Can’t Nobody Tell Me Nothin: Respectability and The Produced Voice in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”

It’s been ten weeks now that we’ve all been kicking back in our Wranglers. allowing Lil Nas X’s infectious twang in “Old Town Road” to shower us in yeehaw goodness from its perch atop the Billboard Hot 100. Entrenched as it is on the pop chart, though, “Old Town Road”’s relationship to Billboard got off to a shaky start, first landing on the Hot Country Songs list only to be removed when the publication determined the hit “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that, and folks have been unpacking it quite consistently, especially in relation to notions of genre and race (in addition to Matthew Morrison’s recommended reads, I’d add Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s Segregating Sound, which traces the roots of segregated music markets). Using the context of that ongoing discussion about genre and race, I’m listening here to a specific moment in “Old Town Road”— the line “can’t nobody tell me nothin”—and the way it changes from the original version to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. Lil Nas X uses the sound of his voice in this moment to savvily leverage his collaboration with a country music icon, and by doing so subtly drawing out the respectability politics underlying Billboard’s racialized genre categorization of his song.

Screenshot, “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus”

After each of Lil Nas X’s two verses in the original “Old Town Road,” we hear the refrain “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” The song’s texture is fairly sparse throughout, but the refrains feature some added elements. The 808-style kick drum and rattling hihats continue to dominate the soundscape, but they yield just enough room for the banjo sample to come through more clearly than in the verse, and it plucks out a double-time rhythm in the refrain. The vocals change, too, as Lil Nas X performs a call-and-response with himself. The call, “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” is center channel, just as his voice has been throughout the verse, but the response, “can’t tell me nothin,” moves into the left and right speaker, a chorus of Lil Nas X answering the call.  Listen closely to these vocals, and you’ll also hear some pitch correction. Colloquially known as “autotune,” this is an effect purposely pushed to extreme limits to produce garbled or robotic vocals and is a technique most often associated with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Here, it’s applied to this melodic refrain, most noticeably on “nothin” in the call and “can’t” in the response,

After Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country chart in late March, country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted his support for “Old Town Road,” and by early April, Lil Nas X had pulled him onto the remix that would come to dominate the Hot 100. The Cyrus remix is straightforward: Cyrus takes the opening chorus, then Lil Nas X’s original version plays through from the first verse to the last chorus, at which point Cyrus tacks on one more verse and then sings the hook in tandem with Lil Nas X to close the song. Well, it’s straightforward except that, while Lil Nas X’s material sounds otherwise unaltered from the original version, the pitch correction is smoothed out so that the garble from the previous version is gone.

In order to figure out what happened to the pitch correction from the first to second “Old Town Road,” I’m bringing in a conceptual framework I’ve been tinkering with the last couple of years: the produced voice. Within this framework, all recorded voices are produced in two specific ways: 1) everyone performs their bodies in relation to gender, race, ability, sex, and class norms, and 2) everyone who sings on record has their voice altered or affected with various levels of technology. To think about a produced voice is to think about how voices are shaped by recording technologies and social technologies at the same time. Listening to the multiple versions of “Old Town Road” draws my attention specifically to the always collaborative nature of produced voices.

In performativity terms—and here Judith Butler’s idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” that “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body” (521) is crucial—a collaboratively produced voice is a little nebulous, as it’s not always clear who I’m collaborating with to produce my voice. Sometimes I can (shamefully, I assure you) recognize myself changing the way my voice sounds to fit into some sort of, say, gendered norm that my surroundings expect. As a white man operating in a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society, the deeper my voice sounds, the more authority adheres to me. (Well, only to a point, but that’s another essay). Whether I consciously or subconsciously make my voice deeper, I am definitely involved in a collaboration, as the frequency of my voice is initiated in my body but dictated outside my body. Who I’m collaborating with is harder to establish – maybe it’s the people in the room, or maybe my produced voice and your listening ears (read Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line for more on the listening ear) are all working in collaboration with notions of white masculine authority that have long-since been baked into society by teams of chefs whose names we didn’t record.

