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Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics



Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.


For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.

The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.

mozart-beethovenGalenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.

I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.

It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.

"Pop!Tech 2008 - Malcolm Gladwell" by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

“Pop!Tech 2008 – Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.

Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" video on YouTube

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” video on YouTube

Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley's video for "Hallelujah"

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley’s video for “Hallelujah”

That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”

Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.

The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”

Joe Mabel [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mabel [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.

Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.

Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

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 and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

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SO! Reads: Roshanak Khesti’s Modernity’s Ear


SO! Reads3“I drifted to another place and time,” reminisces drummer and musicologist Mickey Hart in his 2003 book about salvaging indigenous musical traditions, Songcatchers: In Search of the World’s Music. He continues, “Every day I rushed home, put on the sounds of the Pygmies [on the old RCA Victrola], and melted into their very being.” For the Grateful Dead drummer and world music producer, this experience of disorientation would eventually shape his transformation into a “songcatcher,” or one who seeks to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of indigenous music. In Modernity’s Ear: Race and Gender in World Music, author Roshanak Kheshti interrogates the “origin myth” presented by Hart, along with other collective fantasies and historical narratives that urge listening to world music. She argues that we must look beyond the political and economic exploitation of actual musicians to consider the economy of desire in which the conditions of possibility for such exploitation are formed. In contrast to a critical discourse on musical appropriation and exploitation among ethnomusicologists, one that Martin Stokes acknowledges is “marked by an anxious awareness of complexity and complicity” with world music (835), Kheshti deftly tunes into racialized and gendered yearnings for the recorded sounds of others.


Sounds in bodies

Crucial to Kheshti’s argument is her radical proposition for what occurs as, to briefly return to Hart’s aural memories, the sounds of others “melt” into our “very being.” In a crucial maneuver that focuses on how what is being heard is shaped by the embodied experience of listening, Kheshti proposes that “the object [of listening] becomes a part of the self by being taken into the body” (41). Thus when “sound, the listener’s body, escape, and affect fold into one another” (54-56) in the act of listening (a Derrida-derived encounter that Kheshti dubs “invagination”), selfhood is performatively constituted through the aural other. Moreover, the pleasure of imagining the other through listening, writes Kheshti, is not only the hegemonic form of listening within the world music industry but an experience of desire that Western media markets have historically capitalized upon.


“Whispers” by Flickr user Nicola Colella, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Given the ways in which listening embodies an economy of desire, Kheshti tells the history of this libidinal economy through a narrative in which modern selfhood is constructed through the racialized and gendered aural other. The Godzilla in this narrative is the World Music Culture Industry (WMCI), an entity conjured by Kheshti in reference to the historical juncture of comparative musicologists in the early twentieth century with the popular music recording industry, a coupling that she argues spawned the globalized product of modern media known as world music. As a set of hybrid musical practices designed by and large for Western media markets, world music is the key object of her inquiry (in contrast to the diversity of musical practices worldwide).


The imagined listener

songcatcher-coverThough the book does not proceed chronologically, the first chapter seeks to interweave memory with history by opening with the early twentieth century. Stressing the pioneering role of white female sound archivists, this chapter is crucial for setting up the historical significance of the feminization of listening, a process familiar to readers of Jonathan Sterne, Louise Michele Newman, and William Howland Kenney. Kheshti puts Songcatcher (2000), a feature film about a fictional comparative musicologist who dives into Appalachian country and “discovers” Scottish and Irish ballads thought to have gone extinct, into conversation with the iconic images of Frances Densmore, an ethnologist affiliated with the Bureau of American Ethnology in the 1910s, who famously staged phonographic recordings of the Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief (Nin-Na-Stoko). The point of convergence between these materials is the gendered and racialized politics of who was sent where to record whose sounds: white female sound archivists, spurned by their male colleagues and sent to the periphery of their respective fields to practice their craft. Once in the field, these comparative musicologists, one fictional and one real, committed acts of racial appropriation and erasure. The song catcher deracinates Appalachia by stripping the region of its Native American and African-American histories in favor of the ‘collective origin fantasy’ that links European and American genealogies, while Densmore, among others, domesticates indigenous sounds in her work for the Bureau.


Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief. Picture by Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The very presence of these upwardly mobile women in the sonic-social worlds that they listen to leaves a trace on their phonographic recordings. These aural traces, Kheshti contends, mark the processes of settler colonialism and salvage ethnography by which indigenous bodies are subjected and made subject through phonographic recording techniques (what she calls ‘phonographic subjectivity’), and in particularly gendered and racialized ways. Kheshti traces the performative effects of these aural traces on contemporary world music in her fieldwork with a Bay area world music label in the early 2000s. In particular, she reveals that the target listener for contemporary world music is white and female, and, that this fact is an apparent truism among music executives, or at least the executive who she worked for. This revelation is the cornerstone for Kheshti’s unfolding of the aurality of this figure, the white female listener of contemporary world music.

Though the book tends to favor intensive re-readings of critical and psychoanalytic theory (from Adorno and Benjamin to Freud and Lacan) over thick ethnographic description, Kheshti touches upon key encounters in this culture industry to explain how listening to world music engenders modernity’s ear. For instance, she transcribes segments from a radio show in Northern California in which the host, a middle-aged white female, discusses what constitutes “African rhythms” with a record label executive. The two banter about this misnomered subject for some length. The host interprets what she is hearing as “African rhythms coming through.” Her visitor, an expert in world music, affirms and clarifies this attribution: “Yeah, absolutely. The rhythm on this particular song… is from a style of music called Afro-beat… that rhythm you’re hearing is definitely African, so, you don’t know nothing, you’re learning” (52). Kheshti interprets this banter as an example of how world music listeners “cherish” the experience of listening to sonic difference as a moment to live out “fantasy and imaginative play” (54), in other words, that the pleasures experienced through aurality have become definitive of twentieth-century modernity.


“world music 2” by Flickr user wayne marshall, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In other chapters, she details how record labels fulfill this fantasy through the production of hybrid sound media. The orchestration of these sounds in the studio not only enables the listener to feel “lost” and transcend the contingencies of the listening event, they also “pronounce and suppress presences and absences of all sorts of bodies and grains” (77). Drawing on phenomenological descriptions of her own listening experiences as well as liner notes and other commercial media, she describes how non-Western sounds are encoded as feminine, whereas the synthetic production and digital manipulation of sounds are rendered techno-logically modern and masculine.  Racialized and feminized bodies are put to work in constituting the modern cosmopolitan listener. Furthermore, Kheshti argues that market mobility and aesthetic mobility are gendered male and alterity is gendered female in ways that link, for her, to miscegenation. The listening self reproduces dominant forms of heteronormativity in the consumption of modern sound media.

The listening self reproduces dominant forms of heteronormativity in the consumption of modern sound media.

Kheshti offers a radical alternative to these normative listening practices by turning to field recordings taken by Zora Neale Hurston between 1933 and 1939. Trained by Franz Boas in the traditions of nascent cultural anthropology, Hurston is kin to Densmore and those who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology a few decades earlier. Like them, she goes to record America’s aural others, or “black folk.” But unlike her white foremothers, Hurston does not attempt to splice out the “noise” of the recordings. She “refuses fidelity” (126). Instead of staging field recordings, she made studio recordings of herself performing songs and discussing rituals. When recording her interlocutors, she interrupts, interjects, and poses directorial cues that Kheshti reads as an attempt to resist the desire to faithfully (re)produce an archive of phonographic subjects.

Zora Neale Hurston with Musicians

ca. June 1935, Eatonville, Florida, USA — Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston sitting on a porch in Eatonville, Florida with two musicians, Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown. — Image from Stuff Mom Never Told You

Recommended for advanced graduate students and faculty, this virtuosic and tightly rehearsed tour through critical and psychoanalytic theory offers an ambitious and groundbreaking retake on an industry that we thought we understood, perhaps too intimately. Kheshti asks her readers to hold themselves accountable to their own forms of aural pleasure. In so doing, she offers a fresh perspective on the role of embodiment in relation to knowledge production. Rather than embracing somatic methods of inquiry as a welcome challenge to inductive reasoning, she argues that taking pleasure in listening enables the commodification of desire that sustains the world music culture industry.

