Listen to yourself!: Spotify, Ancestry DNA, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century
If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like? A few answers, at random: In 1986, the biologist and amateur musician Susumo Ohno assigned pitches to the nucleotides that make up the DNA sequence of the protein immunoglobulin, and played them in order. The gene, to his surprise, sounded like Chopin.
With the advent of personalized DNA sequencing, a British composition studio will do one better, offering a bespoke three-minute suite based on your DNA’s unique signature, recorded by professional soloists—for a 300GBP basic package; or 399GBP for a full orchestral arrangement.
But the most recent answer to this question comes from the genealogy website Ancestry.com, which in Fall 2018 partnered with Spotify to offer personalized playlists built from your DNA’s regional makeup. For a comparatively meager $99 (and a small bottle’s worth of saliva) you can now not only know your heritage, but, in the words of Ancestry executive Vineet Mehra, “experience” it. Music becomes you, and through music, you can become yourself.
As someone who researches for a living the history of connections between music and genetics I am perhaps not the target audience for this collaboration. My instinct is to look past the ways it might seem innocuous, or even comical—especially when cast against the troubling history of the use of music in the rhetoric of American eugenics, and the darker ways that the specter of debunked race science has recently returned to influence our contemporary politics.
During the launch window of the Spotify collaboration, the purchase of a DNA kit was not required, so in the spirit of due diligence I handed over to Spotify what I know of my background: English, Scottish, a little Swedish, a color chart of whites of various shade. (This trial period has since ended, so I have not been able to replicate these results—however, some sample “regional” playlists can be found on the collaboration homepage).
While I mentally prepared myself to experience the sounds of my own extreme whiteness, Ancestry and Spotify avoid the trap of overtly racialized categories. In my playlist, Grime artist Wiley is accorded the same Englishness as the Cure. And ‘Scottish-Irish’, still often a lazy shorthand for ‘White’, boasted more artists of color than any other category. Following how the genetic tests themselves work, geography, rather than ethnicity, guides the algorithm’s hand.
As might be expected, the playlists lean toward Spotify’s most popular sounds: “song machine” pop, and hip-hop. But in smaller regions with less music in Spotify’s catalog, the results were more eclectic—one of the few entries of Swedish music in my playlist was an album of Duke Ellington covers from a Stockholm-based big band, hardly a Swedish “national sound.” Instead, the music’s national identity is located outside of the sounding object, in the information surrounding it, namely the location tag associated with the recording. In other words: this is a nationalism of metadata.
One of the common responses to the Ancestry-Spotify partnership was, as, succinctly expressed by Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic: ‘Your DNA is not your culture’. But because of the muting of musical sound in favor of metadata, we might go further: in Spotify’s catalog, your culture is not even your culture. The collaboration works because of two abstractions—the first, from DNA, to a statistical expression of probable geographic origin; and second from musical sound and style characteristics, to metadata tags for a particular artist’s location. In both of these moves, traditional sites of social meaning—sounding music, and regional or familial cultural practice—are vacated.
There is a way in which this model could come across as subversive (which has not gone unnoticed by Ancestry’s advertising team). Hijacking the presumed whiteness of a Scotland or a Sweden to introduce new music by communities previously barred from the possibility of ‘Scotishness’ or ‘Swedishness’ could be a tremendously powerful way of building empathy. It could rebut the very possibility of an ethno-state. But the history of music and genetics suggests we might have less cause for optimism.
In the 1860s, Francis Galton, coiner of the word ‘eugenics’, turned to music to back up his nascent theory of ‘hereditary genius’—that artistic talent, alongside intelligence, madness, and other qualities were inherited, not acquired. In Galton’s view, musical ability was the surest proof that talents were inherited, not learned, for how else could child prodigies stir the soul in ways that seem beyond their years? The fact of music’s irreducibility, its romantic quality of transcendence, was for Galton what made it the surest form of scientific proof.
Galton’s ideas flourished in America in the first decades of the twentieth century. And while American eugenics is rightly remembered for its violence—from a sequence of forced sterilization laws beginning with Indiana in 1907, to ever-tightening restrictions on immigration, and scientific propaganda against “miscegenation” under Jim Crow—its impact was felt in every area of life, including music. The Eugenics Record Office, the country’s leading eugenic research institution, mounted multiple studies on the inheritance of musical talent, following Galton’s idea that musical ability offered an especially persuasive test-case for the broader theory of heritability. For 10 years the Eastman School of Music experimented on its newly admitted students using a newly-developed kind of “musical IQ test”, psychologist Carl Seashore’s “Measures of Musical Talent”, and Seashore himself presented results from his tests at the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York in 1923, the largest gathering of the global eugenics movement ever to take place. His conclusion: that musical ability was innate and inherited—and if this was true for music, why not for criminality, or degeneracy, or any other social ill?
