Justin Bieber caught me off guard last year. There I was, minding my own business, listening to a pop station, and this breathy little thing, this delicate vocal wrapped in a halo of shimmering effects starts piping through my car. I didn’t even realize it was him at first; it had been so long since I’d heard a new Bieber song. And I had no clue the production was from Skrillex and Diplo (from their 2015 Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü), which is why I was probably also not ready for the drop, that moment when the song’s tension releases and I’m suddenly gliding across a syncopated bass synth while Bieber’s vocals are pinched into a dolphin call. Somehow, two of the most notoriously unsubtle producers and the posterboy for “too much, too soon” had snuck up on me with “Where Are Ü Now” (WAÜN).
WAÜN’s drop from nowhere isn’t brand new. Subtle soars and understated drops are officially A Thing. More importantly, they do work beyond the sonic aesthetic. In this case, I want to listen to WAÜN in the context of Bieber’s performance of gender, specifically with an ear toward the way Skrillex and Diplo mix elements from dancepop’s 2015 toolkit to produce a track that plays on feminine tropes, which articulate a kind of masculinity. Listening to WAÜN alongside Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy (2015) amplifies the male privilege at play in WAÜN. James calls attention to the way drops can sonify feminine resilience, and WAÜN’s surprise drop toys with that resilience in a thoroughly heteromasculine way. I’ll first set up how drops usually work, then read James in the context of Bieber’s gender performance as heard in WAÜN.
Drops, at their most basic, are climactic moments when a song’s full instrumental measure hits (hence “drop”), often after some key elements of the instrumental have been removed so that the climax can sound more intense. At that broad level, any genre can employ a drop of some sort. EDM and dancepop drops—the kind that most directly inform the music of Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber—are bass-heavy and typically follow a soar that intensifies volume, texture, rhythm, and/or pitch: you soar to a sonic plateau or a cliff, and with a “YEEEEEES!!!!!” coast on some wobbly goodness to the next verse.
The pre-chorus soar in the Messengers/Sir Nolan/Kuk Harrell-produced “All Around the World” from Bieber’s 2012 Believe is a solid example. In the video below, the soar starts at 0:45, the chorus enters at 1:00, and the drop lands at 1:15. It’s textbook: the instrumental is stripped back and filtered, and in the opening moments, we hear a descending bass glide. A filter does what its name suggests–it filters out a prescribed set of frequencies so that we only hear a certain range, and in this case it’s the low end that comes through. The effect makes the synths sound like they’re pulsating through water, and the higher frequency overtones take on a shimmery quality. Over the course of the 8-measure soar, the higher frequency range is brought into earshot, and then, on the second half of the eighth measure…nothing. This nothingness is integral to James’s central argument in Resilience & Melancholy: nothingness intensifies what follows. In these eight measures, we’ve glided down to the low end only to soar up up up until all that’s left is Bieber’s voice, confident, nasally, with just a touch of autotune as he sings the titular line that will take us to the chorus. That chorus bangs harder because of the soar to oblivion before it.
WAÜN’s drop lands at 1:09. For full context, start from the beginning and listen for the soar. (If you also need to stare dreamily into Bieber’s eyes, then by all means.)
There’s not really a soar there. No intensifying volume, texture, rhythm, pitch. The not-soar (starting at 0:48) is even a weird length, clocking in at 12 measures after an 8-measure intro and 16-measure verse have established a multiples-of-8 structural rhythm; even if we were expecting a drop, it comes four measures early. The clearest sign we get that a drop is imminent is that moment where the instrumental reduces to a quiet hiss for two measures as Bieber sings “Where are you now?” That hiss is the structural equivalent of the nothingness we hear just before “All Around the World”’s chorus, and with no traditional soar before it, we have just enough time to think “Oh shit, are they gonna….?” before we’re off, clutching tight to Justin Bieber as we ride a dolphin through the more tender parts of Skrillex’s and Diplo’s musical oceans.
Until that nothingness, this could just as easily be one of those heartfelt Bieber tunes where he reaches to the high end of his range for a chorus full of feels. That Bieber? He’s incredibly self-assured, bearing his soul because he’s certain you’ll love him. The bait-and-switch of WAÜN’s soarless drop highlights Bieber’s insecurity in this song—he’s just dolphin calls and “Where are you now”s—by creating expectations for a different persona.
So what we have here is an atypical drop, a drop that calls attention to itself by behaving differently than we expect it to, a drop that’s a study in understatement–all courtesy of three of dancepop’s resident maximalists.