Kheshti shifts the discussion of world music qua music (aesthetics, history, representation) towards issues of alterity and sound. As such, this book contributes to sound studies by holding the field accountable for difference, and, by inscribing this accountability within the history of the field itself. Indeed, Modernity’s Ear is about how the forces of desire that constitute the modern listening self are enveloped in the aural other as phonographic subject.

Featured image: “ear” by Flickr user Leo Reynolds, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shayna Silverstein is an assistant professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her research generally examines the performative processes of politics, culture, and society in relation to sound and movement in the contemporary Middle East. Her current book project examines the performance tradition of Syrian dabke as a means for the strategic contestation of social class, postcolonial difference, and gender dynamics in contemporary Syria. She has contributed to peer-reviewed journals and several anthologies including The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, and Modernity, Islam and Popular Culture, the Sublime Frequencies Companion, and Syria: From Reform to Revolt. Previously a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Penn Humanities Forum, Shayna received her PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago and her BA in History from Yale University.

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Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice” — Toniesha L. Taylor

Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics



This beat ‘bout to get murdered

Thought this was Future when I heard it

Uncle Murda (“Panda” remix)

Desiigner sounds kinda like Future. Probably you’ve noticed? Everyone else has. While some reactions are a register of genuine surprise that “Panda” isn’t a Future song (cf Uncle Murda epigraph), many are a combination of reflexive skepticism about Desiigner’s authenticity (He’s never even been to Atlanta!!)–or even the authenticity of New York as a hip hop city–alongside a sort of schadenfreude over his ability to notch a higher rated song than Future has ever managed (“Panda” hit #1 for two weeks in May 2016). This latter observation is certainly true: Southern trap god Future has cracked the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 just once, as a featured artist on Lil Wayne’s “Love Me,” and his other appearances in the top 30 are similarly collaboration. (My discussion of trap focuses here on the hip hop wing of trap. The related but not identical EDM genre also called “trap” lies outside the scope of this particular analysis.) But pointing to the chart “failure” of Future’s singles is also entirely disingenuous, as all four of his official album releases have landed in the Billboard 200 top 10, including a #1 for 2015’s DS2 and 2016’s EVOL. In other words, Future isn’t exactly struggling to be relevant, which is why the nearly reflexive journalistic pairing of “Desiigner sounds like Future” and “Desiigner’s song is more successful than any Future song” gets my critical side-eye popping. The reception of Desiigner as a fake-but-more-successful Future strikes me as a dig at trap music as an easily replicable and therefore unserious genre. Here, I’m listening closely to the ways Desiigner’s vocals sound like Future as an entry point to trap’s political work: a sonic aesthetics of dis-organized polity, of sonic blackness in a post-racial society that I call trap irony.


Sounds Like Future

Though I’ve found several instances of writers comparing Desiigner to Future, that comparison usually includes little detailed support about the Future-istic elements of Desiigner’s sound. There are a number of sonic cues in “Panda” that could lead listeners to mistake the singer for Future, but I’m going to focus on the most obvious similarity: Desiigner’s recorded vocals share timbral and affective similarities to some of Future’s recorded vocals. When critics say Desiigner sounds like Future, the vocals are likely their main point of reference, so I’ve identified five points of sonic similarity between Desiigner and Future.