Next to the tragedy of the early twentieth century, Spotify and Ancestry teaming up seems more like a farce. But scientific racism is making a comeback. Bell Curve author Charles Murray’s career is enjoying a second wind. Border patrol agents hunt “fraudulent families” based on DNA swabs, and the FBI searches consumer DNA databases without customer’s knowledge. ‘Unite the Right’ rally organizer Jason Kessler ranked races by IQ, live on NPR.. And, while Ancestry sells itself on liberal values, many white supremacists have gone after ‘scientific’ confirmation for their sense of superiority, and consumer DNA testing has given them the answers they sought (though, often, not the answers they wanted.)
As consumer genetics gives new life to the assumptions of an earlier era of race science, the Spotify-Ancestry collaboration is at once a silly marketing trick, and a tie, whether witting or unwitting, to centuries of hereditarian thought. It reminds us that, where musical eugenics afforded a legitimizing glow to the violence of forced sterilization, the Immigration Acts, and Jim Crow, Spotify and Ancestry can be seen as sweeteners to modern-day race science: to DNA tests at the border, to algorithmic policing, and to “race realists” in political office. That the appeal of these abstractions—from music to metadata, from culture to geography, from human beings to genetic material—is also their danger. And finally, that if we really want to hear our heritage, listening, rather than spitting in a bottle, might be the best place to start.
Featured Image: “DNA MUSIC” Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Alexander Cowan is a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. He holds an MMus from King’s College, London, and a BA in Music from the University of Oxford. His dissertation, “Unsound: A Cultural History of Music and Eugenics,” explores how ideas about music and musicality were weaponized in British and US-American eugenics movements in the first half of the twentieth century, and how ideas from this period survive in both modern music science, and the rhetoric of the contemporary far right.
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CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: SO! Podcast #81: The Intimacy and Public Feeling of a Post-Troika Emotional Recovery
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This week we are glad to share a podcast on intimacy and public feeling. Our host, Ana Pais looks at several performances which premiered in Portugal between 2017 and 2019: Happy Show, by Miguel Pereira; Tristeza in English from Spanish, by Sónia Baptista; Cinderella, by Lígia Soares; and Every Brilliant Thing, by Ivo Canelas. Pais examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of public feeling (or public affect) as well as how they influence our everyday experience using the format of a radio broadcast.
Formulated by Lauren Berlant (2011), the concept public feeling defines public spheres as collectively generated and negotiated words of affect. The private sphere where we experience our emotions and feelings most intimately is conditioned and shaped by economic, political and cultural forces. They fuel desires and fantasies that circulate in cultural narratives. This podcast questions why the Portuguese artists listed above chose to pick happiness, sadness, depression and romantic love as topics for development in the current Portuguese political and social situation? How do these affects reflect, reinforce and subvert a post-Troika context with a Left Wing coalition government and a President of the Republic called–even before he took office–the “president of affection”?
Featured image is of Miguel Pereira’s Happy Show. It is used with permission by the author.
Ana Pais is a dramatuge, curator, and FCT Postdoctoral Fellow at CET – Centro de Estudos de Teatro at the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon. She is currently undertaking the research project “Practices of Feeling” in which she approaches the affective dimensions of performance through embodied knowledge and sound knowledge. She is the author of Discourse of Complicité: Contemporary Dramaturgies (Colibri 2004), Affective Rhythms in the Performing Arts (Colibri 2018), and the editor of Performance na Esfera Pública (2017, Orfeu Negro) and its online version in English available at www.performativa.pt. From 2005 to 2010, she was an Assistant Professor at Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema (Lisbon). As a dramaturge, she has worked with theatre and dance professionals in Portugal (João Brites, Tiago Rodrigues, Rui Horta and Miguel Pereira). She curated, coordinated and produced various discursive practice events, such as: Indirecções Generativas – baldio (co-curation; Espaço do Tempo, 2013), Conversas Domésticas (Temps d’Images festival, 2013 and 2014), O Poder dos Afectos Lecture Series (Culturgest, February 2015), Dirty Ear Forum artistic residency (co-curated with Brandon LaBelle, Lisbon, 30thSeptember – 5th October), and Projecto P! Performance na Esfera Pública (Lisbon, 10-14th April 2017).