Atypical soars and drops aren’t new, as producers will always toy with musical conventions as a way to disrupt expectations. Skrillex’s own “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (2010) includes a pre-drop that doesn’t soar at all. In 2015, two big acts in the dance scene, Disclosure and The Chemical Brothers, released singles that don’t soar right, either. Disclosure, whose big 2013 hit “Latch” soared rather traditionally into Sam Smith’s chorus, is coyer on “Bang That” and “Jaded.” “Bang That” includes three separate 8-measure phrases (at 0:30, 0:45, and 1:01, respectively, in the linked video) that never take off, finally settling into a descending bass line (starting at 1:09) that just repeats a rhythmic motif, running out the clock on the final four measures before the chorus. “Jaded,” at the other end of the spectrum, includes only a 4-measure pre-chorus (1:18-1:27) that seems to be sweeping upward like a traditional soar, then roller coasters down and back up over the final two measures. The instability of this soar/not-soar is punctuated with an additional eighth note tacked onto the end of the fourth measure, throwing the chorus off-kilter. The Chemical Brothers employ a similar roller coaster sweep in “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” that marks out an even eight measures (0:58-1:13) without either intensifying rhythmically or pushing to a pitch ceiling at the drop.
These soars and drops stand out precisely because, like WAÜN’s, they aren’t the norm. To help theorize WAÜN’s not-soar, I want to think with Robin James, whose Resilience & Melancholy hears soars and drops in the context of contemporary race and gender politics. James situates soars and drops as the sonic equivalent of resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately only strengthens the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that inflicts the damage that is being surmounted. In other words, women can only attempt to overcome through the damage that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy inflicts upon them. Sonically, the soar is an accrual of damage that is spectacularly (and profitably) overcome in the drop, the music that resiliently endures on the other side of nothingness. Melancholy, on the other hand, is failed resilience, a handling of damage that does not directly profit white supremacist patriarchy and that could sound any number of ways, including like a non-traditional soar. While admittedly these soars and drops aren’t always about gender politics, R&M opens space for us to think about gender and soars/drops together.
I don’t think WAÜN’s non-soar/drop is resilient or melancholic, but I do think it’s helpful to think of it as being about resilience and melancholy. This is where Bieber’s performance of masculinity comes into play. From his earliest poofy-headed, babyfaced performances, Biebs has done a modified bro thing: his heart’s on his sleeve, but mostly as a strategy for sexual conquest. “All Around the World,” again, is exemplary. In the lyrics, Bieber uses his worldly experiences to woo a potential lover, who he also negs, keeping himself in a position of power as someone who knows more, has seen more, and is willing to accept this woman despite her obvious flaws.
In WAÜN, though, I hear his performance of masculinity complicated further, as he tries out a number of more feminized tropes all at once. Lyrically, Bieber is the scorned lover who claims to have done all the care work in his relationship. Visually, he’s the pop icon whose body is ogled, scrutinized, and marked. Vocally, he receives the pitch-shift treatment that has most recently been associated with DJ Snake’s production of diva vocals (think “You Know You Like It” and “Lean On”). He also sings in a breathy style that James has elsewhere noted mimics Ellie Goulding’s vocals. Musically, Skrillex and Diplo give him the soar/drop construction to undergird his pain, a musical technique that most often signifies feminine resilience.
What bubbles up is a heteromasculine play on resilience and melancholy. Skrillex and Diplo liquidate the soar until all that’s left is a nothing-hiss before the drop. In the context of the other feminized tropes Bieber is messing with in WAÜN, this failed soar could feel melancholic, a refusal to spectacularly overcome. Overcome what, though? Bieber gets to sound resilient or melancholic without ever experiencing damage. That’s his male privilege. James points out that one of the most violent outcomes of resilience discourse is the re-enforcement of damage. If resilience is the way women become legible and profitable, then the damage inflicted by ablist white cisheteropatriarchy becomes a necessity, something that must be endured to gain access to power and resources. This is the lynchpin of James’s critique: resilience is a harmful discourse because it ultimately benefits the system it purports to overcome. Melancholy turns resilience logic on its head by refusing to treat damage as something an individual is responsible for overcoming. WAÜN, though, erases damage altogether in its initial drop. WAÜN’s feminized tropes ultimately highlight instead of unsettle Bieber’s performance of hetero-masculinity: what’s more man-ly than accessing power and resources without the threat of institutional violence?
