Engendering charisma: k.d. lang and the comic frame.
American rhetoricians exploring the concept of charisma have highlighted different elements of this classical configuration. Early publications from the 1970s tend to emphasize the psychological qualities of the charismatic figure within a favorable social context. George P. Boss, for instance, provides a list of nine "essential" charismatic attributes, including the gift of grace, a heroic spirit, a mission, a perceived crisis, and a shared history with followers. J. Louis Campbell III, in his study of Jimmy Carter's "unlikely" charisma during the 1976 presidential primaries, also foregrounds rhetorical context, arguing that Carter's rhetoric dovetailed with the visions of the electorate during the bicentennial celebrations. More recent rhetorical studies highlight the text's role in generating charismatic power in a given situation. In a content analysis of U.S. presidential address, Cynthia G. Emrich et al. find that presidents who use sensory, "image-based" words are judged to be more charismatic than those who use more intellectual, abstract language. J. Michael Hogan and Glen Williams provide a sophisticated reading of what they call "textual charisma," arguing that Thomas Paine's revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense is an anomaly for charismatic examination, as its writer was neither exceptional nor gifted and the manifesto, while revealing a private self, was anonymous. The egalitarian, democratic spirit of the American Revolution endowed such a text with "republican charisma." The pamphlet had an extraordinary effect on readers who identified with the new kind of leadership its "plain, literal, mundane, and ordinary" language represented (14).
These studies have all made valuable contributions to the rhetorical study of charisma, but they all privilege the rhetorical tradition of men. This paper takes its direction from the revisionist efforts of feminist rhetorical scholarship to regender a 2500-year-old history that assumed a male speaker and privileged masculine styles of address. The masculine biases of rhetoric have been challenged by many feminist researchers, most notably Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Karen Foss, Andrea Lunsford, Carol Mattingly, Lindal Buchanan, and Sonja Foss, who turn their attention to women rhetors, retheorize rhetorical principles, and challenge the agonistic assumptions that have underpinned rhetorical practice. This feminist scholarship considers the personal, economic, and cultural realities of women who had to adopt creative rhetorical strategies in restrictive and undervalued contexts.
The study of charisma likewise demands a regendered investigation. Scholarly work tends to favor male religious figures, military leaders, presidents, explorers, and fascists. The under-representation of charismatic women derives in part from longstanding gender norms in public life, which have prevented women from taking up positions of political power and effecting revolutionary change in the civil sphere, but the relative absence of charismatic women is also due to the masculine bias and theoretical narrowness of the term in the first place. There remains an anxious insistence in some quarters to keep the concept close to Weber's original formulation. Philip Smith argues that by applying the concept "indiscriminately to people who are attractive and/ or powerful, the specificity of charismatic power in Weber's theory has been lost" (101). Roger Eatwell laments that "charisma has become a totally debased term, referring to little more than public personality" (3). A recent collection, Constructing Charisma, usefully distinguishes nineteenth-century charisma from celebrity and fame, but similarly keeps the reins tight. According to its editors, "[c]elebrity appeal infrequently translates into charisma, into residual political authority in the Weberian sense. There are good grounds for being parsimonious in the use of the sociologist's famous term" (9). Thoughtful definitions are to be respected, but there are equally good grounds for a more generous disciplinary application of the concept. For one thing, the gatekeeping of distinctions between charisma and celebrity is problematic: not only are the lines between the two increasingly permeable in twenty-first century public life, but the contributions of women (often artists, actors, and musicians) tend to be undervalued as a result.
When women do appear in such discussions, they are often associated with attributes generally seen as positive and appropriately feminine, for instance sainthood, virginity, and martyrdom. Such charismatics include twelfth-century visionary Hildegard of Bingen, fifteenth-century mystic Joan of Arc, and First Lady of Argentina, Eva Peron. Marta Zabaleta describes Peron at her death "as one of the most charismatic and powerful politicians of Latin America" with "a mass following comparable to that enjoyed by Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende or Juan Peron himself" (261). Peron's sickness and early death made her a national martyr, many of her devoted followers blaming her commitment to Argentina and its citizens for her demise, a narrative not unlike that of Princess Diana whose early death also conferred upon her the status of a martyr. These codes also applied to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, British suffragists of the nineteenth century, who used hunger strikes "and the graphic images of force-feedings through thick rubber tubes" to suggest sacrifice and martyrdom to their cause (Berenson and Giloi 16).
Despite the persistent masculine bias of charisma, the roots of the word are in fact feminine. It appears in the second millennium BCE as ka-ri-si-jo and in Greek takes the form charisma/kharisma derived from charis/kharis, a feminine noun meaning grace, divine gift, or favor from the gods (Minta 120). The three Charites, or Graces, were venerated for their many gifts, including fertility, healing, and festivity. In engravings and classical sculpture, the three are depicted in a circle with their arms entwined, representing the epitome of feminine beauty and charm (MacLachlan 50). Charis, one of the Graces, appears in Homer's Iliad as the wife of Hephaestus, the blacksmith god (Iliad xviii. 387).
The present paper seeks to reclaim feminine elements of charisma (and to allow celebrity status to taint its purity) by studying the charismatic ethos of a lesbian performer in contemporary popular culture. It considers the charismatic force of k.d. lang, the widely acclaimed Canadian musician from Consort, Alberta whose almost thirty-year professional career has seen over sixteen albums, four Grammy Awards, eight Junos, and induction into the Order of Canada. In April 2013, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Musically, she is best known for her 1992 recording of "Crying" with Roy Orbison, her multiplatinum Ingenue that same year, her 2005 Hymns of the 49th Parallel (a collection of Canadian covers), and her live performances of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Her music has flirted with country, torch and twang, rock, and crooner cool, lang's voice is widely acknowledged as her extraordinary gift; it enthralls and enraptures listeners, connecting them at once with the deeply human and the numinous.
