For your end-of-the year reading pleasure, here are the Top Ten Posts of 2019 (according to views as of 12/4/19). Visit this brilliance today–and often! Listen out for us in 2020!
Jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus’s infamous protest song “Fables of Faubus,” (1959) channeled the anger and frustration of the Black community in response to the staunch racism of Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, who refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to support school integration in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. Faubus infamously used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. The visual imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” walking to school, bombarded by riotous mobs and surrounded by cameras and military escorts, remains permanently seared into the American collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement.
What makes the imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” so sonically distinctive is the contrast between the silent procession of the students and the loud and intimidating screams from the white racist protestors. When images contain explicit visual references to particular sounds, there is an inescapable cognitive referent that allows one to experience that sound through the vehicle of one’s “sonic imagination”–or the mechanism that allows us to “hear” a song in our heads even when there is only silence. Listening involves an active–not passive–engagement with sounds real and imagined. In the same vein as comic books, which rely on visual sound-cues to enhance the experience of the text, the optical power of “The Little Rock Nine” invites viewers to process both the visual and aural data presented by the image. In other words, the image is empowered by its multimodality. When combined with related source material, such as “Fables,” we stand to gain a greater sense of its meanings and an awareness of why sound, especially music, is critical to the recording, or archiving of the kinds of lived experiences that exceed easy translation. [Click here to read the full piece!]
Flâneuse>La caminanta is a video soundwalk project, edited as a virtual reality (VR) interactive environment that I created using a 360-degree camera to document participants’ journeys. Its title emphasizes a missing word in the French and Spanish languages for women as wanderers, a gap that also represents the lack of inclusive public spaces that allow female-identifying and non-conforming bodies safe passage and co-existence. The VR environment exposes the perspective of four women of color who navigate urban landscapes in Mexico City, Abu Dhabi, Manhattan and Brooklyn. The participants selected their own locations, building from places that have a personal meaning or memory in their everyday journeys.
This post discusses Flâneuse>La caminanta, its influences, previous iterations, and use of the methodology of the soundwalk as an intervention exposing the dangers inherent in public space for women of color. To begin, Flâneuse>La caminanta is the virtual reality iteration of my previous film essay and photo series, Walking in Lightness. Walking in Lightness departs from my experience walking in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The soundscapes I recorded during soundwalks became a pivotal medium for offering subtle observations of a woman’s cultural identity, recording my interactions and tracing a psychogeographic path as the camera navigates urban spaces. [Click here to read the full piece!]
Alexis Deighton MacIntyre
What is a voice, and what does it mean to voice?
Definitions of the voice may be pragmatic: working titles that depend in part on their institutional basis within ethnomusicology, literature, or psychoacoustics, for example.
Or, to take another strategy, voice is given by an impartial biological framework, a respiratory-laryngeal-oral assembly line. Its product, an acoustic signal, is transmitted via material vibration to an ear, and then a brain. The mind of a listener is this system’s endpoint. Although this functional description may smack of scientific reductionism, the otolaryngeal voice often stands in for embodiment in humanist discourse. [Click here to read the full piece!]
Trap Latino has grown popular in Cuba over the past few years. Listen to the speakers blaring from a young passerby’s cellphone on Calle G, or scan through the latest digital edition of el paquete semanal (the weekly package), and you are bound to hear the genre’s trademark 808 bass boom in full effect. The style however, is almost entirely absent from state radio, television, and concert venues. To the Cuban state (and many Cubans), the supposed musical and lyrical values expressed in the music are unacceptable for public consumption. Like reggaetón a decade before, the reputation of Trap Latino (and especially the homegrown version, Trap Cubano) intersects with contemporary debates regarding the future of Cuba’s national project. For many of its fans however, the style’s ability to challenge the narratives of the Cuban state is precisely what makes Trap Latino so appealing.
In an article published last year by Granma (Cuba’s official, state-run media source), Havana-based journalist Guillermo Carmona positions Trap Latino artists like Bad Bunny and Bryant Myers as a negative influence on Cuba’s youth, claiming the music sneaks its way into the ears of unsuspecting Cuban youth via the illicit channels of Cuba’s underground internet. With lyrics that celebrate the drug trade and treat women as “slot machines,” coupled with a preponderance of sound effects instead of “music notes,” Carmona considers Trap Latino aggressive, dangerous, and perhaps most perniciously of all, irredeemably foreign. [Click here to read the full piece!]