  1. Desiigner’s voice on “Panda” is detuned, resonating slightly off pitch with the instrumental, a technique so common in Future songs that I could link to any number of examples. Here are four, all released in the last two years, as a representative sample: “Stick Talk,” “Where Ya At (feat. Drake),” “March Madness,” and “Codeine Crazy.”
  2. Second, Desiigner delivers his vocals with a flat affect, conveying little emotion through inflection. Listen to the sections in the video above where he repeats the word “panda” [0:33-39, 1:38-46, 2:44-52, 3:51-58]. These repetitions precede each verse and then punctuate the end of the song. Rhythmically they signal what should be a turn-up— a run of at least a measure’s worth of eighth notes just before the full beat drops. But Desiigner’s recitation is emotionless, each instance of the word sounding just like the last. Throughout the rest of the song, if a listener didn’t understand the words, it would be hard to guess what Desiigner is rapping about based on any emotive signals. Love? Aggression? Loss? The vocal performance is reportorial, dispassionate. Future adopts a similar technique in up-tempo songs. His repetition of the words “jumpman” (1:08-10) and “noble” (1:28-30) in “Jumpman” and the word “wicked” (0:13-24) in “Wicked” provide parallels to Desiigner’s recitation of “panda.” And in “Ain’t No Time,” Future delivers lines about his clothes and money as casually as he predicts his enemies ending up outlined in chalk (0:13-26); just as in “Panda,” a listener who didn’t catch the lyrics to “Ain’t No Time” wouldn’t be able to attach any particular emotional content to the song.
  3. Speaking of not catching lyrics, Desiigner and Future are both notoriously mushmouths: enunciation is optional. A number of online videos and fluff posts revolve around the fact that it’s hard to make out what Desiigner or Future is saying.
  4. Both Desiigner’s and Future’s performed voices seem to sit low in their registers, produced by opening the backs of their throats and elongating their vocal chords. For context, both artists seem to speak in the same register their recorded vocals fall in, and each is also likely to perform their vocals a little higher in a live setting.
  5. The bulk of “Panda”’s verses are in “Migos flow.” Named for the ATL trap trio who popularized it in their song, “Versace,” Migos flow is a triplet figure that rises from low to high, 3-1-2 (where 1 is the downbeat). The first twenty seconds of the “Versace” link above is a constant string of Migos flow. It’s pervasive throughout “Panda,” but 0:49-52 stacks two Migos flow lines back-to-back. Future’s verse on Drake’s “Digital Dash” (0:18-2:00) is a good example of an extended Migos flow.

In other words, Desiigner does sound like Future in some significant ways. But that’s not all he sounds like. Detuned vocals isn’t just a Future thing. Adam Krims theorizes this as part of the “hip hop sublime,” and it’s especially common among Southern rappers (for example, Young Jeezy sounded like Future before Future even did) (73-74). Many trap artists rap in a way that confounds efforts to understand what they’re saying; Young Thug, for instance, employs a vocal style distinct from Future and Desiigner but is equally difficult to understand. And the Migos flow, as partially demonstrated in this video, is not Future’s (or Migos’s) proprietary style. It’s been adopted by several (especially Southern) rappers, most recently in conjunction with trap. The elements I describe in the previous paragraph point to some specific ways Desiigner sounds like Future, which in turn points to ways that Desiigner sounds, more broadly, like trap.

The “Panda” beat, which comes from UK producer Menace, bears this out. Southern trap, as can be heard by surveying the songs linked above, features instrumentals with deep, tuned kick drums, usually dry 808 snares, high and bright synth lines, and punctuation from low brass and strings (0:40-1:33 in “Panda,” for the latter). This low/high frequency spread, with the mid-range mostly open, characterizes a good deal of trap music; the freed mid-range leaves more room for the bass to be amplified to soul-rattling levels without crowding out the rest of the instrumental. Also, one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates (for instance, Metro Boomin’s hats at 0:16 in the aforementioned “Digital Dash” rattle but good when the full beat drops). Here’s the thing about “Panda,” though: those hats don’t rattle. Instead, they enter oh-so-quietly at 1:06 and bang out a steady eighth note pattern punctuated with a crash cymbal on every fourth beat until the end of the verse.

"Hi-Hat!" by Flickr user Justin S. Campbell, CC BY-ND 2.0

Sounds Like Trap

The missing hihats are an important piece of “Panda”’s sonic puzzle, and point to some broader observations about trap aesthetics as politics, what I’m calling trap irony. Trap music moves through society in ways it shouldn’t. The image of the trap is a house with only one way in and out, yet trap aesthetics produce a music that seems to constantly find a secret exit, a path not offered, a way around established norms. Materially, the bulk of trap music circulates through and out of Atlanta on mixtapes, beyond the purview of major record labels and, in part because it isn’t controlled by labels, at an astonishing rate—for instance, from January 2015-February 2016, Future released four mixtapes and two official albums. Moreover, trap reverberates as sonic blackness in a society whose mainstream has been explicitly peddling a post-racial ideology for nearly a decade. Trap aesthetics become trap politics.

"I made you a mixtape" by Flickr user badjonni, CC BY-SA 2.0

“I made you a mixtape” by Flickr user badjonni, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sonic blackness, as Nina Sun Eidsheim defines it and as Regina Bradley has expanded it, is the interplay of vocal timbre and current norms about what constitutes blackness; it’s a moving target that nonetheless shapes and is shaped by a society’s notions of race and racialization (Eidsheim, 663-64). In the case of trap, I argue that its sonic blackness is apparent in the context of post-racial ideology. Post-race politics depends on the notion that racism has ended and that race doesn’t matter anymore. In this framework, as Jared Sexton argues in Amalgamation Schemes, multiracialism, the blending of many races together until distinct racial backgrounds are purportedly indecipherable, becomes the ideal. The problem Sexton finds with multiracialism as a discourse is that it doesn’t account for the historical racial hierarchies that institutionalize whiteness as ideal; rather, multiracialism “is a tendency to neutralize the political antagonism set loose by the critical affirmation of blackness” (65).

Trap irony describes the way trap picks up recognizable markers of hip hop blackness (urban spaces, violence, drugs, sexual voracity, conspicuous consumption) so that its existence becomes an affirmation of blackness in a post-racial milieu. In fact, ironies abound in trap. Kemi Adeyemi has written about the use of lean, the codeine-based concoction of choice for many Dirty Southern rappers, as “generat[ing] productively intoxicated states that counter the violent realities of a particularly black everyday life” (first emphasis mine). LH Stallings has argued for the hip hop strip club — trap’s home away from home — to be understood as an always already queer space despite its surface heteronormativity. I’ve elsewhere used Stallings’s “black ratchet imagination” to think about party politics in the south, the way a group like Rae Sremmurd use party music as a refusal to produce and re-produce for the benefit of whiteness. The flat affect of rappers like Desiigner and Future is a similar shirking of emotional labor; where an artist like Kendrick Lamar brings fire and brimstone, Future shows up with dispassionate Autotune warble. Intoxicated but productive, heteronormative but queer, partying but political, affected but flat: in each case, we can hear trap irony navigating the complex assemblages of blackness in a purportedly post-racial society.

The last piece of the “Panda” puzzle is another trap irony, the sonification of a dis-organized polity, a bloc that doesn’t voice its interests as one. Listening to “Panda,” it’s hard to notice that the rattling hihat, integral to so much ATL trap, is missing. That’s because Desiigner vocalizes it himself. Throughout the track, he adds a handful of background vocals that trigger at seemingly random points. Unlike the flat affect of his flow, Desiigner’s vocal ad-libs are full of energy, as if he’s egging himself on. One of these vocals is “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrah,” a tongue roll of varying lengths that replaces the missing hihat rattle. Listen back to the other trap songs I’ve linked in this essay, or check out nearly any track from trap artists like Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, or Kevin Gates, and you’ll hear the pervasiveness of the hyped trap background vocals.

Screenshot of Desiigner’s performance at the 2016 BET Awards, June 26, 2016

Trap background vocals, like the aesthetics, politics, and economy of trap itself, is a messy business. Desiigner’s background vocals on “Panda” move in meter and sometimes lock into a sequence, but he triggers enough different ones at unexpected moments that a listener can’t know exactly what sound to expect next nor when it will occur. Desiigner sounds like Future, which is to say he sounds like trap, which is to say he sounds like blackness, and his background vocals, which he turns up loud, are emblematic of the aesthetics and politics of trap. Trap irony means that a genre that renders blackness audible in 2016 does so not through a multiracial neutralization of the critical affirmation of blackness, but by setting loose a disparate set of recognizably black voices sounding from all directions, rattling across the soundscape, routing themselves through any path that doesn’t lead to the designated entry/exit point of the trap.

