Pop’s Chill Thrills Aren’t So Cheap

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

!!!!!!!, or Blog-o-Versary 7.0

!!!!!!!

** Click here to just cut to the chase and get the new mix already! LOL!**

From the very beginning, the exclamation point has been our thing. Our deeply meaningful, utopically earnest, passionately heartfelt, stubbornly insistent, collectively exposing-our-geeky-love-and-enthusiasm-to-the-world THING. And over the past seven years we have fought for it, demanded it—#sorrynotsorry print copy editors!—and, as is our fondest wish, lived and embodied it for our readers each and every Monday (and the occasional Thursday too).

On the occasion of our seventh Blog-o-versary, we wanted to share the affective vibrations of our ! with y’all, for the deceptively simple reason that we want you to feel !!!!!!!, too.

After seven years of inserting it here, there, and everywhere, we assure you our ! is not merely a visual throwaway or empty hijinks. Neither is it a public punchline to a private joke, a snooty/snotty academic tic, nor a precious hipster eye-roll.  It’s not a “brand.” It was not intended as nostalgic homage to the many ! bands from the aughts or the many !-heavy songs of 1970s and 80s punk (although “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!,” totally). And during these times of solidarity and upheaval, let us be especially LOUD and clear: the exclamation mark in Sounding Out! is not, and has never been, tongue-in-cheek. We really, really mean it!

So what, then, is the “!” in Sounding Out!??

You already know what it is.

It’s a sound.

A Cosmic Exclamation Point (NASA, Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, 08/11/11), Image from Marshall Space Flight Center Flickrstream

A Cosmic Exclamation Point (NASA, Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, 08/11/11), Image from Marshall Space Flight Center Flickrstream

It’s a shoulder-shaking shout expressing our desire for ourselves and our writers to be heard, a sound that reaches out and touches, and hears in turn. It’s a sound that viscerally performs our down-ness, our dedication, our willingness to go there (and to stay put and listen). It’s a wail of feedback. a belly laugh. a grito. a hearty WTF. a down low OMG yes OMG (s/o to ATCQ!). a tsk of tongue against teeth. a ribcage-rattling beat. a yessssss with an ‘80s elbow pump.  It’s the sound—heard, known, and sensed—of all those women feeling themselves at Beatles concerts, of thousands of voices rising together in love, power and frustration to tell the world (yet again) that #blacklivesmatter, to #sayhername and #stopkillingus . . .it’s not a specific sound, but yet you know it when you hear it, because it gives you goosebumps.

Our “!” is a—BLAM—mic drop, mixed with the grumble of the roadie who picks it up, fixes it, and passes it on. and, oh!, that anticipatory, skin-pricking static of listening out for who’s got next.

Exclamation Point (Chartreuse) by Richard Artschwager, Image by Flicker User Designmilk

Exclamation Point (Chartreuse) by Richard Artschwager, Image by Flicker User Designmilk

When we decided on the blog’s title back in 2009, the ! in Sounding Out! was never a subject of debate—it just appeared organically as an organic “AHA! of course!”  At the time, the “!” acoustically mirrored of how the editorial collective communicated enthusiastically with each other, and symbolized, sonically and ineffably, how we thought and, more importantly, felt about the mission we laid out for ourselves and the blog, the mission we explore, challenge and renew in the company of our readers each July.  That “!” puts in deeply resonant WORK, with dedication and feeling, just like we do—through words, but beyond, above, around, and below them too, hitting all those affective frequencies we don’t—or can’t—often talk about.  It’s a sound that, like us, merges and keeps changing with history, context, and experience.

Here’s what the “!” has meant, and sounded, in our seventh year:

!!!!!!! Dedication!!!!!!!

#Squadselfie (l-r): SO! interns Dhruv Sehgal, Daniel Santos, Michele Quiles and SO! Ed. in Chief J. Stoever

#Squadselfie (l-r): SO! interns Dhruv Sehgal, Daniel Santos, Michele Quiles and SO! Ed. in Chief J. Stoever

This spring, we completed our indexing project, which has been years in the making, with the dedication and assistance of our three undergraduate interns from the Binghamton University English Department: Daniel Santos, Dhruv Sehgal, and Michele Quiles.  In exchange for mentorship and the opportunity to throw themselves into the inner workings of SO!, these three tirelessly compiled a hotlinked listing of each and every post we have ever published (of which today’s is the 466th!).

