A punk academic helps you justify your love for Madonna’s music videos

Ryann Donnelly’s book ‘Justify My Love’ offers radical interpretations of music videos from Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and more.

In Ryann Donnelly’s new book Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video, the author, academic, and musician traces the history of the music video format, from its rise on MTV and into the internet age, and its potential to be, as she writes, “a crucial site for activating cultural change.” Interwoven with this widescreen view of the music industry is Donnelly’s personal history as the lead singer in Schoolyard Heroes, a Seattle punk group who put out three albums in the mid-2000’s for Stolen Transmission, a faction of Island Def Jam Records. The book recounts her personal development as a musician, taking inspiration from artists such as Courtney Love and Madonna, while struggling against the sexist confines of the music industry, which, she writes, often manifested in music videos themselves. In one passage, she recalls receiving pitches from directors for an upcoming music video: One suggests Donnelly should wear a blonde wig and sexy nurse outfit, while another proposes that she wear a 50’s-style dress and “cower in the corner” while demons surround her. Not surprisingly, Donnelly and her band didn’t allow either of these ideas to come to fruition; their actual videos were often powerful, straightforward performance clips, or in the case of their single “Dude, Where’s My Skin,” a depiction of a goth baptism/Viking funeral. Together, these histories offer Donnelly the opportunity to reflect upon the influence that representations in music videos have on impressionable fans.

In her book, a reworked version of the Ph.D. dissertation she completed at Goldsmiths, University of London, Donnelly uses her background in music and visual art to highlight the dissident aspects of music videos created by both the underground and the mainstream: Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean, Madonna, Arca, Mykki Blanco, and Beyoncé all earn mentions in the book. It’s a feminist project where videos from these artists are put in conversation with the writings of gender theorists like Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, and Donna Haraway in an attempt to explore the cultivation and representation of gender and sexuality through the medium. (She now releases music as a solo artist; in April of this year, she put out a cover of Madonna’s “Justify My Love” to help promote the book.)

Donnelly’s autobiographical writing is gripping, detailing love affairs, and heartbreak in a relatable fashion, while her use of academic sources illuminates pop culture to the point that I’ll never look at music videos in the same way again. Justify My Love was released in April from Repeater Books. While on book tour across the United States, The Outline spoke with Donnelly at a cafe during her stop in Brooklyn about the process of writing her book, why music videos matter, and how Courtney Love started it all.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Can you talk about the process of adapting a Ph.D. thesis into a book that’s fun for a mass audience to read?

Over the course of this tour, I’ve been understanding the process a bit more because I’ve had the luxury of being in conversation with a few of my friends at the last couple stops. Basically, going into the Ph.D., I really wanted to translate these experiences of being in a band and performing and how much that meant to me and how my identity, specifically a very feminist identity, was forged through those experiences. We don’t theorize around rock music as frequently as we do just broader gender theory. And so I wanted to unpack the things that I had come to in the Ph.D. and just sort of make that much more accessible.

Why music videos?

I like the idea of exploring music videos because we really are surrounded by them, and pop music more broadly, all the time. I wanted to look at what I consider to be outliers within the landscape of pop music, which is kind of innocuous otherwise. There was an interesting relationship there between [academic theory and] these things that we sort of neglect to investigate or that we refuse to think of seriously. How do we pull important, interesting insight from something like pop music video? And how can pop music, especially because it’s so accessible, be a really essential tool to unpacking some of these things that are usually quite heady and academic? And it’s just fun for me.

Even though there is a lot of theory throughout, it’s a quick and relatively easy read.

I specifically wanted to write something that was an accessible book. And not just [helping people] understand gender theory through music videos, but understanding all of this through the experience of being in a rock band, being a fan of music, of not knowing who you are when you’re a kid — all of these very common experiences.

You say at one point in the book that your book is a “Gaga feminist” project. What do you mean by that?

