Can’t Nobody Tell Me Nothin: Respectability and The Produced Voice in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”
It’s been ten weeks now that we’ve all been kicking back in our Wranglers. allowing Lil Nas X’s infectious twang in “Old Town Road” to shower us in yeehaw goodness from its perch atop the Billboard Hot 100. Entrenched as it is on the pop chart, though, “Old Town Road”’s relationship to Billboard got off to a shaky start, first landing on the Hot Country Songs list only to be removed when the publication determined the hit “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that, and folks have been unpacking it quite consistently, especially in relation to notions of genre and race (in addition to Matthew Morrison’s recommended reads, I’d add Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s Segregating Sound, which traces the roots of segregated music markets). Using the context of that ongoing discussion about genre and race, I’m listening here to a specific moment in “Old Town Road”— the line “can’t nobody tell me nothin”—and the way it changes from the original version to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. Lil Nas X uses the sound of his voice in this moment to savvily leverage his collaboration with a country music icon, and by doing so subtly drawing out the respectability politics underlying Billboard’s racialized genre categorization of his song.
After each of Lil Nas X’s two verses in the original “Old Town Road,” we hear the refrain “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” The song’s texture is fairly sparse throughout, but the refrains feature some added elements. The 808-style kick drum and rattling hihats continue to dominate the soundscape, but they yield just enough room for the banjo sample to come through more clearly than in the verse, and it plucks out a double-time rhythm in the refrain. The vocals change, too, as Lil Nas X performs a call-and-response with himself. The call, “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” is center channel, just as his voice has been throughout the verse, but the response, “can’t tell me nothin,” moves into the left and right speaker, a chorus of Lil Nas X answering the call. Listen closely to these vocals, and you’ll also hear some pitch correction. Colloquially known as “autotune,” this is an effect purposely pushed to extreme limits to produce garbled or robotic vocals and is a technique most often associated with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Here, it’s applied to this melodic refrain, most noticeably on “nothin” in the call and “can’t” in the response,
After Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country chart in late March, country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted his support for “Old Town Road,” and by early April, Lil Nas X had pulled him onto the remix that would come to dominate the Hot 100. The Cyrus remix is straightforward: Cyrus takes the opening chorus, then Lil Nas X’s original version plays through from the first verse to the last chorus, at which point Cyrus tacks on one more verse and then sings the hook in tandem with Lil Nas X to close the song. Well, it’s straightforward except that, while Lil Nas X’s material sounds otherwise unaltered from the original version, the pitch correction is smoothed out so that the garble from the previous version is gone.
In order to figure out what happened to the pitch correction from the first to second “Old Town Road,” I’m bringing in a conceptual framework I’ve been tinkering with the last couple of years: the produced voice. Within this framework, all recorded voices are produced in two specific ways: 1) everyone performs their bodies in relation to gender, race, ability, sex, and class norms, and 2) everyone who sings on record has their voice altered or affected with various levels of technology. To think about a produced voice is to think about how voices are shaped by recording technologies and social technologies at the same time. Listening to the multiple versions of “Old Town Road” draws my attention specifically to the always collaborative nature of produced voices.
In performativity terms—and here Judith Butler’s idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” that “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body” (521) is crucial—a collaboratively produced voice is a little nebulous, as it’s not always clear who I’m collaborating with to produce my voice. Sometimes I can (shamefully, I assure you) recognize myself changing the way my voice sounds to fit into some sort of, say, gendered norm that my surroundings expect. As a white man operating in a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society, the deeper my voice sounds, the more authority adheres to me. (Well, only to a point, but that’s another essay). Whether I consciously or subconsciously make my voice deeper, I am definitely involved in a collaboration, as the frequency of my voice is initiated in my body but dictated outside my body. Who I’m collaborating with is harder to establish – maybe it’s the people in the room, or maybe my produced voice and your listening ears (read Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line for more on the listening ear) are all working in collaboration with notions of white masculine authority that have long-since been baked into society by teams of chefs whose names we didn’t record.
In studio production terms, a voice’s collaborators are often hard to name, too, but for different reasons. For most major label releases, we could ask who applied the effects that shaped the solo artist’s voice, and while there’s a specific answer to that question, I’m willing to bet that very few people know for sure. Even where we can track down the engineers, producers, and mix and master artists who worked on any given song, the division of labor is such that probably multiple people (some who aren’t credited anywhere as having worked on the song) adjusted the settings of those vocal effects at some point in the process, masking the details of the collaboration. In the end, we attribute the voice to a singular recording artist because that’s the person who initiated the sound and because the voice circulates in an individualistic, capitalist economy that requires a focal point for our consumption. But my point here is that collaboratively produced voices are messy, with so many actors—social or technological—playing a role in the final outcome that we lose track of all the moving pieces.