Click here to view the index in all of its scrollable glory!

You can reorganize the list by title, date, or author—whatever suits your needs.  We hope this continues to keep our very worthy back catalog in circulation and that SO! only becomes easier to read, teach and learn from!

And, of course, we extend huge, hearty, and numerous praise-hand emoji thank yous to our trusty Assistant Visual Editor, Will Stabile, to Special Editor Neil Verma, who curated several series for SO! Thursdays this year, and to you, our dedicated writers, readers, retweeters, word-of-mouthers, sticker bearers, and general good vibe givers.  We are here because you are!

!!!!!!!SOUND!!!!!!!!

This year found our podcast series—helmed by Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell—more experimental and sonic than ever.  While continuing to offer recordings of symposia (here’s one on Dirty Jerz punx), soundwalks (here’s one aural trip through Yoshiwara, Tokyo), and documentaries (here’s one on the New England Soundscape Project), our podcasts have included more installation work, bringing the sound art of folks such as Cecelia Suhr (“From Ancient Soul to Ether”) and David Mollin and Salomé Voegelin (“Languages of Exile”) directly to your inboxes, earbuds, and audiostreams. By way of celebrating our 50th (!!!!!!!) podcast, AT also handled some audiophile beef regarding our so-called “low-fi” aesthetic in his February 2016 post “A Manifesto, or Sounding Out!’s 51st Podcast!!!,” click here to read more about how and why we sound like we do.

!!!!!!!Exploration!!!!!!!

Sounding Out! continued to push the boundaries of the field of sound studies this year, geographically and intellectually.  We continued to amplify artists, scholars, research, and experiences beyond the US borders, this year focusing intensively on Canada (see the bold “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project” series curated by Neil Verma, edited by Randolph Jordan and featuring himself, Vincent Andrisani, and Mitchell Akiyama, ) and focusing more intensively on Asia, particularly Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China-via-Canada (in an excellent post by University of Southern California graduate student Christopher Chien on how format–and so-called “surface noise” record and express diasporic movements) and the pan-Asian performances of transgender sound artist Tara Transitory (Singapore, Vietnam, and Laos, as analyzed in a moving post by Justyna Stasiowska, a PhD student at Jagiellonian University in Poland).  We also began an experimental multi-part series tracing Rui Chaves‘s efforts to develop new, more context-oriented methods to archive Brazilian sound artists that will continue through early next year.

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“Exclamations,” image by Flickr user littlefishyjes

Intellectually, our themed series and forums explored–and pushed beyond–various boundaries in the cultural study of sound– challenging alleged demarcations between sound and “sense” (Karly Lynne-Scott‘s Hysterical Sound), queering distinctions between sound and touch (Airek Beauchamp‘s Sound and Affect), amplifying the sonics of ancient, seemingly-silent texts for contemporary listeners (Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman‘s Medieval Sound) and challenging distinctions of canny and uncanny in regard to the “voice” (Julie Beth Napolin‘s Sonic Shadows).

Not to be outdone, our individual posts, too pushed the study of sound toward new knowledge, perspectives, politics, and ethics.  In year 7, SO! documented how recording amplifies acts of protest and makes them “multi-sited,”  identified “Afecto Caribeño” across migrations of time, space, and media, remembered the sound of Public Enemy’s afro-future twenty-five years on, broadcasted live from the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference at the Library of Congress, delved into the “slow, loud, and banging” sound Paul Wall pumps out of Houston’s slabs, eulogized the sound of freedom Prince offered his listeners, questioned how “listening fits into reparative justice for the victims of sterilization,” and shouted Sandra Bland’s name, LOUD.

!!!!!!!Expansion!!!!!!!

7.0 brought us our first regular podcaster, Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar Marcella Ernest (Phd Candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, listen to her exemplary “Finding the Lost Sounds of Kaibah” here) and two new regular writers, Robin James (Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte) and Justin Burton (Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University) both of whom think through the vexing but productive nexus between popular music and sound studies. Justin and Robin engage each other’s work in an ongoing dialogue about music, race, and gender even as they push toward diverse theoretical horizons and musical genres.

!!!!!!! Presence!!!!!!!

