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On “The Dream Life of Voice:” A Rerecording of Bernadette Mayer Reading from The Ethics of Sleep

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Voices CarryWelcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts.  What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end?  Today John Melillo offers us a multi-track rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep. He urges us to “value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production.”  –SO! Ed. Jennifer Stoever


What separates voice from noise? At what point does a voice dissipate into the sounds that surround and, at times, threaten to overwhelm it? In “The Dream Life of Voice,” I draw special attention to the ways in which attending to voice—and its precarity—entails a heightened sensation of noise. Through my manipulation of recorded audio in this project, I argue that noise is not merely an unwanted or surprising sound: it is the material sonic trace of an unconscious listening that continues to work beneath, around, and within a conscious listening to voice.

In this audio recording, I have taken a selection from a reading by the poet Bernadette Mayer that I recorded for the Tucson-based poetry and arts organization, POG, on February 6, 2016. I used a standard SM58 microphone, a digital audio recording interface, and the software program Logic. Mayer is known as a poet who has tested the boundaries of poetic statement through poems that engage with the conscious and unconscious uses of language. In this selection, she reads a long poem from her book The Ethics of Sleep (Trembling Pillow Press, 2011) on the power of dreams and dream language. In the performance, the poem and her voice create a sense of continuous movement, with quick and unpredictable turns of phrase sutured together by a syntactic and rhythmic familiarity. In this audio project, I flatten the sonic space in this recording of Mayer in order to abstract the voice and place it within a wider frequency spectrum of noise. Just as Mayer’s words engage her book’s title, my audio project argues for the possibility of an unconscious but engaged listening to noise.

Bernadette-Mayer4

“Bernadette Mayer’s 1971 performance piece, Memory, for which she shot a roll of 35 mm film and composed a journal entry every day for a month, addresses issues of time, narrative, nostalgia, narcissism, and documentation, along with the possibilities of art and poetry in relation to perception and remembrance.” – Marcella Durand, Hyperallergic

Roland Barthes famously defined listening as “a psychological act” and hearing as a mere “physiological phenomenon” (Barthes 246). In a kind of doubling of listening’s action, the work of formulating or understanding a voice involves a selecting for sounds as a significant figure—the mark of a person or persona. Yopie Prins calls the recorded, mediated voice of 19th century poetry a “voice inverse,” a prosthetic figure composed out of its imprint by mechanical means, whether those means be metrical, print-based, or phonographic (48). Of such mechanical means—in particular, audio recording—Charles Bernstein argues, “the mechanical semblance of voice has become the signal in a medium whose material base is sonic, not vocal. In such a phonic economy, noise is sound that can’t be recuperated as voice” (110). In taking up this binary phonic economy, however, I want to hear how voice and noise interweave and interpenetrate, with the sonic figuration of voice as a threshold that opens out to other sounds not ostensibly included in its composition.

Press Play to hear “The Dream Life of Voice” by John Melillo, a rerecording of Bernadette Mayer reading from The Ethics of Sleep.

In this 12’43” audio recording, I have devised an analytic and synthetic method that allows listeners to reframe and refocus their hearing toward the trace of noise in voice, as well as the voice’s trace in noise. The final recording is composed of three simultaneous tracks, each of which represents a different “noise regime” in relation to the poet’s voice.

The first, original, track contains the “straight” recording of Mayer’s voice and speech: one hears her performance of the poem loud and clear. This is the imprint of voice on the recording mechanism in a phonic economy of voice and noise, in which voice seems to counteract and silence its opposite.

The second track contains a manipulated version of the original track, in which I have removed all the audio of Mayer’s voice and constructed a “background noise” track from what remains. In this method, I simply cut out Mayer’s voice from the audio file, keeping only the “silent” moments of the reading. I then combined and looped these fragments to create an amplified track of the background sounds—sounds of the people in the room, cars outside, a train passing, and the recording medium itself (hiss). In this way, I flip the binary toward that which is explicitly unheard in the recording.