Not everyone is comfortable with this mess. For instance, a few years ago long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, while lamenting the role of technology in contemporary studio recordings, mentioned Adele as a singer whose voice may not be as great as it is made to sound on record. Adele responded by requesting that Visconti suck her dick. And though the two seemed at odds with each other, they were being equally disingenuous: Visconti knows that every voice he’s produced has been manipulated in some way, and Adele, too, knows that her voice is run through a variety of effects and algorithms that make her sound as epically Adele as possible. Visconti and Adele align in their desire to sidestep the fundamental collaboration at play in recorded voices, keeping invisible the social and political norms that act on the voice, keeping inaudible the many technologies that shape the voice.
Propping up this Adele-Visconti exchange is a broader relationship between those who benefit from social gender/race scripts and those who benefit from masking technological collaboration. That is, Adele and Visconti both benefit, to varying degrees, from their white femininity and white masculinity, respectively; they fit the molds of race and gender respectability. Similarly, they both benefit from discourses surrounding respectable music and voice performance; they are imbued with singular talent by those discourses. And on the flipside of that relationship, where we find artists who have cultivated a failure to comport with the standards of a respectable singing voice, we’ll also find artists whose bodies don’t benefit from social gender/race scripts: especially Black and Brown artists—non-binary, women, and men. Here I’m using “failure” in the same sense Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure, where failing is purposeful, subversive. To fail queerly isn’t to fall short of a standard you’re trying to meet; it’s to fall short of a standard you think is bullshit to begin with. This kind of failure would be a performance of non-conformity that draws attention to the ways that systemic flaws – whether in social codes or technological music collaborations – privilege ways of being and sounding that conform with white feminine and white masculine aesthetic standards. To fail to meet those standards is to call the standards into question.
So, because respectably collaborating a voice into existence involves masking the collaboration, failing to collaborate a voice into existence would involve exposing the process. This would open up the opportunity for us to hear a singer like Ma$e, who always sings and never sings well, as highlighting a part of the collaborative vocal process (namely pitch correction, either through training or processing the voice) by leaving it out. To listen to Ma$e in terms of failed collaboration is to notice which collaborators didn’t do their work. In Princess Nokia’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled voice, spread carefully across the stereo field, we hear a fully exposed collaboration that fails to even attempt to meet any standards of respectable singing voices. In the case of the countless trap artists whose voices come out garbled through the purposeful misapplication of pitch correction algorithms, we can hear the failure of collaboration in the clumsy or over-eager use of the technology. This performed pitch correction failure is the sound I started with, Lil Nas X on the original lines “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” It’s one of the few times we can hear a trap aesthetic in “Old Town Road,” outside of its instrumental.
In each of these instances, the failure to collaborate results in the failure to achieve a respectably produced voice: a voice that can sing on pitch, a voice that can sing on pitch live, a voice that is trained, a voice that is controlled, a voice that requires no intervention to be perceived as “good” or “beautiful” or “capable.” And when respectable vocal collaboration further empowers white femininity or white masculinity, failure to collaborate right can mean failing in a system that was never going to let you pass in the first place. Or failing in a system that applies nebulous genre standards that happen to keep a song fronted by a Black artist off the country charts but allow a remix of the same song to place a white country artist on the hip hop charts.
The production shift on “can’t nobody tell me nothin” is subtle, but it brings the relationship between social race/gender scripts and technological musical collaboration into focus a bit. It isn’t hard to read “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” as “sounds too Black,” and enough people called bullshit on Billboard that the publication has had to explicitly deny that their decision had anything to do with race. Lil Nas X’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus puts Billboard in a really tricky rhetorical position, though. Cyrus’s vocals—more pinched and nasally than Lil Nas X’s, with more vibrato on the hook (especially on “road” and “ride”), and framed without the hip hop-style drums for the first half of his verse—draw attention to the country elements already at play in the song and remove a good deal of doubt about whether “Old Town Road” broadly comports with the genre. But for Billboard to place the song back on the Country chart only after white Billy Ray Cyrus joined the show? Doing so would only intensify the belief that Billboard’s original decision was racially motivated. In order for Billboard to maintain its own colorblind respectability in this matter, in order to keep their name from being at the center of a controversy about race and genre, in order to avoid being the publication believed to still be divvying up genres primarily based on race in 2019, Billboard’s best move is to not move. Even when everyone else in the world knows “Old Town Road” is, among other things, a country song, Billboard’s country charts will chug along as if in a parallel universe where the song never existed.