The rhetorical approach to charisma adopted in this analysis owes much to Kenneth Burke's notion of the comic frame, an empathetic attitude that views human antics as a comedy and works within rather than against social orders to expose collective failings and encourage a more reflective society. Burke describes the comic attitude as "neither wholly euphemistic, nor wholly debunking--hence it provides the charitable attitude toward people that is required for purposes of persuasion and cooperation" (Attitudes 166). The comic frame is rhetorical insofar as any attitude or frame for reading the world is arrived at through symbolic exchange and negotiation. But attitudes are not simply the property of the mind; they also motivate acts and for this reason, too, are of interest to rhetorical critics, who understand symbols--words, images, gestures, or music--as both a resource for critical thinking and as a means of action. This view is epitomized in Lloyd Bitzer's well-known definition of rhetoric as "a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action" (4). In A Grammar of Motives, Burke underlines the human capacity for conscious and purposeful action, which he contrasts with thoughtless or passive motion. His focus on rhetoric-as-action informs his definition of attitude as "the preparation for an act" (Grammar 20). As an "incipient act," the comic attitude serves as grounds for behavior or intervention in the world. Do we scapegoat or empathize with another? Do we interpret an act as evil or mistaken? What treatment of others flows from these attitudes?
Rhetoricians have found the comic frame useful for studying social movements and the corrective strategies of disenfranchised groups. For example, Cheree Carlson interprets as comic Ghandi's campaign for peaceful civil disobedience against British colonial authorities, while Anne Teresa Demo demonstrates how the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of women artists, use comic strategies (gorilla costumes, play, and mimicry) to expose institutionalized sexism in the art world. The comic attitude has yet to be studied, however, as a charismatic resource, but is, I argue, imperative for understanding how k.d.lang has engendered an alluring, queer charisma within a heteronormative order.
In the spirit of speaking comparatively, this paper juxtaposes two stages of lang's career, an approach that illuminates points of consistency and contrast in her charismatic performance. The first section explores what I call lang's "craving, crying, and cutting" years of the 80s and 90s and the second looks at her recent "dykon" fame. A comparative approach has analytical value in this case because it acknowledges that charisma is not a static concept, but an interactive process best understood diachronically. Sociologist Barbara Finlay takes such an approach when she demonstrates how Hildegard of Bingen's self-definition and status in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities shifted over time, developing into an intensified charismatic authority. Indeed, the term charismatisation in recent research underscores this view of charisma as temporal phenomenon. Historian Aristotle Kallis, to take but one example, highlights the "dynamic, gradual, and volatile process" of charismatisation (29), noting that the charismatic leadership of Mussolini and Hitler was neither immediate nor linear, and certainly not without failures along the way.
While lang has consistently worked within a comic frame of empathy, her theatricality has shifted over time from a "rhetoric of folly" (Foss, Zagacki) to a rhetoric of the numinous or spiritual. Both forms, as I will explain, carry charismatic force, but operate differently in terms of cultural gravitas. Martha Mockus, in an early piece about lang and country queer, notes the "wonderful mixture of passion and mischief in her singing" (257). lang continues to draw on that heady mix, but in terms of overall trajectory, has shifted the emphasis from mischief in her early career to passion in her more recent public persona. She has changed energetically, too, from frenetic to peripatetic. In her days of nineties drag, her impious theatricality underscored performativity and made visible the artificiality of human categories. While still theatrical, lang is now regarded as authentic and grounded, qualities that make her compelling to many beyond the LGBT community. As the conclusion of this essay will discuss, lang's identity currently draws on hegemonic national discourses in Canada; as in the case of French actor Sarah Bernhardt, the fusing of lang's persona with the nation intensifies her charismatic appeal for Canadians, but might be critiqued for its more conservative and not-so-comic elements.
The Comic Frame, Rhetorical Presence, and Charisma
In Attitudes Toward History, Burke argues that our symbols provide frames for determining our attitudes, judgments, and actions; these frames often take dramatic form, for example tragic, comic, or epic. The tragic frame sees events in antagonistic and often violent terms. Social transgression prompts collective guilt; this guilt requires redemption through a scapegoat process where villains are cast out to restore social order. In the comic frame, on the other hand, the villains of tragedy become the fools of comedy, while crimes are viewed rather as acts of stupidity (Attitudes 41). It underscores our shared humanness and imperfection and is therefore "the most humane frame for understanding and acting in society" (Carlson 448). Acknowledging that all human beings are "necessarily mistaken" (Attitudes 41), the comic attitude teaches humility. A frame of acceptance, it does not seek to overthrow a flawed system, but to work within it to effect change. The comic sensibility requires empathy, as it asks that we consider a situation from different perspectives, no matter how difficult that might be. Again using drama to describe human action, Burke writes that a comic perspective comes out of an audience's ability to see "two angles at once" in a play (Attitudes 41). A comic attitude means being open to ambivalence and dramatic irony, in other words taking up a "perspective by incongruity" to highlight social absurdities and thoughtless habits of thinking, lang's philosophy is certainly characterized by this perspective by incongruity, what she calls "framing things in contradiction" (Innerviews). She exemplifies how masculinity works in and through the female body and how human vulnerability can at the same time be a source of strength. The comic frame ultimately encourages phronesis, or practical wisdom, as we are chastened in recognizing our limitations, the fact that we cannot know everything. The adoption of such an attitude, particularly at times of deep collective pain or anger, indicates a strong rhetorical culture capable of careful deliberation.
