Listen to yourself!: Spotify, Ancestry DNA, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century
If you could listen to your DNA, what would it sound like? A few answers, at random: In 1986, the biologist and amateur musician Susumo Ohno assigned pitches to the nucleotides that make up the DNA sequence of the protein immunoglobulin, and played them in order. The gene, to his surprise, sounded like Chopin.
With the advent of personalized DNA sequencing, a British composition studio will do one better, offering a bespoke three-minute suite based on your DNA’s unique signature, recorded by professional soloists—for a 300GBP basic package; or 399GBP for a full orchestral arrangement.
But the most recent answer to this question comes from the genealogy website Ancestry.com, which in Fall 2018 partnered with Spotify to offer personalized playlists built from your DNA’s regional makeup. For a comparatively meager $99 (and a small bottle’s worth of saliva) you can now not only know your heritage, but, in the words of Ancestry executive Vineet Mehra, “experience” it. Music becomes you, and through music, you can become yourself.
As someone who researches for a living the history of connections between music and genetics I am perhaps not the target audience for this collaboration. My instinct is to look past the ways it might seem innocuous, or even comical—especially when cast against the troubling history of the use of music in the rhetoric of American eugenics, and the darker ways that the specter of debunked race science has recently returned to influence our contemporary politics.
During the launch window of the Spotify collaboration, the purchase of a DNA kit was not required, so in the spirit of due diligence I handed over to Spotify what I know of my background: English, Scottish, a little Swedish, a color chart of whites of various shade. (This trial period has since ended, so I have not been able to replicate these results—however, some sample “regional” playlists can be found on the collaboration homepage).
While I mentally prepared myself to experience the sounds of my own extreme whiteness, Ancestry and Spotify avoid the trap of overtly racialized categories. In my playlist, Grime artist Wiley is accorded the same Englishness as the Cure. And ‘Scottish-Irish’, still often a lazy shorthand for ‘White’, boasted more artists of color than any other category. Following how the genetic tests themselves work, geography, rather than ethnicity, guides the algorithm’s hand.
As might be expected, the playlists lean toward Spotify’s most popular sounds: “song machine” pop, and hip-hop. But in smaller regions with less music in Spotify’s catalog, the results were more eclectic—one of the few entries of Swedish music in my playlist was an album of Duke Ellington covers from a Stockholm-based big band, hardly a Swedish “national sound.” Instead, the music’s national identity is located outside of the sounding object, in the information surrounding it, namely the location tag associated with the recording. In other words: this is a nationalism of metadata.
One of the common responses to the Ancestry-Spotify partnership was, as, succinctly expressed by Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic: ‘Your DNA is not your culture’. But because of the muting of musical sound in favor of metadata, we might go further: in Spotify’s catalog, your culture is not even your culture. The collaboration works because of two abstractions—the first, from DNA, to a statistical expression of probable geographic origin; and second from musical sound and style characteristics, to metadata tags for a particular artist’s location. In both of these moves, traditional sites of social meaning—sounding music, and regional or familial cultural practice—are vacated.
There is a way in which this model could come across as subversive (which has not gone unnoticed by Ancestry’s advertising team). Hijacking the presumed whiteness of a Scotland or a Sweden to introduce new music by communities previously barred from the possibility of ‘Scotishness’ or ‘Swedishness’ could be a tremendously powerful way of building empathy. It could rebut the very possibility of an ethno-state. But the history of music and genetics suggests we might have less cause for optimism.
In the 1860s, Francis Galton, coiner of the word ‘eugenics’, turned to music to back up his nascent theory of ‘hereditary genius’—that artistic talent, alongside intelligence, madness, and other qualities were inherited, not acquired. In Galton’s view, musical ability was the surest proof that talents were inherited, not learned, for how else could child prodigies stir the soul in ways that seem beyond their years? The fact of music’s irreducibility, its romantic quality of transcendence, was for Galton what made it the surest form of scientific proof.
