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.
Galenson’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.
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.
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.
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.”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 atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
Pop’s Chill Thrills Aren’t So Cheap-Robin James
Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics-Justin D. Burton
It is customary that whenever I go to my Nana’s house I turn the car speakers as low as possible. She has super hearing. Sometimes I forget, and the following conversation takes place:
“What’s up Nana Boo?”
“I heard you before you got the house, girl. I told you about playing your music too loud.”
“It wasn’t too loud.”
“I heard you before I saw you.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t bring attention to yourself.”
Don’t bring attention to yourself.
Physically this is impossible. I am a black woman over six feet tall. My laugh sounds like an exploding mouse. I squeak loudly and speak quickly when I get excited. I like knock in my trunk and bass in my music. Don’t bring attention to yourself. I frequently heard this warning as a girl and well into my adult life. I rarely take it as a slight on my grandmother’s account – though she is the master of throwing parasol shade. She spoke to me with a quiet urgency in her warning. In the wake of the murders of Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and other black lives that vigilantes and mainstream media deemed irrelevant, I understand her warning better from the perspective of sound.
As a loud, squeaky black woman I am especially attuned to how my sonic footprint plays into how I live and if I should die. As a black woman, the bulk of my threat is associated with my loudness. My blackness sonically and culturally codes me as threatening due to the volume of my voice. This is amplified, as a southern black woman. I exist and dare to thrive in a country that historically and socially tries to deflate my agency and urgency. The clarity of my sentiments, the establishment of my frustration, and the worth of my social and cultural interventions are connected to how others hear my voice. It is not what I say but how I say it.
Black women navigate multiple codes of sonic respectability on a daily basis. Their sonic presence is seldom recognized as acceptable by society. Classrooms, homesites, corporate spaces, kitchen tables, and social media require a different tone and volume level in order to gain access and establish one’s credibility. Like other facets of their existence, the way(s) black women are expected to sound in public and private spaces is blurry. What connects these spaces together is a patriarchal and racially condescending paradigm of black women’s believed inferiority. A black women’s successful assimilation into American society is grounded in her ability to master varying degrees of quiet and silence. For black women, any type of disruptive pushback against cultural norms is largely sonic in nature. A grunt, shout, sigh, or sucking teeth instigates some type of resistance. Toning these sonic forms of pushback—basically, silencing themselves—is seen as the way to assimilate into mainstream American society.
In what follows I look at the tape of Sandra Bland’s arrest from this past summer to consider what happens when black women speak up and speak out, when they dare to be heard. As the #SayherName movement attests, black women cannot express sonically major and minor touchstones of black womanhood – joy, pleasure, anger, grief – without being deemed threatening. These sonic expressions force awareness of the complexity of black women’s experiences. In the case of Sandra Bland, I posit that the video of her arrest is not a video of her disrespecting authority but rather shows her sonic response to officer Brian Encinia’s inferred authority as a police officer. I read her loud and open interrogation of Encinia’s actions as an example of what I deem sonic disrespectability: the use of sound and volume to contest oppression in the shape of dictating how black women should or should not act.
The sonic altercation in the video (see full-length version here) sets the stage for Encinia’s physical reprimand of Bland, a college graduate from Prairie View A&M who hailed from Chicago. Bland is not physically threatening—i.e. she emphatically states she’s wearing a maxi dress—but her escalating voice startles and even intimidates Encinia. Bland is angry and frustrated at Encinia’s refusal and to answer her questions about why she was pulled over. Encinia’s responses to Bland’s sonic hostility are telling of his inability to recognize and cope with her anger. In fact, he refuses to answer her questions, and she repeats them over and over again while he barks orders. Encinia states later in the dashboard camera that Bland kicks him and thus forces him to physically restrain her. However, Bland’s vocal assertion of her agency is more jarring than her physical response to Encinia’s misuse of power.
The dashboard camera footage is indicative of their vocal sparring match. Encinia’s voice starts calm and even. He explains to Bland he pulled her over for failure to indicate a lane change. Bland’s responses are initially low and nearly inaudible. However, after Encinia asks Bland if she is “okay,” her responses are much louder. She does not just follow orders but expresses her displeasure in sonic ways, while she stays in the car. His tone shifts when Bland refuses to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia then threatens to pull her out of the car for disobedience. He begins to yell at her. Bland then voices her pleasure in taking Encinia and his complaint to court. “Let’s take this to court. . .I can’t wait! Ooooh I can’t wait!” Bland’s pleasure in taking Encinia to court is an expression of her belief in her own agency. The act of voicing that pleasure is particularly striking because it challenges an understanding of courts and the justice system as hyperwhite and incapable of recognizing her need for justice. Her voice is clear, loud, and recognizably angry.
Her voice crescendos throughout the video, signifying her growing anxiety, tension at the situation, and anger for being under arrest. However, Bland’s voice begins to crack. Her sighs and grunts signify upon her disapproval of Encinia’s treatment of her physical body and rights. Once handcuffed, Bland’s voice is very high-pitched and pained, a sonic signifier of submission and Encinia’s re-affirmation of authority. She then is quiet and a conversation between Encinia and another officer is heard across the footage.
