As we read of the decisive Republican victories in the 2014 midterm elections we also hear that Taylor Swift has sold 1.29 million copies of her 1989 album in just a week. Does Swift’s landslide triumph, the biggest selling album of her career in a year when no other artist has sold a million copies at all, have any political implications? Or is popular culture, even at its most wide reaching, cut off now from any such significance? At least, there would be some political meaning in that.
Swift, arguably the most image-savvy popular musician since Madonna and Dolly Parton, won’t be of any direct use to us in figuring out the answer to the questions her success raises. But indirectly, she’s telling us a lot. “New money, suit and tie, I can read you like a magazine,” she sings about a potential conquest in one of her great new songs, “Blank Space.”
That’s her forte: decoding cultural (and commercial) categories and skipping between them. Parton, her predecessor in crossing from country to adult pop back in the 1970s, brought the power ballad to Nashville with “I Will Always Love You” and stressed the commonality, regardless of politics, of working women with “9 to 5.” Madonna’s deft self-framing created an insurgent position on the singles charts for women that hadn’t been there before. Swift seeks the modern feel of Top 40, the big, casual audience of adult pop, the intense allegiances of country fans—and by all indications she’s built that coalition.
If we can learn to think about how music reaches people as subtly as Swift does, we’ll have a better chance of seeing its political role in our lives. Increasingly since the late 1960s, the most popular songs have reached listeners through music formats. By that I mean, and have written a book about, the radio-defined multiplication of the mainstream into separate channels. Some, like Top 40 and adult contemporary, are spaces of crossover. Others, like country, rock, and R&B, are defined a bit disingenuously as genre spaces. But all care less to cohere musically than demographically—to secure listeners of a certain age, gender, race, or income for advertisers. That may appear crass, but the diversifying effect is that groups of people who lack a dominant political voice (minorities, women, lower income people) become the majority target audience—music must find a style, and message, which speaks to them first. I chose to call my book Top 40 Democracy in recognition of the way that formatting blurs politics and culture in the service of delivering hit singles, just as politicians since Reagan have learned to blur the two to promote policy changes. Radio programmers are sound studies experts: everything about what listeners are to hear has to be understood, implicitly, before they tune in—DJ and promotions tone of voice, acceptable singing styles, production glosses, song length, beats, and much more. The result is an intensified normality, a mainstreaming that works to make whoever is being addressed feel utterly central.
There are real limitations to Top 40 democracy, though, especially if you make a contrast with the other radio-impelled format that has impacted politics: the rightwing populism of talk radio. Hit songs, which seek the widest possible listenership, blur their meaning by definition: everybody can sing “Shake It Off” in response to an adversity. Such numbers are unlikely to provide a conduit for anger against the economic inequities produced by globalization, since their format position as global hits, winners in the big flow, is sealed in sonically. They’re one part rarefied human (diva), one part hipster subculture (really club culture, chopped syncopations), one part the subsuming of both in a New Economy entrepreneurial merger ratified by synthetic, rhetorically multicontinental production glosses – the specialty of the man Swift worked on with “Shake It Off,” Max Martin, for example, responsible for 18 number one songs since his emergence with Britney Spears in the late 1990s.
But if that’s globalization as apolitical free trade zone, you might consider the flip side to that cushioning of identity: Top 40 hits, if unlikely to produce anger against capitalism, are equally unlikely to provide a conduit for anger against immigrants: from Black Eyed Peas to Bruno Mars and Rihanna (and now, in a way, with Swift’s format immigration), pop has long been home for performers with complicated origins. When I wrote a chapter on Elton John, whose links to the British Invasion gave him thirty straight years of Top 40 hits from 1970-1999, I became fascinated by how a British Invasion became globalization, by how closeted sexuality overlapped with other forms of airbrushed identity.
The genius, and curse, of the commercial-cultural system that produced Taylor Swift’s Top 40 democracy win in the week of the 2014 elections, is that its disposition is inherently centrist. Our dominant music formats, rival mainstreams engaged in friendly combat rather than culture war, locked into place by the early 1970s. That it happened right then was a response to, and recuperation from, the splintering effects of the 1960s. But also, a moment of maximum wealth equality in the U.S. was perfect to persuade sponsors that differing Americans all deserved cultural representation.
Since that time, as corporate creativity has favored elites, the groups of people courted by formats have been pushed to put hope in exceptional individuals rather than breakout scenes: another of Taylor Swift’s iconic antecedents is Michael Jackson, the most popular and least representative star of all. It may be that we responded so ecstatically to Beyonce’s last album because in creating a set of songs and videos around her marriage and family she was giving us a symbolic collective, however circumscribed. Pop music democracy too often gives us the formatted figures of diverse individuals triumphing, rather than collective empowerment. It’s impressive what Swift has accomplished; we once felt that about President Obama, too. But she’s rather alone at the top.