For the third track, I manipulated the original recording by applying a Fast Fourier Transform with the software program Spear. This method breaks down the sounds into a collection of sine wave frequencies that can be graphically manipulated in the software program. I then removed the loudest frequencies (present mostly as Mayer’s voice) in order to emphasize the upper partials and continuous non-vocal frequencies masked by the force of the voice. This track marks a synthesis in which voice blends with and disappears into the frequency spectrum.

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“Unsmoothed” by Flickr user Felix Morgner, CC BY-SA 2.0

I combined these three tracks and slowly adjusted the volume for each one. The track with Mayer’s voice starts off as the loudest of the three. Her comments on the noise from a train that has just passed begin the montage. This track then undergoes a long, slow diminuendo, and by the end of the piece, it is silenced. At the same time, the background noise track becomes louder and peaks in the middle, interfering with and working alongside the voice. The track of synthesized frequencies slowly crescendos so that it is loudest at the end of the piece.

By distributing the volumes in this chiasmatic way, I want to call attention to the layered listenings happening within the situation of Mayer’s reading. Just as the figure of voice arises out of the ground of noise, it also contains frequencies that are not so easily differentiated from their background. A voice is an acoustic entity figured by a body and a performance. However habitual and repetitive the action is, it takes effort to suture vocal sounds to the body, place, and apparatus that they emanate from. In this track I want to find a way to hear a drifting, unconscious meandering within that focused effort. I want to materialize listening’s paratactic wavering of attention to one thing after another.

In the production of this movement toward noise, I value illegibility over legibility and the abstract over the figured. If we deemphasize voice, we acknowledge the ways in which voices can undo themselves in their production—which is the ethics of dream life that Mayer argues for and illuminates within her poem. The outside within the voice is a frequency scatter that connects the dissipation of an emitted sound in space with all the other sounds that interfere or resonate with that sound. The strange whisper music that ends my audio project “flattens” the sonic space idealized by the division of figure and ground. By abstracting Bernadette Mayer’s performance, I seek a synthesis that brings the noisy dream life of voice into relief.

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Featured Image: “Scream” by Flickr user Josh Otis CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 John Melillo is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Arizona. His book project, Outside In: The Poetics of Noise from Dada to Punk, examines the ways in which poetry and performance make noise during the twentieth century. He has written and presented work on empathy in sound poetry, folk-song utopianism, the post-punk band DNA, and tape noise in Charles Olson. John performs music and sound art as Algae & Tentacles.

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Instrumental: Power, Voice, and Labor at the Airport – Asa Mendelsohn

“Don’t Be Self-Conchas:” Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture – Sara Veronica Hinijos

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice – Yvon Bonenfant

Instrumental: Power, Voice, and Labor at the Airport

Voices CarryWelcome to Voices Carry. . . a forum meditating on the material production of human voices the social, historical, and political material freighting our voices in various contexts.  What are voices? Where do they come from and how are their expressions carried? What information can voices carry? Why, how, and to what end?  Artist Asa Mendelsohn opens the forum with his critical and artistic work on the voice as an instrument of power. We are also honored that he lent Voices Carry a still from his work for our icon!–Jennifer Stoever


important, critical, foundational

Can we all do something about language here, and the frames that we use? […] We need to…stop already pre-redacting ourselves so that we can be quote ‘heard’ by these jackasses! They’re never gonna listen to us! — Mariame Kaba

Instrumental is a body of work featuring a series of vocal performances by airport security workers I filmed at the San Diego International Airport. The work takes up Mariame Kaba’s provocation, that those currently in power are never going to listen. How might relations of power be reordered around a voice? If voices are instruments, operating at once through a body and as a body, what kind of instrument is a voice of authority?


