Academic Showcase

The (In)visibility of African-American Bodies in Music

A byproduct of two courses taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Elizabeth Macy, four students submitted research papers as a panel to the 2016 regional meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. 

Their papers explored the social and artistic implications of African-American musical traditions from the development of jazz in the 1920s to modern-day hip-hop and rap. By looking at the emergence of bebop in the 1940s, jazz-fusion in the 1960s and the current use of rap and hip-hop on mainstream American TV (such as The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), the panel explores a cycle in which African-American art forms that were once underground are then brought to a white, commercial audience and the ways in which that plays on a duality between appropriation and cultural exchange. 

Focusing on more specific artists, such as Michael Jackson and his solo career, Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda and Beyoncé’s Partition, the panel also examines the ways in which bodies, especially nonwhite and African-American bodies, are commodified in modern music and pop culture. As African-Americans are able to reclaim ownership of their own art form (most evidenced in modern hip-hop culture), it is necessary to ask new questions regarding public personas, media representation and the role of perception for African-American musicians interacting with a white, mainstream audience.

Michael Jackson: HIStory

The world has never seen an icon more mystifying than Michael Jackson. His fluctuating physical appearance and exploitation by the media have long clouded his music and reputation, marring his career and distorting his legacy. Throughout the course of his solo career, Jackson and his music morphed into diverse beings, growing more politically and socially “scandalous” with each passing year. Leigh Tooker ’16 investigated the ways in which Jackson employed ideological themes embedded in African-American musical history, such as equality, unity and rebellion against oppression, to voice his frustrations and beliefs.

“Beginning with Off the Wall (1979) and closing with Invincible (2001), I analyzed how each of Jackson’s solo albums contributed to his lifelong pursuit of peace and rejection of the status quo through musical and social themes,” says Tooker. “I compared two songs musically and lyrically, while also including a comparison of his changing persona, to show how he had shifted from a light-hearted disco star to a politically charged cultural force. This worked to show how despite his humanitarian efforts and goals for cultural unity, he was still rejected as a person because of his appearance and representation in the media.”
beyonce feminist
nicki minaj feminist
Google Trends data show that searches for "beyonce feminist" returns twice as many hits than the search term "nicki minaj feminist"

My Anaconda Don’t Want None Unless You Got—
Feminist Values, Hun

Lea Peterson ’16 explores contrasting media and consumer perceptions of female hip-hop artists Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj in her final project. Hoping to “reveal a paradox in which Beyoncé becomes the hero to Minaj’s villain,” Peterson illustrates how and why consumers see Beyoncé as a more positive feminist figure than Minaj. 

In using objective analysis of lyrics, music videos and media representation to demonstrate the ways in which the two women are actually very similar, “I expose a double standard in which Beyoncé’s 2013  Partition, and its overt sexual imagery and lyrical content, is read as reclaiming sexuality to subvert patriarchal ideals (such as slut-shaming or female objectification). Meanwhile, Minaj’s Anaconda is seen as a failure to a feminist agenda by allowing and perpetuating the hyper-sexualization of women in music, especially relating to black women in hip-hop and rap culture,” says Peterson.

Augmented Reality Sandbox

Building sandcastles isn’t just for kids. Skidmore’s Geosciences Department, with the help of Alex Ng-Yow ’16, upgraded the traditional sandbox to an augmented-reality one.

Using open-source programming, Ng-Yow created 3D visualization applications to teach earth science concepts. The hands-on exhibit combines a real sandbox and virtual topography created using an Xbox 360 camera, powerful simulation and visualization software and a data projector. The sandbox allows users to create topography models by shaping real sand, which is then augmented in real time by an elevation color map, topographic contour lines, and simulated water. The system teaches geographic, geologic, and hydrologic concepts such as how to read a topographic map, the meaning of contour lines, watersheds, catchment areas, levees and more.

Ng-Yow, a geosciences major, completed the project despite not earning academic credit. “I was just happy to see how much fun people had with the sandbox after its reveal at the Academic Festival,” he says. “I'm hoping that the sandbox will make it easier and more fun to learn about some of the basic (and possibly even complex) concepts of geoscience. I personally would have found the sandbox to be beneficial when I was a freshman, since I'm a very hands-on learner.”
This video is a time lapse of two people manipulating the sand in the Augmented Reality Sandbox, highlighting the regenerating topographic line projection with the digital water “flowing” over the landscape. Video and image credits: Alex Chaucer. Read more on Skidmore's GIS blog.

The Antihero: How the Mobsters, Drug Dealers, and Narcissists Saved American Television

The way people watch television is changing with the rise in popularity of services like Netflix and Hulu. Gone are the days where we huddled around a box at a preset time to catch the latest episode of our favorite shows. And gone are the times when shows included traditional heroes like the steadfast Sheriff Andy Taylor. Recent shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men have introduced compelling antiheroes whose proliferation is rooted in contemporary cultural shifts that have created a disjointed, broken society. 

Who are these antiheroes, and what makes them tick? Hannah Doban ’16 studied three of them: Don Draper from Mad Men, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Tony Soprano from The Sopranos. “What I concluded from a yearlong study of the antihero character is that it is a character written for men, with masculine characteristics in mind,” she says. “The antihero is written to explore masculinity, and what happens when it goes toxic.”
Breaking Bad
Doban was able to identify a gap in media when it comes to “honest and meaningful representations of women and people of color.” By comparing male antiheroes to female antiheroes such as Nancy Botwin in Weeds, Doban discovered that the more the female characters exhibit traits of male antiheroes, the less popular the show became. “Society is drawn to the image of a ‘bad boy.’ Audiences tune in to antihero characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper because we relate to them, and despite their flaws we hope to see some sort of redemption.”

The Effects of Prison Privatization on Mass Incarceration in the United States

If you’re one of the millions of viewers watching Orange is the New Black this season, you know that the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary is now operated by a private corporation. What you may not know is that the U.S. has the record for the highest incarcerated population. Is the number of incarcerated Americans related to prison privatization? Tashawn Reagon ’16 investigated whether prison privatization was causing an increase of incarceration rates among males of color.

By analyzing state-level data collected by Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, Reagon found that when controlling for race and poverty, privatizing prisons does not have an effect on male imprisonment rates. In contrast, poverty rates and black presence are strong predictors of male incarceration rates.
Imprisonment Rate of Men
Privatized Prison
Percent Poor