Conference Agenda

The Online Program of events for the 2023 AMS & SMT Joint Annual Meeting appears below. This program is subject to change. The final program will be published in early November.

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Session Overview
Disability and Affordance in Popular Music
Saturday, 11/Nov/2023:
9:00am - 10:30am

Session Chair: Christa Bentley
Location: Governor's Sq. 14

Session Topics:

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“Lady Gaga Hits Rock Bottom!”: The Embodied Crisis of Pop Performance

Katelyn Hearfield

University of Pennsylvania,

Taking the stage at the 2015 Oscars, Lady Gaga was practically unrecognizable. The pop megastar’s previous award season transformations—hatching from an egg carried on a litter, sporting a dress entirely made of raw meat, and appearing in convincing drag as her own fictional boyfriend—had often stirred up controversy and helped to cement her position as an avant-garde performance artist in addition to best-selling musician. This time, however, her costume was her “authentic” self: natural-looking makeup, wavy blonde hair, and an elegant white ballgown. On stage, she sang a medley from The Sound of Music (1965), eschewing the industry-standard autotune to showcase her vocal talent. The performance heralded a new phase in her career, transitioning away from physically demanding stunts and vigorous dance routines toward a renewed focus on her voice. After the underwhelming reception of her album ARTPOP shortly after a mid-performance injury in 2013, this new era highlighted a supposedly more “authentic” Gaga.

This paper considers Lady Gaga’s turn from synth-heavy dance pop to a softer acoustic style in her mid-2010s output following her injury, which triggered the onset of the painful auto-immune disease fibromyalgia. Her work has long experimented with themes of disability, to the point that she has been criticized for appropriating the aesthetics of disability in her 2009 music video for “Paparazzi.” Her fifth studio album, Joanne (2016), is a rumination on the fate of her paternal aunt (for whom the album is named), a gifted artist whose hands were crippled by the auto-immune disease lupus and who died at age nineteen. I analyze the music of Joanne alongside Gaga’s performance of the 50th-anniversary tribute to The Sound of Music, comparing her career shift to that of Julie Andrews, the “original” Maria von Trapp who lost her voice to a botched surgery meant to remove vocal nodules. Theorizing Gaga’s post-diagnosis projects—including Joanne, two jazz albums with Tony Bennett, and award-winning acting roles—through the lens of disability studies, I reflect on the struggles of female artists when their bodies in crisis undermine the very art they live to produce.

Reconstructing Wheelchair-using Sexual Women: Ali Stroker, Oklahoma!, and the Politics of Visibility in Music Performance

Echo Lee Davidson

University of Pittsburgh

The ableist structure of American musical theater culture has historically restricted wheelchair users from participating in Broadway musicals. Wheelchair-using musicians who have achieved commercial and critical success within the limelight are often limited to playing characters with disabilities. Yet, Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair-user to perform on Broadway, occupying the role of Anna in Deaf West Theatre's 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. Moreover, Stroker’s performance as Ado Annie in the 2019 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was highly effective in proving that actors with disabilities can play any role. Indeed, her performance as Ado Annie presented a kind of visibility politics that expanded the visual tropes of disabled women in popular culture. Despite her centrality to musical theater’s development in the 2010s, Stroker has received very little attention among music scholars. Concomitantly, music and disability studies have yet to engage the case of wheelchair-using actors performing in roles originally written for actors who walk onstage in musicals.

Drawing on music, disability, and gender performance studies, I explore how wheelchair-using, sexual womanhood, a hegemonic identity that often goes unmarked, is constructed in Stroker’s performance as Ado Annie. To that end, I provide an account of the creative process behind Oklahoma! (2019), positioning Stroker’s artistic achievements at the center. I also interpret some important moments in Stroker’s performances of the songs “I Cain’t Say No,” “Many a New Day, and “Al Er’ Nuthin,’” For each song, I show that the lyrics, Stroker’s vocal delivery, texture, rhythm, and choreography make a storytelling delivery about disability, sexuality, and womanhood for able-bodied audiences. I argue that Stroker, the cast, and the crew of Oklahoma! (2019) took great pains to enlist audiences —able-bodied or otherwise—as disability advocates in the politics of disability that expands the visual field for disability capacity and—by extension—the domain of disability legibility.

The Affordances of a Pegleg: Disablist Music-Making and (A)symmetry in Rhythm Tap Dance

Rachel Gain

Yale University

This paper undertakes a critical examination of disabled music-making through the case studies of Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1907–1998) and Evan Ruggiero (1990–), two tap dancers who performed with one tap shoe and one pegleg following leg amputation. Dancers who inhabit asymmetrical bodies complicate the aesthetic and practical presumptions underpinning typical understandings of tap dance. Tap’s steps and syntax are based on a normative body with two tap shoes. Likewise, symmetry undergirds traditional markers of virtuosity in tap, including ambidexterity, balance, and aural and visual homogeneity between the two feet. The tap dancer’s musical instrument is their entire body, and particularly their shoes; Bates and Ruggiero’s disability thus fundamentally alters both their instrument and musical product.

I build on previous examinations of affordances, disability, and music (Gibson 1979; Straus 2011; De Souza 2017; Vanderhamm 2020) to argue that Bates and Ruggiero’s non-normative “tap instruments” afford an idiosyncratic choreomusical syntax. Their combination of one unbending prosthetic leg and one tap-shoed foot increases the diversity of their sonic and choreographic palettes. The dance steps available on each side of their body are different, encouraging inventive non-mirrored choreography. Moreover, both take advantage of their pegleg’s symmetrical construction and homogenous timbre to punctuate their solos with bass drum-like accents. In responding to their bodies and prostheses, Bates and Ruggiero use their disability productively to craft a musically and visually distinctive style of tap dance that capitalizes on their asymmetry. Their dancing thus forms a disablist repertoire that centers disability as “a fundamental component of its sonic identity” (Howe 2011).

Drawing on the social model of disability (Garland-Thomson 2005, 2017; Shakespeare 2013), I posit that Bates and Ruggiero become able-bodied in the context of their own repertoires; indeed, their styles preclude two-legged dancers. This analysis inverts the assumption that disability narrows affordances, while revealing how the oft-overlooked constraints of instruments and the “normate” body delimit genres and their syntax. More broadly, disabled tap instruments nuance understandings of disability’s definition with respect to music-making, organology, and genre, by questioning the logistical, epistemic, and aesthetic roles of symmetry and uniformity in Western ideals of music-making.

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