“Ran down on that bitch twice” was all I heard in this tight, dark basement filled with black and brown bodies, sweat dripping everywhere from everyone. Girls danced all over, yelling and shouting lyrics as they clapped and pointed along to the fast, upbeat rhythm of the song, feeling their own sensations and pleasure from the vibe, and rapping with the catchiness of the repeated phrase, “Ran down on that bitch twice!” As everyone was jumping, the space around me shook because there was so much body movement and flow; it was lit. This wasn’t the first time I heard Cardi B, but dancing along to her song “Foreva” was definitely the first I remember hearing her. Since that dark basement party, I realized that the attitude and energy Cardi B invokes through her raps and lyrics is addicting.
Listening repeatedly to “Foreva,” and the rest of her debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol.1, has attuned me to Cardi B as a stone cold, gangster bitch: someone who is fearless, tough on the outside and inside. She doesn’t hesitate; she doesn’t bluff. She gets straight to the point and lets you know that she will fuck you up if and when necessary. A ‘G’ she is, as some would say when describing a person who shows no fear and is always hustling—except that someone is imagined as a black male from the so-called ‘hood who affiliates with drugs, gangs, etc. The music itself reflects this gangster feel, through the hard trap sounds and beats in every track. Trap music as a style and subset of Hip-Hop, and arguably a genre on its own, originated in Atlanta, and has over time become mainstream all across the U.S. specifically within the Northeast region. Within Cardi’s performed, stone cold bitch lyrical persona, she embodies an aggressive femme sexuality, a racialized femme hunger for sex with black men, and an emotional depth that makes her endearing to listeners. Her embodiment of this multiplicity—stone cold attitude, femme sexual thirst, and emotional complexity—can be heard in her music, through the explosion of beats, rhythms, and lyrics that keep listeners hooked to the sound of her self-image. In other words, Cardi B’s sonic and lyrical movements work in tandem with her audio-visual construction of black, Caribbean, Bronx femme desire. [Read the full piece here!]
I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.
The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.’” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons. [Read the full piece here!]
In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories. Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere. It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.” My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically. Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment. I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.
In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks. Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place. Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness. One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990). I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience. Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge. What did I hear? Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound. [Read the full piece here!]
t’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. [Read the full piece here!]
As pundits increasingly speculate about the likelihood and character of another recession, I’m thinking about the one from which we’re still recovering. Specifically, I’m thinking about a certain strain of American pop music—or a certain sentiment within pop music—that it seems to me accelerated and concentrated just after the 2008 financial collapse. This strain, which obviously co-existed with many other developments in popular music at the time, takes party songs and adds to them two interconnected narrative elements: on the one hand, partying is cranked up, escalated in one or multiple ways, moving the music beyond a party anthem and into something new. On the other hand, the rationale for such a move consistently derives from an attitude of compulsory presentism, in which the future is characterized as unknown, irrelevant, or is otherwise disavowed.
In the American context, the popular (and, I argue, misguided) take on the music of the great recession is that we didn’t have any—in other words, because no one was directly singing about the crisis, there was no music that responded to it. But this is an extremely limited way of understanding how music and socio-political life interact. In this post, I consider specifically American notions of mainstream party culture to argue that the strain of party music described above and below is the music of the crash, not because it literally speaks about it but because it reflects a certain attitude expressed and experienced by those at the front of both popular music listening at the time and the collapse itself: the graduating classes of 2008-2012. [Click Here to read Full Piece!]
Alex W. Rodriguez
I begin this essay with an apology, addressed to the Society for Ethnomusicology President Gregory Barz:
I am sorry that I interrupted your opening remarks at least year’s SEM Business meeting. In the moment that I chose to make my intervention, I underestimated the pain that it has clearly caused you. Furthermore, I have come to realize that it was unskillful of me to locate my frustration and anger with you as an individual. The affective release of my voice in that moment could have been better directed towards positive change in a time of great need for many of us. I fully intend to work towards doing better in the months to come, urging anyone who occupies the office of President of this organization to use the power and standing inherent in this position office to take direct steps to address the harms many of its members are experiencing.