T

In September 2017, my proposal to produce a version of this project is accepted as part of a yearlong program curated by and for the San Diego International Airport. In October I put out a call for participation to airport security workers, in search of singers to perform songs of their choosing in front of a camera. There are emails with curators and security managers, logistics, parameters. I film over the winter and install a version of the work as a public art project in the spring, the first year of my medical gender transition.

When we meet at the far end of Terminal 2 in January, T is a combination of nervous and enthusiastic I wasn’t expecting. He’s so jittery that I almost tell him to stop and rest. I link my sneaking feeling of shame to an assumed position of authority, having arrived like this, multiple cameras, my university affiliation.

But while nervous, T’s also brimming, lighting up. His name tag catches gold light, bouncing against his gray Air Traffic Officer uniform.

T proposes two songs. Neither are in languages that he speaks in his daily life and he keeps forgetting words.

“Cómo te voy a olvidar”

How am I going to forget you?

T says he learned the song from a former partner. He says girlfriend. He says he always felt self-conscious he couldn’t speak more Spanish. I guess that his family are Afro-Caribbean Spanish-speakers. I’m wrong. He’s also wrong about where I’m from. San Francisco, right?

T likes to sing karaoke. A coworker heard him and the rumor started going around: T has a beautiful voice. T’s voice is a soft instrument. In the airport, it is easily swallowed by environmental noise.

I film with T a second time, again meeting the last two hours of his ten-hour shift. He starts tired, nervous: stopping and restarting a song. Slowly, he warms up, dancing a cumbia. I sing with him when he forgets a line. We allow ourselves to take up more space in this quiet zone beyond the Air Canada counters. T dances with a moving chair.


Where will your next adventure take you?

Men in construction vests come in and out of a door beneath a banner: “Go Somewhere.” Construction is in process to expand the space occupied by border security.

Working in security means exercising jurisdiction over how other people move, who can move where, and with what freedom. What kind of freedom or movement is possible between us while someone is watching (an institution, a camera)?

Artist Gregg Bordowitz writes that “posing for the camera in advance of anticipated capture by the lens is a form of self-defense in the age of surveillance. It’s an act of self-authorship.” I don’t feel I understand fully what calls someone forward to perform. Is it a feeling they have something to share, a will towards “self-authorship”? I’m interested in not knowing where a performance starts and ends, not knowing when we become performers or our own authors, when we become complicit, exploited, when we are on or off the job. Most people work and are watched most of the time, without being heard: a series of performances delivered and received with varying degrees of care.


The sterile zone

The post-9/11 commercial airport in the United States is one among other types of places designed to reinforce a culture of surveillance and fear, to remind travelers the state has a say in their freedom of movement. A place designed to instill one kind of horror while thinly concealing another.

Spending time at the airport with people who spend a lot of time at the airport, the intricacy of the place unfolds, resembling what theorist Simone Browne calls a “security theater.” At moments SAN blurs into every other airport in the U.S. I’ve moved through or seen on a screen: streams of moving walkways, escalators — travelers wheeling bags, waiting, scrolling for ticket information on smartphones, scanning, travel-themed advertisements and watery public art commissions — a fragmented, moving stage.

From Asa Mendelsohn, Instrumental (2018)

The voice of the overhead announcement is an instrument of the airport security theater, summoning the stress of being read and misread, abused, glibly entertained, and sold overpriced breakfasts, while you are also in fear of missing something: everything that makes airports ultimate theaters for the machinery of the security state. As I edit footage from the airport, I become preoccupied by moments of tension between a singer’s voice and the voice of the overhead security announcement, instructing us about checkpoint procedures, orienting us, interpellating. A singer pauses to wait, or they continue, enduring the interruption. For a security worker vocalizing in uniform, does the space of the airport become an extension of their body? (Does their uniform matter?) In these moments of tension, it becomes more clear that a security worker’s performance as an extension of the airport’s body is an uneven one.