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Welcome to Next Gen sound studies! In the month of November, you will be treated to the future. . . today! In this series, we will share excellent work from undergraduates, along with the pedagogy that inspired them. You’ll read voice biographies, check out blog assignments, listen to podcasts, and read detailed histories that will inspire and invigorate. Bet. –JS
Today’s post comes from Binghamton University sophomore Kaitlyn Liu, former SO! intern and student in SO! Editor-in-Chief J. Stoever’s English 380W “How We Listen,” an introductory, upper-division sound studies course at Binghamton University, with a typical enrollment of 45 students. This assignment asked students to
write a 3-page biography of your voice. You may choose to organize the paper and tell the story however you wish, as long as you consider your experience in light our classroom readings and conversations. . .Here are some questions to help you get started. You do not need to answer all of them, but they may lead you toward some important realizations that you can share through this paper: Have you thought critically about your voice before this class? Why or why not? If so, when did you first become conscious of your voice? Why?What do you love about your voice? Why? Who were your models for learning how to speak and style your voice? Have you ever wanted to change your voice? Why or why not? Have you? Have you liked or disliked your voice at some times in your life more than others?
For the full assignment sheet, click Voice Biography Assignment_F18. For the grading rubric, click Voice Biography Grading Rubric_F18. For the full Fall 2018 syllabus, click english-380w_how-we-listen_fall-2018
While the course usually seats mainly juniors and seniors, Kaitlyn was only a freshman when she wrote this powerful piece!
The first joke I can recall took place in fourth grade; then again, I am unsure why it is easier to call it a joke rather than its true word, which I learned only three years ago. Perhaps, given the fact that an eight-year-old is typically still protected from most forms of racism, the fact that I could only categorize this statement as a joke back then is what propels me to do so again as a college student.
I remember that he hadn’t even formed words, he simply yelled out sounds. He pulled on the corner of his eyes and did his best impression of an Asian man’s accent from across the room, letting the whole class know his perception of my race. Ten years later, I realize that this incident was just the start of a lifelong endurance of misjudgment, bigotry, and the largely unwelcome narration of my life.
In tenth grade, I applied for a student exchange program my high school had recently undertook called Community Wide Dialogue. The program involved my suburban school pairing up with an urban school nearby to discuss, and hopefully dismantle, racist ideals within our city. Although there is no explicit definition of the word “suburban” that details an overwhelming whiteness of its residents, this seems to be the case more often than not. After being accepted into the group, I attended our school’s first informative session about the program. Walking into the room, I quickly noticed that of nearly twenty-five students, I was the only minority they had accepted. I remember thinking to myself, Is this the best they can do? Am I a token minority here? My school had, albeit scarce, minority representation; why weren’t they included?
Being a minority in a program specifically designated for alleviating such ideals meant that I felt very discouraged from speaking in a setting where discussion, specifically from the point of view of minorities, was essential to the goal. I found it was often the white males of both groups speaking for minorities. One day, we studied vocabulary pertaining to racism; this is when I first learned that the term “color blindness” was actually quite racist, as opposed to its intended meaning. Additionally, this is when I first learned the word for what I had been hearing my entire life: microaggressions. My experience suddenly became real; what I had been calling “jokes” was racism.
I felt validated. Being Chinese-American, I am lucky to be protected from more extreme forms of racism that members of the African-American or Latinx population may face. Similarly, I am a minority, but in contrast, I am not perceived as a threat. I am not, as Sandra Bland was, a cause for a repulsive increase in the ease of extending an official white hand. I will never be the tragedy that causes Regina Bradley, a Black professor, to cautiously check herself in order to abide by her grandmother’s warning: “don’t attract attention to yourself.”
The most extreme racism I have endured lies in statements similar to: “Of course you did well on that test!” The only thing that surprised me is that these statements never came from strangers or acquaintances; instead, it was always my closest friends who felt comfortable enough to cause my own sense of discomfort. The most harmful thing about microaggressions is that it is socially unacceptable for the victim to verbalize their being affected by these hurtful phrases. When a victim acknowledges they are hurt, perpetrators are quick to cast their pain aside as hypersensitivity, working to further marginalize them while justifying their own discrimination.
Staying quiet had everything to do with who I was: a female and a minority. I let my intelligence show through my writing and my academic performance. Even if I wanted to speak, I was aware of the little relevance my voice had to others, particularly boys. As Kelly Baker remarks in “Listen to the Sound of My Voice,” “teenage girls were supposed to be seen, but when they spoke they had to master the right combination in order to be heard.” Of course, just like Baker, I, along with several other females, never could master this cultural puzzle.