Yeah, so that is not my term. That is a term from Jack Halberstam, who wrote an entire book called Gaga Feminism. They were inspired by Lady Gaga, and it's such a shame because Lady Gaga really exploded in that moment in something particular to performance and gender. I think it was radical. Not only was there so much gender play, I think we often forget the lesser-known characters that she did like [her Italian-American male alter-ego from New Jersey] Jo Calderone or the cyborg and alien type figures [she portrayed] that I think are really fascinating. But her other thing was just bridging that space between stage and real life. The total collapse of a real life space, the constant performance, really exposes that as a celebrity you are always sort of “on.” Gaga feminism is a theoretical term and it does include Lady Gaga, but it's not limited to Lady Gaga. Gaga, as in going crazy, going wild — the book uses her as a jumping off point but it's not exclusive to her, and it’s not my term.

Are there things about music videos that make them so special in terms of being able to subvert gender norms?

The number one thing is the intention of the artist. I think there's something to be said about the collaboration between the artist and director or even artist and stylist. I think Nicola Formichetti was absolutely crucial to a lot of those characters that Lady Gaga was doing and the performances she was doing. And the form — over time it seems to be a medium where they try to fit in as much as possible, especially [with videos from] big pop performers. I guess that too is a symptom of budget and circulation because labels know that a lot of people are going to see a music video. As I go into in the book, there are a lot of factors that [encouraged] labels to invest more in music videos post-YouTube. They could be used for product placement, they could monetize them, they didn't have to abide by the limitations of MTV so things became more shocking and experimental.

There's also this history with Madonna where the music video became her platform to shock. It was like, you can't ban a live show. You can leave, but the other 10,000 people in the arena aren't going to. It became this thing that MTV could say no to [a video] and that actually had its own sort of clout. MTV was only ten years old when music videos started getting banned. It's kind of a precedent then for the medium to be shocking or sexual.

You talk a lot about your own relationships in the book. Was it hard to do that?

It wasn’t hard to write about those things because I don't feel the same way about [those people], but I remember very clearly the way I felt. It was important for me to capture those things because I may not always remember how it felt. I think that rather than bashing the reader over the head with gender inequality, it was a lot more interesting to provide these more subtle examples of the various ways that this kind of thing can play out. Coming out of those experiences can offer a lot of insight and be put into a different kind of language and be applied to different realms of thinking.

I think that those experiences were absolutely fundamental to this project. It's not like my particular experience of sexism was like many of the things that get attention in the news and it's not being physically assaulted or being passed over for a job — these more obvious and systemic problems. This was a very obvious imbalance but with perhaps lower stakes and consequences.

Do you mind talking about the beginning of this book, where you talk about being a Courtney Love fan as a child?

She was really crucial to my development and my experience. Something really fucked me up when I heard her song on the radio. I remember the moment so well. I remember the temperature outside, I remember how I felt in my chair, I remember my coat on me, I just remember every sensorial thing about that moment. There was something about the distortion of the chords, but the sweetness and repetition of the pop sound and pop structure she was using. I was like, “Oh, this is rock music that I can sing along to and it's a woman and she’s gorgeous and I want to be her.” It was a performative moment where I was acted upon by this song and by this person.

[Love] has such a mythology too. Growing up in Portland, she always maintained that she was raised in a cult, her last name is mythic, her relationship [with Kurt Cobain] is mythic, her drug use, her becoming a mother, her survival after the loss of her husband. Everything had such a strong aesthetic to it, and I just wanted to understand. It's kind of like when you have a crush on someone and you want to know everything about them.

I heard the song and immediately went out and bought the CD. It was a different time too, where you had all the liner notes on a CD. There were all these famous people that had co-written the album like Billy Corgan. Love is also this funny fulcrum for a lot of the music industry, just by way of allegedly having all of these affairs with Corgan or Trent Reznor. She's a myth.

I guess it's important to state that I was pathological about it. I did dye my hair, and change my entire clothes and changed my life trajectory in a very short amount of time because it just made so much sense to me, and I didn't know how much to become it other than mimicking it aesthetically, completely. In any way that I was receiving it or understanding it, I was going to mimic it in the same way.

Music videos can have that same influence on people.

Yes. I think the other special thing about music videos is that they capture so many identities in such a short amount of space. It's not like film or live performance. The closest thing is maybe like a super big live performance, but it's still not the same. Lady Gaga will change thirteen times in a show over the course of two and a half hours, but it's not the same as capturing all of those looks and identities and iterations of gender in three minutes.