Galton’s ideas flourished in America in the first decades of the twentieth century. And while American eugenics is rightly remembered for its violence—from a sequence of forced sterilization laws beginning with Indiana in 1907, to ever-tightening restrictions on immigration, and scientific propaganda against “miscegenation” under Jim Crow—its impact was felt in every area of life, including music. The Eugenics Record Office, the country’s leading eugenic research institution, mounted multiple studies on the inheritance of musical talent, following Galton’s idea that musical ability offered an especially persuasive test-case for the broader theory of heritability. For 10 years the Eastman School of Music experimented on its newly admitted students using a newly-developed kind of “musical IQ test”, psychologist Carl Seashore’s “Measures of Musical Talent”, and Seashore himself presented results from his tests at the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York in 1923, the largest gathering of the global eugenics movement ever to take place. His conclusion: that musical ability was innate and inherited—and if this was true for music, why not for criminality, or degeneracy, or any other social ill?
Next to the tragedy of the early twentieth century, Spotify and Ancestry teaming up seems more like a farce. But scientific racism is making a comeback. Bell Curve author Charles Murray’s career is enjoying a second wind. Border patrol agents hunt “fraudulent families” based on DNA swabs, and the FBI searches consumer DNA databases without customer’s knowledge. ‘Unite the Right’ rally organizer Jason Kessler ranked races by IQ, live on NPR.. And, while Ancestry sells itself on liberal values, many white supremacists have gone after ‘scientific’ confirmation for their sense of superiority, and consumer DNA testing has given them the answers they sought (though, often, not the answers they wanted.)
As consumer genetics gives new life to the assumptions of an earlier era of race science, the Spotify-Ancestry collaboration is at once a silly marketing trick, and a tie, whether witting or unwitting, to centuries of hereditarian thought. It reminds us that, where musical eugenics afforded a legitimizing glow to the violence of forced sterilization, the Immigration Acts, and Jim Crow, Spotify and Ancestry can be seen as sweeteners to modern-day race science: to DNA tests at the border, to algorithmic policing, and to “race realists” in political office. That the appeal of these abstractions—from music to metadata, from culture to geography, from human beings to genetic material—is also their danger. And finally, that if we really want to hear our heritage, listening, rather than spitting in a bottle, might be the best place to start.
Featured Image: “DNA MUSIC” Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Alexander Cowan is a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. He holds an MMus from King’s College, London, and a BA in Music from the University of Oxford. His dissertation, “Unsound: A Cultural History of Music and Eugenics,” explores how ideas about music and musicality were weaponized in British and US-American eugenics movements in the first half of the twentieth century, and how ideas from this period survive in both modern music science, and the rhetoric of the contemporary far right.
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Hearing Eugenics–Vibrant Lives
Poptimism and Popular Feminism–Robin James
Eurovision—that televisual song pageant where pop, camp, and geopolitics annually collide—started last week. This year’s competition is hosted in Tel Aviv, and continues a recent trend in the competition in which geopolitical controversy threatens to overshadow pop spectacle. Activists accuse the Israeli government of exploiting Eurovision as part of a longstanding government PR strategy of “pinkwashing”: championing Israel as a bastion of LGBT+ tolerance in order to muddle perceptions of its violent and dehumanizing policies towards Palestinians. The BDS movement mobilized a campaign to boycott Eurovision. Reigning Eurovision champion Netta Barzilai, echoing many pro-Israel voices (as well as celebrities concerned about “subverting the spirit of the contest”), referred to the boycott efforts as “spreading darkness.”
While this year’s competition opened already mired in contention, I’m going to listen back to the controversial winning song of the 2016 contest, whose media frenzy peaked in its aftermath. That year’s champion, a pop singer of Crimean Tatar heritage who goes by the mononym Jamala, represented Ukraine with a song called “1944.” Just two years before, Crimea had been annexed from Ukraine by Russia following a dubious referendum. Some Crimean Tatars—the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Turkic-language minority group of Crimea—fled to mainland Ukraine following the Russian annexation, viewing the Ukrainian state as the lesser threat; many of those that stayed continue to endure a deteriorating human rights climate (though there are some Crimean Tatars who have bought into—and who reap benefits from—the new Russian administration of the peninsula.)
