Neoliberalism and Contemporary Pop Music: An Overview
I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the logic of biopolitical neoliberalism as it manifests in contemporary pop music (and a little bit in 20th c avant-garde art music). In the same way that classical liberalism and tonal harmony are part of the same episteme (they share underlying assumptions and values that in turn give rise to similar strategies and tactics of musical or political organization), so neoliberalism and postmillennial extra-tonal pop practices participate in a shared episteme. If tonality is the system of musical organization that corresponds to classical liberalism, contemporary musical practices evince a variety of developing, not-yet unified or thematized practices that correspond to neoliberal models of political organization. I’ve been writing about this in a scattered way, so I wanted to tie together my until-now disparate thoughts, and give a “big-picture” overview.
Here are some basic features of neoliberal pop music:
1. Many philosophers have analyzed the shift from classical to neoliberalism in terms of a change in organizational logics: classical liberalism is a logic conquest and exchange, while neoliberalism is a logic of intensification and entrepreneurship. Jeffery Nealon’s distinction between the logic of conquest and the logic of intensity is particularly easy to adapt to analyses of music. Conquest and intensification are two models for organizing society, a musical composition, a subjectivity, etc.
a. Classical liberalism and tonality are conquest narratives. Tonality and the classically liberal subject develop extensively. Unity and wholeness are reinforced as the subject meets and domesticates challenges to this unity. So, in the same way that classically liberal polities “eat the other”—assimilate differences into a “melting pot”—tonal musical works resolve dissonances (large-scale dissonances, like forays into different keys, or more surface level dissonances like chord changes) into consonance. To use Susan McClary’s example, just as Ulysses had to conquer all the monsters and return home, tonal works must conquer all dissonances (non-tonic harmonic areas) and return back to the key, chord, and register the piece starts in.
i. Here, development is teleological: conquest is always oriented to the goal of returning “home” (be it Athens or a root-position I chord). There is a sense of forward motion and progress. Telos or end is one orientating pole, and origin is the other (in fact, telos implies and requires origin).
1. The importance/emphasis/structuring role of “origin” explains social contract theorists’ obsession with nature, the state of nature, etc. Similarly, the concept of social identities (visible external appearance correlates to inner character traits) puts nature or physiology at the foundation of race and gender, treating them as “natural,” bodily phenomena with psycho-social implications/effectivity.
ii. Hierarchies are part of this teleology. Chords have different, hierarchically related functions. A chord’s function is basically an expression of how strongly it implies the tonic; the “dominant” (V) function most strongly implies it, the subdominant (IV or ii) next most strongly, etc. As songs progress, they need to follow this hierarchy, working from least to most strongly consonant function.
b. Neoliberalism and extra-tonal pop develop intensively, by “pushing it to the limit” rather than “eating the other.” Nealon calls this the “logic of intensity,” and what Foucault explains it in terms of the subject who is “entrepreneur of himself.” If classical liberal organization can be conceived as a conquest narrative, neoliberal organization can be conceived as a sine wave: there’s no finite beginning or end, because it’s not origin or telos that define or structure the work/subject; rather, it’s the upper and lower limit/asymptote of intensity that define and structure the work/subject.
i. No set order, no hierarchy, because development is not teleological—there is no end or origin around which to orient the structure. Basically, neoliberalism has no “center” (e.g., in the way we speak of a song’s “tonal center”). But, that doesn’t mean it’s not tightly controlled. Instead of a center, neoliberalism uses a range, a “phase space” between predefined upper and lower limits. (Think of how the A pitch that symphony orchestras tune to is 440mHz in the US, but 442mHz in Europe, but yet still an “A”.) It’s these upper and lower asymptotes that act as poles—they’re “sticky,” we feel their increasingly-powerful pull as we approach nearer and nearer (sorta like a tractor beam…or maybe a Traktor beam, lulz). If, in classical liberalism/tonality, origin and end were the nodes of affective investment, in neoliberal extra-tonal pop, these asymptotes are the nodes of affective investment. More simply, songs “feel” more exciting when we approach the nodes of affective investment—they’re like sonic “hits” or “money shots.”
ii. Songs unfold in time by ping-ponging back and forth between upper and lower asymptotes of intensity, sometimes at faster frequencies, sometimes at slower frequencies; sometimes with differently-shaped attacks and decays (square instead of curve, for example). There’s little to no sense of forward motion; you’re just riding the peaks and valleys of a sine wave, pushing upper and lower limits over and over again, but never crossing them. EDM club sets really exemplify this sense of aimless rise and fall. I was listening to a set DJ Irene performed in Charlotte, NC, in July 2012, and her set more or less followed this formula: there were 12-measure “chunks” or “modules” (if you wanna be Manovichian and speak in the language of new media), each of which intensified the number of rhythmic events (like handclaps) and qualitatively intensified timbres (like a “soaring” sound) over those 12 bars, reaching a peak at the end of the 12-bar module and dropping back down to nearly nothing (like off a cliff, back to the valley) by the beginning of the next 12-bar phrase. Each 12-bar phrase is a different trajectory through the same predefined phase space. At the show, my partner complained that the set wasn’t going anywhere, and ze was right, it wasn’t developing extensively toward a telos. Instead, it was developing intensively, exploring all the possible permutations of the algorithm that defines the phase space between the upper and lower asymptotes of rhythmic/timbral/musical intensity.
1. I always mention Dan Barrow’s concept of “the Soar” with reference to this strategy of rhythmic and timbral intensification…but I do so because he’s on to something. I’m just saying Barrow’s Soar is a musical manifestation of the more general logic of neoliberalism. The Soar is the pop-music translation of the more niche EDM tactic I described above.
2. So those are the overarching features of classically liberal tonality and neoliberal extra-tonal pop. Here are some more specific features:
a. There’s a shift in emphasis on harmony and melody to an emphasis on rhythm & timbre. So, if tonality prioritizes certain musical elements, extra-tonal pop prioritizes other ones. Why? Well, I think you can argue that harmony & melody work together as a pair, just as rhythm and timbre work together as a pair. Harmony and melody are about a sort of Cartesian longitude/latitude: they’re the vertical (harmony) and horizontal (melody) elements of a song. A Deleuzian might say harmony and melody are features of the musical “plane of organization”—structure and series, tree organization, etc. Rhythm and timbre, however, are not reducible to 2D Cartesianism (meter, sure, but not rhythm). They are intensities or temporal patterns: rhythms are patterns made by divisions and subdivisions among/within beats, and timbres are patterns of attack, decay, sustain, and release, or where a sound sits on the “sound spectrum” (like color is where light sits on the light spectrum).
i. This sheds new light on Andrew Goodwin’s remark in his essay on music in the age of digital reproduction (printed in the 1988 On Record collection), that then-contemporary pop music was defined primarily by an artist’s timbre. Goodwin was correct in noting the prominence of timbre; I’m arguing that it’s motivated by neoliberalism.
b. Silence, or a measure or so of little to no real sound (i.e., a severe reduction in the complexity of the sonic texture), becomes an increasingly common compositional device. Usually EDM-pop songs, like LMFAO’s “Sexy & I Know It” or Usher’s “Scream” follow the “soar” (the build-up of rhythmic and timbral intensity) with a measure or so of silence or near silence (in “Scream,” it’s a siren instead of silence, but the effect is the same), and only then do we have the big “hit” on the downbeat of the next measure. This is so conventional that even Gangnam Style does it. The use of silence or near-silence further exacerbates the tension built in the soar…but there’s more going on than just delaying the big hit. This silence or near silence should be understood as implying the rhythmic and timbral intensification has crossed the threshold of human perception: things are still intensifying, we just can’t hear it. Basically, the silence-like effect is supposed to be evidence that the song continues to push itself to a limit, but that this limit surpasses the limitaitons of human audio perception. The song pushes us beyond our own limitations, and the neoliberal, entrepreneurial subject experiences this as a source of pleasure.
c. “Chance” events appear within highly controlled ecology. For example, AutoTuned vocals, in the T-Pain or “Cher effect” style, seem like mistakes, but are actually pre-programmed and intentional effects. See also Cages Music of Changes (the matrix domesticates all actual chance).
d. Shift in vocal ornamentation, from melodic melisma (which outlines diatonic scales, or tonal arpeggios, generally) to stutters (stop-and-start “cut ups” of the same pitch. Think of Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been All My Life,” where “life” gets cut up into “li-i-i-i-i-ife”: there’s no variation in pitch on each articulation of the vowel; the ornamentation consists only in stuttering the vowel sound.