“Tools in a Recording Studio” by Flickr user Carol VanHook (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In studio production terms, a voice’s collaborators are often hard to name, too, but for different reasons. For most major label releases, we could ask who applied the effects that shaped the solo artist’s voice, and while there’s a specific answer to that question, I’m willing to bet that very few people know for sure. Even where we can track down the engineers, producers, and mix and master artists who worked on any given song, the division of labor is such that probably multiple people (some who aren’t credited anywhere as having worked on the song) adjusted the settings of those vocal effects at some point in the process, masking the details of the collaboration. In the end, we attribute the voice to a singular recording artist because that’s the person who initiated the sound and because the voice circulates in an individualistic, capitalist economy that requires a focal point for our consumption. But my point here is that collaboratively produced voices are messy, with so many actors—social or technological—playing a role in the final outcome that we lose track of all the moving pieces.

Not everyone is comfortable with this mess. For instance, a few years ago long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, while lamenting the role of technology in contemporary studio recordings, mentioned Adele as a singer whose voice may not be as great as it is made to sound on record. Adele responded by requesting that Visconti suck her dick. And though the two seemed at odds with each other, they were being equally disingenuous: Visconti knows that every voice he’s produced has been manipulated in some way, and Adele, too, knows that her voice is run through a variety of effects and algorithms that make her sound as epically Adele as possible. Visconti and Adele align in their desire to sidestep the fundamental collaboration at play in recorded voices, keeping invisible the social and political norms that act on the voice, keeping inaudible the many technologies that shape the voice.

Propping up this Adele-Visconti exchange is a broader relationship between those who benefit from social gender/race scripts and those who benefit from masking technological collaboration. That is, Adele and Visconti both benefit, to varying degrees, from their white femininity and white masculinity, respectively; they fit the molds of race and gender respectability. Similarly, they both benefit from discourses surrounding respectable music and voice performance; they are imbued with singular talent by those discourses. And on the flipside of that relationship, where we find artists who have cultivated a failure to comport with the standards of a respectable singing voice, we’ll also find artists whose bodies don’t benefit from social gender/race scripts: especially Black and Brown artistsnon-binary, women, and men. Here I’m using “failure” in the same sense Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure, where failing is purposeful, subversive. To fail queerly isn’t to fall short of a standard you’re trying to meet; it’s to fall short of a standard you think is bullshit to begin with. This kind of failure would be a performance of non-conformity that draws attention to the ways that systemic flaws – whether in social codes or technological music collaborations – privilege ways of being and sounding that conform with white feminine and white masculine aesthetic standards. To fail to meet those standards is to call the standards into question.

So, because respectably collaborating a voice into existence involves masking the collaboration, failing to collaborate a voice into existence would involve exposing the process. This would open up the opportunity for us to hear a singer like Ma$e, who always sings and never sings well, as highlighting a part of the collaborative vocal process (namely pitch correction, either through training or processing the voice) by leaving it out. To listen to Ma$e in terms of failed collaboration is to notice which collaborators didn’t do their work. In Princess Nokia’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled voice, spread carefully across the stereo field, we hear a fully exposed collaboration that fails to even attempt to meet any standards of respectable singing voices. In the case of the countless trap artists whose voices come out garbled through the purposeful misapplication of pitch correction algorithms, we can hear the failure of collaboration in the clumsy or over-eager use of the technology. This performed pitch correction failure is the sound I started with, Lil Nas X on the original lines “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” It’s one of the few times we can hear a trap aesthetic in “Old Town Road,” outside of its instrumental.

In each of these instances, the failure to collaborate results in the failure to achieve a respectably produced voice: a voice that can sing on pitch, a voice that can sing on pitch live, a voice that is trained, a voice that is controlled, a voice that requires no intervention to be perceived as “good” or “beautiful” or “capable.” And when respectable vocal collaboration further empowers white femininity or white masculinity, failure to collaborate right can mean failing in a system that was never going to let you pass in the first place. Or failing in a system that applies nebulous genre standards that happen to keep a song fronted by a Black artist off the country charts but allow a remix of the same song to place a white country artist on the hip hop charts.

The production shift on “can’t nobody tell me nothin” is subtle, but it brings the relationship between social race/gender scripts and technological musical collaboration into focus a bit. It isn’t hard to read “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” as “sounds too Black,” and enough people called bullshit on Billboard that the publication has had to explicitly deny that their decision had anything to do with race. Lil Nas X’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus puts Billboard in a really tricky rhetorical position, though. Cyrus’s vocalsmore pinched and nasally than Lil Nas X’s, with more vibrato on the hook (especially on “road” and “ride”), and framed without the hip hop-style drums for the first half of his versedraw attention to the country elements already at play in the song and remove a good deal of doubt about whether “Old Town Road” broadly comports with the genre. But for Billboard to place the song back on the Country chart only after white Billy Ray Cyrus joined the show? Doing so would only intensify the belief that Billboard’s original decision was racially motivated. In order for Billboard to maintain its own colorblind respectability in this matter, in order to keep their name from being at the center of a controversy about race and genre, in order to avoid being the publication believed to still be divvying up genres primarily based on race in 2019, Billboard’s best move is to not move. Even when everyone else in the world knows “Old Town Road” is, among other things, a country song, Billboard’s country charts will chug along as if in a parallel universe where the song never existed.