The charismatic leadership of masculine fascist regimes and dictatorships is almost exclusively understood through a tragic rather than comic lens. Weber's formulation of charismatic authority as revolutionary, as unseating the previous order, aligns with the tragic frame definition of social movements as "agonistic attempts to destroy an old social system and leave a new one in its place" (Carlson 446). During the Second World War, which saw the rapid and widespread rise of fascist and Nazi dictatorships, charismatic authority operated through national narratives of threat, fear, victimization and redemption through expulsion. Adolf Hitler's charismatic leadership, for instance, emerged from a powerfully orchestrated narrative in which a perceived internal threat to Germans--Communists and Jews--could only be countered by the protection of an extraordinary leader who would "purify" the state. Roger Eatwell includes in his definition of the charismatic personality a tendency to "engage in a Manichean demonization of enemies which not only reinforces the conception of the Other, but which also heightens threat" (271). According to the Historisches Worterbuch der Rhetorik, what charismatic leaders have in common is a tendency to claim that they can solve all political problems and to resort to black-and-white depictions, a polemical disposition antithetical to the comic attitude.
The comic frame provides an alternative to these traditional understandings. In this retheorized dynamic, the power of the charismatic leader takes hold through strategies of incongruity and humility. While, as already suggested, images of sainthood and martyrdom typify female charismatics, it appears that for charismatic women, the maternal qualities of empathy and compassion are also extremely important. Evita's charismatic hold, especially on the poor of Argentina, was defined in such terms and was critical to her power. Princess Diana, beloved as "the people's princess," showed compassion for those shunned by society, particularly people living with HIV and leprosy. lang's ethos is also a compassionate one: she has been a long-time advocate for animal rights, is a vegetarian, and is a student of Tibetan Buddhism, a spiritual practice that likely informs her view of singing as "a service to others" (Vaziri).
One of the essential qualities of an empathic and compassionate ethos is vulnerability. The "out" lesbian celebrity who wears female masculinity into the world consciously puts her body on stage; to the heterosexual status quo, this body is clearly "other." This consciously embodied female masculinity may be negotiated in various ways by the heterosexual public, but it nonetheless puts itself out there for public scrutiny. The co-existence of strength and vulnerability is key to lang's charisma and is but one example of lang's embodied dissonance, her dialectical instantiation of oppositional terms. Her dissonance illustrates Burke's comic frame of paradoxical thinking, "which hinges on the ambivalence engendered by incongruities" (Demo 134). lang hovers at the liminal space between opposites, a point of exquisite vacillation. In her sensitive reading of lang's performance of "Hallelujah," Babette Babich describes lang's "becoming human of dissonance," a dynamic Nietzsche locates within the musicality of tragic art forms ("The Birth"). Babich convincingly demonstrates how in performing Cohen's "Hallelujah" as she does, lang incarnates paradox, most poignantly the co-resonance of pleasure and pain. This play with paradox, I argue, characterizes lang's other successful performances, too, like "Crying" and "Constant Craving," where a melancholic darkness shades into the sublime joy of being alive but almost obliterated by anguish. This dissonant relationship to the world, illustrative of the comic attitude, intensifies humanness in the face of the divine, pleasure in the face of pain, and a woman's angelic mezzo-soprano voice in contrast to (what lang calls) the body of a "big of les."
The Early k.d.: Crying, Craving, and Cutting (1980s & 90s)
For a number of compelling reasons, lang is relevant to a discussion of female charisma. While lang's charisma has not completely reordered the social structure or brought about revolutionary change--as Weber argued charismatic leaders do--she has played a central role in making butch lesbian desire visible in the heteronormative mainstream. In a breakthrough butch performance in the 1992 indie film Salmonberries, lang's character (an orphan boy who is silent for much of the film's beginning) provides a complex representation of female masculinity and "butch desirability" (Halberstam 224). In 1993, lang was famously "shaved" by supermodel-cum-barber Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair, a cover that "is widely regarded as an important iconic image marking the acceptance of lesbianism by the mainstream media" (Elliott 162). She has for years been a role model for the gay and lesbian community and the subject of intense media scrutiny. When in June 1992 she came out in an interview with The Advocate, a gay and lesbian newsmagazine, she took a professional risk, particularly in conservative country music circles. One LGBT publication, noting that mainstream attitudes have changed since the early nineties, writes that "nobody can dispute that lang's honesty was a large part of that revolution" (Clevett). lang downplays such accolades, however, claiming she was part of an evolution, not revolution, of gay equality in society, lang often felt that her singing was eclipsed by the media attention given to her vegan, feminist, and lesbian identifications. In 1990, she famously drew the ire of cattle ranchers in Alberta and the wider North American meat-belt with her "Meat Stinks" campaign for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but has from the beginning resisted the label "Lesbian Authority" or spokesperson for lesbian politics. Her reluctance to overplay her leadership role has not stopped devoted fans, however, from looking to her as not only a "celesbian," but as a revered gay icon or "dykon."
As already suggested, the rhetoric of lang's early years is best understood within the comic frame or rhetoric of folly. Hers was a politics of subversion from within imperfect human structures; she drew upon the comic corrective to address these failings. Karen Foss shows how gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk used folly effectively during a period of social change in 1970s America. She defines the fool not as an imprudent or silly person, but as a traditionally revered figure who "could deal with the mysterious and especially difficult phase of transition. Neither male nor female, good nor evil, fools embodied and spoke for worlds that existed beyond reality" (9). Kenneth Zagacki also demonstrates the viability of this stance--again during a time of political transition--using the example of Czech President Vaclav Havel, who came to power in post-cold war Eastern and Central Europe and espoused a philosophy of humility, irony, and empathy. Zagacki argues that the rhetoric of folly is "a kind of lived wisdom, a source of strength, [and] motivation for overcoming despair and moving toward hopeful human action" (17). Neither Foss nor Zagacki explicitly links this rhetoric of folly to the charisma of these leaders, however. Foss describes Milk as "a charismatic figure with a love of theatrics and nothing to lose--the perfect candidate for the fool's role" (25), but does not explore how the role of the fool helped engender that charisma in the first place. The charisma of both Milk and Havel emerged from their success in transcending difficulty at a time of social disequilibrium, and they achieved their power, paradoxically, by assuming the role of the humble fool, not the heroic leader. According to Zagacki, for example, Havel was often said to have a "strange" or "inexplicable" charisma.
