Eurovision—that televisual song pageant where pop, camp, and geopolitics annually collide—started last week. This year’s competition is hosted in Tel Aviv, and continues a recent trend in the competition in which geopolitical controversy threatens to overshadow pop spectacle. Activists accuse the Israeli government of exploiting Eurovision as part of a longstanding government PR strategy of “pinkwashing”: championing Israel as a bastion of LGBT+ tolerance in order to muddle perceptions of its violent and dehumanizing policies towards Palestinians. The BDS movement mobilized a campaign to boycott Eurovision. Reigning Eurovision champion Netta Barzilai, echoing many pro-Israel voices (as well as celebrities concerned about “subverting the spirit of the contest”), referred to the boycott efforts as “spreading darkness.”
While this year’s competition opened already mired in contention, I’m going to listen back to the controversial winning song of the 2016 contest, whose media frenzy peaked in its aftermath. That year’s champion, a pop singer of Crimean Tatar heritage who goes by the mononym Jamala, represented Ukraine with a song called “1944.” Just two years before, Crimea had been annexed from Ukraine by Russia following a dubious referendum. Some Crimean Tatars—the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Turkic-language minority group of Crimea—fled to mainland Ukraine following the Russian annexation, viewing the Ukrainian state as the lesser threat; many of those that stayed continue to endure a deteriorating human rights climate (though there are some Crimean Tatars who have bought into—and who reap benefits from—the new Russian administration of the peninsula.)
Jamala’s very presence in the contest inevitably evoked the hot geopolitics of the moment. Her victory angered many Russians, and the subject of Eurovision became fodder for conspiracy theories as well as a target of disinformation campaigns waged online and in Russian-influenced media in Ukraine. In much of the Western European and North American media, the song was breathlessly interpreted as an assertion of indigenous rights and a rebuke to the perceived cultural genocide enacted against Crimean Tatars by Russian state power.
In the wake of her victory, many commentators described Jamala as giving voice not only to the repressed group of Crimean Tatar indigenes living in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea, but to threatened indigenous populations around the world (for better or worse). But indeed, it was not only her metaphorical voice but the sound of vocal anguish that intensified the song’s effectiveness in the contest and made it relevant well beyond the specific geopolitical bog shared by Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians. Specifically, the timbre, breath, and dynamic force of Jamala’s voice communicated this anguish—particularly during the virtuosic non-lexical—wordless—bridge of the song. Despite her expertly controlled vocal performance during the dramatic bridge, Jamala’s voice muddies the boundaries of singing and crying, of wailing from despair and yelling in defiant anger. To pilfer from J.L. Austin’s famous formulation, what made Jamala’s performative utterance felicitous to some and infelicitous to others was as much the sound of her voice as the words that she uttered. Put simply, on the bridge of “1944,” Jamala offers a lesson in how to do things with sound.
Some background: the world’s longest-running televised spectacle of song competition, the Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 with the peaceful mandate of bringing greater harmony (sorry not sorry) to post-war Europe. Competitors—singers elected to represent a country with a single, three-minute song each—and voters come from the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is not geographically restricted to Europe. Currently, some fifty countries send contestants, including states such as Israel (last year’s winner), Azerbaijan, and Australia. Many of the rules that govern Eurovision have changed in its 62-year history, including restrictions governing which language singers may use. Today, it is common to hear a majority of songs with at least some text sung in English, including verses of “1944.” Some rules, though, have been immutable, including the following: songs must have words (although the words need not be sensical). All vocal sounds must be performed live, including background vocals. Voters, be they professional juries or the public—who can vote today by telephone, SMS, or app—cannot vote for their own nation’s competitor (though unproven conspiracy theories about fans crossing national borders in order to vote in defiance of this rule have, at times, flourished.) Finally, reaching back to its founding mandate defining Eurovision as a “non-political event,” songs are not permitted to contain political (or commercial) messages.