Featured Image by Flickr User Eva Rinaldi
Eric Weisbard is the author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (University of Chicago Press), organizes the EMP Pop Conference, and is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences–Karen Tongson and Sarah Kessler
Sound + Vision: Andy’s Mick – Eric Lott
“New Wave Saved My Life*”-Wanda Alarcon
Welcome to week three of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of weeks one and two of the forum, click here. And now, get up and get ready for Marcus Boon, because there’s no parking on the dance floor at Sounding Out!–JSA
What borders remain when it comes to thinking about sound today? The field of sound studies has exploded in so many far-flung directions in the last few years. However, I argue that what is still somewhat off limits in the field is a consideration of the ontological status of sound: in other words, what it means to understand our own being in the world as a sonic phenomenon. Out of attempts to approach this sonic ontology, comes the realization that there are prohibitions, perhaps universal ones, on thinking about sound in this way, and from that emerges what I call the politics of vibration.
For those, such as myself, who have grown up as a part of sonic subcultures, it is not difficult to ponder sonic ontologies, for the simple reason that many of the most intense and powerful experiences we have had have occurred on dance floors or at clubs, as DJs, musicians, clubbers and/or listeners. I still remember the moment of first hearing Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” blasting through the speakers at a Pop Group gig at the Electric Ballroom in London in the late 1970s: tumbling polyrhythms, polyphony, polysexuality, polyeverything. The feeling was: “wow, the universe contains this! And it contains other people who know what it is!” And contrary to the warnings of Slavoj Zizek concerning the “autistic jouissance” to be found at the limits of language, here we all were: high; the histories of Afrodiasporic displacement and solidarity echoing off the walls; our own implication in those histories illuminated; flickering between utopia and shame.
To quote Eric Satie: “When I was young they told me: You’ll see when you’re fifty. I’m fifty. I’ve seen nothing.” Me too. But I’ve heard a lot and I still experience that same power of sound in more or less the same way. If anything, sound’s power is more intense and surprising, each time it appears. Partly because I have learned how to be a social being through sound—how to love and be loved—enabling me to be more open to its impact than I was as an awkward youth. It makes me sad the way in Canada and elsewhere in el Norte people seem to lessen their involvement in the more intense aspects of sound cultures as they hit 30 or 40. It makes me sad that my four-year-old son rarely gets to hear a real sound system. I look for music at carnivals, weddings, community centers, on the beach. . .anywhere that those age barriers are ignored. Even as a DJ, I increasingly look for new or different kinds of publicness than that of club or dancehall.
Still, I do wonder. Was the movement into sonic subcultures that my generation (and those that followed) made–especially in the UK where music (and intoxicants, and immigration) were one of the few escape routes from the brutalities of Thatcherism–a mistake, precisely because we accepted as ontological, a structure that in fact was smoothly integrated into the operations of late capitalism? From the Factory and Paradise Garage to Berghain or Ministry of Sound. . . how will history look on the era of the mega-club?
Although one could argue that the Internet put an end to the idea of subculture, since it breaks down the locality and secrecy around which particular subcultural communities grow, in fact what seems to be happening is an acceleration in the generation and dissolution of subcultural formations. Hip-hop has adapted very quickly to the internet. The cassettes or CD-Rs sold out of DJ Screw’s record store in Houston, Texas, for example, morph into the world of online mixtapes, Youtube clips and Twitter battles; the gray market availability of samples sounds a lacuna of time, appearing for a day on a hosting site rather than flying below the radar in some particular geographical location. At the same time, sonic subcultures are expanding around the world. If Jacques Attali was right that sound is prophetic, then #idlenomore was announced by Ottawa Native dubstep crew A Tribe Called Red; Tahrir Square by Chaabi and North African hip-hop.
In his book 1989, Joshua Clover describes popular music in the period of neo-liberal globalization as the sound of ideological containment. It’s true that popular music is full of ontological claims about sound, of music that celebrates setting us free. . .but which fails to actually do so. A quote from Ray Brassier just came up on my Twitter feed:
If true, this would suggest that the intensity of moments of sonic jouissance does not necessarily mean anything in terms of ontology or the truth about what’s Real. It could be entirely delusional.
All of which might be true. We might come to realize that, to put it in Heideggerian terms, we’ve been thrown into this, and that maybe there’s not much difference between being thrown and being played. But somehow I think people on dancefloors already know this. The dramas of seduction, commitment and loss are at the core of disco, and many other kinds of popular music too. To quote the disco classic “Lost in Music” by Sister Sledge (later covered by post-punks The Fall):
We’re lost in music; caught in a trap.
No turning back. We’re lost in music.
We’re lost in music. Feel so alive.
I quit my nine-to-five. We’re lost in music.
Other examples are not lacking.
Perhaps sound and music border on a vibrational ontology, rather than being truly the core of one. This is why, as Michael Taussig, Jayna Brown, and others have suggested, they can be concerned with healing. Perhaps any practice that is meaningful — and sonic subcultures are certainly a matter of practice, as Julian Henriques indicates in his book Sonic Bodies — must necessarily work at the boundary of a space that it can never entirely inhabit as a practice, but which it can push one towards, and also receive one from. The anticipation, fear, desire before one goes out, for example, but also the blinding daylight, the sensation of cool air on exposed skin when one leaves a dancehall or a party.