lang's foolish wisdom and charismatic effect similarly needs to be contextualized, in this case within the socio-sexual culture of the 1980s and 90s. The 1980s saw the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America and with it increased intolerance and hostility towards the gay and lesbian community, a sad testament to the success of the tragic, vilifying frame. Gay and lesbian bodies, not to mention butch bodies, were strikingly absent in popular culture. Wayne Koestenbaum describes this queer invisibility and the powerful identification he therefore felt with what he calls the "vocalic body" of opera: "The voice of Marni Nixon, ghosting for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, told me everything about singing in the dark, singing without a body, singing from an erased, invisible place in the universe. No one saw Marni Nixon's body; invisibility made her voice operatic, characterless" (11). Popular cinema was starting to depict lesbian relationships, and lesbian celebrities like Sandra Bernhard and Ellen Degeneres were coming out, but the erotics of lesbian desire in mainstream culture were often submerged or elided. Lesbian representations replicated heteronormative "lesbian chic." A gay and lesbian fanbase was charismatically inclined to receive a charismatically "endowed" figure (Weber's term) who could make the heart beat faster and, as Koestenbaum writes, "restore queer embodiment, if only for the duration of a phrase" (42).
lang, who loved country music, faced the challenge of breaking into an industry that not only policed strict gender lines, but also took itself quite seriously. Against this backdrop, the comic attitude was a powerful corrective, lang was drawn to the talents of Minnie Pearl, June Carter, and Loretta Lynn, but she also loved their quirkiness. By embracing a philosophy of the off-beat and ridiculous, lang highlighted the artificiality of cherished human categories--of music, gender, decorum, and artist/audience separation--in the high-spirited antics of her bar-circuit shows, where she howled and leapt into the air and shared with audiences "a wing ding daddy-o of a good time" (Starr 30). While the corniness of country music provided an entry point for her alternative masculinity (and indeed had a lot of queer cachet), lang's kitsch performance was grounded in an earnest reverence. She believed that "[t]o respect and to love something is also to understand the humor and absurdity in it. It is important to have fun with what you do" (lang, qtd. in Mockus 264). This mix of the absurd and profound took center stage in 1985 when lang wore a vintage wedding dress to accept the Canadian Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist and "promised" to sing "only for the right reasons." It was a moment of dramatic irony: the butch lesbian in a wedding dress, the double-voiced play with "promising," the combination of satin dress and cowboy boots. The comic inflection, however, underscored the high seriousness of the moment: this emerging artist, with her joie de vivre and uncompromised vision, reminded a jaded industry of what really mattered--music sung for the right reasons.
In explicating his comic frame, Burke writes that "the class that can produce good comedy is about as happy as can be" (Attitudes 39). Classical scholar Bonnie MacLachlan explains that joy is central to the classical meanings of the elusive Greek term charis or "grace," which connects semantically with our contemporary word charisma, or divine grace. In the classical period, charis referred variously to radiance and light, the glory of undying fame, and the active civic spirit of reciprocity and gratitude. Beauty was also central to its meaning, MacLachlan notes, insofar as beauty, like gift-giving, prompted some kind of active response. Charis attended "all the high moments of life": glory on the battlefield, sumptuous feasts, noble speech, or the sparkling eyes of one's beloved (3-4). She stresses that charis was not passive, but was rather "a pleasure-bearing power" or force (4). Charis was at its heart social; it was not about private pleasure, but shared, collective joy, as one might find expressed in dance, song, and rhythms of the body.
The joy generated by lang's charismatic or "pleasure-bearing" performances is kinetically instantiated in her early years, lang jumps, dances, curtsies, twirls, yodels, howls, chokes on lyrics, and hams it up. She calls audience members up on the stage for dance contests. In keeping with the comic mode, lang's masculine body executes the most feminine and decorous of gestures (e.g., the curtsey) in order to shatter social pieties, "the stable frames of reference which direct human perception and determine our judgements about what is proper in a given circumstance" (Rosteck and Leff 330). Of course, langs kinetic charismatic effect is primarily achieved through her voice, which sends kinetic vibrations through the bodies of listeners in live and digital contexts. The online comments of YouTube listeners reveal the physical effect lang's voice has on their bodies: "My heart stops"; "My tears flow ... my breath deepens every time"; "I get goosebumps"; "I feel chills down my spine." lang's voice, in keeping with long-standing definitions of charisma, is felt to be a gift from god or divinely bestowed grace. Fans refer to her "god-given talent," "voice of an angel," and ability to "grace" our ears.
lang's early charisma emerges not only through her kinetic force, but also from an attitude of humility that attends the comic frame. In a 1987 performance of "Crying" with Roy Orbison on The Jay Leno Show, for instance, she defers to Orbison as a highly regarded musician. (1) This duet nicely illustrates the comic character of lang's early charisma, which I see as a collaborative charisma "in concert" with others. (2) This charismatic aura is not produced by one superlative body acting apart from others, but through a reinforcing resonance between bodies and voices. This instantiation of charisma as mutually engendered departs from most scholarly interpretations of the concept, which almost exclusively focus on the charismatic individual alone. In the lang/ Orbison dynamic, a generous and co-operative charisma is produced through the juxtaposition and complementarity of two non-normative bodies. As was his wont, Orbison stands perfectly still while singing, a position that condenses his energies into a solidly resonant core; meanwhile, lang sways and paces in his orbit. (The word is comically double-voiced in this context: it sounds like Leno pronounces Orbison's name as Orbitson before the song.) Orbison's sunglasses and black clothing give him an air of mystery, which is complemented by lang's interiorizing delivery. (3) Her closed eyes and frequent face-in-profile shot resemble the iconography of holy pictures, whose suggestion of a mysterious interior world intensifies their allure: Anne Barston speculates, for example, that Joan of Arc used her "inner experience to establish her authority in a world of men" (42). A close-up of lang with her eyes tightly shut provides intimate proximity to a person of exceptional depth whose pain is at the same time inaccessible and mysterious to us.