As Lil Nas X shifted Billboard into a rhetorical checkmate with the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, he also shifted his voice into a more respectable rendition of “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” removing the extreme application of pitch correction effects. This seems the opposite of what we might expect. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix is defiant, thumbing its nose at Billboard for not recognizing the countryness of the tune to begin with. Why, in a defiant moment, would Lil Nas X become more respectable in his vocal production? I hear the smoothed-out remix vocals as a palimpsest, a writing-over that, in the traces of its editing, points to the fact that something has been changed, therefore never fully erasing the original’s over-affected refrain. These more respectable vocals seem to comport with Billboard’s expectations for what a country song should be, showing up in more acceptable garb to request admittance to the country chart, even as the new vocals smuggle in the memory of the original’s more roboticized lines.

While the original vocals failed to achieve respectability by exposing the recording technologies of collaboration, the remix vocals fail to achieve respectability by exposing the social technologies of collaboration, feigning compliance and daring its arbiter to fail it all the same. The change in “Old Town Road”’s vocals from original to remix, then, stacks collaborative exposures on top of one another as Lil Nas X reminds the industry gatekeepers that can’t nobody tell him nothin, indeed.

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Featured image, and all images in this post: screenshots from “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” posted by YouTube user Lil Nas X

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Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

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SO! Reads: Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo

In Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s eminently readable history of the Walkman and its kind, it is telling to learn that Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita were prone to conversing in ‘something akin to a private shared language’ or idioglossia. “They would sit there,” recounts Morita’s eldest son, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying” (21).  In later life, following strokes, both lost the ability to speak; Ibuka’s son characterises their subsequent relationship as “communicating without words’.” Even the name Sony itself, notes Tuhus-Dubrow, with its origins in the Latin sonus and the English slang “sonny,” was ultimately “a word in no language’” (13).  It is as though aural perception, delivered on an intimate scale, is somehow revelatory in a way that transcends the typical organising principles of language. The incorporation of the sonic into everyday life forever approaches a kind of affective intensity.

Personal Stereo tunes into this frequency and – by virtue of its array of research and skilful marshalling of social and cultural history – offers a compelling map of its coordinates. If, as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, one of its central tasks is to apprehend the affective resonance of the inanimate, it is testament to Tuhus-Dubrow’s work that she is able to manage the breadth of her material into an adroit and concise narrative while at the same time allowing space for her writing to approach these contained moments of intensity. “When I think of [the Walkman] now, I think of joy,” she writes in the introduction (1). While acknowledging that undue celebration of the past can stymie the present, she offers a quietly persuasive case for an examination of nostalgia amid the anxiety of contemporary life, which almost serves as a rallying cry for a generation pinioned between the two: ‘The past, whatever its shortcomings, has the virtue of having already happened. And we survived it.’

As iTunes – like the glory of the world – passes into epilogue, it is again time to consider how we might frame obsolete technologies as echoes of a particular moment in our lives, anchored between progress and decay. As texts, they harbour a kind of degraded cartography: a summation of meaning and collapse.

The story of the Walkman begins in the bombed-out ruins of 1940s Tokyo, as Ibuka and Morita establish the foundations of the company that would become a consumer electronics giant as part of Japan’s ill-fated post-war boom. It is striking how much of the Walkman’s development was shaped by the ravages of warfare: Tuhus-Dubrow notes how its antecedent, the tape recorder, was first used in the German military, and early headphones were issued to fighter pilots. It is possible to read the subsequent commercial adoption of personal listening devices as an attempted refashioning of the domestic interior, transgressed so violently in acts of conflict. One of Ibuka’s founding principles for Sony was to “apply highly advanced technologies…developed in various sectors during the war to common households” (12).  Tuhus-Dubrow also recounts the case of Andreas Pavel, a native of post-war Berlin, who emigrated with his family to São Paulo and developed what we might term a “counter-prototype” to the Walkman, partly inspired by the internal acoustics of his mother’s home – “a mecca of sound” – in Cidade Jardim. Object lessons are formed through disintegration and salvaged materials. Morita compares his formative partnership with the older Ibuka to a newly-established familial unit: “It was almost as though an adoption were taking place” (13).