I took after most girls when I say that I tended not to speak much in class so as not to make boys uncomfortable by letting them into a female’s darkest secret: I was smarter than most of them. My teachers knew, of course, but they rarely mandated that I spoke out loud. I developed an especially close relationship with my English teacher of two years; he was one of the teachers who had the most insight into my thoughts as written in formal assignments. In other words, he knew my capabilities.
In my second year of his class, he announced that there would be a slam poetry unit in which each student had to write a five-minute poem regarding something they felt strongly about. Most students were quick to write about their perception of the injustice of the school system. I assume this topic was popular due to it being deemed “safe,” meaning the majority of students had the exact same beliefs, and because, as I alluded to before with my deep, dark secret, who would want to make anyone uncomfortable by saying something meaningful?
I decided I would. I could have easily written a poem about a neutral subject that still would have been much more memorable than the others in the class, but my teacher had a faith in me that I decided I would not disobey by lowering my standards for the sake of my classmates’ comfort, so, I did it. I talked about being Asian.
I started the poem with quotes of microaggressions I have heard during my life. It’s said that opening with a joke can lighten the mood, and that was what these sayings were to them, right? I had judged their reactions rightfully; the crowd laughed at the pure absurdity of most of these quotes. When I turned the subject of the poem to how it made me feel, however, is when the class went silent. My voice shook until I reached the third page. I ended up winning the class award for that poem, but do not let that fool you into the amount of eyes that refused to meet mine when I finished speaking.
Their embarrassment is how I knew it had worked. People can cast away a few comments or corrections, but given a platform and five minutes of speech that can not be interrupted, people have to listen. More importantly, they have to listen to me. One of the rules the teacher had put in place regarding our poetry slam was that listeners had to ask each speaker questions after they read their poem in order to receive credit. Our school’s pride and joy, our white, male, three-sport athlete valedictorian, was the first to raise his hand.
“How often do you hear these jokes?”
“Three to five times a day,” I responded loudly, bluntly.
There were no follow up questions.
The word got around. I had people coming up to me and asking me about the poem they had heard about; they began to call it the “Asian poem.” I noticed immediately that the microaggressions stopped, and when a friend witnessed one of the very few I encountered afterwards, her mouth dropped, looking at me to say, “It’s just like the poem!”
My voice had officially become my own through… poetry? I had never considered the ability to find my voice and, in turn, myself through a writing form that I thought to be obsolete. I began writing poems about everything- immigration, love, mental illness, sexual assault- and what was most important is that I was praised. As a Chinese teenage girl, I was heard. I was heard by my classmates, by SUNY Oswego, by Ithaca College, by Scholastic. I realized that poetry could better consolidate and portray my thoughts on a topic than a simple speech. It was the art of speech, the cunning of rhyme scheme and line breaks that finally made what I had to say captivating to others because my skill was admirable. It was an acquired learning, figuring out what to cut, where to end, when to eliminate punctuation to portray certain emotions- it was a combination I actually enjoyed solving.
I ended up using this poem for my college application. I distinctly remember handing in a rough draft of what I thought to be the epitome of a college essay only to have my teacher promptly return it, saying, “You should use your poem instead. That is what is going to show your writing skills- not the typical college essay.” She gathered two other English teachers of mine to consult over the idea. Poetry was not the safest choice for a college application. One of the essay prompts on the application was very vague, simply claiming that the selection of this prompt would indicate that your writing was an explanation of something that the you felt was too important to leave missing from the rest of your application. The four of us easily came to a consensus: this was what colleges needed to see. Call it affirmative action, but I firmly believe it was the quality of my writing–the way it carries the sound and the force of my voice–rather than the subject that got me where I am today.
My secret was finally out; I have shit to say.
Featured Image: “Voice” by Flickr User Laurel Russwurm (CC BY 2.0)
Kaitlyn Liu is a sophomore at Binghamton University with an intended major of English Literature with a concentration in rhetoric. Kaitlyn takes interest in writing about gender and race along with other intersectional classification systems. She has a passion for nonprofit work, including her previous work with student writers to raise funds for Ophelia’s Place, a nonprofit that provides support for those impacted by body image. Kaitlyn has also been awarded two gold keys for her writing through the Scholastic Art & Writing regional contest. Outside of writing, Kaitlyn enjoys reading historical fiction and singing for Binghamton’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, the Binghamtonics.
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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonefant