Hangover the Limit: More on neoliberalism as a system of musical organization
I’ve been writing a lot about how the logic of biopolitical neoliberalism manifests in musical practices. For example, here is post about the contrast between classically liberal tonal harmony and contemporary EDM-influenced pop structures. I want to pick up where I ended this post. I said:
Foucault’s neoliberal subject “is never called upon to relinquish his interest” (BOB 275); instead, he ought to “directly multiply” it “without any transcendence” (ibid) or telos. This subject is not regulated by prohibitions (which require renunciation and domestication of desire), but by “the principle of maximum/minimum” (Foucault BOB 17). This subject tries to keep his experiences “at the border between the too much and the to little, between the maximum and the minimumfixed for me by the nature of things” (Foucault BOB 19). The minimum is a valley, the maximum, a peak; once I hit either of these, I change course, cycling back to the alternate limit.
If, as I argued there, neoliberalism creates tension by building rhythmic and timbral intensity toward an upper limit or asymptote, then it frames musical, aesthetic, and other pleasure as a matter of “pushing it to the limit,” as the cliché goes. Jeffery Nealon calls this “the logic of intensity.” Stuck between a predefined maximum and minimum (amplitude, frequency), “in a world that contains no ‘new’ territory—no new experiences, no new markets—any system that seeks to expand must by definition intensify its existing resources, modulate them in some way” (Nealon 82).[i]To modulate a relationship means to “speed it up or slow it down” (Nealon 82)—i.e., to push it to the minimum or maximum threshold. This modulation is both how neoliberal power enforces itself, and how it might be subverted. There is nothing inherently hegemonic or counter-hegemonic about the form or logic itself; the political effects depend on a number of factors, and are often mixed anyway. Here I want to think about how this form or logic manifests in contemporary music, especially at the level of compositional form, and how contemporary music might suggest counter-hegemonic uses of this logic—sort of meta-modulations that don’t just work on the effects of a specific manifestation of the logic of intensity, but that modulate the logic itself.
To that end, I examine two Taio Cruz songs: one, because it literalizes this musical structure in its lyrical content (and thus might clarify some things for the less musically literate among us), and the other because it might indicate one tactic for subverting the logic of neoliberal/biopolitical power. In other words, it might be an example of how to use this logic in counter-hegemonic ways; even though it doesn’t meta-modulate the song’s logic, it suggests one way we might go about such a meta-modulation.
Tonal harmony and classical liberalism are both conquest narratives: they’re about “eating the other,” the overcoming of difference and its assimilation to a more firmly and resolutely centered identity/subject. Conquest involves overwhelming the border between the proper and the foreign, and resistance involves disobeying the prohibitions that keep you on the margins, questioning your constitutive exclusion (or abjection) from the political. In the neoliberal logic of intensity, however, “you are offered experiences for doing work on yourself rather than opportunities for confronting, overcoming, or otherwise consuming some ‘other’” (Nealon 82). It’s not a matter of flouting, breaking, or crossing boundaries, but of mining the resources you already have. You push yourself to your utmost limit: you try to be as efficient, as smart, as wealthy, as healthy, as happy, etc. Or, as Taio Cruz says in his song “Troublemaker,” you have to “put that thing on full throttle” and “do it all for the now.”
The lyrical content of this song talks about the logic of intensity: like the production of the track, it’s about maximalism. As the lyrics in the bridge say, “Let’s take it to the top/push it to the limit.”
The bridge, beginning around 2:22, also demonstrates the logic of intensity at a musical level.
2:22-2:25 First iteration of the phrase
2:25-2:29 Second iteration of the phrase
2:30-2:33 Second half of phrase (“to the limit) is repeated double time: “to the limit/to the limit/to the limit/limit/limit/limit”
2:36 Return to chorus
2:50-2:54 If you listen to the snare part here, it also exponentializes in rhythmic intensity to effect a build-to-climax.
So, instead of creating forward motion and musical excitement by conquering secondary key areas (as in the Clarkson song I discuss in the post I cited above), this song creates musical interest by dividing the measure into increasingly smaller rhythmic fractions: first there’s “take it to the top, push it to the limit,” then there’s “to the limit,” then there’s “limit”. The snare part at 2:50 does the same sort of rhythmic subdivision. The number of repetitions is increased, as though it were being driven to the point at which our ears could no longer perceive any separation between rhythmic events (sort of like how we see images projected at a rate of about 24 frames per second as a continuous moving image). Instead of crossing this asymptote, the song drops out entirely into a measure of (more or less) silence. Then we return back the regularly programmed schedule of peaks and valleys. This is the normal, regular use of the logic of intensity, the one neoliberalism uses to maintain specific intensities of life for specific groups.
In the next section, I discuss how another of Taio Cruz’s songs might suggest irregular uses of the logic of intensity.
At the level of musical organization, this song is a pretty regular example of the logic of intensity.[ii] However, at the level of lyrical content it suggests a metaphor for meta-modulating the logic of intensity. A hangover is the effect of pushing oneself beyond one’s limits: too much alcohol, too fast, not enough water, etc. It’s evidence that one was too intense in one’s drinking and partying. Being strung out or burnt out might be additional versions of this same general metaphor. You are hungover because you were immoderately intense. Because you are hungover, you cannot be intense enough today—you’re not as productive at work, or even at having fun, as you could be, because you are stuck with a headache, or nausea, or worse. A hangover is where last night’s excessive intensity impedes your ability to maximize the intensity of whatever you do today. In a way, hangover is like sonic feedback, where past sounds return to effect and distort the current process of sound-making.
Hangovers suck. This is another reason they are, I think, a productive example of subverting or meta-modulating the neoliberal logic of intensity. It’s not like this subversion liberates you, makes you feel better, more free, more empowered, or whatever. Actually, it’s a huge pain in the ass (or head, or stomach, etc.). This meta-modulation comes at a cost, and it may not be the case that this cost is sustainable; it may even be counter-productive for counter-hegemonic work. So the most effective strategies for subverting hegemonic logics of intensity may not actually involve the explicit crossing of a limit/asymptote. It may be about combining a number of regular signals (that stay within the defined min and max) so they interact in irregular ways. (I’ve referred to this before as “crossing the streams”).