12107251_1052572291448221_547284947837984628_n (1)SO! continues to bring you the best, most exciting and incisive work in the field because we GO there–there in this case being conferences, concerts, art openings, receptions and other happenings–and we listen, meeting potential writers and encouraging them to become part of Team SO! and share their work with our readership.  We work hard to merge the amazing technological opportunities for digital communication with the best of “IRL” camaraderie and collegiality, opening up new affective channels that nurture ideas and accountable communities.

This past year, SO! editors repped the blog in person in Toronto, ON (#2015ASA); Washington DC (#rtpf); Riverside, CA (#showprove16); Stony Brook, NY (); Madison, WI; Los Angeles, CA; Irvine, CA; Houston, TX, New York City, NY; Albuquerque, NM, Las Vegas, NV, and Montreal, Quebec. We gave talks, checked out panels, livetweeted, co-sponsored events (hip hop concert by Sammus, anyone? YES PLEASE!), met one-on-one with graduate students, attended caucus meetings, ran for office, worked rooms, gave workshops on digital publishing, and even passed out the last (!) of our yellow-and-red stickers.  In short, we hustled to be present for you and for the work, and we will continue on into year 8!

!!!!!!!Amplification!!!!!!!

Exclamation, Image by Flickr user Shallom Johnson

Exclamation, Image by Flickr user Shallom Johnson

Our ongoing SO! Amplifies series really took off this year, and we took seriously the task of scouring the web to bring you truly innovative praxis in sound.  It’s purpose is twofold: to increase your awareness of cool people and projects engaging sound as an active medium–listen to them! write about them! spread the word!–AND to present insight into how archivists, makers, editors, and curators understand their own work, a sort of “behind the sound” perspective into their work.  This year, we brought you preservation outreach! apps + maps! hashtag projects! podcasts! archives! art exhibits!

But, wait! There’s more!

The “notes” on our Facebook page is *still the best place to hear about calls for art, calls for posts, and upcoming conferences, shows, and volumes in sound studies. “Like” us here and please continue to keep us in the loop regarding new projects. We love to signal boost!

!!!!!!! Highlight Reel!!!!!!!

See what’s new with SO! authors and community members this year (courtesy of managing editor Liana Silva). Congratulations everyone (and keep those cards, letters, and pitches coming!).

  •  In the last year Robin James has been working on a book manuscript called The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance & Post-Identity Biopolitics. It argues many “neo-” and “post-” theories, like neoliberal political economy or new materialist posthumanism, double down on the “audiovisual litany” and use the shift from visual to sonic epistemologies to mark their supposed overcoming of modernity’s limitations. When she’s not franticly finishing that book, she’s been giving talks and interviews about her book Resilience & Melancholy, and written a lot for SO! James is already thinking about her next book project, which uses radio station WOXY/97x “The Future of Rock n Roll” to think about what the “future” of rock n roll sounded like in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, right before it slipped into a seemingly vicious cycle of retromania.
  • Gretchen Jude presented earlier this year a paper on Vocaloids at the EMP Conference in Seattle (http://www.empmuseum.org/programs-plus-education/programs/pop-conference.aspx).  Her submission to the !!!!!!! mixtape reflects this line of research.  Next March, she will be presenting a paper in Tokyo on female vocality in early 20th century Japanese popular song (at the first International Musicology Congress in Asia).  The music she’ll talk about in this second paper also appeared in her Sounding Out! soundwalk post. Her dissertation research will be supported by a UC Davis Bilinski Dissertation Year Fellowship in 2016-17.
  • This year Carlo Patrão produced and debuted four documentaries about Sound and Listening for the Portuguese national radio station Antena 2 RTP, covering the themes of bioacoustics, archaeoacoustics, sonic violence, endangered soundscapes and sonification of cosmic data. Also, he participated in WFMU’s expanded radio stream Optimized!, programmed by Vicki Bennet/People Like Us. You can find out more about his radio work here: zeppelinruc.wordpress.com
  • Daniel Santos recently graduated from SUNY Binghamton with highest honors after completing his thesis on the relationship between BU students and Triple Cities residents. Next week he starts a position as an associate teacher with Success Academy Charter School.
  • For more information about Assistant Visual Editor Will Stabile, please visit your local library. You’ll learn about his burgeoning work in the field of comedy, and if you ask they might let you look at the microfiche.
  • Liana Silva will be taking her presence to the public classroom this fall, as she becomes a high school English teacher in her new home, Houston TX. #htownvicious She continues to research Jean Grae’s music for an upcoming chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies. And of course she wouldn’t leave SO!, so you can still find her here at the blog, where she’s currently editing the series DH and Listening.
  • Jennifer Stoever‘s book, The Sonic Color line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening will be published this November by New York University Press (preorder available here).  She also has chapters forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies (on the importance of black women and Latina record collectors to hip hop) and in the Provoke! volume on digital sound studies (Duke UP), co-authored with Liana Silva and Aaron Trammell, a tell-all exposing exactly how much fun we all have working our asses off on this blog.

Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University.

Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “!!!!!!!” mix 7.0 with track listing.


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

Sounding Out! Podcast #56: !!!!!!!

!!!!!!!

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: !!!!!!! Mix

SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES

ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST

!!!!!!!

Beyoncé, “Formation”—Regina N. Bradley & André Carrington
Mitski, “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”—Liana Silva & Chris Chien
Desi Arnaz, “Babalu”—Reina Prado
Celia Cruz, “La Vida es un Carnaval”—Dolores Inés Casillas
Audra Mae, “Jebidiah Moonshine’s Friday Night Shack Party”—Will Stabile
Skrillex And Diplo, “Febreze” (Feat. 2 Chainz)—Robin James
Desiigner, “Panda” (LUCA LUSH remix)—Justin Burton
David Bowie, “I’m Afraid of Americans”—Primus Luta
Jlin, “Black Diamond”—Mitchell Akiyama
Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”—Emma Leigh Waldron
1st Generation, “Remain Cool”—Natalia Linares
The Raincoats,  “In Love”—Josh Shepperd
Lithuania, “Kill the Thing You Love”—Frank Bridges
Alma Cogan, “In the Middle of the House”—Cynthia Wang
The Books, “I Didn’t Know That”—Carlo Patrão
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, “Candy Candy”—Gretchen Ju
Saki Kabata, “Lonely Rolling Star”—Aaron Trammell
Mega Ran, “Infinite Lives” (Feat. D&D Sluggers)—Jennifer Stoever

From “listening” to “filling in”: where “La Soeur Écoute” Teaches Us to Listen

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DH Listening

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

Next week Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us last week about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Today, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. As she reflects on this nun’s job, she senses her notion of listening (especially in the context of the digital) change.

Sit down, fade into the background, and listen closely. Mother Superior will want all the details.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Who is she?

At the beginning of my doctoral research on listening, while I looked in French dictionaries for the word “écoute” I came upon, almost systematically, the expression “soeur écoute.” For example, this dictionary says “soeur écoute” is a nun who, in a monastery, accompanies in the parlor room another nun who gets visited.

This is how I met this cloistered nun called “la soeur écoute” (literally, “the sister listening”, or “sister listen”, if a literal translation has any sense here). The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions. She is a listener, just as you would say, “I’m a librarian”. However I prefer to say “she is listener”, without the “a”, even if it is not proper English. In French, elle est écoute, and believe me, this resonates amazingly. To me, the “soeur écoute” is a fascinating woman because her activity has ceased to exist in monasteries, allowing me to imagine her experience, behavior, life and occupation as a cloistered nun.

Here she is at work. A visitor is knocking on the monastery’s door  — can you hear it? The “soeur écoute” welcomes the visitor and leads him/her through the place until they reach the parlor. The room is divided in two spaces by a metal or wooden grille, the sacred one and the secular one. The “soeur écoute” has the visitor sitting in front of the grille, on the secular side of the room. On the other side, the nun who is being visited is already sitting, waiting for the “soeur écoute” to pull aside the curtain that hides the grille. The “soeur écoute” then sits next to the visited nun, slightly in the background. During the conversation, she neither speaks nor moves nor takes any notes. She just listens. When the session is finished, she closes the curtain and leads the visitor to the exit. Later, she promptly reports what she heard to the mother abbess.

The word “écoute” has three moments in its evolution over time (of course with some overlapping). In order: someone, somewhere, something. “Someone” refers to the 12th century (“écoute,” as a person, is attested in France at the beginning of this century), and “somewhere” to the 15th (meaning the place from where you listen). Then, listening considered as “something” (the “thing” you must have to be able to hear attentively) goes back the 19th. In our common comprehension of what listening is, we are now entirely in the “something” part, with no overlapping at all. For my research, the minute I started to look at my “object” as a “person,” my thinking shifted. The “soeur écoute” rung a bell: we are in the “something” timeframe of the notion of listening, and this could blind us in our comprehension of what listening in 2016 really is.