3. Mainstream white vernacular and corporate musics appropriate Afro-diasporic musical practices and critical/resistant practices. The strategies that Afro-American musicians developed to critique and subvert classically liberal hegemonies (musical, political, racial) get domesticated by neoliberal aesthetics.
a. For example, there is a tired, often overly simplistic contrast between Western “harmonic” music and Afro-diasporic “repetitive” or “rhythmic” music. Certainly the harmony/repetition contrast has some underlying truth to it (e.g., as a metaphor for general differences in metaphysical and ontological frameworks), but it often gets used in overly schematic and/or reductive ways. However, it is useful to think of neoliberalism as Euro-Western domestication of “repetition” (e.g., in biopolitical administration, statistics, etc.). So it’s not just that Afro-diasporic practices conveniently overlap with neoliberal/biopolitical strategies of organization; rather, one of the advantages of biopolitical neoliberalism is it is a means/medium by which Western hegemony can easily domesticate subversive/resistant Afro-diasporic practices. I think it’s actually really important to think of this as one of the contributing factors to the rise of neoliberalism/biopolitical administration (especially in music).
b. More concretely, looping, cutting, “into the red”—all these elements of hip hop aesthetics that Tricia Rose identifies in Black Noise, stuff you find in dub, techno, house, jungle, etc., get incorporated into neoliberal hegemony. They no longer sound unmusical, they’re ubiquituous features of top-40 radio. See: Brostep. (E.g., this was all stuff Terminator X was doing in the 90s, but then it was still somewhat non-mainstream—PE was not played on Top 40 radio the way Skrillex is. Similarly, this was all going on in Jungle and oher hardcore dance styles in the 90s, but they were absolutely not mainstream in the US, and were still not exactly TOTP material in the UK.)
c. There is also an increased accommodation of black artists in mainstream—use of blacks as “border population” (to use Falguni Sheth’s term) to further other racist-homonationalist projects. Think for example about the increasingly common presentation of African-American male hip hop stars as scions of the globalized neoliberal entrepreneurial class: Flo Rida skydives over the palm island in Dubai (in “Wild Ones”), Ne-Yo’s video for “Let’s Go” traces hetero masculinity in Rio, LA, and Tokyo, Taio Cruz and Flo Rida’s collaboration on “Hangover” is all about transnationalized black masculinities as distinct from Anglo-Asian ones…etc. Certainly black artists subvert these presentations (e.g., with the idea of “entrepreneurial drag”), but they get taken up by mainstream audiences as evidence that neoliberal globalization is not racist because if it were racist, so the argument goes, then black people wouldn’t be allowed to be successful jet-setters. Or, 21stc “xenomania” is presented as different from obviously racist “love & theft” 20th c appropriations of black culture.
So that’s a general overview of how I understand a general epistemic model to manifest in politics as biopolitical neoliberalism (what Puar calls “superpanopticism”), and in music as EDM/dubstep/etc. You can totally rest assured that I’m developing this into a book project (hey editors—interested?). That said, my thinking on this is still evolving…so, if you have any feedback or suggestions, those are definitely welcome.
Next up on the blog anyway is a consideration of Steven Shaviro’s Post-Cinematic Affect. Here, he considers neoliberal logics in 4D visual arts. I want to tease out the similarities and differences between our projects. I’m primarily interested in how the (non)differences in medium play out at the level of logic or structure. My (yet untested) intuition is this: music and 4D viz arts are generally all digital media nowadays, so their medium is not necessarily different. BUT, at the practical-experiential level, music and 4D viz arts ARE different…so if the material differences between sound and viz media are reduced, this only highlights their historico-socio-cultural components…so comparing and contrasting post-cinematic 4D viz media and neoliberal/extra-tonal pop music will actually tell us specivic things about visual and musical conventions, discourses, traditions, etc. So look for that soonish.