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.
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I knew Whitney Houston’s voice before I knew her face. She was a constant record on deck in my house, setting off a family get together or a typical Saturday night at home where I begged to stay up a little bit longer to listen to records—for-real records, vinyl—like the grown folks. Houston’s voice represented ‘grown folks talking’ but had enough effervescence that I could relate to as girlish charm. Houston’s vocal range relayed feelings and representations of sugary sweet to straight, no chaser. She could sing about loving a married man—definitely grown folks’ business—but still maintain the innocence of a school girl crush. My mom and I would dance around our great room lip synching her songs, her asking me who I loved, me declaring my name was not Susan. It was Gina and Whitney Houston’s voice was magic. Alongside Michael Jackson, she was the playlist of my childhood.
Sadly, it was my mom and me again as we listened to Houston’s funeral on the radio. We were stuck in traffic. It had to be fate, me listening to Houston one last time in the same way we were introduced: through the radio. Listening to the funeral instead of watching it on television or as it streamed across the internet triggered a nostalgic ache for Houston in the pit of my stomach, returning me to the same place as a five-year-old child who fell in love with the pretty voice from those Saturday nights.
For me, listening to Houston’s records and funeral on the radio resituated Houston as a vocalist. Detached from Houston’s well-documented shortcomings, listening to her funeral removed the static of her life that filtered her mastery of song and sound. In the last years of her life, Houston’s image was far removed from her stellar singing career. Houston’s personal conflicts and battles situated her as a fallen celebrity, quickly associating her with ill fitting jokes of drug abuse and caricatures of her former glory. Removing Houston from her sonic legacy strips her of the complexities of her persona that she highlighted and acknowledged using her voice, or as Dr. Guthrie Ramsey points out, her “instrument.” It is important to note Houston attempted to make her way back to music, slowly creeping back into public spotlight as a vocalist instead of a wayside star. Celebrity overpowered Houston’s humanity and it is unfortunate that her funeral reclaimed it. Thus, sound provides a space for rehabilitating Houston’s bruised reputation, providing an alternative, nonparodic reading of her life.
While listening to Houston’s funeral, I realized the significance of her sonic legacy, a reaffirmation of Houston’s mastery of song and voice through unending playlists and funeral performances. The radio provided a sonic space of reconciliation between Houston and her fans, uninterrupted by the visual whirl and the busyness of pomp and circumstance of a televised celebrity funeral. By listening to Houston’s funeral, the radio became a discursive space of performance, simultaneously retaining and (re)shaping Houston’s iconicity using sound as favorable space of reflection. Strictly listening to the funeral situated the listener in a position to recontextualize Houston’s legacy within sonic discourse and think about her against a musical backdrop which she constructed.
In considering Houston as not only a music but cultural icon, one must understand the significance of her prominence as a singer. Her career maps the trajectory of a post-Civil Rights black (women’s) experience, framing struggles of seeking out and validating new black identity markers within situating herself as a ‘black voice.’ Her catalog blends the secular with the sacred, effortlessly moving between gospel and pop music, frequently collapsing and creating a complex humanity within sonic soundscapes often restricted by industry and consumers alike. It is around these hybrid sonic-scapes that Houston’s funeral revolved.
Also, Houston’s funeral negotiated reconsiderations of the black church in the current popular cultural imagination, personifying grief and healing through sound. In a word, Houston’s funeral “took folks to church.” On display were prominent tropes of black cultural and musical tradition, parlaying call and response between speakers and attendees and improvisation of performers. In particular, Kim Burrell’s redressing of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” caters on numerous levels to intersection of Houston’s narrative and the role of spirituality in her life. Burrell used her voice and spirituality as a reflection of Houston’s spirituality while dictating how Houston’s life and image are redirected through song. Burrell’s retelling of Houston’s life pivots off Cooke’s original song as an acknowledged site of struggle and redemption. She improvises Cooke’s song to align with Houston’s literal birth (“She was born in New Jersey”) and the understanding of spiritual rebirth and death (“a change gonna come”).
In similar fashion to a church revival, Burrell performs her rendition of “A Change Gonna Come” as a testimony, pulling from her audience’s familiarity with the intonations, vocal runs, and whines of Sam Cooke’s performance. Burrell’s ‘remixing’ of Cooke’s song is, to an extent, an innovative form of sampling. By borrowing the familiarity of Cooke’s sound, Burrell is able to create a new sonic accompaniment. Overarching tropes of faith and redemption hinged upon the black oral tradition are intensified through using them to aurally frame Houston’s funeral. By strictly hearing Houston’s funeral, the listener becomes privy to not only the intersections of the black church and oral traditions but the unique interventions of sound and identity frequently understated in visual culture and discourse.
A fitting close to Houston’s funeral was the recording of her popular rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Houston’s voice rang out in the perfect intonation that solidified her place in music and cultural history, situated as a fitting goodbye to fans and this world. The tenderness of Houston’s delivery personifies the somberness of her funeral, a self-eulogy that harnesses its power from not only the moment but the untimeliness of her death. Houston’s last performance of “I Will Always Love You” detaches her from the paparazzi and scandal that suffocated her life. It is through sound that Houston’s legacy is revived.
As my mother dabbed tears away from the corners of her eyes while listening to the funeral, I silently hoped she would ask me who I loved. I would tell her I wasn’t Susan. And that I loved Whitney.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).