“Shake It Off” & the post-identity politics of post-genre pop
This started out as an essay about Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” video, but it grew into a larger discussion of post-identity politics and post-genre pop music aesthetics. I’m interested in their common features, values, and practices. Because genre-mixing and identity-bending have been around for as long as there have been genres and social identities, what does it take for an artist to be seen as sufficiently post-identity and/or post-genre? To be read as post-genre, does an artist also have to appear as post identity? Is this “post-” equally available to everyone, or can some people access such transcendence only because others remain fixed in genre/identity immanence?
First let me explain what I mean by “post-identity” and “post-genre”.
People who think a lot about Western pop music generally agree that we’re now in a “post-genre” era: all the old modernist genre distinctions, which were always also hierarchical evaluations (‘classic’ rock, for example), have given way to a sort of flat pluralism. As ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Keenan explains (in what tbh is a fabulous essay that y’all should open in a new tab),
In recent years, though, the old cultural capital standards “high,” “low,” and “middlebrow” culture have shifted into what sociologists Richard A. Peterson and Roger Kern have labeled “omnivorous consumption.” Omnivorous consumption may sound indiscriminate, but the term actually implies that a different set of distinctions is involved, drawing on both high and low taste cultures…The shift toward omnivorous tastes hasn’t led to a indiscriminate, disproportionate focus on pop, but to a recognition that there are more forms worthy of attention—and, yes, criticism—than just white, middle-class, male-dominated indie rock.
I’ll come back to this in a bit, but notice that Keenan connects omnivorous musical taste to the de-centering of middle-class white guys. But back to post-genre omnivorousness. It’s not just something ethnomusicologists and sociologists talk about; its also a commonsense idea in the mainstream music press. 
For example, there is this Buzzfeed profile of just-out-of-high-school pop musician Raury, “whose very existence…seems to represent another nail in the coffin of the idea of genre purity. His songs are seamless amalgams of a dozen strains of American music stretching back half a century — all woven together by someone who never saw them as separate.” Raury both explains the music industry consensus on post-genre music, and connects it to phenomena that theorists like me describe as “post-identity” politics:
I think the internet has changed music. People like me grow up listening to everything and the genres begin to blend and disappear. You’ve got people like King Krule and Travis Scott and Lorde and myself. There are so many genreless artists now. But if calling it “alternative” helps you sleep at night, then so be it. I call my album Indigo Child because it’s for the generation who grew up in the Internet Age with infinite knowledge. We have access to everything now so we should be aware of that and really make the best of it. On the internet, you get exposed to all different races and sexualities and religions — all types of people. So before any parent or cultural standard tries to influence you or make you think some type of way, you can form your own opinion. People are different, but that doesn’t mean that they’re monsters or that they should be discriminated against or talked down to.
Because the music industry has historically collapsed identity into genre (“race records,” anyone?), it’s not at all surprising that Raury assumes the connection between the two, even as things that are superseded. It’s the Internet that, in Raury’s view, makes both post-genre and post-identity multiculturalism possible. And, though this is an argument that I’m currently trying to craft in more fully-realized form, Raury’s intuition here is correct: for a lot of reasons, the materiality of the Internet and the material processes that constitute post-identity society and subjects are really similar. Think about the ways algorithmic sorting has changed our experience of both listening to music and identification. Instead of listening to “format” radio stations, people who stream music listen to collections of songs curated for their similar profiles (I’m thinking especially of the early Pandora algorithm here, which seemed to privilege how music sounded over more sociological factors like genre/format). Similarly, dataveillance doesn’t taxonomically classify individuals by phenotype or sex, but infers orientations based on relational patterns of behavior. Algorithmic sorting is more nuanced and can account for/manage more variables than traditional taxonomies of genre/gender/race, so it can interpret and manage groups that are internally more “heterogeneous” (Beltran 138) than social identities traditionally have been.
This heterogeneity is one of the two definitive features of post-identity politics. As political theorist Cristina Beltran explains, “the growth and heterogeneity of these [i.e., minority] populations” works together with a “paradoxical state of inclusion, inequality, and opportunity” (138) to make it appear that white supremacy, or patriarchy, or heterosexism has been defeated and racial/gender/sexual justice has been achieved. For example, we have black millionaires and a black president, we have Beyonce, there are more women enrolled in college than men, and so on…when these phenomena are cited as evidence of the end of white supremacy or patriarchy, they exhibit what Beltran calls “the postracial [or postfeminist] logic that uses elite visibility to argue that racial [or gender] justice has been achieved” (139).
In the video, Swift tries on all the feminine stereotypes that music videos have made available to women. (The side-effect of this is that “Shake It Off” also anthologizes the history of famous women musicians and their music videos: Toni Basil, Lady Gaga, Paula Abdul, Destiny’s Child…) Each stereotype is represented by a form of dance: ballet, modern, breakdancing, twerking, cheerleading, Lady-Gaga-style weird fashion as performance, rhythmic gymnastics, and so on. It is interesting, though, that there’s no line dancing or squaredancing or otherwise “country” style represented here, given Swift’s background in that genre. Swift’s character fails to adequately execute any of these dance styles and thus fails to embody any of these stereotypes. She often breaks the fourth wall, shooting audiences a look of mocking incredulity that asks, rhetorically, “Why am I bothering to do this thing that is clearly ridiculous and stupid?”
The idea is that by failing to embody these stereotypes, failing to be disciplined by these rigid genres, Swift’s character actually wins. Unlike the (mainly women) dancers who drank their respective flavors of kool-aid and unquestioningly adhere to limiting, strict, inhibiting genre conventions, Swift’s character knows better than to be duped by such narrow-minded authority. In the opening shot, for example, Swift’s character literally rises above all the other women in the shot, as if to say she’s matured beyond the partisan (or subcultural?) adherence to any strict style.
Like a latter-day Goldilocks, Swift’s character riffles through other people’s houses in search of what suits her taste. Finding none to her taste, she shakes off all the costumes and settles into what, presumably, is her own, self-made style. She’s dancing to “this music in my mind sayin it’s gonna be alright,” and that’s what allows her to be ‘herself.’ In these scenes, she’s accompanied by a number of “regular” or “everyday-looking” people who are dressed in what appear to be street clothes and who move to the music in what appear to be unchoreographed, untrained ways. The video positively portrays people who shake off externally-imposed norms and rock out to your own drummer. In this way it seems like a perfect anthem for the post-Fordist culture industry: conformity and standardization are bad, be unique and we’ll target/tailor to you! It also demonstrates the post-feminist and post-racial ethos of resilience: individuals are responsible for overcoming the trauma and impediments imposed by (past) sexism and racism–shake it off, in other words.
“Shake It Off” lauds Swift’s narrator’s ability to transcend the narrow limitations of all these genres/stereotypes. She blows through all of them, finds none adequate to express her own groove, which she then finds at the end. She is both all and none of these genres. Just as these genres are costumes Swift’s character interchangeably throws on and off, the identities tied to each genre are equally things Swift’s character interchangeably auditions. She attempts any number of white girl stereotypes: prim and proper ballerina, b-girl, hoochie, diva, athlete, and so on. She can overcome the limitations of genre only because all genres are available for her to try and reject. Similarly, she can overcome the limitations of identity only because, as a white cis-girl, all these identities are available for her to sample. (And I wonder if this is why anything that smells of country must be missing from the video: that would remind audiences that she’s not the unmarked white subject of omnivorous pop, but an artist marked with roots in a very specific genre.)
But Bruno Mars can’t be himself and “shake off” identity-based genre stereotypes. In this GQ interview, Mars reveals that he had to get rid of his Hispanic last name to avoid being pigenholed as performer of Latin music:
He parodies the kind of response he would get:
“Your last name’s Hernandez, maybe you should do this Latin music, this Spanish music…Enrique’s so hot right now.” He shakes his head. Eventually he sidestepped the issue by adopting the name Mars, perhaps figuring that the best way to avoid being stereotyped by race is to sound as though you came from another planet altogether.”
A mixed-race artist with a Hispanic name who wanted to make pop songs, Mars was trying to be a “post-race” artist (i.e., make art that wasn’t either about race or tied to the aesthetic and artistic traditions of his racial/ethnic group). But the industry wouldn’t let him be either post-race or post-genre: they could only understand an artist who appeared to be Hispanic as the performer of Latin music.
This inability to parse non-white artists as post-genre is at least part of what motivates mainstream (i.e., non-Latino/a) responses to Pitbull, which Julianne Escobedo Shepherd has described as “a general disdain for his persona than a distaste for (or even working knowledge of) his music.” Shepherd argues that Pit’s musical omnivorousness is both his defining characteristic and his main strength: an artist who “declares himself ‘Mr. Worldwide,’”he’s “a consummate tastemaker whose open ear dalliances with the new types of music and musicians put him, at times, on par with globally inquisitive DJs like Diplo.” There are 2 main things that distinguish Pit’s sonic cosmopolitanism from Diplo’s: first, Pit unabashedly positions himself as pop, whereas Diplo situates himself as more underground (even though dude has a show on BBC R1), so there’s the gendered distinction between feminized pop and masculinized underground that leads people to see Pit as less than serious and/or inauthentic; second, obviously, Pit is Hispanic and Diplo’s white. So, like Mars/Hernandez, Pit’s cosmopolitan post-genre-ism strikes cognitive dissonance in mainstream audiences, who can only understand Latino artists as performers of narrowly Latin music.