Because my intervention arose so quickly and unpredictably—for readers outside of the Society for Ethnomusicology who may not know, I stood up and yelled “You’re a hypocrite!” then left the meeting—it seems worthwhile to explore my actions in a more thoughtful space of written discourse. I want to clarify that my sonic interruption was not premeditated; as I explain below, it arose out of a deep anger and longing for justice. As SEM 2019 convenes in November in Bloomington, Indiana on November 7th, I hope that my disruptive event can be better understood as a call to collective inquiry into the structural factors that constrain our Society from functioning in a healthy way. [Read the Full piece here!]
Featured Image: “Write on!” by J. Stoever
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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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October 2017: a week after a Las Vegas gunman killed 58 people at an outdoor festival during a Jason Aldean set, Aldean squared up to the Saturday Night Live mic and soldiered through then-recently deceased Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” In a short statement before the song, Aldean mentioned that he was “strugglin to understand what happened that night,” and he reiterated this general sense of confusion about what to make of everything in ensuing interviews. It’s unsurprising that Aldean struggled to make sense of the shooting; traumatic experiences like the one he and his audience endured often don’t fit into any ready-made understanding we have about the world. But Aldean, who seemed uncomfortable publicly displaying the kind of emotional vulnerability the trauma produced in him, was eager to resolve the dissonance: with platitudes like “be louder than the bad guys,” with assurances that “when America is at its best, our bond and our spirit – it’s unbreakable,” with an admission of his own hurt only as an empathic response to others’ rather than as his own, and with a cover song borrowed from one of his idols. Here, I’m listening to the compensatory work the cover of “I Won’t Back Down” performs in the face of the kind of vulnerability Aldean wrestles with in the wake of violence. To hear this as clearly as possible, I’ll contextualize Aldean’s performance by comparing it to a similar use of the song by Tom Petty 16 years earlier, then contrast it with Ariana Grande’s performance of “One More Time” at her One Love Manchester benefit a few months before the Las Vegas shooting.
Though the song’s titular line, “I won’t back down,” is a fairly direct lyrical idea about maintaining one’s resolve, the rest of the song still manages to paint a rather vague picture. The singer isn’t backing down, sure, but beyond “a world that keeps on pushin [him] around,” there aren’t many specifics about what he’s not backing down from. This is a kind of pop genius: capture a core sentiment that registers with a large audience, then present it in ambiguous enough terms that listeners can fill in the blanks with their own very personal experiences. So, despite Petty’s own analysis that he “laid [the song] out, you know, with no ambiguity at all,” “I Won’t Back Down”’s lyrics are incredibly broad, leaving space for practically anyone to insert themselves into the role of protagonist. Your boss might be a jerk, but you won’t back down. Your employee might think you’re a jerk, but you won’t back down.
Moreover, the sound of the song undermines even its most resolute lyrics. When Petty sings “I won’t back down,” which he does often in the verses and the hook, he scoops all around the pitches of “won’t,” “back,” and “down” so that they sound more interrogative than declarative. Rhythmically, these words sit on weak beats and upbeats in the verses, and in the chorus, the final word, “down,” comes just before – not on – a strong downbeat (see figure below). The effect of the syncopation is similar to the effect of Petty’s pitch bends; lyrical resolve becomes musical uncertainty. Finally, George Harrison’s guitar solo – as George Harrison guitar solos tend to do – plays pensively with the song’s forward momentum, again reining in the lyrics’ more direct message. In all, “I Won’t Back Down” works in a good deal of uncertainty that makes it unclear exactly what the threat is and whether the singer really is as resolute as he’d like us to believe.
What a song means or how it works changes with the times, though, and the defiance lurking in the lyrics of “I Won’t Back Down” crystallized after the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. When Petty performed “I Won’t Back Down” at the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes on September 21, the context of a nation rallying around itself to defeat some yet-unknown foreign enemy overwhelmed any of the sonic signifiers that might otherwise temper the song’s resolve. This concert, which was aired virtually on every channel to a country still reeling from a collective trauma, subsumed Petty’s vocal scoops, the lyrics’ offbeat kilter, and the guitar’s sanguine solo under the clarity of a lyrical sentiment that aligned neatly with the politics of the moment: the US won’t back down. The shift in focus in “I Won’t Back Down” just after September 11 is similar to a dolly zoom effect: the threat referenced by the song’s lyrics feels as if it comes nearer and into sharper focus even as the protagonist broadens from an individual to a collective identity.