Like the androgynous lang, Orbison resists legibility; his voice and body convey a quiet vulnerability that contradicts conventional masculine codes. Orbison has a tremulous voice, an operatic vocal style, and occasional falsetto--all musical markers of queerness. His performance of "Crying" with lang is compelling because both singers, in comic fashion, embody "contradictory qualities simultaneously: strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience ... singularity and typicality among them" (Roach 8). Their bodies convey the pain of heartbreak, the stigma of non-normativity, and, in Orbisons case, the suggestion of poor eyesight. (Some viewers assumed because of his dark glasses that Orbison was blind.) The enchanting power of this performance emerges in part from a basic incongruity or ambivalence: together, their voices create beautiful harmonies that transcend their lack of harmony with hegemonic gender codes or glamorous styles of presentation. This dissonance serves as a comic corrective, encouraging a sensitive reading of difference--not in terms of antithesis, but synthesis.
There are other elements of comic incongruity in this performance: The song, a top-ten hit in 1961, calls up teenage angst and the innocence surrounding the likely heteronormative "crush," but is sung here by a mature man in his fifties and a butch lesbian. The song is in many ways fairly standard (and ephemeral as most hits are), but in the moment of its cinematic rendering the lyrics are profoundly moving. If loved too much, or played too often, however, the song could easily slide into camp or cliche. The singers are by some standards freakish, but at the same time models of imitation for the feeling of intense states. These are the paradoxes that typify the charismatic performance as understood within Burkes "perspective by incongruity." As Joseph Roach argues in his study of star appeal, It, charisma as theatrical performance is in fact always generated by paradox, in "the simultaneous experience of mutually exclusive possibilities--truth and illusion, presence and absence, face and mask" (9). The ability of some people to sustain antinomies, he explains, makes them the object of intense fascination and attraction.
A discussion of lang's comic--and collaborative--charisma would be remiss if it did not include her 1993 Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford, taken at the apogee of lang's early celebrity. It beautifully illustrates lang's rhetoric of folly. An act of clowning around, it constitutes a powerful moment of social resistance to hegemonic discourses of masculinity, heterosexuality and other American pieties. The image draws on visual strategies of incongruity as a social corrective--specifically opposition, juxtaposition, parody, and "strategic playfulness" (Demo 142). lang, in drag, throws back her head blissfully to be shaved by a leotard- and boot-wearing Crawford. In her left hand (which sports a wedding ring), lang holds up a mirror to enjoy Crawfords campily ecstatic face, simultaneously holding up a mirror to social norms in order to critique them. This is a drag parody of Norman Rockwell's squeaky clean paintings for The Saturday Evening Post, and likely one image in particular, Going on Sixteen--Shear Agony (Elliott 162). The agony of Rockwell's picture is now sublime butch-femme ecstasy. The cover permits several kinds of desire--some normative, some not--handily described by critics like Halberstam.
Of interest here is the fact that lang has a blade to her throat, a vulnerable place in anyone's body, but especially a vocalist's, lang's greatest source of power--her transcendent voice--arises from "the vulnerability of the throat," the place "of exposure, of sacrifice" (Koestenbaum 14). lang's sublime transport means coming close to death, and she opens herself up to it with rosy cheeks and a happy grin. The charismatic force of the image is generated through what Barbara Freeman calls the feminine sublime, a concept that resembles Burke's understanding of the comic attitude:
Unlike the masculinist sublime that seeks to master, appropriate or colonize the other ... the politics of the feminine sublime involves taking up a position of respect in response to incalculable otherness. A politics of the feminine sublime would ally receptivity and constant attention to that which makes meaning infinitely open and ungovernable. (11)
This politics of being open to otherness and giving it "constant attention" recalls Burke's position that humanely seeing the "enemy" or the other as human--the comic position--requires "maximum consciousness" and means one is perpetually a student to oneself (Attitudes 171). lang embraces "incalculable otherness," which is a site of both vulnerability and empowerment: vulnerability, in that she could very well have her throat cut, and empowerment, in that she opens herself up to the excesses of butch desire, a sustained relation to the sublime itself, one prolonged indefinitely in the frozen moment of a photograph.
The Later k.d.: The Dykon Years (2000s)
"This woman in Toronto, Debbie Pearson, came up with the term 'dykon which I think is hilarious. If I helped people have a more open, healthy relationship with their parents or friends, or more importantly themselves, that makes me really happy.... It doesn't end with their sexuality but their confidence in being an individual." (k.d. lang, qtd. in Clevett 9)
As this paper has suggested, charisma is usefully understood as a diachronic (or dykeronic) phenomenon. The first part of this analysis characterized lang's early, kinetic charisma as a rhetoric of folly; in this section I consider her recent years as secular dyke icon or dykon. Now in her fifties, lang communicates a mature authority. As already suggested, her performance style is peripatetic rather than frenetic. In a PBS interview with Tavis Smiley, lang speaks of her "nomadic self" ("Singer-Songwriter"). She tends to walk across the stage, often in bare feet and occasionally in a loose-fitting robe, as in a 2005 Canadian Juno Awards performance of "Hallelujah," the song for which Leonard Cohen is best known.4 Her bearing calls up the gravitas of a wandering philosopher, Buddhist monk, or pedagogue in the ancient Agora, reminiscent, as Babich suggests, of the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy. The spirituality that has always defined lang's character has intensified. Her lived philosophy of the comic frame, especially its humility, was evident at the 2006 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, for example, when lang descended from the stage after the song to bow in gratitude before fellow Buddhist Cohen.
