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  • Sonic FemininityThe Ronettes' Transgressive Gender Performance
  • Hilarie Ashton (bio)

Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future.

—bell hooks, "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators"

On September 28, 1963, the Ronettes performed on Dick Clark's American Bandstand for the first time.1 The curtain unfurls to reveal three singers exemplifying the uniformity and apparent demureness imposed by norms of classic sixties femininity: their slim bodies are dressed in identical long-sleeved pencil dresses, their hair is partially swept up in identical half-bouffants, and their eyes are thickly lined in black kohl. They sway their hips and arms awkwardly to the opening bars of "Be My Baby," and then Ronnie Spector, standing on the left, opens her mouth. That voice. That voice, which American teens had started hearing the month before when the "Be My Baby" single was released. That voice, which— per Bandstand's practice—was exactly what had been heard on the record, as the singers on the TV screens lip-synched along. But still: that voice.

When the camera zooms in, Spector (then still known as Veronica Bennett) pushes past the limits of lip-synching by acting out the lyrics: she points to an unseen audience member on the line "so proud of me" (applying tricky emphasis to both of the italicized words) and cocks her head, adopting a quick Marilyn Monroe–esque pout, on "turn their heads." Still, these motions are small. Estelle Bennett's and Nedra Talley's movements, entirely synchronized, as the backup singers' job demanded, are even more circumscribed: their hands and forearms move up and down, and they remain in their assigned dance space. In a fourthwall-breaking moment during the bridge, the instrumentals take over, and all three of the singers briefly stop mouthing their "oohs."

On the surface, this performance falls firmly within the complexly restrictive lines of accepted feminine behavior as understood at the time, especially accepted [End Page 90] feminine behavior in performance: modest clothing, light movements in an assigned space, and come-hither eyes (but eyes only). The Ronettes also fit into the sonic framework of the Wall of Sound: the janglingly bombastic and glitzy set of sounds and recording methods developed by producer Phil Spector and sound engineer Larry Levine. (To add to Spector's own controls exerted over the female singers in his stable of artists, by 1968 he would also become Ronnie Bennett's famously abusive and coercive husband.) But a deeper analysis shows some of the ways that Ronnie Spector, in particular, was rebelling against such strictures: hiding what might be provocation behind the facade of the "good girl," complicating her own performance of gender, and taking direct ownership of her own sonic persona. When Spector performs like this, she shifts the sonic effect of the Wall of Sound away from the production and toward the singer.

Across her career, in performances, rehearsals, and even in the way she counters others' memories of herself, Spector exceeds the sonic and visual spaces allotted to her and injects transgressive power into the smallest of movements, subtly shifting the terms of acceptable, modest femininity in performance and pushing past the perceived obedience of pop. Indeed, Spector retrospectively categorizes her music as rock and roll, a frame she deploys capaciously enough to describe her excessive femininity and its connections to her biracial identity. Grandstanding here becomes a creative act, even in small ways. Spector pushes into new artistic territory, past the static choreography assigned to her and the fixed recording of her own voice. These boundary-shifting actions and others like them are characteristic of Spector's solo image building and of Spector, Talley, and Bennett's collective performance work. In this article, I argue that the Ronettes, and Spector in particular, transgressed social, gendered expectations in public performance and in various spaces of performance and rehearsal that cross the public/private divide. They did this through the frame of what I call the sonic feminine, a capacious combination of vocal and visual choices that (re)inserts women's perspectives into...


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pp. 90-109
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