This sort of shift in the song’s narrative tracks with Christine Muller’s account of the overarching changes in cultural narratives that happened in the wake of the Twin Towers’ destruction. In September 11, 2001 as Cultural Trauma (2017), Muller argues that the broad perception of the fracture of the “American Dream” – “good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people…come to the United States, and you will have opportunity; work hard, and you will succeed; follow the rules, and you will be rewarded” – harkened the rise of cultural media focused on “no-win scenarios…a fascination with anti-heroes who do the wrong things for the right reasons” (9-10). In the case of “I Won’t Back Down,” a song that was once broadly resolute and unfocused on any particular foe, sung by an artist who sent a “Cease and Desist” letter to George W. Bush when the then-candidate used the song for his presidential campaign morphed into an anthem that became narrowly resolute in the face of a named threat (“terror”), woven into a larger political tapestry that aided in the demonization of Muslims and the Islamic countries targeted by the “global war on terror” – an interminable war fought for vaguely defined reasons started at multiple sites by the same Bush Petty had previously defied.
Aldean’s Saturday Night Live performance 16 years later would emulate Petty’s, as faithful a cover as Aldean and his band could do. Though his vocals lack Petty’s high-end nasal clarity, Aldean dutifully hits all the scoops, honors the syncopations, and even yields to a guitar solo that follows George Harrison’s lead from decades previous. For Aldean, who was 40 at the time, and many millennials, the SNL performance would likely resonate with Petty’s iconic Tribute performance. And in the space of those 16 years, another frequently repeated line in the song would take on a political life of its own, recognizable to younger listeners who may not have immediately registered the post-9/11 context of “I Won’t Back Down.” While “I’ll stand my ground” would’ve been as broadly meaningful as “I won’t back down” when Petty released the song in 1989, the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin pushed the idea of Stand Your Ground laws into public consciousness. These laws nullify one’s “duty to retreat,” to avoid violence if a safe passage away from a threat is reasonably available, instead allowing a person who feels threatened to use violence against their perceived threat. Research shows that Stand Your Ground laws tend to protect white people and endanger Black people, holding up long-standing social norms that cast Blacks as always already violent. So by the time Aldean sang “I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down” in 2017, the song had passed through social and political filters that gave its lyrics an anti-Muslim and anti-Black edge.
At first blush, all this context makes “I Won’t Back Down” a bizarre choice for Aldean to sing in response to the Las Vegas shooting. The identity of the gunman – a white man around retirement age – made him only a bit older than the demographic most responsible for mass shootings in the US. Instead of addressing the fact that mass shootings are a distinctly USAmerican problem, or that country music fosters a close and financial relationship with the NRA (which lobbies against the sorts of regulations that would curb mass shootings), Aldean remained unwilling to offer any thoughts on guns and gun control, even after experiencing the shooting firsthand. While we might reasonably excuse the singer’s lack of reflection on social and political problems in recognition that Aldean was surely traumatized himself, the singer’s performance of “I Won’t Back Down” still performs a specific kind of rhetorical work that relies on Petty’s performance at America: A Tribute to Heroes 16 years earlier. Specifically, Aldean’s rendition of “I Won’t Back Down” places the Vegas shooting in the same political arena used to demonize Muslims after September 11 and to criminalize Black people in political discourse surrounding Stand Your Ground laws. As I mentioned at the top of the essay, Aldean admitted and demonstrated his discomfort with the emotional vulnerability the shooting provoked in him, and I hear his performance of “I Won’t Back Down” as an effort to compensate for that public vulnerability by providing a retreat to a more familiar masculine pose: protective, resolute, stoic.
I published a piece that revolves around the idea of self-care with Sounding Out! in 2017, and one of the two central musical examples I consider there is Ariana Grande’s performance of “One More Time” at the One Love Manchester benefit concert just after the Manchester bombing. Grande’s circumstances run parallel to what Aldean would face a few months later: a traumatic act of violence that disrupted, injured, and killed the artist’s fans as the terror of the event rippled through the community. The two performances are gendered completely differently, however. Grande sings “One Last Time” surrounded by other musicians she invited to participate in the benefit concert. She frequently chokes up and relies on her fans to carry the song forward. She offers no answers or solutions beyond sentiments of love and the need to hold one another close in times of crisis. Grande’s is a performance of feminized care that contrasts sharply with Aldean’s masculinized resolve. Unwilling to publicly grapple with the emotional vulnerability created by the Vegas shooting, Aldean retreats from any public displays of grief and settles into an expression of care rooted in aggressive defense. His performance of “I Won’t Back Down” compensates for the feminized vulnerability triggered by the gunman and provides a masculine space for defiance that shifts attention away from white criminality and toward the US’s usual suspects: Black people and Muslims.