Many critiques of Bland center around her ‘distasteful’ use of language. One critic in particular described the altercation as “an African American woman had too much mouth with the wrong person and at the wrong time.” The assumption in those critiques is that she was not properly angry. Instead of a blind obedience of Enicnia’s inferred authority (read: superiority), she questions him and his inability to justify his actions. Sandra Bland’s sonic dis-respectability (dare I say, ratchet), is a direct pushback against the cultural and social norms of not only rural Southern society but the mainstream American (inferred) belief of southern black folks’ blind respectability of white authority and law enforcement.
Although Bland was a graduate of a southern HBCU, I do not want to assume that Bland possessed the social sensibilities that upheld this unstated social practice of blindly obeying white authority. Her death runs parallel to those of Emmett Till and Mary Turner. The circumstances of Till’s death swirled around his alleged whistling at a white woman – read as a sonic signifier of Till’s black masculine sexuality instead of boyhood – and disregard for white femininity, a protected asset of white men’s authority. Till, from Illinois like Bland, allegedly ignored his cousins’ warnings about the ‘proper protocol’ of interacting with white folks. Mary Turner, a black woman from Valdosta, Georgia, spoke out publicly against the lynching of her husband in 1918. She and her unborn child were also lynched in response to her sonic audacity. Before her death, members of the mob cut open her belly and her unborn baby fell on the ground; it was stomped to death after it gave out a cry. Turner’s voice disrupted white supremacy. Her baby’s lone cry re-emphasized it. Sound grounds much of the racial and gendered violence in the South.
The Southern U.S. emphasizes listening practices as part of social norms and cultural traditions. Listening was an act of survival more so than vocalizing the challenges facing black folks. (Jennifer Stoever’s upcoming book on the sonic color line addresses how advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, mentioned whether they were good listeners, as a way to codify whether they were compliant slaves.). Consider my grandmother’s warning about not bringing attention to myself. In her eyes, by not bringing attention to myself I’m able to remain invisible enough to successfully navigate society’s expectations of my blackness and my womanhood. Silence and listening are tools of survival. Contrarily, Bland’s loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood as threatening. She was coded as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia. She was not quiet or polite, especially in the south where quiet is the ultimate and sole form of women’s politeness and respectability. The combination of these multiple representations of black women’s anger invoked Encinia’s hyper-authoritative response to regain control of the situation.
Black folks are increasingly pushing back against “being in their place.” Sandra Bland’s death is rooted in an unnecessarily escalated fear of black women literally speaking their truth to power. In a moment where black women are speaking on multiple wavelengths and levels of volume, it is imperative to single out instances and then implode outdated cultural and social practices of listening.
Featured image:”Sandra Bland is Her Name” by Flickr user Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0
Regina Bradley is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Dr. Bradley’s current book project, Chronicling Stankonia: Recognizing America’s Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how hip hop (with emphasis on the southern hip hop duo Outkast) and popular culture update conversations about the American South to include the post-Civil Rights era. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a critically acclaimed blog and personal website – http://www.redclayscholar.com. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Factual Dispersion, Poetic Compression
With words stepping backwards from the wave of news coverage, attempting to retrace a moment or point in time, to go back where things began, to the innocuous genesis of a single deliberate decision, the resentment or, in some camps, the war crime, within the continuous ebb and flow. The stepping back breaks up the habit of our clear factual articulation – a clear factual articulation that, in its fact, becomes ignorable as it satisfies the need for fact and its pincer click of tiny precision. This articulation now carries other words, carries them forward from the reversal of the day’s date stamped so firmly and authoritatively on the facts, as if justification itself.
Stepping backwards and moving forwards with the words of Syrian poets, women whose poems are oddly and noticeably not dated in the books recovered in translation from the British Library, despite the original words being imminently intelligible within the contemporary language of the particular place from where they were written – whether that be Syria, France, Lebanon or elsewhere. The necessary compression of meaning within each sentence of this poetry is in turn counterpointed against the fact of legal journalistic accuracy and its subsequent dispersal, its general thinning out, particularly in the face of reported death.
All images supplied by the artists
David Mollin’s work is concerned with ideas of contingency within the professionalized contemporary art world, and in particular with the effect of power consolidation and commodification and those elements of the work that disappear as a result of such a process. This has led to an increasing interest in the use of writing as a process of materialization of an artwork that fails to materialize. Mollin has co-founded with Matthew Arnatt the project 100 Reviews (Alberta Press and Greengrassi Gallery) and, with John Reardon, he co-edited ch-ch-ch-changes: Artists talk about teaching (Ridinghouse, 2009). Mollin works collaboratively on text-based sound work with Salomé Voegelin.
Salomé Voegelin is an artist and writer engaged in listening and hearing as a socio-political practice. She is the author of Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound, Bloomsbury, NY, 2014 and Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum, NY, 2010. While her solo work focuses on the small and slight, unseen performances and moments that almost fail to happen, her collaborative work, with David Mollin, has a more conceptual basis, establishing through words and sounds conversations and reconfigurations of relationships and realities. http://www.salomevoegelin.net
Follow their collaboration at: https://twitter.com/mollinvoegelin
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