While SAN seems like any other airport in the U.S., there are points of exceptionality. SAN is much smaller than other airports serving international commercial flights. It is located centrally, widely accessible from much of the city. Checkpoint lines are rarely very long. SAN is, of course, primarily the port of entry for travelers with valid state identification and the ability to buy an airline ticket. These factors do not make SAN an equitable place to work, but they do add up to an effect: airport as sanitized space, a clean space, that, in my subjective experience, other airports aspire to but rarely achieve. A small feat of whitewashing, eighteen miles by car from the border crossing at San Ysidro. Friends have suggested about this project: “you would not have been able to do that anywhere else.” I would not have been granted access.

As I prepare to film at SAN, I’m sent mixed messages. Initially, a curator tells me I’ll be granted access to shoot in post-checkpoint areas of the airport, areas I learn that security workers call “the sterile zone.” Shortly before my first shoot, I’m told that, actually, it’d be too much work to get me clearance. I’m restricted to what are called “public” spaces, pre-security, outside the sterile zone.

From Asa Mendelsohn, Instrumental (2018)

Throughout this process, I wonder how I’m seen by people at the airport. I do not doubt that being white, small-bodied, and soft-voiced make me seem non-threatening. I’m a patient director. I smile at my own perversity. Staff approach me cautiously while I’m setting up and ask if I have a permit to be there, but always eventually smile back. A curator overlooks or disregards my pronouns, misgendering me in email correspondences and later in the interpretive text about the work. They eventually apologize.

How are my interests as an artist read? While “speaking up,” or “using your voice,” is often understood as a political right and responsibility of democratic process, appropriating someone else’s is at particular stake in art and documentary ethics. At the airport, I am seeking a form through which to acknowledge the ways we use each other’s voices and labor, to acknowledge the multiple zones within which we work at once.


Instrumentalized: used

A voice is always a shape and product of its body, and, at the same time, something other. Theorist Freya Jarman-Ivens writes: “As my voice leaves me, it takes part of my body with it — the sound of its own production.” The voice in your head that you claim as your own is never, physically, the same voice as that which lands in the ear of another, that you also claim as your own, as when you claim on the phone “it’s me.” Jarman-Ivens names this paradoxical, “looped” quality of the voice its “queerness,” traveling between bodies and between language and non- language.

Increasingly, state terrorism marks the airport as a space in which people are alienated on the basis of identity. The anxiety that comes while waiting in line for your body to be scanned epitomizes that alienation. The invasive acts of being scanned, read and misread, are not one-way operations. Security personnel, particularly those whose classed, raced, and gendered bodies straddle multiple identifications and categories of oppression, occupy a tense space: at once agents of the security apparatus and subjects within it.

At the airport I am trying to represent realities in which a speaker’s voice changes and morphs with and through their body and environment. Through collaborations with non-professional actors — with people performing as versions of themselves — I am hoping to communicate the slip and stutter between performance and real life that José Esteban Muñoz might describe as “failure,” or an “active political refusal.” “Failure” is, as I understand Muñoz’s writing and legacy, an opening into another space of relating, a break from performative norms, from a performance of a norm, such as “real life,” or “gender.” Does the performance start when a security worker starts singing? When they become the airport? A worker? When they become a man?  


Featured image still from Asa Mendelsohn’s Instrumental.

Asa Mendelsohn is from New York. He makes performances and media projects that develop through a process of recording, writing, and collaboration. His work combines observational and narrative storytelling practices, often focusing on personal relationships and desire as ways to navigate seemingly inaccessible infrastructures, histories, and systems of power.

 

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Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table–Kimberly Williams

Listening to the Border: ‘”2487″: Giving Voice in Diaspora’ and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez”-D. Ines Casillas

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant

“I Am Thinking Of Your Voice”: Gender, Audio Compression, and a Sonic Cyberfeminist Theory of Oppression

I developed the text I recite in this post as the theoretical framework for an article I’m working on about audio compression. As I was working on the article, I wondered about the role of gender and race in the research on audio compression. Specifically, I was reminded of the central role Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” played into research that led to the mp3. Karl-Heinz Brandenburg used the song to test the compression method he was developing for mp3s because it sounded “warm.” Sure, the track is very intimate and Vega’s voice is soft and vulnerable. But to what extent is its “warmth” the effect of a man’s perception of Vega addressing him as either/both an intimate partner or caregiver? Is its so-called warmth dependent upon the extent to which Vega’s voice performs idealized white hetero femininity, a role from which patriarchy definitely expects warmth (intimacy, care work) but can’t be bothered to hear anything beyond or other than that from (white) women?