Saturday Night Live has scrubbed the internet of any full videos of the performance (the single is available on Spotify), but we can see and hear Aldean running through the same rendition a couple weeks later at the Louisville Yum! Center. It’s worth noting how Aldean embodies the resolve of the song’s lyrics. While Petty always approached a microphone like he was going to whisper something in its ear, his shoulders slouched and knees bobbing to the beat, Aldean squares his shoulders, plants his feet to form a broad base, and confronts the mic straight on. Some of this boils down to style. Jason Aldean’s stage presence is different from Tom Petty’s. But it also captures the distance “I Won’t Back Down” has traveled since the late 1980s, from a largely empty signifier that listeners could fill with their own meaning to an anthem used for rallying listeners in the wake of mass violence. Here, feminized vulnerability and trauma are recast as masculinized aggression and resolve until the song fills with the politics of the moment: the US’s anti-Black, anti-Muslim refusal to back down from standing its ground.
Featured Image: “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Oracle Appreciate Event “Legendary”, JavaOne 2011 San Francisco” by Flickr user Yuichi Sakuraba, CC BY-NC 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.
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is the line–and the sound–that opens Richard Wright’s 1940 wake-up-call to America, Native Son, a novel about the systemic reaches of structural racism and what happens when it works as intended: funneling privilege to white people and dealing losses–in housing, economics, education, employment, the legal system, and overall mental, physical, and emotional health and life quality–to people of color. There have been moments in the 75+ intervening years since Wright’s novel topped best seller lists where it’s felt like folks had finally heard this alarm loud and clear; right now it seems like too many have just been repeatedly hitting snooze instead of choosing to get–and stay–woke.
But just because some folk’s can’t, won’t–or choose not–to hear it is not at all reason to stop sounding the alarm, and Sounding Out! certainly isn’t going to stop chiming in and amplifying its urgency, especially in this current moment. It has been our mission since we began in 2009 to encourage scholarship about and via sound that helps us all do the work necessary to listen “bone-deep in the deep of bones” to that “BRRRRRRRIIIIIIINNNNG” (thank you Fred Moten, for that stunning description of listening in In the Break, and so much more).
To listen to it and, we hope, to ACT.
We are now “nine and feeling fine,” in spite of it all, still sounding the alarm within our field and reverberating to other disciplines, inside, through, and beyond the hyperpoliced borders of the US, and at the intersection of multiple social identities: race sexuality class gender nation citizenship status. Now, more than ever, we are grateful for the work we do and the platform we have built–and we are honored to be part of the wonderful, brilliant, and powerful community who sustains us and who’s always out there, listening and doing that work. It’s been a breakthrough year for sound studies brilliance; we have actually received more unsolicited submissions this year than in previous years combined (!!!). Keep it flowing–we’ll begin setting the 2019 schedule soon!
Just a sampling of what (and where) the year nine cohort brought you: to an art installation on the streets of Mexico City, to Australia for a conversation on sound and the law and an open letter about race, power, and equity in academia, to K-12 classrooms all over the US in a Liana Silva-edited forum on sonic pedagogy, to Argentina to listen to the “song of the summer,” to Russia to listen in to the sounds of World Cup 2018, to a galaxy far, far away, to Canada’s radio waves to hear traces of “The Idea of North,” to the contested political space of the womb, to Hamilton, to the paisa bars, mosh pits, hardcore shows, tarimas, and 1980’s flashbacks of Chicana Soundscapes (thank you Michele Habell-Pallan for curation and the intro to this forum!), and to indigenous peoples’ sound from Mt. Scott to Standing Rock.
And of course we must give special props and the deepest of gratitude to guest editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta (who brought you the groundbreaking Gendered Soundscapes of India forum), to our regular writers Regina Bradley, Justin Burton, and Robin James who bring it three times a year, to our Fall 2017 intern James “DJ Tasty” Tlsty who brought you “Listening In With Sounding Out!” on WHRW (and our podcast stream) and our spring 2018 team, Shauna Bahssin and Allie Young, who brought copy-editing expertise and respectively, posted on a 24-Hour Drone Festival in upstate NY, and created a podcast (airing on our podcast stream very soon!) about womxn’s experiences in the music industry.
To all our writers, readers, supporters, retweeters, sharers, teachers, and word-of-mouth fans: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Gracias por todo. Let’s continue blowing it to full watts in year 10.