As Lil Nas X shifted Billboard into a rhetorical checkmate with the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, he also shifted his voice into a more respectable rendition of “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” removing the extreme application of pitch correction effects. This seems the opposite of what we might expect. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix is defiant, thumbing its nose at Billboard for not recognizing the countryness of the tune to begin with. Why, in a defiant moment, would Lil Nas X become more respectable in his vocal production? I hear the smoothed-out remix vocals as a palimpsest, a writing-over that, in the traces of its editing, points to the fact that something has been changed, therefore never fully erasing the original’s over-affected refrain. These more respectable vocals seem to comport with Billboard’s expectations for what a country song should be, showing up in more acceptable garb to request admittance to the country chart, even as the new vocals smuggle in the memory of the original’s more roboticized lines.
While the original vocals failed to achieve respectability by exposing the recording technologies of collaboration, the remix vocals fail to achieve respectability by exposing the social technologies of collaboration, feigning compliance and daring its arbiter to fail it all the same. The change in “Old Town Road”’s vocals from original to remix, then, stacks collaborative exposures on top of one another as Lil Nas X reminds the industry gatekeepers that can’t nobody tell him nothin, indeed.
Featured image, and all images in this post: screenshots from “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” posted by YouTube user Lil Nas X
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.
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Teach Me How To Dougie Like A Mediocre White Man
In the third episode of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), we meet Dougie Jones, a new character who is, as an otherworldly being will tell him, “manufactured.” Dougie’s sonic presence on the show is primarily marked by repetition, as the majority of his dialogue involves him parroting those around him. Though Dougie has been received as a symbol of purity or a magical conduit for others’ best selves (14:53-19:00), a close listen to his repetitions suggests that he is instead what Sarah Hagi has dubbed the “mediocre white man.”
DAILY PRAYER TO COMBAT IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude
— Sarah Hagi (@geekylonglegs) January 21, 2015
Hagi’s so-called prayer is a brilliantly concise instance of intersectional analysis that can also provide a framework for understanding Dougie Jones. In a few short words, she’s able to 1) demonstrate how white supremacist patriarchy makes her life more difficult, 2) call into question the achievements of those who hold so much power that it’s doled out to the most mediocre among them, and 3) situate the entire critique in a systemic framework. That is, though one possible reading of this tweet is that Hagi suffers from a shortcoming she is responsible to correct–a lack of confidence–the fact that she frames her critique as a prayer suggests that this confidence isn’t so much an inner belief in oneself as it is a privilege granted to some but not others. Twin Peaks: The Return offers, in the vocal interactions of Dougie, an extended meditation on the systemic mechanizations that produce the kind of mediocre white man Hagi laments.
For readers who aren’t Twin Peaks viewers, hang on: explaining the origin of Dougie Jones requires a few sentences that may read as something bordering on nonsense outside the show’s bizarre universe. Dougie is played by Kyle MacLachlan, who also plays the show’s main character, Agent Dale Cooper, as well as The Return’s Mr C, Cooper’s evil doppelganger who overcame Cooper in an extradimensional realm in the Season 2 finale and who has been living in the “real world” ever since, while Cooper is stuck in another dimension. The show implies that Mr C has only 25 years–roughly the amount of time since the show’s first run in the early 90s–before Cooper switches places with him (extradimensional bureaucracies, amiright?). As a ploy to stay in the real world, Mr C “manufactures” Dougie Jones so that when Cooper is finally released from extradimensional detention, he replaces Dougie, not Mr C. For the bulk of The Return, Mr C continues wreaking havoc across the Midwest and Western US, while Cooper, adversely affected by his transit across dimensions, is trapped in Dougie’s life, barely able to function beyond the level of a small child. Technically, then, the character called Dougie Jones is really Dale Cooper, but Cooper’s episodes-long inability to regain control of himself leads to an extended case of mistaken identity, where everyone in Dougie’s life believes Cooper to be Dougie.
Significantly, Dougie’s family and co-workers are barely phased by his ineptitude. At worst, like when he doesn’t know how to use the bathroom, people are annoyed by Dougie. But, more often than not, Dougie’s moments of silence and often erratic behavior — including befuddlement over how to feed or dress himself — are interpreted as quirky, humble, and endearing. More than that, Dougie’s boss believes him to be a courageous and principled whistle-blower whose cryptic drawings on insurance forms outs one of his co-workers for defrauding the company’s clients.
Dougie is beyond mediocre, yet over the course of the season, he falls into hundreds of thousands of dollars, a luxury car, a family life that seems to be fulfilling for his wife and son, and the respect and gratitude of his boss. Confidence isn’t something this mediocre white man possesses; rather, it’s a trait projected onto him by everyone around him. In riffing on the way people exist in systems of inequity, Sylvia Wynter notes in On Being Human As Praxis (2015) that we end up keeping “the reality of our own agency opaque by attributing that agency to extrahumanly mandating entities” (45). Put another way, the god who would grant us the confidence of a mediocre white man isn’t a deity but a system of patriarchal white supremacy that makes itself opaque behind the rationale that a person like, say, Dougie Jones couldn’t possibly be as successful in his life if he hadn’t earned it.