Listening Behind Bars

Firstly, the “soeur écoute” is also called, in some sources, “auscultatrice.” For example, I found a mention (with a missing “t”) of such nuns in a primary source of 1705 concerning the Ursulines de la Congrégration de Paris. The document tells neither how the “auscultatrice” should behave, nor the technical rules to apply, such as the distance between the grille and the visited nun, or the distance between the “auscultatrice” and the visited nun. But it does indicate how the visited nun should behave with her. In the section called “De la manière dont les Religieuses se doivent comporter au Parloir” (How nuns must behave in the parlor), we read:

Règlemens des religieuses Ursulines, 1705, p. 95.

“They will be humble and reserved in their behavior. They will avoid inappropriate gestures, as well as the distraction of sight, bursts of laughing, speaking loudly or impetuously, although they always are expected to speak in an intelligible way, so that the auscultatrice can hear them” (my translation).

The term “auscultatrice” is reminiscent of the very roots of the word “écoute,” the Latin auscultare, a combination of “(…)auris, a word that gives the first part of the verb auscultare,” and “a tension, an intention and an attention, which the second part of the term marks’, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains.

In the case of the Ursulines, it is a paradox, as the word “écoute” had been used since the 12th century, and the expression “soeur écoute” commonly used since the end of the Middle Ages. I suspect a marketing reason here: “auscultatrice” sounds much more strict and in-depth than “soeur écoute,” providing the idea of a pure and original listening, if not conservative.

Second, the “soeur écoute” is part-time. A primary source dating of 1628, in a 1876 book, mentions 25 nuns interviewed about their occupations inside the Sainte-Praxède monastery. Seven among them claim to be or to have been “auscultatrice” (p. 52–54, 193, 198, 212, 234). All of them double it up with another job, such as nurse or organist. Some of them also claim being “auscultatrice de la porte” (auscultatrice of the door) or “auscultatrice du parloir” (auscultatrice in the parlor). The grille, the door and her body (when she strides along the monastery), are her work instruments, her listening prostheses.

Third, the “soeur écoute” appears to have amazing skills. In the Dictionnaire françois, by Pierre Richelet (1680), she is called “tierce”, meaning she is the third element in the triangle of the setting in the parlor, hence, a mediation :

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 448

Also, the plural “ÉCOUTES“ (written in capital, as to demonstrate a precedence on the singular form) : “this word is used to designate people placed to listen and to discover what is happening” (my translation).

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 265

She indeed has an ability to discover what is happening, by watching, observing, monitoring, keeping an eye, but also by aggregating the data she is collecting.

The parlor in motion

As I was writing a few pages devoted to the “soeur écoute” for my dissertation, I stumbled upon an oral history documentary,funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, called Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). As Abbie Reese describes on her website, it is “a collaborative documentary film  — a portrait made with and about a young woman transitioning into a cloistered religious community that follows an ancient rule.” Reese explains:

The severity of their lives is striking. During the four visits permitted each year, the nuns and their loved ones are separated by a metal grille and are not supposed to reach through the bars to touch one another.

Today, this order, as others, uses “extern sisters” to provide the link with the outside world.

Intrigued by this grille, reminiscence of the “soeur écoute,” I watched the 8-minute demo and was stricken by two moments. The first one, at 2:20, shows Abbie Reese in the parlor, with a computer, in front of the metal grille. Behind it, one of the cloistered nuns reaches the computer through the bars in order to plug in a cable. At 07:55, this time from the point of view of the Poor Clare nuns, we see the parlor with the grille covered by a green curtain. A nun walks in, pulls aside the curtain. Then, at 08:02, from the secular side again, a nun closes the curtain while saying : “you can turn it off!”.

What did we just witness? A cloistered contemplative nun reached through a metal grille to transfer some video files into a computer. It is here, around this gesture, that I see digital humanities coming into the picture along with listening. Of course I’m not building a case on the cable itself, or on the video files. It is the gesture more than anything else that draws my attention: the exact moment where the nun reaches the computer through the bars.