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 and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

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Slow, Loud, and Bangin’: Paul Wall talks “slab god” sonics–Doug Doneson

The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop“–Regina Bradley

Tomahawk Chopped and Screwed: The Indeterminacy of Listening“–Justin Burton

This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom


Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted? Can you imagine what that would sound like?–Prince, in a 2015 interview by Smokey D. Fontaine

Prince leaves an invitingly “messy” catalog—a musical cosmos, really—just as rich for those who knew it well as for those encountering it with fresh ears. He avoided interviews like he avoided conventions. He made few claims. Read him as you will.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Yes, art is open, and perhaps Prince’s art especially. And yet many eulogies have described him as indescribable, as if he were untethered by the politics of his world; he wasn’t. Some remembrances assume (or imagine) that Prince was so inventive that he could escape stultifying codes and achieve liberation, both as musician and human being.  For example, Prince has often been called “transcendent”—of race, of musical genre, even of humanity itself.  This is overstated; he was rooted in all of these. Better to say, maybe, that he was a laureate of many poetics, some musical and some not. He responded to race, genre, and humanity, all things that he and we are stuck with. He was a living artwork, and these, by way of sound, were his media.

Prince was not transcendent. He was just too much for some to assimilate.

little prince

Since Prince’s passing last month, I’ve been struck by the idea that his career might have been, deliberately or not, an elaborate quotation of the career of Little Richard, who anachronistically has outlived him. Or, a sonic version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “signifyin(g)” in the African American artistic tradition in The Signifying Monkey: repetition with a difference, a re-vision—and, especially appropriate here—a riffing (66). Both Prince and Richard in their way defined rock music, even as rock—as a canonized form—held them at a distance. They were simultaneously rock’s inventive engine and its outer margins, but never, seemingly, its core—at least from the perspective of its self-appointed gatekeepers.


Rock and race have, to put it mildly, an awkward history. African-American rock artists rarely get their due from labels and taste-making outlets, in money or posterity, a phenomenon not at all limited to the well-known pinching of Elvis and Pat Boone. One might consider, for example, Maureen Mahon’s anthropology of the Black Rock Coalition, a group home to Greg Tate, Living Colour, and others dwelling on rock’s periphery. Canons are one way to understand how this denial works.

To be sure, some black artists have been canonized in rock, but always with a handicap, as Jack Hamilton has explained lucidly. In, for example, best-of lists (which I have browsed obsessively since Prince died, as if enshrinement there might confirm something about him; he is usually #40 or #50), there are only so many slots of color: Hendrix is the black guitar god; Little Richard the sexual sentinel rising in a repressed era; James Brown the lifeline to funk; Big Mama Thornton the grandmaternal footnote. Best-of lists published by major magazines and websites such as Rolling Stone and VH1, tend to name about 70% white artists, as well as 90-95% male ones. These lists have become just a smidgen more inclusive in the past decade or so. Still, only the Beatles and Rolling Stones are regular contenders to be named history’s greatest rock band.

We are free to interpret greatness, but not too free.

For those who care about lists enough to comment on them, much of the point is in the arguing, the freedom to declare an opinion that cannot be challenged on logical grounds. I certainly wouldn’t argue for more “correct” best-of lists, either for aesthetics or inclusivity. Lists have every right to be subjective. But they are also fascinatingly unmoored by any explicit standard for judgment. As a result, the debates that surround their ordering are full of unvarnished pronouncements of truth (and falsity), even for those who acknowledge the subjectivity of lists, which I observed first hand as I joined and posted on a Beatles forum and an Eagles forum to research this article (“…putting the Police and the Doors ahead of the Eagles is absurd, IMHO”). But why would anyone declare certainty about a question such as the best rock artist of all time, when it is so plainly open to personal interpretation?