Given its lyrical beauty and openness to interpretation, "Hallelujah" has inspired many musicians--Cohen acknowledges there are perhaps too many--to cover it. Besides lang, its artistic roster includes John Cale (whose version featured in the 2001 film Shrek), Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Susan Boyle, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bono, and the group II Divo. Buckley's understated version, which appeared on his only release Grace, is arguably one of the best known and has become even more poignant since his 1997 drowning death in Memphis.
While each version has its merits, lang's is distinctive in part for its (again) collaborative dynamic: Cohen's "Hallelujah" and lang's public persona are both attitudinally comic, and the convergence between text and singer produces a mutually reinforcing energy. In the song's opening lines, the speaker tries to get the attention of an indifferent addressee, a scene that dramatizes the rhetorical challenge lang often faced--getting a hearing in the first place. The composition begins, "I heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don't really care for music, do you?" This line, however, is at the same time very funny. In his book, The Holy or the Broken, Alan Light quotes television executive Bill Flanagan on this point:
One of the funny things about "Hallelujah" ... is the profound opening couplet about King David, and then immediately it has this Woody Allen-type line of, 'You don't really care for music, do you?' I remember it striking me the first time I heard the song as being really funny in a Philip Roth, exasperated kind of way--'I built this beautiful thing, but the girl only cares about the guy with a nice car.' (Light 20)
At a 2012 awards ceremony where Cohen was honored for his artistic excellence, presenter Salman Rushdie also describes the song in comic terms, noting the rhyme between the liturgical "Hallelujah" and vernacular "what's it to ya." He characterizes it as "anthemic and hymnlike, but if you listen closely you hear the wit and jaundiced comedy" (Light xvi). In comic fashion, the song "containjs] both transcendental and material ingredients" (Attitudes 166). The Holy Spirit "dovetails" with sex: in one of the song's many verses, which lang does not sing, the speaker remembers "when I moved in you, and the holy dove was moving too." The composition lifts stories from the Old Testament and plunks them down in the kitchen. (Delilah ties Samson to a kitchen chair.) The language of love and devotion mingle with the hard talk of the Wild West. (Love has taught the speaker "how to shoot at someone who outdrew you"), lang performs this scripture/cowboy hybridity beautifully in her 2005 performance: the breaking of her voice on the word Hallelujah is part cry, part yodel.
Burke writes that comic vocabularies give "human, social equivalents for concepts previously handled in superhuman terms" (Attitudes 94). "Hallelujah" performs such translation well. Alan Light observes, for instance, that Cohen's opening verse describes the actual tone progression of the music: "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth/ the minor fall, the major lift." Cohen's technical description of the verse transforms the vocabulary of musical enchantment, one of mystery, into the human vocabulary of the "simple craftsman" (Light 20). The song also meditates on the power of humility, and the lessons to be learned from the necessary mistakes of being human. King David, heroic leader of Israel, is reduced to a broken Hallelujah after he succumbs to his lust for the forbidden Bathsheba. It is from this broken place, however, that David (and the listener) can reach what Burke calls "maximum consciousness" (Attitudes 171); the piece suggests that one can find Hallelujahs, no matter how cold and broken, in the darkest and loneliness of places. Coming out of a comic philosophy, the song teaches us that humans can transcend those times when we have been hurt or misled, "since [we] can readily put such discouragements in [our] 'assets' column, under the head of 'experience'" (Attitudes 173).
This comic song, written by a comic poet and philosopher, is in this case performed by a comic dykon. This naming is instructive. The word dykon illustrates Burke's perspective by incongruity, which he defines as "[a] method for gauging situations by verbal 'atom cracking.' That is, a word belongs by custom to a certain category--and by rational planning you wrench it loose and metaphorically apply it to a different category" (Attitudes 308). Icons are generally serious things. Images of devotion and worship, they have functioned historically to translate the living presence of a saint, god, or religious figure and to mediate between this life and the otherworldly. The charisma of the religious iconic image, Stephen Jaeger tells us, derives from its aesthetic incarnation of the divine, to which the art allows access (104). While he does not use the word rhetoric, Jaeger argues that the enargeia or imagistic vividness of iconic images and their heightened affect inspire action, that is to say imitation of the depicted saint. The charisma or life force of the image--often communicated through the human face--"rouses in the viewer the desire to copy those represented, to experience love, compassion, and suffering like that of the saints" (123). The charisma that attends these icons, Jaeger stresses, emerges from a human desire to overpower death, bringing the dead to life through the devotional object. Charisma emerges from the represented charismatic body, whose hyper-present rendering transports the viewer to otherworldly communion. The icon emits a charismatic aura.
The word dykon prompts laughter because it strategically juxtaposes two incongruous worlds, the dyke and the iconic, "attaching to some name a qualifying epithet which had heretofore gone with a different order of names" (Permanence 90). This lexical incongruity merges queerness with a devotional object and produces a ludicrous homonym with the daikon radish, connecting the sacred icon with Asian food.