Akio Morita (left) and Masaru Ibuka (right), 1961. Courtesy of Sony

This elides neatly with Tuhus-Dubrow’s central chapter, which is also the strongest. Here, she discusses the reception of private listening within the public domain, and how existing societal norms apprehended this new sonic phenomenon. It is intriguing, and at times hilarious, how much of the reaction operates as moral critique: from a 1923 article comparing the very act of solo listening to alcohol abuse or a drug habit, to rather more recent takes that foreshadow the current intergenerational culture wars. “The personal stereo,” harrumphs A.N. Wilson, ‘became the archetypal accessory of the me-generation” (68).

Tuhus-Dubrow’s research is smart and on point, not least because it leads to a productive consideration of how the cathartic element of the private soundtrack becomes something that society struggles to assimilate. She takes to time to weave in personal testimonies and reminiscences that are effective and somehow touching: “the Walkman,” she admits, “was a source of elation and comfort” (85). A friend recalls how “[my] inner world was enriched by the freedom to explore music on my own” (84).  Pavel describes how the first use of his prototype, in the snows of St Moritz, evoked “a state of ecstasy,” in which life temporarily assumed a cinematic quality. “Suddenly,” he remembers, curiously switching to the present tense, “I’m inside a film” (27).

Darryl with a new Walkman, December 25, 1982, Image by Flickr User Kent Kanouse

Others speak of how musical accompaniment aids a more immersive interaction with the world around them, and it is here that perhaps the real strength of Tuhus-Dubrow’s work emerges: the generosity of an approach that permits mutual recognition; the summoning of an experiential quality that is elusive in its definition but vivid and immediate in its resonance. It is a mode of writing – and indeed a mode of listening – that is resolutely contemporary, formed in a firestorm of technological innovation that was both oppressive and liberatory, attuning us to new ways of being at the same time as it degrades and erodes old certainties.

It bears resemblance to what Tuhus-Dubrow recognises as “the logic of our own bodies, with organs and limbs whose motions are connected to their functions, and which are susceptible to injury and gradual breakdown” (102).  Earlier she writes, “as one song neared its end, I would begin to hear the opening chords of the next in my head.”

What is it, this sense of auditory anticipation?

It is the forming of new waves. We have blood in our ears.

Featured Image: “Walkman through the cassette” by Flicker User Narisa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Lewis Jones is a writer and itinerant based in Brighton, UK. He received an MA in Literature, Culture and Theory from the University of Sussex, having previously graduated in English Literature from the University of Winchester. He is interested in how artistic and aesthetic mediums might be used to develop new theoretical approaches to culture and society. He particularly likes urban spaces, as visual and auditory environments, and the intersections between music, movement and the body. He thinks that dancing about architecture is a perfectly valid exercise.

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SO! Podcast #76: F*** U Pay Us @ UC Riverside PunkCon

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADF*** U Pay Us @ UC Riverside PunkCon

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Sounding Out! was naturally curious about the amazing UC Riverside Punk Con–organized by Marlen Rios-Hernandez and Susana Sepulveda–and so we asked if we could listen in on some of the amazing conversations happening there. Fortunately the wonderful Mikaela Elson volunteered to be our ears on the ground and recorded this excellent keynote presentation by femme and them punk band FUPU (Fuck U Pay Us).

Mikaela chose to feature this keynote because of how they discuss how the voice can be used as a tool to undermine the white male patriarchy. In this talk they discuss how their music is used to cure the sting of a society that is anti-black and which thrives off of using power to suppress black folk, people of color, lgbtq+, disabled, and otherwise marginalized folk. BOOM!!!!

Featured image of FUPU borrowed from the UCR PunkCon site.

Mikaela Elson is a media and culture scholar from the University of California, Riverside. She also has an associates degree in art. She creates and documents underground media that stands in opposition to the mass media. Her work focuses on helping to facilitate representation for folks from marginalized communities. She is the personal assistant for graphic novelist and artist John Jennings and host of “Hybrid Virtue” a college radio show on KUCR 88.3fm. To learn more about Mikaela follow her on Instagram @thisismik_
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