Importantly, these feminized tropes don’t undermine Bieber’s heteromasculine performance; rather, they only seem to add nuance to the slightly bro-ier [that’s a word] Bieber performance we’ve become accustomed to. That’s what I mean when I say WAÜN is about resilience and melancholy; Skrillex and Diplo use the markers of queer or feminine overcoming and failed overcoming to re-construct Bieber’s masculinity, to toss some more ingredients into his manly mix, and the not-soar is a big component of that. Skrillex and Diplo tap into this soar experimentation, then drop it into the middle of a slightly more gender-fluid Bieber.
WAÜN’s high water mark is a few months behind us at this point, but Bieber remains hotter than ever, with “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” (another Skrillex production credit), and “Love Yourself” still dominating US and UK charts. Several more singles from Purpose (including two more Skrillex collaborations) are poised to do the same in 2016. Each of these singles extends some of the same tropes Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo explore in WAÜN—breathy vocals, misunderstood and mistreated pop icon, resilience and contrition and care in the face of a failed relationship—and I hear WAÜN’s initial drop as the sonic moment that preps Bieber’s return to the pop charts. He wades back into the mainstream with a more complex performance of heteromasculinity and reaps the profits that come with it.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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In an article for Pitchfork, music critic Adam Ward reminisces about digital music files that sound as if they’re “being played through a payphone,” and calls the extreme compression of the low-quality MP3 “this generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD.” The crackles, hisses, and compression that characterize such sound files are what I term “encoded materiality.” Focusing on the encoded materiality of the digital helps us to reconfigure our approach to sonic media, understanding how the compression of early MP3s and tape hiss remind us not only of lost fidelity, but also of the richness of exchange. These warm and stubborn sonic impurities, having been encoded in our digital listening formats and thus achieving repeatability and variability, act as persistent reminders that we can think diaspora beyond melancholy and authenticity, sidestepping the questions of purity and loss that so often characterize dialogues in the field of diaspora studies.
In Mechanisms, his work on electronic textuality, Matthew Kirschenbaum proposes a “material matrix governing writing and inscription in all forms” composed of four elements: “erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” (xiii). The defects of sonic technology that become encoded in digital files are one such type of inscription. Tape hiss and other recording accidents–such as Casey Kasem ruining your attempt to tape record the first Western song you fell in love with after leaving Hong Kong by fading the outro and butting in with his banter–achieve repetition and survival during the digital encoding process, becoming a welcome reminder of time and place. Such materiality helps us to better understand the politics of diaspora. It clues us in to how the elements of textual encoding (erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability) become embedded within diaspora’s complex logic.
To think through these complex moments of exchange, let me offer a story about my experience with tape hiss. I grew up listening to music touched by this particular sonic grain: a ground level of noise upon which my sonic experiences were built. After I received my first iPod in 2005, I connected a tape player to the input of my computer, recorded a stack of tapes, and then manually split them into MP3s—pseudo-piracy committed in earnest. A few weeks ago, I dug up these same files and put them on my phone, once again returning the buried albums to their former glory on a constant rotation playlist. I keep returning to these particular files, rather than finding the now easily available digital versions, because I admire the survivability of their materiality. The materiality of these tracks allowed me to trace the complexity of my own history—the tape hiss is just as much a part of this history as the songs themselves.
After first moving to Canada from Hong Kong, my family and I established ourselves by unswervingly performing the same routine each weekend. We would have late lunch at our favorite dim sum restaurant, drive around for a bit, and then relax at home; there wasn’t much to do in the ex-urbs of Toronto. On those drives, we listened to selections from a stack of cassette tapes in the glovebox of our old Pontiac Bonneville. Sally Yeh’s 1987 album Blessing was on constant rotation and received its fair share of wear. This was one of the tapes I recorded to my computer, destined for digitization.
Because I hit the record button a few seconds early, my MP3 of Sally Yeh’s Blessing begins with a few seconds of silence. It’s enough to trick me into thinking that the song isn’t playing. In a quiet enough spot, I can hear that it’s actually tape hiss. No matter where I am, on the road or in the shower, my mind fills in the blank with the thick ker-chunk of the cassette entering that Pontiac stereo right before that familiar tape hiss would fill the car, always giving us a few sometimes-needed, sometimes-awkward moments of silence before the music started. The sonic texture of that tape stems from its material nature as plastic and metal. The hiss itself is due to the size of the magnetized particles on the plastic. Because of these sounds, the song tells its own story. It recalls our shared sonic and material experience as I migrate it from device to device.