Jamala’s very presence in the contest inevitably evoked the hot geopolitics of the moment. Her victory angered many Russians, and the subject of Eurovision became fodder for conspiracy theories as well as a target of disinformation campaigns waged online and in Russian-influenced media in Ukraine. In much of the Western European and North American media, the song was breathlessly interpreted as an assertion of indigenous rights and a rebuke to the perceived cultural genocide enacted against Crimean Tatars by Russian state power.
In the wake of her victory, many commentators described Jamala as giving voice not only to the repressed group of Crimean Tatar indigenes living in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea, but to threatened indigenous populations around the world (for better or worse). But indeed, it was not only her metaphorical voice but the sound of vocal anguish that intensified the song’s effectiveness in the contest and made it relevant well beyond the specific geopolitical bog shared by Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians. Specifically, the timbre, breath, and dynamic force of Jamala’s voice communicated this anguish—particularly during the virtuosic non-lexical—wordless—bridge of the song. Despite her expertly controlled vocal performance during the dramatic bridge, Jamala’s voice muddies the boundaries of singing and crying, of wailing from despair and yelling in defiant anger. To pilfer from J.L. Austin’s famous formulation, what made Jamala’s performative utterance felicitous to some and infelicitous to others was as much the sound of her voice as the words that she uttered. Put simply, on the bridge of “1944,” Jamala offers a lesson in how to do things with sound.
Some background: the world’s longest-running televised spectacle of song competition, the Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 with the peaceful mandate of bringing greater harmony (sorry not sorry) to post-war Europe. Competitors—singers elected to represent a country with a single, three-minute song each—and voters come from the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is not geographically restricted to Europe. Currently, some fifty countries send contestants, including states such as Israel (last year’s winner), Azerbaijan, and Australia. Many of the rules that govern Eurovision have changed in its 62-year history, including restrictions governing which language singers may use. Today, it is common to hear a majority of songs with at least some text sung in English, including verses of “1944.” Some rules, though, have been immutable, including the following: songs must have words (although the words need not be sensical). All vocal sounds must be performed live, including background vocals. Voters, be they professional juries or the public—who can vote today by telephone, SMS, or app—cannot vote for their own nation’s competitor (though unproven conspiracy theories about fans crossing national borders in order to vote in defiance of this rule have, at times, flourished.) Finally, reaching back to its founding mandate defining Eurovision as a “non-political event,” songs are not permitted to contain political (or commercial) messages.
Both the title and lyrics of Jamala’s “1944” refer to the year that Crimean Tatars were brutally deported from Crimea under Stalinist edict. Indicted wholesale as “enemies of the Soviet people,” the NKVD rounded up the entire population of Crimean Tatars—estimated to be some 200,000 people—packed them into cattle cars, and transported them thousands of miles away, mostly to Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia. The Soviet regime cast this as a “humanitarian resettlement” intended to bring Crimean Tatars closer to other Muslim, Turkic-language populations. However, Crimean Tatars, who estimate that up to two-thirds of their population perished before arriving in Central Asia, consider this a genocidal act. They were not given the right to return to Crimea until the late 1980s. So, through clear reference to a twentieth-century political trauma with consequences that stretch into the present, “1944” was not the feel-good fluff of classic Eurovision.
Jamala’s performance of “1944” at Eurovision was also atypical in that it largely eschewed pizzazz and bombast. Little skin was shown, there were no open flames, no smoke machines befogged the scene. Instead, Jamala stood, mostly still and center stage, encircled by spotlight. Large projections of flowers framed the stage for the first two minutes of the song, as she sang verses (in English) and a chorus in (Crimean Tartar) that utilized lyrics from a well-known twentieth-century Crimean Tatar protest song called Ey, Güzel Qirim (Oh, My Beautiful Crimea). The groove of the song is spare and rather slow, and the singer’s voice meanders within a fairly narrow range on both verse and chorus.