–JLS, LMS, and AT
⏰⏰⏰⏰ SO! 2016-2017 Highlight Reel⏰⏰⏰⏰⏰
- Justin Burton‘s book, Posthuman Rap (Oxford UP), was published fall 2017, and Justin successfully applied for tenure spring 2018.
- Karen Cook is a recipient of an inaugural ACLS Professional Development Grant, and presented some recent work at the annual Medieval-Renaissance Music Conference in Maynooth, Ireland in July 2018.
- This year, Robin James assumed co-editorship (with Eric Weisbard) of the Journal of Popular Music Studies and she wants to encourage SO! writers and readers to submit their article-length work. In addition to writing for SO!, she also published an article on post-feminism and electronic dance music. She keynoted the 2017 IASPM-International conference and the Future/Present: Current Practices in Pop Music Studies conference in Uppsala, Sweden.
- Monika Mehta published “Fan and its Paratexts,” Dossier on Fan, in Framework (January, 2018) and “Streaming Hotstar Originals” for the theme week Global Television Streaming, edited by Jasmine Mitchell and Lisa Patti, for in media res: a media commons project (April 2018). She also co-edited SO!‘s forum Gendered Sounds of India with Praseeda Gopinath and co-wrote the introduction with her as well.
- For 2018, Marlen Rios-Hernandez will be at the Latinx Studies Association (LSA) at D.C. presenting “‘How Many Queers Are Here Tonight?’: The AIDS Epidemic and Punk as Contagion From Gobbing, Cruising, to Los Frikis” as part of the “Performing Dissidence: Social Change and the Stage in Musical Performance” panel. She will be at this years American Studies Association (ASA) in Atlanta presenting a piece entitled “‘We Will Bury You!’ Listening For Chicana Punk and Other Subaltern Queer Auralities on Vinyl” on the “Emergent Auralities: Subaltern Sounds in Latinx Cultural Production and Performance” panel. Moving forward, she’s a recipient of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) year long dissertation fellowship and intend to graduate by Spring 2019.
- Tara Rodgers just put out a solo record as Analog Tara called Fundamentals–a sample is on this year’s SO! mix! Thank you TR!–and was featured on NPR and in the Washington Post!
- SO! Ed-in Chief Jennifer Lynn Stoever just returned from amazing methodology/methods training at the Voces Oral History Institute at the University of Texas-Austin. In Spring 2018, she completed a longterm public sound art project called The Binghamton Historical Soundwalk (with co-teacher Monteith McCollum, community partner Susan Sherwood + TechWorks Binghamton, amazing students, and seed grants from Binghamton University and the Whiting Foundation). You can read more about it in the (free) collection Listening to the City Toolkit: Engaging and Amplifying Unheard Voices Through Creative Practice from the MIT Colab Project that dropped in Spring 2018. Earlier this summer, she published two online essays: “The Sonic Color Line, Black Women, and Police Violence, in a special forum on Sandra Bland on Black Perspectives, the journal of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), and “Drake vs. the Beatles? Time to retire rap vs. rock cliché,” for CNN Opinion. She’ll be heading to Melbourne, Australia in late August 2018 to give talks as part of the Eavesdropping Art Festival coordinated by the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Liquid Architecture, and the Melbourne Law School. Her nine-year-old son will be attending as well, enjoying art and keeping watch for all the dangerous animals he’s heard about on the Discovery Channel.
And remember, 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, as you can probably tell by our very active Twitter feed!
Click here for Sounding Out!‘s Blog-O-Versary “Sound the Alarm” mix 9.0 with track listing (and of course which writers suggested which songs)!
Jennifer Lynn Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University, lead organizer of The Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project and author of The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (NYU Press, 2016).
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- 2017 “!!!!Resist!!!!” Blog-O-Versary mix 8.0
- 2016 Blog-O-Versary “!!!!!!!” mix 7.0
- 2015 Blog-o-Versary 6.0 Keep on Pushing! (Our 400th post!!)
- 2014 #flawless 5.0 celebration and mix
- 2013 Blog-o-Versary 4.0: Solid Gold Summer Countdown!
- 2012 #Blog-O-Versary 3.0: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (The Awesomeness)!
- 2011 “Awesome Sounds from a Future Boombox” 2.0
- 2010 First Blog-O-Versary party mix: A Celebration of Awesomeness