“Suzanne Vega 13. Inselleuchten 02” by Wikimedia Commons user Olaf Tausch under GFDL license (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

In other words, I’m wondering about what ways our compression practices are shaped by white supremacist, patriarchal listening ears. Before anyone even runs an audio signal through a compressor, how do patriarchal gender systems already themselves act as a kind of epistemological and sensory compression that separates out essential from inessential signal, such that we let women’s warm, caring voices through while also demanding they discipline themselves into compressing their anger and rage away?

The literature does address the role of sexism and ableism in the shaping of audio technologies, but this critique is most commonly framed in conventionally liberal terms that understand oppression as a matter of researcher bias that excludes and censors minority voices. For example, the literature addresses the way “cultural differences like gender, age, race, class, nationality, and language” are overlooked by researchers (Jonathan Sterne), offers cursory nods to the biases and preferences of white cis men scientists (Ryan Maguire), or claims that “the principles of efficiency and universality central to the history of signal processing also worked to censure atypical voices and minor modes of communication” (Mara Mills). Though such analyses are absolutely necessary components of sonic cyberfeminist practice, they are not sufficient.

“Untitled” by Flickr user Charlotte Cooper, CC-BY-2.0

We also need to consider the ways frequencies get parsed into the structural positions that masculinity and femininity occupy in Western patriarchal gender systems. Patriarchy doesn’t just influence researchers, their preferences, their choices, and their judgments. How is the break between essential and inessential signal mapped onto the gendered break between what Beauvoir calls “Absolute” and “Other,” masculine and feminine? Patriarchy is not just a relation among people; it is also a relation among sounds. I don’t think this is inconsistent with the positions I cited earlier in this paragraph; rather, I am pursuing the concerns that motivate those positions a bit more emphatically. And this is perhaps because our objects of analysis are slightly different: I’m a political philosopher interested in political structures that shape epistemologies and ontologies—such as the patriarchal gender system organized by masculine absolute/feminine other—whereas most of the scholars I cited earlier have a more STS- and media-studies-approach that is interested in material culture.

As a way to address these questions, I made a short critical karaoke-style sound piece where I read a shortened version of the text below over the original version of “Tom’s Diner” from Vega’s album Solitude Standing (which, for what it’s worth, I first owned on cassette, not digitally). I recorded my voice reciting a condensed version of the framework I develop for a sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression over a copy of the original, a cappella version of “Tom’s Diner.” If I were in philosopher mode, I would theorize the full implications of this aesthetic choice, but I’m offering this as a sound art piece, the material and sensory dimensions of which provide y’all the opportunity to think through those implications yourselves.

[Text from audio]

Perceptual coding and perceptual technics create breaks in the audio spectrum in the same way that neoliberalism and biopolitics create breaks in the spectrum of humanity. Perceptual coding refers to “those forms of audio coding that use a mathematical model of human hearing to actively remove sound in the audible part of the spectrum under the assumption that it will not be heard” (loc 547). Neoliberalism and biopolitics use a mathematical model of human life to actively remove people from eligibility for moral and political personhood on the assumption that they will not be missed. They each use the same basic set of techniques: a normalized model of hearing, the market, or life defines the parameters of what should be included and what should be disposed of, in order to maximize the accumulation of private property/personhood.