Both the title and lyrics of Jamala’s “1944” refer to the year that Crimean Tatars were brutally deported from Crimea under Stalinist edict. Indicted wholesale as “enemies of the Soviet people,” the NKVD rounded up the entire population of Crimean Tatars—estimated to be some 200,000 people—packed them into cattle cars, and transported them thousands of miles away, mostly to Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia. The Soviet regime cast this as a “humanitarian resettlement” intended to bring Crimean Tatars closer to other Muslim, Turkic-language populations. However, Crimean Tatars, who estimate that up to two-thirds of their population perished before arriving in Central Asia, consider this a genocidal act. They were not given the right to return to Crimea until the late 1980s. So, through clear reference to a twentieth-century political trauma with consequences that stretch into the present, “1944” was not the feel-good fluff of classic Eurovision.
Jamala’s performance of “1944” at Eurovision was also atypical in that it largely eschewed pizzazz and bombast. Little skin was shown, there were no open flames, no smoke machines befogged the scene. Instead, Jamala stood, mostly still and center stage, encircled by spotlight. Large projections of flowers framed the stage for the first two minutes of the song, as she sang verses (in English) and a chorus in (Crimean Tartar) that utilized lyrics from a well-known twentieth-century Crimean Tatar protest song called Ey, Güzel Qirim (Oh, My Beautiful Crimea). The groove of the song is spare and rather slow, and the singer’s voice meanders within a fairly narrow range on both verse and chorus.
But then comes the vocalise on the bridge: two minutes and fifteen seconds into the Eurovision performance, the song’s chilled-out but propulsive motion stops, leaving only a faint synthesizer drone. In the sudden quiet, Jamala mimes the act of rocking an infant. Beginning in the middle of her range, she elaborates a melismatic wail that recalls the snaking modal melody of the traditional Crimean Tatar song Arafat Daği. The bridge consists of two phrases interrupted by a forceful and nervous inhalation of breath. Her breath is loud and intentional, calling attention to the complex ornaments that she has already executed, and preparing us for more ornaments to come.
Over the course of eight seconds, Jamala’s voice soars upwards, increasing steadily in volume and intensifying timbrally from a more relaxed vocal sound to an anguished belt. At the apex of the bridge, the Eurovision camera soars above the stage just as the singer looks into the camera’s eye. Meanwhile, the screens framing the stage explode into visuals that suggest a phoenix rising from the ash. The crowd erupts into applause.
Other renditions of “1944” deliver a similar emotional payoff at the climax of the bridge. In the dystopian narrative of Jamala’s official music video, a tornado whips free, setting a field of immobilized human figures into chaotic motion (minute 2:35). In a reality TV song contest called Holos Kraïny (the Ukrainian Voice), a young singer’s powerful elaboration of the bridge propels a coach out of her seat as she wipes tears from her eyes (minute 3:42). In other covers, the bridge is too difficult to attempt: one British busker leaves the “amazing vocal bit in the middle” to “the good people of Ukraine to sing along.”
Timbrally and gesturally, I also hear the resonance between the plangent sound of the duduk—a double-reed wind instrument associated most closely with Armenia, and often called upon to perform in commemorations of the 1915 Armenian genocide—and Jamala’s voice on the vocalise. According to Jamala (who generously responded to my questions via email through her PR person), this was not intentional. But the prominence of the instrument in the arrangement, the lightly nasal quality that her voice adopts in the bridge, and the glottalized movements she uses between pitches suggest that this connection might have been audible to listeners. After all, the opening melodic gesture of “1944” is sounded by a duduk, and it re-enters spectacularly just after the peak of the bridge, where it doubles Jamala’s vocal line as it cascades downwards from the high note. Through sonic entanglement with the duduk, Jamala here communicates anguish on another register, without translation into words.