Yes, lists are subjective. But who are the subjects that invest in them?


Prince’s career began in the late 1970s, a musical moment deeply reflective of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”  The Beatles were gone after the 1960s and guitar music stood under their long shadow. Led Zeppelin were bloated and breaking up. Disco was in ascent. Rock had somehow convinced itself that it was neither rooted in nor anchored by queer, female, and racially marked bodies, as it indeed was and in fact had always been. White male rock critics and fans were busily constructing the “rock canon” as a citadel—impenetrable to “four on the floor beats” and diva-styled vocals—and there was nothing in its blueprint to suggest that there would be a door for someone like Prince.

Just one month after Prince finished recording his breakthrough, self-titled album in July 1979—the record gave us “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You,” which Chaka Khan would take to chart topping heights in 1984—Chicago “shock jock” Steve Dahl staged an infamous event at Comiskey Park called Disco Demolition Night. The fascistic spectacle, which took place between games of a White Sox doubleheader, asked fans to bring disco records, which would be demolished in an explosion and ensuing bonfire on the field.

It was a release of pent-up frustration and a wild-eyed effort to rid the world of the scourge of disco, which many listeners felt had displaced rock with plastic rhythms, as Osvaldo Oyola discussed in a 2010 SO! post “Ain’t Got the Same Soul,” a discussion of Bob Seger, who famously sang in 1979, “Don’t try to take me to a disco/you’ll never even get me out on the floor.” Excited, drunk defenders of the “rock canon” rioted around the fire. The nightcap was cancelled.

These are the subjects who invest in lists.

Many who witnessed the event, both in person and on television, experienced its personal, racially charged, and violent implications. Aspiring DJ Vince Lawrence, who worked as an usher at the Disco Demolition Night game, was later interviewed for a BBC documentary entitled Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music: [see 9:00-10:15 of the clip below]:

It was more about blowing up all this ‘nigger music’ than, um, you know, destroying disco. Strangely enough, I was an usher, working his way towards his first synthesizer at the time, what I noticed at the gates was people were bringing records and some of those were disco records and I thought those records were kinda good, but some of them were just black records, they weren’t disco, they were just black records, R&B records. I should have taken that as a tone for what the attitudes of these people were. I know that nobody was bringing Metallica records by mistake. They might have brought a Marvin Gaye record which wasn’t a disco record, and that got accepted and blown up along with Donna Summer and Anita Ward, so it felt very racial to me.

Lawrence notes that blackness was, for rock’s canonizers, part of a mostly inseparable bundle of otherness that also included queer people, among others. Although the disco backlash is often regarded as mainly homophobic, in fact it points to even deeper reservoirs of resentment and privilege.

When music companies decided to mass-market the black, queer sound of disco, they first called it “disco-rock”; two words that American audiences eventually ripped apart, or demolished, perhaps. Black and queer people—and women too, of all races and sexualities—represented the hordes outside of rock’s new citadel, whose walls were made from the Beatles’ cheeky jokes, Mick’s rooster-strut, Robert Plant’s cucumber cock, and Elvis’s hayseed hubris.

Little Richard, for example, was black and queer like disco; what to do with him? His drummer invented the straight eight rhythm, perhaps the genre’s most enduring motif. Here’s Little Richard was rock incarnate, total frenetic energy; Richard’s brilliant, singular approach to the piano  would launch a thousand rock tropes in imitation. But in canonization he could only be the nutrient-rich soil of rock—say, #36 on a best-of list—never its epitome, somehow.

I don’t know if Prince—a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, who came of age in the volatile Midwestern American milieu of white disco demolitions AND underground black electronic music culture—cared to consider this history, but he floated in it. He effectively signified on Little Richard not so much by quoting his music (though he owed a debt to him just like everyone who played rock), but by reproducing his position in the music industry. He was a queer noncomformist, never in the business of explaining himself, obsessed with control, whose blackness became a way of not flinching in the face of an industry that would never embrace him, anyway.