Before Blessing made its way into our car, it was one of the few cassette tapes that my parents carefully packed into a dozen cardboard boxes and shipped by sea to Canada in the late 1980s. This was in the midst of the countrywide protests in China that led to the events at Tiananmen Square. That insistent ker-chunk of plastic on metal that my brain inserts every time I play the MP3s keeps my experience of the music grounded in this earlier history, too. Strange that a fluffy pop song would remind me of the serious political strife taking place on the doorstep of a Hong Kong nervously awaiting its “handover.” This sonic anchor’s ability to recall to me these snippets of history, both personal, national, and transpacific has been crucial in the development of my own diasporic identity. Listening to this particular recording of Blessing helps me to keep track of my self and my history.
The act of withdrawal that many of us perform in order to interface with our sonic technologies, as Alexander Weheliye shows in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Phonographies, can play a powerful role in understanding one’s own racial subjectivity. Weheliye focuses on the scene in which the titular narrator-protagonist retreats to a subterranean cave-like space to listen to Louis Armstong’s recorded, disembodied voice in complete solitude. He asserts that the narrator builds his own subjectivity through a recognition of the self by projecting that self onto Louis Armstrong’s “vocal apparatus,” that is, his voice coming through a phonograph (143). “The phonograph’s ability to disconnect the singing voice from its face, or rather to replace it with a technological visage, further heightens its materiality, which impels the protagonist to imbue Armstrong’s voice with a surplus of signification” (Weheliye 145).
More than a black and white photo or a stern historical lecture from the elders, the “heightened materiality” of the digital format, a type of “technological visage” cathects my own diasporic history most forcefully to the sonic anchor of tape hiss because it acts as a “voice without a face” in the same way as the phonographic Armstrong. But despite the privacy of the phonographic listening act in this scenario, Weheliye suggests that
the phonographic listening modality also bears the traces of sociality… since the listening subject is drawn out of him/herself by encountering the technologically mediated sounds of other subjects—we might even go so far as to suggest that the phonograph itself functions as a subject, especially in its interfacings with various humans. (165)
So it is with similar sonic technologies that can encourage the “eschewing [of] the social” such as iPhones, CDs, and, yes, cassette tapes. Like Ellison’s narrator interfacing with the mechanical apparatus that conveys Armstrong’s voice, the insistent “defects” kept on the digital file keep the mechanism of its delivery at the fore, allowing me first to understand that diasporic feeling of dis-ease—and to imagine beyond it.
What I gain from the digital yet still stubbornly material tape of Blessing is not any overt lyrical or thematic gesture to a diasporic subjectivity on the artist’s part, but rather an induction into what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (18), or perhaps a community based on “belonging itself” (84). Likewise, Weheliye’s “diasporic citizenship coarticulate[s] the national and transnational instead of playing a zero-sum game with political identification” (369). If diaspora is defined by the perpetual desire to seek an imagined originary point of true identity that inevitably leads to melancholy, as psychoanalysis maintains, tape hiss and other encoded materialities turn the gaze away from the mists of origin, validating instead the development of diasporic identity in the aftermath of emigration. Of course, loss and melancholy are legitimate psychic aspects of the diasporic experience, as persuasively demonstrated by scholars such as David Eng, Shinhee Han, Anne Anlin Cheng, but they neither define the whole experience nor are they mutually exclusive to it. It is in this way that we can think of diaspora as a community of belonging by becoming.
A consideration of the stubborn ways that materiality is encoded in the digital helps us to think of diaspora as more than psychic fait accompli—it is also a ‘coming community’ characterized by the process of belonging. Kirschenbaum’s matrix provides the right foundation for a study which considers how material inscriptions are related to our diasporic lives. The inscription that defined my diasporic becoming came from the cassette tape that travelled across the ocean in a boat for five weeks, escaped erasure, survived repeated playings, became digital, and lives on now as a hissing reminder of our history of emigration. What else may we find about our own becoming and belonging if we attune our ears to the encoded materialities of sonic diaspora?
Featured image “Decayed Cassette” by darkday @Flickr CC BY.
Chris Chien is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and his Honors B.A. in English Literature and Latin at the University of Toronto. Chris has presented papers on angelic gender fluidity in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and post-colonial affect in the work of Herman Melville and Amitav Ghosh at the Rocky Mountain MLA and South Atlantic MLA conferences respectively. He is currently developing a paper that examines the performativity of diaspora, masculinity, and the capitalist ethos in Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat and its adaptation as an ABC sitcom.
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