(The radish may not be completely absurd in the context of consciousness raising, however: James Darsey writes that "our word 'radical' shares its origins with the word 'radish'; both are concerned with roots and are often bitter" (45).) The daikon also has phallic connotations: a long, white vegetable, it comes from the Japanese word for big (dai) root (kon). The ambivalent word dykon effectively changes the terms through which we view iconicity, denaturalizing its normative meanings and providing the butch dyke with a playful phallic power and "prosthetic" masculinity (Halberstam 3). The dykon operates within a comic frame that reclassifies and re-moralizes the terms a society holds dear.
lang was memorably the "dyke on" the stage at the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics opening ceremony, where she sang "Hallelujah" in front of an international audience. A note of sorrow was tangible during these opening ceremonies. Only hours before, Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed on site after losing control of his sled during a training run. His tragic death introduced a rhetorical exigence or need: the desire for light in darkness (which would have made the mass of flickering candles in the dark Olympic stadium especially moving) and for reassurance that transcendence is possible, in this case through the transporting power of music and collective feeling.
Philosopher Babette Babich has written much about lang's alluring musicality within a context of digitial reception--what she calls "the Hallelujah effect"--and argues that the online medium of performances is vital to its aesthetic power ("The Birth"). Within this context of inquiry, Babich asks how lang's version of "Hallelujah" departs from others. Her answers support my argument about the charismatic power of the comic frame, as well as my contention that charisma is rhetorical. Focusing on the 2005 recording of "Hallelujah" at the Canadian Juno Awards, Babich argues that lang's gestures are vital. She notes, for instance, how lang directs her own singing:
It is as if she were directing herself, directing the song itself, directing her own verse, her own chorus. Thus she plays with open fingers "the fourth, the fifth," and with a downturned hand smoothly traces "the minor fall," recovering with an upturned hand, "the major lift," and, powerfully, "a baffled king composing Hallelujah." ("The Birth")
In this version, lang slowly brings her hand towards her face (a gesture of compression) at the same time increasing her vibrato on the Hallelujah: this combination visually and aurally intensifies the affective reverberations of the prayer. These deliberate choices are powerful because they reveal an attentive and thoughtful actor, lang's delivery style in this way exemplifies the ultimate goal of the comic attitude, which according to Burke, "should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness" (Attitudes 171, italics in original). They demonstrate a capacity to move and to know how and why one is moving, and serves as a model for attentiveness to even the smallest of our own actions.
lang's gestures in "Hallelujah" do more than suggest maximum consciousness, however; they also draw upon the strategies of mimicry that frequently accompany the comic disposition. Babich watches how lang wraps the microphone around her hand when she sings "tied you to a kitchen chair" and looks directly at the audience and mimics scissors when she sings "broke your throne" and "cut your hair" ("The Birth"). (5) It is a slightly sneering butch and not the conventionally represented Delilah, however, who in that moment stares down the audience and offers the "sexual come on" ("The Birth"). The incongruity between the two women denaturalizes the scriptural version, reconstructs an alternative to the masculine and heteronormative bias, and functions as a comic corrective. There are many such mimetic moments: lang walks across the stage as she sings "Eve seen this room and I've walked the floor." She looks up to the moon with the line "You saw her bathing on the roof." She shakes her hand in an evangelical shake when she sings "I've seen the light." With these mimetic gestures, lang becomes Delilah and then the cocky guy calling his woman "baby"; she is King David standing baffled in the moonlight, after which she is the modern-day televangelist with a tincture of Elvis. Her polyvocal delivery style demystifies scriptural narrative and saucily hints at the inadequacies of normative codes, while inviting those at the end of her gaze to be "other" even to themselves.
Babich explains how each mimetic gesture also "brings us back to the present ... sung as the singer sings it" ("The Birth") Presence, in fact, is central to the definition of charismatic art taken up by Jaeger: "Charismatic art," he argues, "aims at heightening the human presence. It rises above mimesis of the ordinary, but does not abandon it. Charismatic art is beyond and above nature, while remaining within human bonds" (38). Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca explain that rhetorical presence is key to argumentation, because well-chosen objects and details, brought before the eyes, "[act] directly on our sensibility" (116). They include repetition in their list of rhetorical strategies for achieving presence; indeed, the simple repetition of "Hallelujah" in Cohen's chorus is by itself profoundly moving, lang is also adept at making present through her body the powerful emotions of Cohen's song. She uses appoggiatura, a musical figure in which a discordant grace note leans into a dominant note of resolution and simultaneously leans her body into the pain of a "broken Hallelujah." While doing so, she adopts the oppositional and asymmetrical posture of contrapposto (Jaeger 8), a standing "counter-pose" where the body shifts weight from one foot to the other and slightly twists the upper torso. This slight twist is aesthetically pleasing (and celebrated in the statuary of Michelangelo), and can also give the impression of intense yet controlled pain, lang makes visible the exquisite tension between a downward-crouching body and upward-soaring voice, which mirrors the exquisite contradiction of the divine in the human--and the human in the divine.
Charisma is a complex concept and warrants the consideration of topics beyond the scope of this paper. For one thing, as critics like Babich have acknowledged, the transportive power of lang's singing often occurs through the digital media of television or YouTube, highly affective spaces where the exuberant energies generated on a screen--or through the buzz of a viral video--affect the resonant energies of viewers' bodies and create a collective effervescence. An audience member might on some level register the affective waves of energy generated between the close-ups of lang's body and the wide shots of the masses who surround her and whose clapping and appreciative cries intensify the event. At the time of writing, the Juno Awards performance of "Hallelujah" on YouTube had attracted over eight and a half million views and had produced a vibrant ecosystem of comments. One might also ask whether present-day attitudes towards authority, including religious authority, have changed and whether the respect once granted formal authority figures has shifted to the charismatic celebrity icon. (It's interesting in this context to note how spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama and the late Pope John Paul II have had a celebrity allure and magnetic appeal.) Contemporary audiences might already be disposed to enchantment by a celebrity sage who sings barefoot on stage and bows humbly before fans, given western society's disenchantment with authority figures traditionally understood.