Sound studies has not truly begin to explore these moments of exposure to and abjection from the vibrational core of sound. No doubt, Steve Goodman performed heroic work in Sonic Warfare—which sets out a proposal for a vibrational ontology in the midst of the commodification and militarization of the sonic —as have various explorations of the phenomenology of sound, such as those in Salome Voegelin‘s Listening to Noise and Silence. Yet in both cases, a full consideration of sonic ontology is in the end foreclosed. In Goodman’s case by Sonic Warfare’s emphasis on the militaristic applications of sound and vibration that are appropriated by sonic art and subcultures, which gives the violence of sound and vibration something like ontological status, while the aesthetic and cultural “uses” of the same have only a secondary, somewhat parasitic status. Conversely, in Voegelin’s work, an emphasis on the phenomenological rendering of the moment or event of sonic relationship forecloses a broader investigation of sonic ontology, because it “brackets” (to use Husserl‘s term) considerations beyond that of the subject-object relationship. In both cases, the sonic thing in itself, or indeed an ontology of vibration, risks being lost.
The recent turn to the speculative and to realism in philosophy has yet to make an impact in sound studies, despite the fact that the object of sound presents a provocative and very intimate entry point to that problematic. One of the more intriguing and improbable hypotheses emerging from the speculative realist movement is that of Quentin Meillassoux, who, in After Finitude, makes an argument that speculative knowledge of the real, unmediated by correlation with the Kantian subject, is possible through mathematics. It is roughly Alain Badiou‘s thesis in Being and Event too. As much as music is clearly about the contingency of sonic experience, there are strong arguments, going back to Pythagoras and beyond, about the relation of music to mathematics. Natural harmonics, rhythm: the elements of music express mathematical relationships. I am not interested in reducing music to a kind of vulgar scientism. But what if when we listen to music, we are exposed to a mathematical ontology and at the same time, the contingency of an unprecedented event? What if music is speculatively real? The word “speculative” here would refer not to philosophical propositions, but to the uncanny movement across subject/object individual/collective borders that the sonic matrix offers when “we” listen to “it.” Music not as the source of a speculative discourse on the real, but a speculative practice in which order and contingency meet.
Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres. It matters little whether a specific knowledge of mathematics is invoked here, since many traditional musics find their way to structures that, according to scholars such Alain Danielou, already express mathematical relationships. And in this way, music and musicians can be said to participate in a sonic ontology.
Reluctantly perhaps. Ready or not. The question remains: how many institutional, historical, disciplinary, intellectual, social and political barriers remain in order that a cultural artifact like “One Nation Under a Groove” can be considered to have ontological significance? That is what I mean by the politics of vibration, and in terms of borders, it’s an important set of borders for researchers in sound studies to consider.
Much of my current work focuses on tropes of abjection in recent hip-hop and RnB music, notably that of Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean, artists like Azealia Banks, and a new generation of queer rap MCs emerging out of New York City such as Zebra Katz, Le1f and Cakes Da Killa. All of their work is bracingly obscene, funny, violent. . .a tumbling deck of cards of performances of gender, race, sexuality, class and more. Of course, cursing to a beat is nothing particularly new, but the way in which these artists multiply and collapse identities to an ever more minimal, humming beat perhaps is.
Katz’s remarkable “Ima Read” and its equally remarkable video is a case in point. Although Katz occasionally claims dryly that the song is “pro education,” the “reading” in question mostly refers to the drag queen balls of the Harlem ballroom/voguing scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, where to read meant to verbally trash, i.e. abject, someone at a ball. The song is rapped by male and female voices, crisply denouncing a “bitch” who they are going to “take to college.” The violence of the song is ironic, as much a marker of queer community and Eros as of sexual difference, of racial and trans-racial solidarity as much as racialized violence. It is performed over a minimal beat with a humming, in-your-face bass drum that is the only recognizable tonal element.
Why make the leap to talking about ontology in discussing this admittedly awesome Youtube clip? Both Judith Butler’s famous elaboration of the performativity of gender, one of the bases of queer theory, and Katz and friends play with taboos concerning gender, sexuality and race in contemporary hip-hop emerge from that moment of the ballroom scene.
But what if Butler’s emphasis on performance actually covered up or abjected the ontological nature of experiments at the balls? Perhaps we need to rethink why the ultimate ball anthem is Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” What is sonic ‘realness’? In restoring the sonic dimension to the ballroom scene, and learning, from Zebra Katz, to face that constitutive abjection that Kristeva amongst others has pointed us towards, we can begin to feel for ourselves what a vibrational ontology is.
My thanks to Catherine Christer Hennix, Steven Shaviro, Kevin Rogers and Ken McLeod for conversations that helped me in thinking this through, and to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for luminous remix skills.
Featured Image by Flickr User depinniped
Marcus Boon is associate professor of English at York University in Toronto, and was a Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities in 2011-12. He is the author of The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard UP, 2002) and In Praise of Copying (Harvard UP, 2010). He writes about contemporary music for The Wire. He is currently co-editing a book on Buddhism and critical theory, and a new edition of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s The Third Mind. He is also working on a book entitled The Politics of Vibration.