But mainstream distaste for Pitbull’s persona may also be an expression of unease with his approach to post-genre/post-identity mixing. As philosopher Linda Martin Alcoff has argued, North America and Latin America have two distinct approaches to racial mixing and assimilation: “both perpetrated a strategy of domination. But it is instructive to note the different forms domination can take, and the different legacies each form has yielded in the present” (Visible Identities 273). In North American “assimilationism and its heir apparent, cultural appreciation” (270), whiteness was a fixed ideal to which anyone could assimilate: anyone who could embody the culturally-specific norms of reason and rationality could ‘melt’ into the big pot of American society (for example, Italians have now largely melted into unmarked whiteness). In Latin America, there wasn’t a fixed center, but more of a moving target, which was the effect of “the constant absorption and blending of difference into an ever larger, more complex, heterogeneous whole” (273).  “Cultural appreciation” is Alcoff’s term for what I call post-identity: it’s the ‘appreciation’ of the virtuously diverse society. As Alcoff explains, the global north presents its multiculturalism as evidence of its moral and cultural rectitude, and treats the kinds of cultural/racial mixing practiced in the global south as evidence of their backwardness and moral/cultural immaturity:
the fluidity of cultural identity promoted by the assimilationist discourse actually was used to bolster northern European-American’s claims to cultural superiority: their (supposed) ‘fluidity’ was contrasted with and presented as a higher cultural achievement and the (supposed) fixity and rigidity of colonized cultures” (Alcoff 270).
So, the global north understands its multiculturalism to be more healthy, more virtuous, more advanced than the (supposedly) unchanged heterogeneity of the global south; this northern multiculturalism is more well-suited to the demands of neoliberal capital than southern approaches to pluralist diversity (in fact, the global south appears backwards because it doesn’t appear to be willing or able to adapt to neoliberalism’s demands).
What if mainstream US audiences hate Pitbull because they think he exhibits a globally southern approach to cultural pluralism and mixing? I don’t think it matters which style of cultural omnivorousness Pitbull actually uses; he may use both. After all, as a musician, Pitbull has done a great job adapting to the neoliberal music industry. What if, because he’s Latino, people attribute “southern” multiculturalism to him regardless of what approaches he actually adopts? Could it be the case that a Latino artist could never be seen, by mainstream post-racial pop audiences, as being adequately post-racial and therefore incapable of authentic or tasteful post-genre omnivorousness? In Pitbull’s case this seems to be true.
In order to “authentically” and successfully embody post-genre pop, an artist must be seen as having transcended traditional identity-based characteristics or stereotypes. But, such transcendence isn’t equally available to everyone: in order for some to appear to have progressed past the limitations of identity, there have to be spectacular examples of people who haven’t progressed, who remain regressively stuck in obsolete ways of life. This is an example of what political theorist Lester Spence calls neoliberalism’s logic of “exception.” In general, neoliberalism presents itself as an upgrade on outmoded modernity: post-identity bills itself as the transcendence of identity politics and its much-debated limitations. However, in order to represent something as adapted or potentially adaptable to contemporary life, there must be obvious, indeed, spectacular examples of non-adaptable phenomena–that is, of the “exception” to neoliberal reform. And it is always the least privileged members of society who occupy this role. For example, though relatively privileged people of color can go to Harvard, be the Secretary of State, or the highest-earning artist in the entire entertainment industry, those with less (economic, gender, sexual, even racial/ethnic) privilege are subject to more intense surveillance, poverty, and disease than ever before.
Neither post-identity society nor post-genre pop music aesthetics are absent hierarchical class distinctions–it’s just that the hierarchies are cut differently (often in more mathematically complex, less binary terms). There are still more and less valued musical aesthetics, just as there are still white supremacist distribution of racial privilege and oppression. For example, pop omnivorousness often comes with an “everything but rap” or “anything but country” qualification. I think this mimics what Jared Sexton has identified as the shift in the logic of white supremacy from a white/non-white logic of white purity, to a non-black/black logic of white multiculturalism–the multicultural, post-racial society includes everyone but those who are too black. This non-black/black politics of exception resonates with the “everything but X” aesthetic of omnivorousness.
Mars and Pitbull appear as “exceptions” to the post-identity/post-genre rules that help Swift “shake off” both her pre-feminist consciousness and her country music roots, and that lend Raury the gleam of internet ingenue freshness. It’s significant that Mars and Pitbull are both Latinos, and Swift and Raury fall easily into the US music industry’s white/black binary (which is what makes ‘miscegenation’ possible, after all). Because the “old” is articulated not just in terms of, but as a black/white binary, perhaps white and black and mixed white/black artists have an easier time making their performances of identity/genre transcendence legible as such?
 The venerable Mannes College of Music even has a minor in “Post-Genre Music”. Their catalog copy states: “In a world where musicians can no longer stay confined to a single genre, performers need to be able to survive and thrive in a wide variety of styles of music and, increasingly, in music that combines many different styles into one.”
 In North America, then, assimilationism and its heir apparent, cultural appreciation, have not led to a true mixing of races or cultures, or to an end to the relations of domination between cultures. However, interestingly, the concept and the practice of assimilation resonates very differently in South and Central America…assimilation did not require conformity to a dominant norm; instead, assimilation was associated with an antixenophobic cosmopolitanism that sought to integrate diverse elements into a new formation” (270).