Novelty, Speculation, Heartbreak: How pop music conceives of “the future” (1983-2017)

I’m giving a talk at the end of the month at the Future Sounds of Pop Music conference in Bern. Here’s the (too)full text of the talk. I’ve reprinted the introduction below.

Looking at US and UK pop from the Reagan-Thatcher era through today, I will argue that the concept of “future” changes. In the era of modern rock, post-punk, and new wave, “future” means novelty–a very modernist definition not too far from Russolo. Between 1983 and 2017, neoliberalism (the view that everything, including traditionally non-economic phenomena like friendship, behaves like a deregulated, financialized market) ensconced itself at the core of Western politics; at the same time, it replaced (post)modernist aesthetics. As Steven Shaviro argues, neoliberalism co-opts modernist transgression: “Business and marketing practices today are increasingly focused upon novelty and innovation…Far from being subversive or oppositional, transgression is the actual motor of capitalist expansion today.” Roussloian futurist sonics are now the center of a capitalist realism that has foreclosed our ability to hear any future different than the present (i.e., retromania). Neoliberalism shifts our concept of the future, replacing “newness” with cost/benefit speculation. This is why the “we” of the white mainstream no longer think “alternatives” (capitalist realism) or hear anything but repurposed pasts (retromania). Instead, we hear interests, interests that can augment or diminish our human/aesthetic capital.

Neoliberalism models everything on the deregulated, financialized market, and that market is fundamentally–at the level of the math–a form of probabilistic speculation. As statistical forecasts increasingly organize all parts of life, from access to credit and employment to policing, “the future” is less an idea of novelty and more an idea of gambling, probability, and investment. I will connect this concept of neoliberal speculation to contemporary work in gender studies, which argues that neoliberalism privileges girls and femininity as sites of the greatest return on investment. Whereas modernism genders the avant-garde as masculine, neoliberalism genders futurity as feminine–because of sexism, women start so low and have so far to go, they bring big returns on modest investments.

The first part of my talk addresses this shifting concept of the future in white music/philosophy. The second part of my paper argues that this shift in white/Western concepts of the future affects a similar shift in black intellectual traditions. Classical Afrofuturisms, such as those of Sun Ra or Kodwo Eshun or Janelle Monae are responding largely to European modernity and its humanisms. I argue that a constellation of contemporary theorists–Christina Sharpe, Katherine McKittrick, Alexander Weheliye, and Ashon Crawley–are re-imagining black and Afrodiasporic temporalities to build under- or beyond-the-radar alternatives to neoliberal concepts of the future as speculation.


But before I get into the argument, I want to say a few things about how I got to this idea and this specific framing, because it ties a lot of the philosophical work back to pop music studies.

The road to this concept is somewhat biographical. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, between 1978 and 2000. Around 1989 or 90, I started listening to the local commercial modern rock station from Oxford, Ohio, WOXY 97X. Most people outside the Cincinnati/Dayton area know the commercial modern rock radio station WOXY 97X  from the Oscar-winning film Rain Man, set in Cincinnati in the 1980s. There’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman’s character repeats the station liner over and over and over again. Hoffman translates the theramin-like trill that represents the sound of a UFO into the exclamation “BAM!” As station owner Doug Balogh recounts in a 2003 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, WOXY reworked their liner at the request of Rain Man’s screenwriters: originally, “Cincinnati’s Only Modern Rock Station Isn’t In Cincinnati,” by 1986 the liner was either “97x — The Future is Here” or “97X — The Future is Now.” But in 1988 they changed it for the last time to the liner that appears in the film: “97X, Bam! The Future of Rock and Roll.”

The station began as a modern rock station in 1983; it ended FM broadcast in 2004, and ceased internet broadcast in 2010. In both the popular and academic press, the station’s demise is credited entirely to changes the technology and political economy of radio. And sure, this media studies angle is definitely part of the reason the station couldn’t survive. But I have always suspected that this reading is too reductive. Just think about what’s happening to pop music aesthetics between the dot-com bust in late 2000 and the great recession of 2008: “alternative” has fizzled out, and glossy R&B-based teen pop and bling rap rule TRL. At the same time, “indie” ceases being the language, pose, and political economy of the underground or avant-garde; just as hipsters and “craft” take over everything, neoliberal ideals about entrepreneurship fully ripen such that “do-it-yourself” sounds less like rebellion and more like an imperative for those abandoned by the increasingly austere state. Perhaps “modern rock” and “the future of rock and roll”–both as aesthetics and as concepts–just don’t make a lot of sense given the waning of post/modernism and the rise of neoliberalism, in all its cultural, aesthetic, and political economic forms? Perhaps the contexts that rendered “modern rock” and “the future of rock and roll” meaningful and pleasurable have just changed too much? What if the end of the future of rock and roll is not about the political economy of radio as much as it is about the concepts, values, and aesthetics implied in these ideas of “future,” “modern,” and “rock and roll”?

So, at one level, this project is an attempt to document a station and a culture that made me who I am today. But I’m not a historian, I’m a philosopher, and a specialist in Nietzsche and Foucault to boot. They have a specific way of doing history, which Nietzsche calls genealogy. Genealogy asks questions like: What’s at stake, politically and aesthetically, in the obsolescence of “the future of rock and roll”? Why did things unfold that way? Why do we say that’s the way things unfolded? So, in thinking genealogically about WOXY and “the future of rock and roll,” this project thinks about relationships among neoliberal and modernist aesthetics in pop music, and about shifting concepts of the future. What is the fate of modern rock as “indie,” “local,” and “craft” become mainstream business models (that is, DIY is not an oppositional stance with respect to mass-market industrial capitalism, but a microcosm of neoliberal entrepreneurial capital)? Is “alternative” really to blame for the co-opting of modern rock, or is it instead the rise of omnivorous consumption–that is, was the modern rock format really an omnivorous one in Peterson & Kern’s sense, and is that the aspect of it that got co-opted by mainstream bourgeois aesthetics in the 90s? How do neoliberal ideas of futurity manifest in pop music today? Do we see corresponding shifts in afrofuturism and afrofuturist musics?