I interpret Prince’s musical personae as queer, not in the sense of inversion, as the anti-disco folks had it, but as a forever-exploration of sexual life. Prince’s queerness was not, strictly speaking, like Little Richard’s, but Prince took it on as an artistic possibility nonetheless. If Richard dwelled on this particular fringe as a consequence of his body, his desires, and the limits of social acceptance and religious conviction, Prince chose it as his identity. But Prince also lived and worked within limits of morality and, also like Little Richard, religion.


Image by Flickr User Ann Althouse, 2007

Touré writes in a New York Times obit of Prince’s “holy lust,” the “commingling” of sexuality and spirituality. Jack Hamilton writes of the doubt and moral uncertainty that coursed through songs like “Little Red Corvette.” Holy lust is arguably the central pursuit of rock; the term “rock and roll” is etymologically linked either to intercourse or worship, appropriately, emerging in both cases from African-American vernacular. Prince’s queer play with sex, sexuality identity, and religion is as rock and roll as it gets.


As punk sputtered, Simon Reynolds writes in Rip it Up and Start Again, funk appeared to rock fans as a racially tinged, politically and sexually charged savior. Bass, the heart of funk, was key to punk becoming post-punk around 1980. The instrument was suddenly charged with new symbolic and structural importance. During the same period, it is remarkable how many of Prince’s songs either have no bass, or rework bass’s role entirely. “When Doves Cry,” from Purple Rain (1984), Prince’s 6th studio album, is the best-known example of an ultra-funky track that withholds bass entirely, but “Kiss” lacks it, too, as well as “Darling Nikki.”

Earlier on Purple Rain, the bass on “Take Me with U” plays almost as a drone, buzzing like a minimalist’s organ.“Kiss,”from 1986’s Parade and Prince’s second-biggest hit yet only #464 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Timeis so tight, so locked in, so populated by alluring timbres that suggest an alien plane of instrumentation, that you forget it’s even supposed to have bass by rock top 40 convention. On much of 1980’s Dirty Mind, it is difficult to know which carefully tweaked synthesizer tone is supposed to index the bass, if any. Prince’s funk was even funkier for being counterintuitive, as Questlove notes. This gesture wasn’t rejection, of course, it didn’t “transcend” funk. Prince was still playing inarguably funky music, and the lack of bass is so unusual that it’s almost even more apparent in its absence. Free, but not too free.


Prince approached rock iconicity much as he approached bass, which is to say that he embraced clichés, but performed them inside-out, calling attention to them as both limits and possibilities, as constraint and freedom. “Raspberry Beret,” from 1985’s Around the World in a Day, is a boppy “girl group” song with sly allusions to anal sex, that uses exotic instruments and is written in an obscure mode. The virtuosic riff on “When Doves Cry,” instead of going where guitar solos go, comes right at the beginning of the track, before the drums, both seemingly isolated from the rest of the song and yet heralding it, too.

All of this worked very well, of course. His songs are just idiomatic enough to give listeners a foothold, but brave enough to evoke a world well beyond idiom. In retrospect, this is precisely what Little Richard had done. This is also what Hendrix and George Clinton and Tina Turner and OutKast have done, from where they rock out—way beyond the citadel, mastering many idioms, then extending them, at once codifying and floating away from genre.

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Prince’s career calls back to the personal and artistic concerns, as well as the innovations, of Little Richard and other artists’ sonic expressions of blackness that both built rock’s house and sounded out the tall, white walls of the citadel that would exclude them. All of these artists, I suspect, find little point to hanging out near the citadel’s gates; there are other, funkier places to live. Prince himself was perfectly comfortable working athwart Warner Brothers, the press, stardom. He did more than fine.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Creative as he was, he lived in his time; he was no alien. The greatest testament to his genius is not that he escaped the world, nor that he rendered a new musical landscape from scratch, but rather that he worked in part with rock’s sclerotic structural materials to create such beautiful and fluid work.

Featured Image by Peter Tea, July 12, 2011, under Creative Commons license No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral

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Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs–Maria Chaves

Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs-Tim Anderson

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic-Imani Kai Johnson

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka–Kristin Moriah

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