor or peer in her defiant projection of depression, "the negation of what a female teen-pop star used to be," "the anti-Britney Spears" (Pereles 2019; Kirscher 2019).

This paper thus analyses the representation of depression and its corollaries in Eilish's music and reception relative to the enduring psycho-pathologization of women pop musicians, Eilish's whiteness, and the ethical ramifications of her fandom. I ultimately position contemporary pop music as a creative, unregulated site of public mental health interest, building on scholarship in disability studies and Mad studies through addressing a nexus of variable categories that both mirror and diverge from representations of disability and "madness" in instructive ways.

Jessica Holmes
Injury, Affirmation, and the Disability Masquerade in Kanye West’s “Through the Wire”
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/11 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/11 19:50:00 UTC

Familiar from queer studies and critical race theories is the concept of passing, "a form of imposture in which members of a marginalized group present […] themselves as members of a dominant group" (Samuels 2015, 135). Less familiar, however, is the notion of the masquerade, which embraces a stigmatized identity as a different kind of performative cloak. Tobin Siebers (2008) adapts the masquerade for a disability studies context and identifies two broad strategies: 1) displaying an exaggerated version of a disability; and 2) disguising one disability behind another.

This presentation explores how both strategies of the masquerade underpin Kanye West's song "Through the Wire." Originally recorded in 2002 after a near-fatal car crash, West rapped the song with his jaw wired shut while recovering from reconstructive surgery. Although his diction is slurred and muffled, West frames "Through the Wire" as a triumph over potential debilitation. In 2003, West re-recorded the song for release as the lead single of his debut album. The only hitch was that his jaw had by then healed: the eponymous wires were no longer there. Yet the story's appeal was irresistible, and the 2003 version of the song was still marketed as the authentic product of physical disablement.

I argue that understanding West's 2003 re-recording as an exaggerated masquerade helps reconcile qualities of this version that initially appear disingenuous. His actions are not wholly beyond reproach, however, and I also compare the song with the Hollywood casting practice of "disability drag." Second, I suggest that the original "Through the Wire" recording allowed West to renegotiate his reputation as a weak rapper, which significantly impeded his early career. By disguising his limited technical abilities behind the physical impairment in his jaw, West leveraged the spectacle of disability to transform the unremarkable into the wondrous.

Finally, other aspects of the song, such as the prominent sampling and deformation of Chaka Khan's voice, also engage with disability studies issues. As Khan's supernaturally high tessitura moves in counterpoint with West's audibly irregular vocal delivery, "Through the Wire" makes non-normativity visible and even celebrated.

Jeremy Tatar
McGill University
Trauma and the Implications of Dmitri Shostakovich's Disability in Reconsidering the Eighth String Quartet
Individual Paper 01:00 PM - 01:50 PM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/11 19:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/11 19:50:00 UTC

In the decades following the biographical "wars" that bore Dmitri Shostakovich's name, music scholars have grown especially cautious of certain sources and claims associated with the composer, his life, and works. The Western fascination with Soviet and post-Soviet political history encourages questions regarding the burdens, pressures, and stressors in Shostakovich's career. However, the composer's experience with significant disability often becomes obscured in these discussions. In 1999, neurologist Robert Pascuzzi examined the surviving documentation and concluded that Shostakovich likely suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's" disease. Enveloped in a consideration of Western and Soviet social perspectives on disability, as well as accounts from the composer and his children, I contextualize Shostakovich's substantial illness and establish the ways in which his consistently poor health remains largely outside Western reception of his oeuvre. This study draws on the research of psychologists H. Livneh and R. F. Antonak, who developed an eight-category crisis assessment for those with chronic illnesses and disabilities. To conclude, I turn to Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor as a case study of the composer's experience with disability. I will demonstrate the ways in which the trauma of his continuously poor health is essential to our understanding of this composition within Shostakovich's output, which may further contribute to a more nuanced discussion aimed at better recognizing and then assessing the impact of chronic illness and/or disability within the classical community.

Sarah Kovich
Indiana University
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