These parameters are not objective but grounded in what Jennifer Lynne Stoever calls a “listening ear”: “a socially constructed ideological system producing but also regulating cultural ideas about sound” (13). Perceptual coding uses white supremacist, capitalist presumptions about the limits of humanity to mark a break in what counts as sound and what counts as noise…such as presumptions about feminine voices like Suzanne Vega’s.

Perceptual coding subjects audio frequencies to the same techniques of government and management that neoliberalism and biopolitics subject people to. For this reason, it can serve as a specifically sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression.

It shows us not just how oppression works under neoliberalism and biopolitics, but also its motivations and effects. The point is to increase the efficient accumulation of personhood as property by white supremacist capitalist patriarchal institutions. Privilege is the receipt of social investment and the ability to build on it by access to circulation. Oppression is the denial of this investment and access to circulation. For example, mass incarceration takes people of color out of circulation and subjects them to carceral logics…because this is the way such populations are most profitable for neoliberal and biopolitical white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Featured image: “Solo show: Order and Progress at Fabio Paris Art Gallery (Brescia, 15 January 2011)” by Flickr user Roͬͬ͠͠͡͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠sͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠aͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠ Menkman, CC BY-NC 2.0

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 its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora–Christopher Chien

On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler

Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table–Kimberly Williams

Poptimism and Popular Feminism

Almost 20 years ago, 2 Many DJs and Freelance Hellraiser each released too-clever mashups that laid R&B pop diva vocals over indie rock instrumentals, revealing that the paired songs had exactly the same compositional structure. The former’s “Smells Like Booty” put Destiny’s Child together with Nirvana, and the latter’s “A Stroke of Genius” combined Christina Aguilera with The Strokes. The mashups were clever because they flouted supposedly commonsense views that these these pairings shouldn’t work: how could something as superficial, formulaic, and, frankly, girly as Destiny’s Child and Aguilera have anything in common with something as serious and aggressive as Nirvana and The Strokes? Writing in 2009, Dorian Lynskey explained that “A Stroke of Genius came out when many indie fans still believed that manufactured pop stank of evil and death, and the idea of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes in perfect harmony was strange.” Note Lynskey’s use of the past tense: by 2009, the gatekeepers of elite musical taste generally agreed that commercial, chart-oriented music whose fans were at least thought to be mainly teen girls and/or gay men could be just as artistically valuable as rock and hip hop.

“Tricoteuse” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Public Domain

That consensus has a name: poptimism. Poptimism upends the hierarchy between rock (and sometimes hip hop) and pop, which is a contemporary variation on a very old hierarchy that privileged fine art over craft. Back in the 18th century, philosophers like Immanuel Kant invented the idea of “fine art” by distinguishing it from craft: craft is subordinate to utility (you don’t want your coffee mug to leak), but art exists for its own sake (think of how unwearable some high fashion is, or of Rosemarie Trockel’s art sweaters). As many feminist art historians have argued, this art/craft hierarchy conveniently maps onto patriarchal gender hierarchies: art, like men, is autonomous, whereas craft, like women, are subordinate to daily needs; art is productive, craft is reproductive. For example, art historians Roziska Parker and Griselda Pollock have shown that there is an “intersection in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the development of an ideology of femininity…with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft.” The conceptual and institutional structures that confined women to reproductive labor and craft into the service of life’s reproductive needs were manifestations of the same underlying gender system.

“Jennifer Lopez | Pop Music Festival | 23.06.2012” by Flickr user Ana Carolina Kley Vita, CC BY 2.0. A Google image search of the word “pop music” listed this image as one of the top images.

This same system informs the traditional rock-over-pop hierarchy. In her 2001 article “Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular,” Susan Cook argues that “‘the popular’…has been so thoroughly feminized” and “carries with it a staggering cultural baggage, a trunk full of social codes that have been historically attached to womankind and underprivileged men.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, the distinction between rock and pop was largely grounded in the same gender system that organized the art/craft hierarchy: rock embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal masculinity, and that’s why it was superior, whereas pop embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal femininity, and that’s why it was inferior. In the early 2000s, poptimism revises this gender script, putting “thoroughly feminized” pop on an equal playing field with rock. However, instead of more-or-less uncritically cheerleading for pop and/or pop stars, we should be thinking about the institutions and conventions that dole out artistic status.