But then comes the vocalise on the bridge: two minutes and fifteen seconds into the Eurovision performance, the song’s chilled-out but propulsive motion stops, leaving only a faint synthesizer drone. In the sudden quiet, Jamala mimes the act of rocking an infant. Beginning in the middle of her range, she elaborates a melismatic wail that recalls the snaking modal melody of the traditional Crimean Tatar song Arafat Daği. The bridge consists of two phrases interrupted by a forceful and nervous inhalation of breath. Her breath is loud and intentional, calling attention to the complex ornaments that she has already executed, and preparing us for more ornaments to come.
Over the course of eight seconds, Jamala’s voice soars upwards, increasing steadily in volume and intensifying timbrally from a more relaxed vocal sound to an anguished belt. At the apex of the bridge, the Eurovision camera soars above the stage just as the singer looks into the camera’s eye. Meanwhile, the screens framing the stage explode into visuals that suggest a phoenix rising from the ash. The crowd erupts into applause.
Other renditions of “1944” deliver a similar emotional payoff at the climax of the bridge. In the dystopian narrative of Jamala’s official music video, a tornado whips free, setting a field of immobilized human figures into chaotic motion (minute 2:35). In a reality TV song contest called Holos Kraïny (the Ukrainian Voice), a young singer’s powerful elaboration of the bridge propels a coach out of her seat as she wipes tears from her eyes (minute 3:42). In other covers, the bridge is too difficult to attempt: one British busker leaves the “amazing vocal bit in the middle” to “the good people of Ukraine to sing along.”
Timbrally and gesturally, I also hear the resonance between the plangent sound of the duduk—a double-reed wind instrument associated most closely with Armenia, and often called upon to perform in commemorations of the 1915 Armenian genocide—and Jamala’s voice on the vocalise. According to Jamala (who generously responded to my questions via email through her PR person), this was not intentional. But the prominence of the instrument in the arrangement, the lightly nasal quality that her voice adopts in the bridge, and the glottalized movements she uses between pitches suggest that this connection might have been audible to listeners. After all, the opening melodic gesture of “1944” is sounded by a duduk, and it re-enters spectacularly just after the peak of the bridge, where it doubles Jamala’s vocal line as it cascades downwards from the high note. Through sonic entanglement with the duduk, Jamala here communicates anguish on another register, without translation into words.
The performance of sonic anguish through the voice might be understood, in Greg Urban’s terms, as a “meta-affect.” Jamala delivers the emotion of anguish but also fosters sociality by interpellating listeners into the shared emotional state of communal grieving. I paraphrase from Urban’s well-known analysis of “ritual wailing” to argue that Jamala, through this performance of vocal anguish, makes both intelligible and acceptable the public sentiment of grief. This utterance of grief is a statement of “separation and loss that is canonically associated with death” (392) that included the Eurovision audience as co-participants in the experience of grieving, of experiencing anguish over loss. A popular fan reaction video by “Jake’s Face Reacts,” posted to YouTube, and the hundreds of comments responding to it, attest to this experience of co-participation in the experience of grief. Furthermore, the power of this meta-affect is almost certainly heightened through normative gendered associations with performative anguish. Lauren Ninoshvili (2012) identifies this in the “expressive labor” of mourning mothers’ wailing in the Republic of Georgia, while Farzaneh Hemmasi (2017) has recently elucidated how the voice of the exiled Iranian diva Googoosh became iconic of the suffering, feminized, victimized nation of Iran.