A surveilled sequence of events

As it comes from the outside world, by definition a visit to the monastery disturbs the extremely scheduled sequence of events and rules giving rythm to the monastery’s life. From this point of view, the “soeur écoute” is the only one, in the enclosure of the monastery, in power of keeping watch (“épier”) on what is around her. In All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (English edition to be released in December 2016), Peter Szendy evokes the “écoute” (as a person) as the one whose job is to practice an auditive surveillance (“celui ou celle qui pratique la surveillance auditive”). Yet here, with this listening nun, we are reaching a listening that is much more than aural.

What does she do as a job? Surveillance? Espionage?  I would rather say that her listening is a lookout (“affût”), a sentinel (“sentinelle”) as well as a watch (“guet”) — I have to say here the English language lacks in qualifying precisely those notions. In this regard, Kate Lacey’s explorations around “listening in”, “listening out” and “mediated listening” is, to my understanding, an indication of the difficulty to define “the act of listening.” However, there is another aspect in which the “soeur écoute” appears as unbeatable : her ability to report. I suppose the relevance of the report depended on the visitor, so the nun had to decide whether or not to report to the abbess.

In French, there is a word to designate those who report: “rapporteur/rapporteuse.” When I was a kid, in a French school somewhere in France, being a “rapporteuse” was an insult. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remember the litany that was sung through the school’s playground against the poor one who was accused (I use the feminine here in order to relate with the nun, but it could be a boy of course). It was always “delivered” with the same few music notes and tone, by three, four, five kids, arm in arm, sweeping the playground with this human singing barrier of accusation:

Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ — (She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬)

All this to say that the “soeur écoute” reminds us that listening is linked to the act of reporting. In Listen: A History of Our Ears, Peter Szendy underlines listening as being not at all benevolent, the kindly meaning being a very late one in the long evolution of the notion. Quite the contrary, argues the French philosopher and musicologist, listening holds a great amount of perversity. When observing the “soeur écoute”, this is what we see: a woman whose listening is not kind.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Reaching through the bars of the grille

Let us revisit the video at 02:20: observing, again and again, the gesture of the nun with the camera cable. Her body and the grille. Her face and attitude. What she says. How she tries to plug the cable. Her hands and arms. Her fingers. Her way to deal with the grille. The nun is in movement between (and with) those technological objects, digitally ensuring the mediation between both worlds. In Listen, Szendy argues (in an ironic passage of the book, hence difficult to quote) that listening is “a matter of touching.” He stands up for “listening with our fingertips” (in the French edition, slightly different: “l’écoute au bout des doigts”). While doing so, Szendy plays wonderfully with the word “digital.” In French it has two meanings : “digital” refers to the fingers, but also to the digital, like the one of the digital technologies (although more often translated as “numérique”). The “digital” intervention of “sister listener” then takes a new dimension, between fingers and technology.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

In All Ears, Szendy highlights listening as a kind of intelligence activity, “activité de renseignement” in French. Yet, “renseignement” also means filling in a metadata, or, if you prefer, a field that describes a digital object. Like the nun trying to plug in the cable. The “soeur écoute” then appears as a figure of a “filling in” processes and practices : while listening, she also informs, and in-forms.

The grille and the grid

I just read the fascinating story around a visit in a cloistered monastery close to my home in Montréal. Again a grille. Again a green curtain. This time though, the nuns reach easily through the bars, shaking hands. Nuns have the internet. They know how to catch the rumor of the world, if they wish to.

My partner told me recently: “it seems you are building a case on someone whose job does not exist anymore to reflect on something very contemporary, the digital.” Yes, it is exactly that. This is what is so liberating with the “soeur écoute.” And no, it is not exactly that, my dear: I’m not sure she does not exist anymore. What if a little bit of a “soeur écoute” would be in all of us? In other other words, what if the way she listens would inform how we listen today, making the connection between listening as person (the “someone”), listening as place (the “somewhere”), and listening as object (the “something”)?

I see the “soeur écoute” as a reading grid, or framework, which forces to rethink listening and its role. Reaching through the bars, she helps expand the study of listening beyond its sonorous contours. She encourages to consider listening in order to include the non-sonorous aspects of “keeping watch” and “sentineling”. Going from one world to another, from one side to another, pulling aside curtains, she urges us, “researchers of listening”, being “tierce” and part-time in our methods and attitudes. Even if it has to go such as far as considering listening as a counterpoint to sound. After all this, maybe, starting to auscultate the relationship between listening and digital humanities.

I have to go. I have put Listening under custody. I have a cable to plug, and a report to write.

I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Featured image: FreeImages.com/Michael P***

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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