Feeling Like a Theorist

Vivian Luong

Collaboratively edited with Chelsea Burns and Samuel Chan

Write an introduction:

Construct something that invites the reader in. Make a place for them to sit a while and take in your words. Be friendly and gentle. Demonstrate that you can write and belong here with the careful precision of your prose. Write and rewrite each sentence until its meaning is shiny, polished, and pristine with a hint of antiseptic. Come in. I tidied my argument before you got here.[1] Welcome.

But what if what I want to share might make you uncomfortable? What if my writing needs to be disturbing?


And now I’ve written myself into an impasse—a place of “stuckness,” ambivalence, and uncertainty.[2] This usually happens when I’m writing about something difficult that I really don’t want to write about, but that I also really want to write about. I tiptoe to the edge of what I want to say and then I swerve away. Over and over again, I repeat this process until I’m exhausted, having spent all of my time and energy carving a path that leads me nowhere closer to where I want to go. What I am able to offer in this post is a trace of this repeated battle—of desperately wanting to express something but feeling like I can’t. I shouldn’t, don’t deserve to. I’m not qualified to. Let me step back and try again.


I want need to write about (self-)hate and the conditions in the discipline of music theory that make hate a taboo subject to talk about. In addition to feelings of ambivalence, it has been extremely difficult—painful—to write about hate. Pinning the concept down, sitting with it, thinking through it, and then sharing my thoughts about it. Why does this feel even more intimate, more frightening, than sharing my ideas about love?

As a music theorist who writes about music loving, I haven’t really been able to escape thinking about hate. In fact, one of the hazards of working on love is that I get lots of questions about hate.

What does love have to do with the analysis of music that we despise?
Where’s the love when we ask our students to engage with music that they hate?
What do we do about analytical methods rooted in hate?

Oftentimes, these questions come up while I am poised behind a podium during the Q&A portion of a conference talk. Still hopped up on adrenaline, stale conference-center coffee, and a lack of sleep, I stumble my way through an answer about how love is complicated; how checking in and asking for students’ consent should be a part of a loving pedagogy;[3] and oh, hey, isn’t it neat that Deleuze and Guattari imagine loving in multiplicities?[4] I always divert back to the safety of love. In short, my answers about hate have been inadequate.


Claiming the identity of the “professional music lover” was a central strategy in constructing a space for early feminist and queer music studies.[5] And as a minoritized junior scholar trying to get us to imagine a liberatory music studies, I often choose writing about love as a way in. I am grateful and indebted to this strategy for providing me with citational legibility.[6] And furthermore, love seems so positive an affect that perhaps my insidious, burn-the-discipline-down-from-the-inside-to-build-another-world tendencies can fly under the radar.[7] But I also experience love’s pitfalls.

As noted by Suzanne Cusick, William Cheng, and others, hailing the love of music can also run the risk of minimizing the harm it does as a weapon of torture and racialized violence.[8] And as Danielle Sofer argues, this limited notion of love equates musical queerness with white, masculine-oriented homonormativity, thereby erasing the experiences of other minoritized individuals, such as women of color as well as nonbinary and trans-feminine people.[9]

I share these authors’ concerns both professionally and personally. This absence, this lack, our refusal to deal not only with the ambivalence of music’s effects, but also our effects in the world—it makes me angry. This anger fuels my attempts to prove all of this in my writing, in my conversations with colleagues, in my teaching.

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions [sexism and racism], personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.[10]

But it’s precarious enough sometimes to bring gender and sexuality into music-theoretical spaces. So I couch my statements. I tone them down. I temper my words until they form yet another essay disguised under the safe veneer of music loving. Excuse me? I/we would like to exist here. Let me explain again why I/we matter. I stop.

This strategy of survival hurts because my anger still seethes. I can’t make it go where it needs to go. So it winds inward into my gut, my psyche, my sense of self until it manifests into self-hate.

Anger is useful to help clarify our differences, but in the long run, strength that is bred by anger alone is a blind force which cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past. Such strength does not focus upon what lies ahead, but upon what lies behind, upon what created it—hatred. And hatred is a deathwish for the hated, not a lifewish for anything else. To grow up metabolizing hatred like daily bread means that eventually every human interaction becomes tainted with the negative passion and intensity of its by-products—anger and cruelty.[11]


A part of the reason I feel more comfortable citing established, implicitly white feminist and queer thought on music is that it doesn’t call attention to other aspects of my situated experience.

I’ve typed, deleted, re-typed, and then deleted again a clarification of what exactly I mean here multiple times now.

How is this music theory?
Why does this matter?
How does this speak to the universal experience of every music theorist?

I’m making us uncomfortable.


It seems that I’ve hit an impasse again.


Why is it so hard to bridge my racialized identity with my work on music loving and/or hate? It’s a defense that I’ve built up, a reflexive response to the “Who are you?/What are you?/Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” line of questioning that some of us are familiar with. I am tired of needing to prove where I’m “really from.” I’m tired of the restrictive orientalist and sexualized stereotypes pinned onto me when I articulate my identity at this intersection.[12] More recently, this fatigue has warped into a deadened state of burnout. I am flattened by the constant deferral of my anger, my grief, my fear of violent retaliation—all of which has only been made ever more mundane-yet-exceptional in the past two years of the pandemic.[13] I feel unrooted, de-situated, displaced from institution to institution in an increasingly contingent labor market. How and with whom can I grieve when I’m not sure where I will be and if I will survive?

When I do feel, it’s guilt. I feel ashamed of my inability to theorize these integral parts of myself into my work. I am performing the very act of making myself and others like me and adjacent to me invisible. I am complicit in denying us the capacity to fully exist. Asking for the right to exist seems a bit much for a blog post . . . Have I talked enough about music or music theory yet for this to count?


Let me hide behind a quotation or two from Asian-American poet Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning as I withdraw back to safety. On the conditional existence of her own identity and sense of self, Hong writes:

For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. I, the modern-day scrivener, working five times as hard as others and still I saw my hand dissolve, then my arm. Often at night, I flinched awake and berated myself until dawn’s shiv of light pierced my eyes. My confidence was impoverished from a lifelong diet of conditional love and a society who thinks I’m as interchangeable as lint . . . Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you.[14]

The ugly, contradictory, and hateful affects embodied in this quote exemplify Hong’s concept of “minor feelings.” Hong defines minor feelings as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”[15] Aligning with other perspectives on negative political affects by Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, and Sianne Ngai, Hong’s minor feelings depict the condition of living with a constant dissonance of one’s own racialized reality pushing against a racist-capitalist enforcement of optimism.[16] For Hong, this tension results in self-negation and internalized doubt. She writes:

I ransack my mind for what I could have done, could have said. I stop trusting what I see, what I hear. My ego is in free fall while my superego is boundless, railing that my existence is not enough, never enough, so I become compulsive in my efforts to do better, be better, blindly following this country’s gospel of self-interest, proving my individual worth by expanding my net worth, until I vanish.[17]

I have been subscribing to a similarly optimistic story of survival as a professional music lover. If I play along with this discipline, if I could just sublimate my anger into music loving, if I write myself out of existence, then maybe I too can finally be enough.

But at what cost? How many more times can I retrace this path? How much more hate can I accumulate? I am tired of disciplining my anger and rendering it into self-destruction.

And now as I try to draw this essay to a close, I feel the pull to swerve away again. A final time. To disappear. To vanish. But have I said what I’ve been meaning to say?


. . . I don’t know




Never enough.

Vivian Luong is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Oklahoma.


This blog series is supported by a subvention grant from the Society for Music Theory (SMT). 

If you decide to read on, I hope that you’ll get the sense that writing does not come easily to me. With that, I am very grateful for the support and space offered by the Engaged Music Theory Working Group to work through some of this difficulty here. Thank you also to editors Chelsea Burns and Samuel Chan for sharing their expertise and time with me, and to the American Musicological Society’s Music and Philosophy Study Group for their invitation to present an earlier version of this post at their 2020 meeting. Finally, I’d like to thank Stephen Lett for serving as an interlocutor throughout the writing process. 

[1] Turabian (2013, 104–109). [return] 

[2] Berlant (2011, 5 and 117); Cvetkovich (2012, 20–21); Robinson (2020, 257). [return] 

[3] hooks (2003, 137). [return] 

[4] Luong (2017). [return] 

[5] Cusick (1994); Guck (1996); Maus (1995). [return] 

[6] Hong (2020, 181–204). [return] 

[7] Robinson (2022). [return] 

[8] Cusick (2008a; 2008b); Cheng (2020). [return] 

[9] Sofer (2020, 38 and 40). [return] 

[10] Lorde (1984b, 127). [return] 

[11] Lorde (1984a, 152). [return] 

[12] Hisama (1993); Shimizu (2007). [return] 

[13] Kwon (2021). [return] 

[14] Hong (2020, 9–10). [return] 

[15] Hong (2020, 55). [return]

[16] Berlant (2011); Cvetkovich (2012); Ngai (2005). [return]

[17] Hong (2020, 35). [return]

Works Cited 

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cheng, William. 2020. Loving Music Till It Hurts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cusick, Suzanne G. 1994. “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight.” In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, 67–83. New York, NY: Routledge.

———. 2008a. “Musicology, Torture, Repair.” Radical Musicology 3. http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk/2008/Cusick.htm.

———. 2008b. “‘You Are in a Place That Is out of the World . . .’: Music in the Detention Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror.’” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 1 (February): 1–26.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Eng, David L., and Shinhee Han. 2019. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. Durham: Duke University Press.

Guck, Marion A. 1996. “Music Loving, Or the Relationship with the Piece.” Music Theory Online 2, no. 2 (March). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.96.2.2/mto.96.2.2.guck.html. Reprinted in Journal of Musicology 15, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 343–52.

Hisama, Ellie M. 1993. “Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie, and John Zorn.” Popular Music 12, no. 2 (May): 91–104.

Hong, Cathy Park. 2020. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. New York: One World.

hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching Community: Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

Kwon, R. O. 2021. “A Letter to My Fellow Asian Women Whose Hearts Are Still Breaking.” Vanity Fair, March 19, 2021. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2021/03/ro-kwon-letter-to-asian-women.

Lorde, Audre. 1984a. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 145–75. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

———. 1984b. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 124–33. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

Luong, Vivian. 2017.  “Rethinking Music Loving.” Music Theory Online 23, no. 2.. https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.17.23.2/mto.17.23.2.luong.html.

Maus, Fred Everett. 1995. “Love Stories.” Repercussions 4, no. 2: 86–96.

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Robinson, Dylan. 2020. Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

———. 2022. “Decolonial Metaphors for Return and Renewal.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 8. https://engagingstudentsmusic.org/article/view/8653/6321

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. 2007. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sofer, Danielle. 2020. “Specters of Sex: Tracing the Tools and Techniques of Contemporary Music Analysis.” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 17, no. 1: 31–63.

Turabian, Kate L. 2013. “Writing Your Final Introduction and Conclusion.” A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, 104–109. 8th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.