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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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Pop’s Chill Thrills Aren’t So Cheap-Robin James

Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics-Justin D. Burton

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

Sounding Out! Podcast #58: The Meaning of Silence


CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADThe Meaning of Silence



In this podcast Marcella Ernest discusses the cultural use of sound in Hula and other Native languages with discussants Candace Gala and Nancy Marie Mithlo. They consider the role of silence in understand an Indigenous intellectual system. How do we use silence as a tool in Native creative processes? What does silence demand from us? Tune in as Ernest tackles these demanding questions!


Candace Gala, PhD, The University of British Columbia, Language and Literacy Education

Nancy Marie Mithlo, PhD, Occidental College, Art History and Visual Arts

Marcella Ernest is a Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar. Her work combines electronic media with sound design with film and photography in a variety of formats; using multi-media installations incorporating large-scale projections and experimental film aesthetics. Currently living in California, Marcella is completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Drawing upon a Critical Indigenous Studies framework to explore how “Indianness” and Indigenity are represented in studies of American and Indigenous visual and popular culture, her primary research is an engagement with contemporary Native art to understand how members of colonized groups use a re-mix of experimental video and sound design as a means for cultural and political expressions of resistance.

Featured image “Silenced” by János Csongor Kerekes @Flickr CC BY-SA

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Sounding Out! Podcast #57: The Reykjavik Sound Walk – Andrew J. Salvati

Sounding Out! Podcast #47: Finding the Lost Sounds of Kaibah — Marcella Ernest

Sounding Out! Podcast #51: Creating New Worlds From Old Sounds – Marcella Ernest

Pop’s Chill Thrills Aren’t So Cheap


Just a year ago, Soundcloud and YouTube were teeming with maximalist EDM remixes of Top 40 pop songs, like R3HAB’s early summer 2015 mix of Rihanna’s “BBHMM”. The remix is packed full of amped-up musical gestures. It drops 30 seconds in, has a huge 15 second soar from 2:30-2:45 and some loud distorted treble synth, and the up-pitched vocals underscore just how much R3HAB sped up the tempo. Fast forward a year to May and June 2016, where maximalist banger remixes are hard to find. Outside of EDM Trap, which continues to focus on the turn up (e.g., this R3HAB & Henry Fong remix of Calvin Harris & Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For”) nobody’s really pushing songs to be more intense by amping up their tension-release structures. Instead, the remixes are simmering down; even R3HAB chills out a bit with his 2016 remix of Rihanna’s “Work,” which holds off its first drop for more than a minute, and when it does it only soars for five seconds. R3HAB isn’t the only one on the charts bringing it down a couple notches; the lyrics and the breezily tropical music in Seeb’s remix of Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” is a Dear John letter with brostep-fueled EDM, and it was huge in spring 2016. It topped the UK Singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100, and the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart–so it’s safe to assume it’s tracking a common and popular aesthetic.



Why have producers toned down the tension-release? There are definitely aesthetic reasons: pop presents new styles as it evolves. But there’s also an underlying political reason. In neoliberalism, our political economy (with its structure of subjectivity) requires people to take on a lot of risk. That’s what entrepreneurs do: they make a bet, and the riskier the bet, the bigger the potential reward. For example, as formerly public services get privatized, individuals assume risk that social welfare programs once insured against: college students take on tons of debt in the hope of finding a decent job, defined-benefit pensions disappear in favor of stock-market based retirement plans, and so on.

While YOLO-style maximalism celebrated that risk-taking, people just want a fucking break already. In other words, the general public has the feeling we’ve been cheated by neoliberal reforms and their promises to pay us back for what we’ve risked. We’re risk-weary. Sometimes that weariness manifests as irritability–think of the (often race-based) anger motivating supporters of Trump, Sanders, and Brexit. But sometimes that weariness just manifests as a preference for soft, gentle ease. In mid-2010s vernacular, that preference is called “chill.” As Alana Massey defines it, “chill” is the state of “being too far removed from anything that looks like intensity.” Some argue that chill is the decade’s dominant affect.


“Chill” by Flickr user Picklefish, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We can hear chill’s dominance in the Top 40. Soars and drops are tension-release structures closely associated with EDM. They have been integrated into the musical vocabulary of non-EDM pop styles, most prominently by songwriter Max Martin (see: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse”). Even as dubstep falls out of fashion, soars and drops are still all over the Top 40 and EDM remixes of pop songs. However, in mid-2016 soars and drops are much less intense and climactic than they were in 2012. Often, instead of intensifying damage to build tension and release it climactically, soars mark the beginning and end of song sections, like the transition from verse to chorus. With the tension-release flattened out, soars function more to organize the song grammatically than to express a meaning or feeling…because committing to and expressing an idea or an emotion is deeply un-chill.

Take, for example, some of the more popular remixes of Drake’s “One Dance,” which recently broke the UK record (since they started counting downloads) of 12 weeks at the top of the chart and has had a couple of weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100. Though several of the songs on Billboard’s remix round-up for “One Dance” feature soars and drops, none of the songs are particularly maximalist, nor are the soars hugely climactic. The Koni feat. Casey Malone remix above uses tiny soar-hints to signal the end of one song section and the beginning of another; for example, around 48 seconds a tiny little soar marks the transition from verse to chorus. The main soar behaves more conventionally, but it’s super chill and doesn’t turn much of anything up. It begins around 2:20, swooshing up for five seconds only to ever-so-gently drop us for another five seconds. This drop combines the more traditional dubstep drop, which is marked by a bass, and the Max-Martin-style pop drop, which is usually marked by a vocal flourish (e.g., “Bad Blood,” “Shake It Off”). Here the combination works to soften each individual element: a decidedly buttery and un-wobbly bass is hidden under Malone’s decidedly restrained “lose con-trol” vocal. This soar has lost its sonic edge, and it affects the way we hear the drop’s lyrical content: losing control isn’t about transgression, but laid-back indifference…you know, chill. Soars and the idea of losing control usually represent risk, but in this remix they do just the opposite.