The primary marker of the mechanization of Dougie’s confidence is a sonic one: we can hear his ascendence in moments of repetition. Twin Peaks is a show comprised of overlapping aural and visual loops, recurring sounds, and doubled and tripled characters, so keying in on the sound of Dougie’s repetition fits into the series’ aesthetic. Early in Dougie’s presence in the series, when Cooper is fresh from the other dimension, his repetition is delayed, partial, and generally out of synch with regular patterns of conversation; people react to this repetition with concern. The following scene occurs in the moments just after Cooper has replaced Dougie Jones; his scene partner, Jade, was in the shower when the switch happened.
This clip is cut so that the phrase “Jade give two rides” happens back-to-back, but in the episode, there’s over a minute of a screen time between Jade saying (a grammatically correct version of) it and Dougie repeating it. Dougie’s imprecise and ill-timed repetition suggests to Jade that something may be wrong with him, and she rightly advises him to find some help. A similar interaction occurs in Episode 6, which opens with Dougie standing outside his work at night, unaware of what people do when work is over. When a police officer tries to shoo him away, Dougie is able to repeat back information he had heard several days earlier, and his delayed reaction again elicits concern from the person he’s with. A few scenes later, “Jade gives two rides” returns.
As the season progresses, however, Dougie begins to repeat back exact phrases or words that have just been spoken to him. The effect is one of understated agreement or even prescience, as if he’s repeating something he’s known for some time and has been waiting for others to realize, too. Note the way Dougie responds in the following two videos. In the first, he’s asked a question, which rises in pitch in the final syllables, and Dougie repeats the phrase with a falling pitch figure, which his conversants interpret to be confirmation. In the second, he’s given advice, and he responds by repeating the last word in uptalk, which his conversants interpret as a hilarious joke rather than the limitations of a person whose interdimensional travel has left his verbal skills lacking.
As Dougie’s repetition locks into a quicker, more immediate responsorial pattern, the people around him no longer worry about his well-being and, in fact, begin to project onto him a confidence he’s incapable of possessing. This repetition, the kind that immediately plays with or confirms what his boss or potential murderers say, suggests a couple different theoretical constructions of repetition. Butler, in describing the performativity of gender, notes that gender norms are “the stylized acts of repetition through time,” the rehearsed and rehashed ideas that we ascribe, in this case, to white men: well-timed humor on the one hand, and wise confirmation on the other (520). Sara Ahmed underscores a similar idea, noting that “compulsory heterosexuality” is “the accumulative effect of the repetition of the narrative of heterosexuality as an ideal coupling” (145). Here, Dougie’s white masculinity isn’t all that makes him the target of others’ projections of confidence and competence; his nuclear family also marks him as a productively repetitive person, a person capable of reproduction. To modify Hagi’s tweet a bit, the world projects onto Dougie the confidence of a mediocre, white, reproductive man.
Both Butler and Ahmed also gesture toward distinctly sonic phenomena present in Dougie’s repetitions. Repetition accumulating over time becomes not just distinct events happening in succession but a discrete, singular thing unto itself. When thinking in terms of systemic oppression like white supremacy or cisheteropatriarchy, the repetitive privileging of white masculinity congeals into a continuous power flow. In musical terms, we hear the accumulative, rapid retriggering of a sound as pitch rather than many distinct events. Timing matters here: if the repetition is delayed or metered just so, we can perceive instances of the same events as moving in concert either melodically or harmonically. The shift in Dougie’s repetitions over the course of The Return is the sound of institutional privilege tuning white masculinity, retriggering moments of repetition–which sounds like a rise in pitch as the repetitions move closer together, a literal ascent–until those around Dougie stop worrying about him and start believing that this mediocre white straight man must have earned the success he seemingly enjoys.
Though a perusal of Twin Peaks: The Return analyses and recaps demonstrates that viewers and critics have been far more interested in the archetypal Jekyll/Hyde duality of Dale Cooper and Mr C than they have been in the nature of Dougie Jones, Dougie’s relative lack of drive or desire offers the opportunity to hear how white male mediocrity is made. The Return checks in on Dougie regularly from his introduction in the third episode until he transforms back into Cooper, then is remanufactured and sent home to his family in the sixteenth and eighteenth episodes. What we’re privy to in that time is a different kind of manufacturing, where Dougie is constructed by his surroundings to be wise, caring, attentive, upright, and brave, though we know he’s none of those things. The slow burn of Twin Peaks: The Return means that we’re stripped of any easy excuses for Dougie’s upward momentum in the season beyond the obvious explanation that the gods of mediocre white men have gifted him with treasures out of reach for others. Dougie repeats what he hears, and what he hears is that his mediocrity is good enough.
Featured image: Screenshot from “‘Dougie’ Cooper – All Phrases (Twin Peaks Compilation)” by Youtube user AKA.
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.
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