“Rock Hard Open Air 2009” by Flickr user Elena, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 article “The Rap Against Rockism” brought the fact of rock-conceived-as-art to the general public’s attention. “Rockism” is the idea that rock music is the only kind of commercial recorded music that has artistic merit. According to Sanneh,

rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices…The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.

Grounded in the idea that rock is superior because it is both made by and for white dudes and expresses the stereotypical features of elite white masculinity, rockism upgrades the gendered (and raced) logics of the fine art/craft distinction into 20th century terms. Meanwhile, poptimism revalues the aspects of pop music that were traditionally de-valued because of their association with stereotypical (often white) femininity: pop is hugely collaborative and rarely written by lone authors; it prioritizes pleasure over deep meaning, beauty and spectacle over substance; its music and its ideas are supposedly simple rather than complex…you get the idea. (Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos explains the gendered implications of poptimism in more depth in this piece about the role of misogyny in critiques of poptimism.)

Sanneh’s article kicked off this millennial round of poptimism, but poptimism’s basic ideas and values go all the way back to the 19th century (which is much later than Michael Kramer argues here). Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of German composer Richard Wagner uses the same basic framework we now call poptimism: Wagner, he argued, was too concerned with deep philosophical meaning and not enough with the beauty and pleasure of the sounds. Saying things like “music is a woman” and that Italian opera is superior to German opera because it’s prettier and more fun (see The Gay Science sections 77-80), Nietzsche also recognized the gender and race dynamics of poptimism: by 19th century standards Italians weren’t fully white, so his prioritization of Italian over German opera subordinates white highbrow culture to not-really-white middle-to-lowbrow culture. In Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he makes his preference for light, unserious art over high culture quite clear. There, he contrasts the “hubbub…with which the ‘cultured’ man and the man about town allow themselves to be forced through art, literature, music, and with the help of intoxicating liquor, to ‘intellectual enjoyments’” with the “nimble, volatile, divinely undisturbed, divinely artificial art, which blazes up like pure flame into a cloudless sky” (emphasis mine). This contrast flips fine art/craft hierarchies and argues that things traditionally devalued as feminine, such as superficiality or sensory pleasure, are artistically superior to all the values commonly attributed to fine art, such as intellectual depth. Though he called it “the joyful wisdom” (die frӧliche Wissenschaft, often translated as The Gay Science) instead of “poptimism,” the later Nietzsche’s music aesthetics articulates the same basic theoretical commitments that inform 21st century poptimism.

The basic idea of poptimism has been around since the late 1880s, but it took more than a century to really take off. In the decade after Sanneh’s article, there was a poptimism bubble: it rose to huge popularity, especially with the publication of Carl Wilson’s 2007 book on fans of cheesy pop music. That bubble started to burst about 9 or 10 years after that book appeared as critics began to sour on poptimism. Though it was initially understood as a radical upheaval of the powers that be, by 2017 poptimism had been co-opted by those powers. Instead of challenging patriarchal gender systems, poptimism reinforced them. Writing in The Quietus, Michael Hann argues that “Poptimism, in practice, has not meant championing those who do not get the acclaim they are due, so much as celebrating the position of artists who don’t need their genius proclaimed” such as Beyonce or Taylor Swift. The oft-noted death of the negative album review suggests that [p]optimism is now the orthodox practice among music critics. (This also coincides with recent trends in academic literary theory, which prize “reparative” readings over critical ones.) Such concerns have led Rob Harvilla to pose the rhetorical question “Have we reached the end of poptimism?” because what began as a feminist revolt now feels like an expectation or obligation to stan for the already powerful, such as corporations and megastars. Hann and Harvilla observe a change in poptimism, at least as it is practiced in the music media and industry: poptimism feels less like rooting for undervalued and underrepresented women and more like cheerleading for The Man. Harvilla speculates about poptimism’s end because this corporate poptimism betrays the movement’s original ideals and values.