The sociologist of music Simon Frith once wrote that “in songs, words are the sign of the voice” (97). To put it in slightly banal terms, songs, as we generally define them, include words uttered by human voices. (Or if they don’t have words uttered by voices, this becomes the notable feature of the song, c.f. Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, Pete Drake’s talking guitar, Georgian vocable polyphony). But non-lexical vocalities also function as a sign of the voice, and, as scholars such as Ana Maria Ochoa (2014) and Jennifer Stoever (2016) have argued, expand our capacity to recover more complex personhoods from the subjugated vocalities of the past. In fact, often the most communicative, feelingful parts of songs occur during un-texted vocalizations. As generations of scholars have argued, timbre means a lot—Nina Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Duke University Press: 2019) presents a very recent example—and it is often overlooked when we take the key attributes of Western Art Music as our sole formal parameters for analysis: melody, rhythm, harmony, form. So as we watch the parade of aspiring Eurovision champions duke it out in the pop pageant of geopolitics, let’s attune ourselves to the vocal colors, the timbral gestures, the ululations and the growls, to the panoply of visual and auditory stimuli demanding our attention and, more important (depending on where we live), our vote.
Featured Image: “Jamala” by Flickr User Andrei Maximov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Maria Sonevytsky is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book, Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine, will be out in October 2019 with Wesleyan University Press.
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“The mashup of the two things we all love to talk about: ourselves & music”
Memoir Mixtapes is a nonprofit literary magazine that is entirely volunteer-run. Created by Samantha Lampf, the idea for the magazine came about on a commute home from Santa Monica to Koreatown in 2018. At the time, Lampf’s life was rapidly changing. After marrying, moving to Los Angeles and changing her career path, she felt as if something was still missing. When “Silver Springs,” by Fleetwood Mac, came on the radio — an artist her dad used to play constantly. Lampf was immediately transported to a specific time in her childhood where she experienced insomnia and depressive thoughts, saying “the music taunted me at all hours.” Soon after, she had the thought to write an essay about this song. She then began to think that many people had their own stories about songs, and Memoir Mixtapes was officially underway.
The first call for submissions was put out that night, and Lampf was unsure if she would receive more than five pieces. However, the first volume, titled “Origin Stories,” published 34 tracks. Since then, they have published eight volumes, with topics ranging from guilty pleasures to our personal anthems. Each volume consists of creative nonfiction submissions and a song (or two) to accompany each piece. The goal of the magazine is to use music as a natural provocation of emotion and memories, using music to connect with each other while reading about some of our most personal experiences.
While Memoir Mixtapes’ primary focus is their full volume works, they also support other literature about music or memoir that might not fit into their main magazine topics. Deep Cuts, a section created for these pieces, features recordings, visual art, playlists and more. Not a writer, but still interested in the project? Consider sharing a song recommendation! All you have to do is create an account on Medium and follow the steps listed on the website for a chance to have your song featured either Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.
Memoir Mixtape’s 2019 Playlist
Memoir Mixtapes is special because it gives us a way to discuss the impact of music on our lives. Music is an integral part of birthdays, weddings, religion and many other cultural practices, yet we often understand music as a separate entity from identity — one that is universal in its message rather than individualized and personal. However, writers at Memoir Mixtapes are allowing us to listen to music as they experience and hear it, providing us with a new method of listening to songs we have our own histories with.
If music and memoir sounds appealing to you, check out the Memoir Mixtapes magazine to read, listen or submit a piece of your own — they have rolling submissions, so submit anytime! For their tenth volume, Memoir Mixtapes is ready to talk about “Ballads & Breakups,” or the whimsical, disastrous search for love. As their page states, “if you felt it in your heart, we want to read it.” Calls for submissions are open now until June 30th!
Kaitlyn Liu is a freshman at Binghamton University majoring in English Literature with a concentration in rhetoric. Kaitlyn takes interest in writing about gender and race along with other intersectional classification systems. Kaitlyn currently writes for the opinions section for the student newspaper, Pipe Dream, as well as working as a copy editor. Outside of writing, Kaitlyn enjoys reading historical fiction and singing for Binghamton University’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, the Binghamtonics.
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SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies: Phantom Power–Jennifer Stoever
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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