The performance of sonic anguish through the voice might be understood, in Greg Urban’s terms, as a “meta-affect.” Jamala delivers the emotion of anguish but also fosters sociality by interpellating listeners into the shared emotional state of communal grieving. I paraphrase from Urban’s well-known analysis of “ritual wailing” to argue that Jamala, through this performance of vocal anguish, makes both intelligible and acceptable the public sentiment of grief. This utterance of grief is a statement of “separation and loss that is canonically associated with death” (392) that included the Eurovision audience as co-participants in the experience of grieving, of experiencing anguish over loss. A popular fan reaction video by “Jake’s Face Reacts,” posted to YouTube, and the hundreds of comments responding to it, attest to this experience of co-participation in the experience of grief. Furthermore, the power of this meta-affect is almost certainly heightened through normative gendered associations with performative anguish. Lauren Ninoshvili (2012) identifies this in the “expressive labor” of mourning mothers’ wailing in the Republic of Georgia, while Farzaneh Hemmasi (2017) has recently elucidated how the voice of the exiled Iranian diva Googoosh became iconic of the suffering, feminized, victimized nation of Iran.
The sociologist of music Simon Frith once wrote that “in songs, words are the sign of the voice” (97). To put it in slightly banal terms, songs, as we generally define them, include words uttered by human voices. (Or if they don’t have words uttered by voices, this becomes the notable feature of the song, c.f. Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, Pete Drake’s talking guitar, Georgian vocable polyphony). But non-lexical vocalities also function as a sign of the voice, and, as scholars such as Ana Maria Ochoa (2014) and Jennifer Stoever (2016) have argued, expand our capacity to recover more complex personhoods from the subjugated vocalities of the past. In fact, often the most communicative, feelingful parts of songs occur during un-texted vocalizations. As generations of scholars have argued, timbre means a lot—Nina Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Duke University Press: 2019) presents a very recent example—and it is often overlooked when we take the key attributes of Western Art Music as our sole formal parameters for analysis: melody, rhythm, harmony, form. So as we watch the parade of aspiring Eurovision champions duke it out in the pop pageant of geopolitics, let’s attune ourselves to the vocal colors, the timbral gestures, the ululations and the growls, to the panoply of visual and auditory stimuli demanding our attention and, more important (depending on where we live), our vote.
Featured Image: “Jamala” by Flickr User Andrei Maximov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Maria Sonevytsky is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book, Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine, will be out in October 2019 with Wesleyan University Press.
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I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.
The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.
Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence
On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as “my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.
The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”
Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.” Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to the “roar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”
The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”
The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.
The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earth” below, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.
Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” and “infinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound“ of human suffering coming from beneath.
By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fear” and “expressions of applause” that advanced the dominant colonial narrative.
Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experience” with the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”
I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985
The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.
Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” and “politics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.
During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.
In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.
Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.
Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).
Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.
Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.
Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016
Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.
It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”
The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.
I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.
Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons
Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city.
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October 2017: a week after a Las Vegas gunman killed 58 people at an outdoor festival during a Jason Aldean set, Aldean squared up to the Saturday Night Live mic and soldiered through then-recently deceased Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” In a short statement before the song, Aldean mentioned that he was “strugglin to understand what happened that night,” and he reiterated this general sense of confusion about what to make of everything in ensuing interviews. It’s unsurprising that Aldean struggled to make sense of the shooting; traumatic experiences like the one he and his audience endured often don’t fit into any ready-made understanding we have about the world. But Aldean, who seemed uncomfortable publicly displaying the kind of emotional vulnerability the trauma produced in him, was eager to resolve the dissonance: with platitudes like “be louder than the bad guys,” with assurances that “when America is at its best, our bond and our spirit – it’s unbreakable,” with an admission of his own hurt only as an empathic response to others’ rather than as his own, and with a cover song borrowed from one of his idols. Here, I’m listening to the compensatory work the cover of “I Won’t Back Down” performs in the face of the kind of vulnerability Aldean wrestles with in the wake of violence. To hear this as clearly as possible, I’ll contextualize Aldean’s performance by comparing it to a similar use of the song by Tom Petty 16 years earlier, then contrast it with Ariana Grande’s performance of “One More Time” at her One Love Manchester benefit a few months before the Las Vegas shooting.