Why did the poptimism bubble happen when it did? There were many contributing factors, such as the rise of what sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern call “omnivorous taste,” which is the idea that elites prefer both traditional highbrow culture and a range of lowbrow forms, a.k.a. “I like everything but [usually country or hip hop].” Evolutions in feminist media and activism are another central cause of the poptimist bubble. Because pop is an inherently gendered category defined by its feminization, poptimism’s evolution is closely tied to feminism’s. The poptimism bubble roughly coincides with the period when feminism broke the mainstream and mutated into popular feminism.

This is more than just a correlation or coincidence. “Pop” is a gendered category, so its evolution is inextricably tied to evolving gender norms and politics. Poptimism emerged at the dawn of a broader “woke” turn in popular media and pop culture. The first decades of the 21st century saw the rise of a proliferation of explicitly feminist web publications (Autostraddle, Broadly, Jezebel, etc.) and the circulation of feminist theory outside the academy on social media sites like tumblr. 2014, the year Beyonce brought the big pink “FEMINIST” sign to the VMAs, was the year that feminism broke the mainstream. As media studies scholar Sarah Banet-Wesier argues, around 2014 a variety of white liberal feminism focused primarily on individual economic (and sexual) empowerment; it “became a sort of product” that circulated both as a corporate and individual brand. “Feminism” sold us Tshirts, Spotify playlists, and a couple of Beyonce albums. Banet-Weiser’s term for this feminism as brand or business strategy is “popular feminism.” In 2018, poptimism works more or less like popular feminism: it turns the revaluation of things traditionally devalued because of their femininity into a way to make money.

Screenshot from Beyoncé’s 2014 VMAs performance.

Both popular feminism and corporate poptimism are the result of the same flawed thinking that believes inequality can be fixed just by empowering individuals and not by restructuring the institutions and conventions that structure our relations with one another. This thinking seeks to put formerly low-status things in high status places without reconfiguring the underlying fact that there is a status differential in the first place. 

Banet-Weiser warns that popular feminism is only half of a two-sided coin: “popular misogyny…mimics the operation of popular feminism but flips and distorts the politics.” The incel movement is an example of popular misogyny: arguing that women oppress men by refusing to have sex with them, it takes the language of oppression developed by feminism and uses it to justify the idea of patriarchal sex-right. Similarly, the classical music blog “Slipped Disc” has been described as the “Breitbart of classical music” because its championing of the orthodox Western art music canon is “openly sexist, racist, and LGBT-phobic.” The 2018 Grammy Awards show presented both sides of this coin in stark clarity: as Maura Johnston noted, though the ceremony prominently featured a #MeToo performance from Kesha and other women artists, almost all the awards went exclusively to men.

Screenshot of Kesha’s performance of “Praying” at the 2018 Grammys.

Viewed in Banet-Weiser’s terms, the RIAA seems to be leveraging both sides of this coin to maximize its profits, practicing popular feminism in the streets but popular misogyny on the ballot. Like popular feminism, the RIAA’s poptimism values superficial markers of feminist progress because they obscure patriarchy’s retrenchment. For example, the two most definitive or canonical poptimist texts (the Sanneh article and Wilson book) are authored by cis men, so it may appear that poptimism hasn’t changed those institutions and conventions so much as conformed to them.

I agree with Banet-Weiser that though Feminism™ is certainly limited and insufficient, it can be a helpful gateway for beginners. Poptimism™ is similarly limited and insufficient, but we should think about how we can lead fans brimming with that kind of poptimism to a deeper engagement with the institutions and conventions that continue to value the same kinds of people and the music they make and like above others.

Featured image: “Pop” by Flickr user Andreas Andrews, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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