Conclusion: Letting the Freak Flags Fly
In both scholarly and public discourse, charisma--the elusive, magical leadership quality that attracts devotion from rapt followers--has been understood primarily as a masculine attribute and has been confined to such figures as male revolutionaries, explorers, and political leaders. This paper has offered a retheorized and regendered treatment of charisma and has drawn upon Kenneth Burke's discussion of the comic attitude to propose alternative readings of the concept. As I have argued, Canadian musician k.d. lang's charisma does not operate through conventionally masculine strategies of charismatic domination or cult of the leader, but rather is engendered through comic traits like humility, collaboration, incongruity, and mimesis. One can mark a contrast in charismatic tone between her early and recent career, but her public persona and music have consistently encouraged public openness to and identification with otherness and ambiguity. Judith Peraino argues that music can be "about the desire to become 'otherwise,' to question and to be questionable, to risk self-obliteration in music in order to be queer to oneself" (440). In many ways, as this exploration has demonstrated, lang's comic charisma is cause for optimism.
In the spirit of a humane comic critique that neither euphemizes nor debunks, this discussion ends with a few critical observations about lang's charisma. Weber's notion of the charismatic figure was after all an idealized one, and if we recognize that human systems are imperfect (which the comic frame does), the instantiation of human charisma will also be imperfect. Weber's theory of charisma highlights the revolutionary power of charismatic authority, but as critics have noted, this form of power can also be normalizing and "conservative in orientation rather than radical" (Smith 106). lang's collection of Canadian covers, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, has been critiqued, for instance, by queer theorist Halberstam, who argues that lang's "velvet voice" is too perfect, earnest, and focused on "getting it right"; her vocal style "betrays" songs like "Hallelujah" by turning them into "torture-lite, her silky voice untangling the knots in the song and unraveling the mystery" ("Keeping Time" 338). Halberstam's critique refers to lang's audio recording, not live performance, but the insight is nonetheless thought provoking. Burke's comic frame means accepting one's "foibles" and imperfections; lang's attention to technical virtuosity and performative polish--which I, along with other critics, have argued is key to the powerful effect she has on listeners--has prompted listeners to rave about the perfection of her musical execution. Her interpretation of Cohen's song, which Babich calls "preternaturally conscious" is likely more attentive to techniques that will secure enchantment rather than prompt discomfort. One might question how queerly "otherwise" lang's musicality makes people feel--her recent appearances with cellos, pianos, and orchestras (and the controlled representation of the passions) generally elicit admiration rather than discomfiture.
Researchers have noted that the charismatic figure arouses libidinal and frequently homoerotic energies, but this homoerotic response can be elided through disembodying language that makes the body of the leader intangible and untouchable. In their study of charisma amongst men in the workplace, Harding et al. observe the invisibility of the leaders physical body in the language around charismatic attraction. As a result, "[organization heteronormativity, so painfully and precariously upheld, will not crumble; the libininal energies are not turned towards hedonistic pleasures but to production" (940). This paper has suggested that much of lang's charisma is generated by her voice and is often described as angelic. A queer charisma instantiated through the voice can certainly be subversive--and in many ways lang's is--but a listener can be smitten with an angelic voice (or saint-like body), while keeping the physical body safely ethereal, asexual, or absent.
Finally, there is the question of charisma and the conservative discourses of the nation-state, particularly when considering lang's appeal in her home country of Canada. lang's patriotic ethos in the contemporary cultural imaginary calls for closer comparison with charismatic figures like Joan of Arc and Sarah Bernhardt, powerful women who confounded hegemonic categories, but also drew upon conventional national myths, lang may be letting her "freak flags fly," but that freak flag frequently has a Canadian maple leaf on it. Her charisma and iconicity increasingly operate within discourses of Canadian nationalism and celebrate rather than critique that social order. Her recent references to Canada equate it with freakishness (which is comic, given Canada's fairly straight-laced reputation internationally) and with tolerance (which goes over well, given Canada's congratulatory view of itself as inclusive). In a recent acceptance speech at the 2013 Canadian Juno Awards, lang claims that "[o]nly in Canada could there be such a freak as k.d. lang receiving this award. Only in Canada could there be people like Stompin' Tom Connors and Rita MacNeil. I want to tell you my friends and my countrymen that it is OK to be you" ("Singer k.d. lang").
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(1.) It turns out that a woman's charisma--even when played out through the non-normative body of a butch dyke--often aligns with culturally condoned feminine attributes or patterns: vulnerability, sacredness, humility, compassion, artistic expression, eccentricity, and empowerment through (an often male) charismatic other. Many of these same qualities, however, come out of a humane and, to quote Burke, "enlightened" comic worldview that recognizes shared human fallibility and the value of individual human beings. It is thus also heartening to see charisma drawing upon these qualities of Burke's comic frame--even, and especially, when such charisma plays out imperfectly in a flawed world. 1. A recording can be viewed on YouTube (KD Lang & Roy Orbison-Crying").
(2.) Over her career, lang has frequently collaborated with other artists, including Jane Siberry, Elton John, and Tony Bennett.
(3.) langs characteristic profile shot, according to her biography, began with langs introduction to Patsy Clines album covers, "which pictured her [Cline] standing sideways, hands on her hips, gazing out at the audience. It was a stunning, intense image"; when lang imitated the pose, "the results were riveting" (Starr 23).
(4.) The performances at the 2005 Juno Awards and 2006 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame are available on YouTube. (See Works Cited.) However, the 2010 Olympic version is often blocked for copyright reasons.
(5.) The scissors gesture might remind some listeners of the 1993 Vanity Fair cover and langs blissful vulnerability at the hands of Cindy Crawford, which hints at yet another shadowing mimetic text.
UNIVERSITY OF WINNIPEG, CANADA
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