With Sean Paul singing “free up yourself get outta control” as the main soar’s drop (3:00 in the video, 2:30 in the song), Sia’s latest hit, “Cheap Thrills” also takes the edge off traditional representations of risk. Firstly, the song is about rejecting economic risk as a source of pleasure and fulfillment, the kind of risk that Katy Perry sung about in 2013 when she gave a “shout out to all you kids buying bottle service with your rent money” right before the soar in “This Is How We Do.” There, the soar represents the rush those kids get from their risky behavior. That sort of thing isn’t thrilling anymore. Instead, thrills, like “feel[ing] the beat” and “dancing” come cheaply, with less economic risk–you don’t have to worry about hustling to get your rent money.

“Cheap Thrills” also avoids sonic representations of that risk: it uses vocal drops to transition between verses and choruses, but these drops aren’t preceded by the percussive cascade (at around 2:17) that constitutes the soar in “This Is How We Do” and, more importantly, Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” which shares “Cheap Thrill’s” tresillo hook. In “Sorry,” the soars are two measures long: a treble synth rises in pitch as the percussion moves from six beats of sixteenth-note snares, to a beat and a half of pause, and then to a percussive cascade on the last half beat serves as the drop.

“Cheap Thrills” doesn’t soar at all. Or rather, it hides a very tiny soar in the vocals. At the end of the first pre-chorus, Sia shortens her phrase length and repeats two fragments where normally a full line would go: “I ain’t got cash, I ain’t got cash” leads us up to the drop, which is her vocal “I got you bay-be.” But that’s not the only way the song hides the soar in the vocals. That percussive riff that we hear at the end of “Sorry”’s soar is hidden in Sean Paul’s “bidi-bang-bang-bangs.” Those syllabifications of drum riffs mark the end of his introductory rap, and punctuate the line where Sia repeats “hit the dance floor, hit the dance floor.” That line sits at the beginning of the pre-chorus, the antecedent phrase to the soar’s consequent phrase. This part of the soar isn’t just moved to a different voice, it’s relocated to where it doesn’t normally belong. Putting the quick percussive riff at the beginning rather than at the end of the soar further deflates it. Like shifting it to the vocals from the instrumentals, the time-shift puts the soar where we aren’t listening for it so it can sneak by without raising the affective temperature.

Just like it hides its soars, “Cheap Thrills” hides its conceptual or ideological reliance on the economically rational risk that soars represent in sound. Like a MasterCard commercial, the lyrics laud the pricelessness of intangible things like interpersonal relationships and aesthetic experiences: “I ain’t got cash but I got you bay-bee,” “I don’t need no money, as long as I can feel the beat.” Sia’s narrator praises unquantifiable, non-monetizeable things: “cheap” thrills are the best kind because they’re more valuable than anything money can buy (because they’re scarce and not available to everyone). This praise substitutes one measure of economic rationality for another, soft human capital–what philosopher Shannon Winnubst calls “cool”–for hard cash, and in so doing hides the economic risk the same way the song hides its soars. The risk Sia’s narrator makes isn’t directly financial: she’s not partying with her rent money. Rather, this claim to transcend entrepreneurial risk-taking is a bet on abnormal behavior. It’s risky, in a kind of meta-risky way, to refuse to take on the kinds of risk economic and social structures compel everyone to assume. After all, you could appear lazy or unproductive, a drain on the rest of us. But you could also appear progressive, forward-thinking, and discerning–in other words, chill.



“Bet” by Flickr user Lionel Roubeyrie, CC BY-SA 2.0

What determines the outcome of Sia’s narrator’s wager? With this bet, as with all bets, the house always wins. As I’ve written about before, unrisky, safe, ‘normcore’ behavior is at bottom a wager on whiteness. Whiteness separates good (acceptable) from bad abnormality, transcendence from pathology. “Cheap Thrills” buries sonic/affective and ideological risk so that it can appear to transcend the imperative to hustle all the time. However, as Kemi Adeyemi wrote in SO!’s “Sound and Affect” series, lean–both the drug and the aesthetic–also sonically de-escalates the “I got six jobs I don’t get tired” hustle in a way that puts black people at further physical and economic risk:

Rappers like A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Future and others create musical odes to and demonstrations of the slowed pace of lean as it provides them a break from norms of physical and affective comportment…Lean radically grounds them, in other words, in an alternative body-space-time continuum that converses with the demands the neoliberal state places on the black body.

Lean aesthetics help black artists and audiences cope with the demands Adeyemi mentions, like working six jobs and not getting tired or the endless cycle of the “work hard, play hard” grind. Even though lean’s affect is chill and woozy, it doesn’t fully eliminate risk. As Adeyemi shows, lean’s alternative “physical and affective comportment” intensifies black bodies vulnerability to physical injury (seizures) and state violence.

If chilled-out soars are pop’s compliment to hip hop’s lean aesthetic, it’s fair to say that we’re all over neoliberalism’s imperative to hustle and assume risk. But not all of us can actually escape that risk without consequence: chill isn’t a universally cheap thrill. As Sia’s song demonstrates, such cheap thrills leverage whiteness as collateral to mitigate risk. Pop’s chilled-out approach to tension-release structures like soars and drops illustrates contemporary forms of whiteness and white privilege, namely, the privilege of appearing to avoid economic rationality and risk.

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics-Justin D. Burton

Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James

“Fade to Black, Old Sport: How Hip-Hop Amplifies Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby –Regina Bradley


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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