Christmas pop songs tend to revolve around just a few basic topics: 1) Jesus, 2) Santa, 3) Did you notice it’s winter?, and 4) Love. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories, of course. For instance, the overlap between the second and fourth category produce a sub-genre I’d call Santa Kink, exemplified by “Santa Baby” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And the overlap between the first and fourth categories—between Jesus songs and Love songs—is, I would argue, complete overlap. The dominance of Christian ideology in the United States means that even when Christmas pop songs don’t explicitly say anything about Christianity, they are reenforcing dominant Christian ideology all the same. That’s how hegemonies work: hegemonic ideas are always already implicit in a variety of discourses whether those discourses are closely or remotely related to that ideology. So while pop stars may shy away from Christmas songs about Jesus because they don’t want to seem too religious, any song with Christmas as its theme will inherently fold back onto Christian ideology regardless of an artist’s intentions.
So, what does it mean when Love and Jesus overlap in Christmas songs? It’s quintessentially heteronormative: a man, a woman, and a baby who will rescue humanity’s future. But hegemonies aren’t totalizing, so while they dominate discourse, it is possible to craft ontologies that map out other ways of being. Here, I’m going to engage the queerness of “Last Christmas”—the original Wham! version (1984)—and a 2008 Benny Bennasi remix of the original song. What each have in common is a failure to achieve heteronormativity that, in turn, undermines the Love/Jesus trope of Christmas pop songs; this failure orients us toward queer relationalities that plot alternatives to Christian heteronorms.
Looking back at those four categories of Christmas pop songs, three of them make lots of sense for a Christmas song topic: Jesus, Santa, and winter. But why love? In part, it’s because most pop music boils down to love in some way. Beyond that, though, a love song in the context of Christian heteronormative ideology yields what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurity”:
terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.
In other words, the heteronormative imperative of reproducing and then protecting (white) Children is embedded so deeply in politics that it isn’t even up for debate. It is, instead, the societal framework within which debate happens, and anything outside that framework resonates as queer.
Pivoting back to Christmas, it’s instructive to contemplate the nativity scene. It can be built with a variety of details, but at its center every time is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—baby, mom, and dad. In a reproductive futurist society, recurring images like the nativity scene underscore the normalcy of the nuclear family, regardless of how utterly abnormal the details of the story surrounding the nativity scene might be. The heteronormativity of the nativity scene “impose[s] an ideological limit” on the discourse of Christmas love songs: every cuddle next to the fireplace, each spark under the mistletoe, all coercive “Baby, it’s cold outside”s are a reproduction of the christian Holy Family (baby, mom, and dad). What on the surface is simply Mariah Carey’s confession that all she wants for Christmas is you becomes miraculously pregnant with a dominant religio-political ideology that delimits queerness and manufactures White Children. That’s why pop stars sing Christmas love songs when they don’t want to sing about Jesus or Santa or winter; it’s because the love songs buttress a Christian ideology that squares comfortably with dominant political discourse even when they don’t explicitly mention religion.
The texture of my “Last Christmas” analysis is woven from a few theoretical strands. Jack Halberstam’s queer failure and Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomonology each orient us to queer relationalities that emerge from getting heteronormativity wrong. Hortense Spillers’ vestibular flesh and Jayna Brown’s utopian impulses tune us to the vibrations of alterity buzzing just beyond hegemony’s earshot. Taken together, these theories open space for hearing how a Christmas pop song about love might resonate queerly even in the midst of heteronormative dominance. Instead of rehearsing the nativity scene, a queer Christmas pop song might undo, sidestep, detonate, or otherwise fail to recreate the nativity. A queer analysis of Christmas pop songs looks and listens for moments of potential disruption in the norm.
In a reproductive futurist world, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is a nightmare: heartbreak, disillusionment, and loneliness. Lyrically, the hook tells us that this year our singer has found someone special, but the verses betray the truth: he’s still hung up on last year’s heartbreak and has already started hoping that, actually, maybe next year will be the one that works out for him. I think we can push deeper than this lyrical message of hope (strained though it is) and find something a little Scroogier in the structure of the song, a denial of fulfilled desire that projects a queer, non-reproductive future:
Intro (8 measures) (0:00)
Chorus (16 measures) (0:15)
Post-Chorus (8 measures) (0:53)
Verse 1 (16 measures) (1:11)
Verse 2 (2:41)
Post-Chorus (with partial lyrics from Verse 2) (3:53)
There’s a reason we all know the chorus so well: it’s a double chorus that happens three times. That is, from “Last Christmas” to “someone special” is only 8 measures long, but that quatrain is repeated twice for a 16 measure chorus. So that’s six different times we hear George Michael summarize what happened last Christmas, and it becomes easy to recognize that this is less a celebration of having someone special than it is an attempt to convince oneself of something that isn’t true. When we compound the double chorus with the percussion part, which hits a syncopated turnaround every four measures (the turnaround signifies moving on to a new part; by repeating the same one every four measures in the middle of lyrical monotony, the song suggests a failure to really move on), the effect is one of extreme repetition. We rehearse, over and again, the failure of last Christmas, the failure to hetero-love, the failure to reproduce anything but, well, failure.
What I’ve labeled the Post-Chorus is a bit of an oddity here, a musical interlude played on festive bells that separates Chorus from Verse. The work it performs is best understood in conjunction with the music video. In the video, a group of friends meet to enjoy a getaway at a ski lodge; the character played by George Michael is here with this year’s girlfriend, and last Christmas’s girlfriend brings this year’s boyfriend. Intrigue! The visual narrative matches the song. In the same way the jolly instrumental seems largely unaware of Michael’s downer lyrics, the group of friends seem oblivious to the furtive, hurt glances between last Christmas’s lovers. This structural oddity, the Post-Chorus, proves key to the visual narrative. There’s a Scrooge in this story, and the Post-Chorus will visit him in the night.