Though the song’s titular line, “I won’t back down,” is a fairly direct lyrical idea about maintaining one’s resolve, the rest of the song still manages to paint a rather vague picture. The singer isn’t backing down, sure, but beyond “a world that keeps on pushin [him] around,” there aren’t many specifics about what he’s not backing down from. This is a kind of pop genius: capture a core sentiment that registers with a large audience, then present it in ambiguous enough terms that listeners can fill in the blanks with their own very personal experiences. So, despite Petty’s own analysis that he “laid [the song] out, you know, with no ambiguity at all,” “I Won’t Back Down”’s lyrics are incredibly broad, leaving space for practically anyone to insert themselves into the role of protagonist. Your boss might be a jerk, but you won’t back down. Your employee might think you’re a jerk, but you won’t back down.
Moreover, the sound of the song undermines even its most resolute lyrics. When Petty sings “I won’t back down,” which he does often in the verses and the hook, he scoops all around the pitches of “won’t,” “back,” and “down” so that they sound more interrogative than declarative. Rhythmically, these words sit on weak beats and upbeats in the verses, and in the chorus, the final word, “down,” comes just before – not on – a strong downbeat (see figure below). The effect of the syncopation is similar to the effect of Petty’s pitch bends; lyrical resolve becomes musical uncertainty. Finally, George Harrison’s guitar solo – as George Harrison guitar solos tend to do – plays pensively with the song’s forward momentum, again reining in the lyrics’ more direct message. In all, “I Won’t Back Down” works in a good deal of uncertainty that makes it unclear exactly what the threat is and whether the singer really is as resolute as he’d like us to believe.
What a song means or how it works changes with the times, though, and the defiance lurking in the lyrics of “I Won’t Back Down” crystallized after the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. When Petty performed “I Won’t Back Down” at the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes on September 21, the context of a nation rallying around itself to defeat some yet-unknown foreign enemy overwhelmed any of the sonic signifiers that might otherwise temper the song’s resolve. This concert, which was aired virtually on every channel to a country still reeling from a collective trauma, subsumed Petty’s vocal scoops, the lyrics’ offbeat kilter, and the guitar’s sanguine solo under the clarity of a lyrical sentiment that aligned neatly with the politics of the moment: the US won’t back down. The shift in focus in “I Won’t Back Down” just after September 11 is similar to a dolly zoom effect: the threat referenced by the song’s lyrics feels as if it comes nearer and into sharper focus even as the protagonist broadens from an individual to a collective identity.
This sort of shift in the song’s narrative tracks with Christine Muller’s account of the overarching changes in cultural narratives that happened in the wake of the Twin Towers’ destruction. In September 11, 2001 as Cultural Trauma (2017), Muller argues that the broad perception of the fracture of the “American Dream” – “good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people…come to the United States, and you will have opportunity; work hard, and you will succeed; follow the rules, and you will be rewarded” – harkened the rise of cultural media focused on “no-win scenarios…a fascination with anti-heroes who do the wrong things for the right reasons” (9-10). In the case of “I Won’t Back Down,” a song that was once broadly resolute and unfocused on any particular foe, sung by an artist who sent a “Cease and Desist” letter to George W. Bush when the then-candidate used the song for his presidential campaign morphed into an anthem that became narrowly resolute in the face of a named threat (“terror”), woven into a larger political tapestry that aided in the demonization of Muslims and the Islamic countries targeted by the “global war on terror” – an interminable war fought for vaguely defined reasons started at multiple sites by the same Bush Petty had previously defied.
Aldean’s Saturday Night Live performance 16 years later would emulate Petty’s, as faithful a cover as Aldean and his band could do. Though his vocals lack Petty’s high-end nasal clarity, Aldean dutifully hits all the scoops, honors the syncopations, and even yields to a guitar solo that follows George Harrison’s lead from decades previous. For Aldean, who was 40 at the time, and many millennials, the SNL performance would likely resonate with Petty’s iconic Tribute performance. And in the space of those 16 years, another frequently repeated line in the song would take on a political life of its own, recognizable to younger listeners who may not have immediately registered the post-9/11 context of “I Won’t Back Down.” While “I’ll stand my ground” would’ve been as broadly meaningful as “I won’t back down” when Petty released the song in 1989, the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin pushed the idea of Stand Your Ground laws into public consciousness. These laws nullify one’s “duty to retreat,” to avoid violence if a safe passage away from a threat is reasonably available, instead allowing a person who feels threatened to use violence against their perceived threat. Research shows that Stand Your Ground laws tend to protect white people and endanger Black people, holding up long-standing social norms that cast Blacks as always already violent. So by the time Aldean sang “I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down” in 2017, the song had passed through social and political filters that gave its lyrics an anti-Muslim and anti-Black edge.