The first Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas present. As the friends crowd into a ski lift that will take them to their lodging, the first bell hits right as last year’s girlfriend is center screen (0:53 in the video above), and we watch as the friends arrive at their getaway, the final two measures playing over a wide-angle shot of a ridiculously large cabin. The second Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas past. Here, as everyone gathers around a feast, all holly and jolly, the bells (2:23) strike at the moment Michael catches sight of the brooch he gave last Christmas’s girlfriend. He broods. The payoff comes in the second half of Verse 2 (2:59), when we see a flashback to the happy couple the year before, when they frolicked in the snow, lounged by the fire, and exchanged fabulous 80s jewelry. Finally, the third Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas future. This time the bells strike as the group is hiking back to the ski lift, returning to the point where they began. We hear the Post-Chorus twice this time, and the first instance (3:53) is accompanied by lyrics pulled from the flashback section of Verse 2, where Michael describes himself and the heartless way he’s been treated. This time, though, instead of finishing the line with “now I’ve found a real love, you’ll never fool me again,” Michael can only offer a breathy “maybe…next year.” In this third Post-Chorus, we have future (maybe next year) overlapping with past (the flashback lyrics) accompanied by visuals that close the narrative circle – a return on the same ski lift we see during the first Post-Chorus. In other words, Michael’s character can sing about someone special all he wants, but the song knows last year’s failure to reproduce will repeat again and again. The fourth Post-Chorus hammers this repetition home: as the friends debark from the lift and the screen fades, we hear this Christmas ghost haunting, lingering at the edges, reproducing heteronormative failure ad infinitum (the fade in the music suggests there’s no definitive ending point).
George Michael, of course, was publicly closeted for a long time. It’s unsurprising that we see some horror motifs in this heterofest. The wide-angle shot of the isolated cabin, the close up of a brooding, tortured hero…There may well be a queerness in the absence of gendered pronouns and in the visual aesthetic of the music video. But the real disruption, I think, comes in the structural repetition, the rehearsal of the singer’s failure to reproduce each year at the moment that reproduction is most central. If Christmas love songs circulate in a framework of reproductive futurity, “Last Christmas” Scrooges its way onto the airwaves every year and projects an utter failure of a future.
Most Christmas pop songs come and go. The drive to fill the airwaves with a genre of music that is only functional for 6-8 weeks of the year yields heaps of treacly sonic detritus. Christmas pop songs are, by nature, ephemeral. A few of these songs, though, become classics that artists return to and cover or remix over and again. “Last Christmas” is one of these classics, settling onto November and December playlists in its original form and the myriad cover versions that have piled up over the years. Benny Benassi’s “Last Christmas” remixes the Wham! song in a way that maintains the original’s queerness even as it flips the idea of looping failures.
Benassi’s “Last Christmas” revolves around two main sections: a driving techno beat (A) and a reworking of Wham!’s chorus (B).
A (48 measures)
B (48 measures) (1:25)
A’ (24 measures) (2:22)
B’ (56 measures) (3:04)
A” (32 measures) (4:15)
The A sections include a voiceover from a computerized voice affected so that it sounds like some dystopic transmission. “We would like to know if something does not sound quite right,” the voice starts, and then preps the entry of section B with “to guarantee safety to your perfect celebration, be sure – when playing this tune at maximum volume level – to chant around like everybody else is.” It’s hard to be more on-the-nose than this: an android voice instructing us how to fit in at our reproductive futurist holiday gatherings. “You know, just…I don’t know, just do what the others are doing?”
The B sections are each a sequence of three “Last Christmas” choruses (B’ includes an extra eight measures of the third in the sequence). The first is a sped-up but otherwise unaltered Michael singing about last Christmas. It’s a jarring entry, as the cool machinery of Benassi’s beat suddenly gives way to shimmery 80s pop. The second time through that familiar double chorus, we can hear Benassi’s groove faintly in the background and growing louder and fuller toward the end. It’s a straightforward remix technique: here’s the thing, here’s the thing mixed with my beat, and now here’s what I’m really getting at.
It’s the third sequence (1:53), then, where Benassi really crafts his own “Last Christmas.” Here, the beat we heard when the android told us how to fit in combines with Michael’s chorus as Benassi stutters and clips not only the lyrics but the instrumental, too: nothing is stable. Michael can’t finish a sentence (“La-a-as-a-ast, I gave you my gave you my hear-. Thiii-i-i-i-is year to save me from save me from, I’ll give it to someone, I’ll give it to someo-o-one.”), and the beat can’t get a firm start. While Wham!’s “Last Christmas” uses the Post-Chorus to form a closed loop where past and future circle back around to each other, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” denies reproductive futurity by chopping off the beginnings and ends of phrases. Built on a simple two-measure loop that otherwise motors smoothly through the song, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” can’t loop in the third sequence of the B section because there’s nothing to latch onto.
While Wham! loops queer failures in their overarching forms, Benassi’s version of the song queerly fails to loop. Both versions of “Last Christmas” bah and humbug at reproductive futurism. They’re Scroogey reminders each year to listen for disruptions of nativity, refusals of politically delimited desires that are queerly vibrating through our earbuds.
Featured image: “GOOD BYE and THANK YOU” by Flickr user fernando butcher, CC BY 2.0
Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Benefit Concerts and the Sound of Self-Care in Pop Music–Justin Adams Burton
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments– Jentery Sayers
“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”– Karen Tongson
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.