At first blush, all this context makes “I Won’t Back Down” a bizarre choice for Aldean to sing in response to the Las Vegas shooting. The identity of the gunman – a white man around retirement age – made him only a bit older than the demographic most responsible for mass shootings in the US. Instead of addressing the fact that mass shootings are a distinctly USAmerican problem, or that country music fosters a close and financial relationship with the NRA (which lobbies against the sorts of regulations that would curb mass shootings), Aldean remained unwilling to offer any thoughts on guns and gun control, even after experiencing the shooting firsthand. While we might reasonably excuse the singer’s lack of reflection on social and political problems in recognition that Aldean was surely traumatized himself, the singer’s performance of “I Won’t Back Down” still performs a specific kind of rhetorical work that relies on Petty’s performance at America: A Tribute to Heroes 16 years earlier. Specifically, Aldean’s rendition of “I Won’t Back Down” places the Vegas shooting in the same political arena used to demonize Muslims after September 11 and to criminalize Black people in political discourse surrounding Stand Your Ground laws. As I mentioned at the top of the essay, Aldean admitted and demonstrated his discomfort with the emotional vulnerability the shooting provoked in him, and I hear his performance of “I Won’t Back Down” as an effort to compensate for that public vulnerability by providing a retreat to a more familiar masculine pose: protective, resolute, stoic.
I published a piece that revolves around the idea of self-care with Sounding Out! in 2017, and one of the two central musical examples I consider there is Ariana Grande’s performance of “One More Time” at the One Love Manchester benefit concert just after the Manchester bombing. Grande’s circumstances run parallel to what Aldean would face a few months later: a traumatic act of violence that disrupted, injured, and killed the artist’s fans as the terror of the event rippled through the community. The two performances are gendered completely differently, however. Grande sings “One Last Time” surrounded by other musicians she invited to participate in the benefit concert. She frequently chokes up and relies on her fans to carry the song forward. She offers no answers or solutions beyond sentiments of love and the need to hold one another close in times of crisis. Grande’s is a performance of feminized care that contrasts sharply with Aldean’s masculinized resolve. Unwilling to publicly grapple with the emotional vulnerability created by the Vegas shooting, Aldean retreats from any public displays of grief and settles into an expression of care rooted in aggressive defense. His performance of “I Won’t Back Down” compensates for the feminized vulnerability triggered by the gunman and provides a masculine space for defiance that shifts attention away from white criminality and toward the US’s usual suspects: Black people and Muslims.
Saturday Night Live has scrubbed the internet of any full videos of the performance (the single is available on Spotify), but we can see and hear Aldean running through the same rendition a couple weeks later at the Louisville Yum! Center. It’s worth noting how Aldean embodies the resolve of the song’s lyrics. While Petty always approached a microphone like he was going to whisper something in its ear, his shoulders slouched and knees bobbing to the beat, Aldean squares his shoulders, plants his feet to form a broad base, and confronts the mic straight on. Some of this boils down to style. Jason Aldean’s stage presence is different from Tom Petty’s. But it also captures the distance “I Won’t Back Down” has traveled since the late 1980s, from a largely empty signifier that listeners could fill with their own meaning to an anthem used for rallying listeners in the wake of mass violence. Here, feminized vulnerability and trauma are recast as masculinized aggression and resolve until the song fills with the politics of the moment: the US’s anti-Black, anti-Muslim refusal to back down from standing its ground.
Featured Image: “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Oracle Appreciate Event “Legendary”, JavaOne 2011 San Francisco” by Flickr user Yuichi Sakuraba, CC BY-NC 2.0
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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