Hitting the Hot 100 in 1989, The B-52s “Love Shack” was one of the two recently-charting songs my high school marching band regularly played between 1992 and 1996; the other was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That my evangelical band director felt comfortable having us play “Love Shack” to crowds of the very people who voted Republican John Boehner into his first term in office in 1992 is evidence the song was seen less as the product of a queer feminist band with an ex-member of Marxist post-punk band Gang of Four on bass and more of an apolitical novelty hit.
Perhaps because people think of it as a novelty hit, it’s hard to find accounts that take its music seriously. And when its music is discussed, it’s treated as simple and unworthy of artistic respect. For example, this HuffPost piece lists it as the #1 karaoke song for bad singers, and in 2015 a video of actor Goeffry Rush’s truly awful karaoke performance of the song went viral. That same year, American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson was recorded joining a 10-year-old fan singing “Love Shack” at karaoke, and it was largely spun as evidence of Clarkson’s relatability–singing this easy, goofy song she brought her powerhouse vocal chords down to our level. It’s as if the music is only secondary to the sociality it fosters when we sing and listen to it together.
But understanding the music as separate from and secondary to the relationships people form when it serves as the “something in common” (Ranciere Politics of Aesthetics 12) that coheres a community and organizes the people within it. By taking the music seriously and listening closely to its songwriting, composition, and performance, I will show that “Love Shack” is deeply concerned with the way we relate to one another as neoliberalism makes it increasingly difficulty for the most disadvantaged among us to survive.
But first I should explain what I mean by neoliberalism. The short answer is: neoliberalism thinks everything, including traditionally non-commercial and non-quantifiable things like friendship, ought to work like a deregulated, financialized market, because this is the best way to realize classical liberalism’s traditional values (like individualism or patriarchy) in 20th and 21st century contexts. Briefly, a financialized market is one grounded in investment instead of exchange (M-M1 instead of M-C-M), and it is generally modeled with probabilistic math. A deregulated market is one where tightly controlled background conditions allow for the absence of foreground rules (those conditions guarantee the same outcomes traditionally governed by rules no matter what surface-level choices individuals may make). As scholars such as Melinda Cooper have argued, because neoliberalism aims to more fully and efficiently realize the same goals and values as 18th century classical liberalism, it is as deeply committed to white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and other systems of domination Enlightenment political philosophy invented in order to help realize classically liberal ideals and values. Thus, neoliberalism can have a lot in common with neoconservatism, especially when it comes to regulating race, gender, and sexuality in order to ensure the white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal distribution of property and personhood. For example, though neoliberalism sometimes liberalizes traditional identity-based hierarchies and exclusions (e.g., by using subprime mortgages to include black people in credit markets previously unavailable to them), Cooper demonstrates that Chicago School economists argued that marriage was the best way to fix the AIDS crisis. As she explains, they thought “the risks of HIV transmission are fully internal to the markets in unsafe sex or intravenous drug use and should therefore be privately assumed by those who participate in them” (172), and the best way to privatize this public health crisis was to permit same-sex marriage. “In this way,” she says, “the neoliberal critique of normativity ends up endorsing an alternative form of moral philosophy—one that restores the private family and its legal obligations of care to a foundational role in the free-market order” (Cooper 174). This helps us square the Reagan administration’s neoliberal economic policy with its conservative approach to the AIDS crisis. Neoliberalism re-commits to liberalism’s traditional reliance on white supremacist patriarchy because that is the best way to guarantee that its mission to privatize and marketize/financialize everything maintains and intensifies capitalism’s redistribution of wealth from workers to owners. So there’s both intensifying economic precarity across the board and a worsening of oppression for already-marginalized groups.
In music, that re-commitment sometimes takes the form of a privileging of things that are associated with traditional masculinity and sexual respectability. For example, as Dale Chapman has shown, neoliberal reforms in institutions like record companies and cities led to the resurgence in neoclassical jazz. Similarly, I have argued elsewhere that shifting neoliberal gender and sexual norms re-frame women’s sexual respectability as self-ownership rather than chastity, and this explains evolving norms about pop stars and sex. Basically, we are granting back to (some) women the right to their bodies as sexual property that patriarchy traditionally gives exclusively to men…all to more intensely oppress women who aren’t granted that ownership back. In this context, “Love Shack”’s unseriousness (which Fred Schneider repeatedly emphasizes, is not camp) functions as a counter to racialized, cisheterogendered ideas of both musical and capitalist respectability.
This unseriousness is more of an anti-work aesthetic in L.H. Stallings’s sense. Neoliberal respectability demands work on the self, self care, care of the self. The B-52’s anti-work aesthetics use musical pleasure as a form of collective care and support, a way of building a pocket universe to shelter those listening and singing together from the increasingly bad stuff neoliberalism is doing to us. (“Love Shack” is, after all, about jumping in your car with your friends and going to a remotely located party to forget y’all’s troubles.) Here, having fun listening, singing, and dancing together isn’t a kind of work because it isn’t an investment in the success of a neoliberal subject or institution–it’s not building private wealth, but collective enjoyment that isn’t fully subsumable by neoliberal logics. In this way, it departs from the mainstream LGBTQ responses to the AIDS crisis that began to take root in the late 1980s, which focused on marriage as a way to insure the most privileged individuals and institutions against the risks that came with AIDS and HIV. As Cooper emphasizes, marriage is a private property relation designed to assist in the transfer of wealth from oppressed to privileged groups–it builds private wealth for the oppressor class. The B-52s anti-work practices build communal supports rather than private wealth.
One reason why this fun and pleasure isn’t subsumable into neoliberal logics is because the band doesn’t (fully or always) treat “Love Shack” as a kind of private property. In an interview in The Pitchfork Review, B-52 drummer-turned-guitarist Keith Strickland says
I was out riding my bike one night and I heard ‘Love Shack’ somewhere off in the distance. I knew it wasn’t our recording of it…I found that it was coming from this karaoke bar. All the windows were open and I could see five or six women on stage singing the song, and everyone else in the bar was also singing it. I was across the street on my bike, observing it, and it just totally blew me away. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is their song now. It was beautiful. To have people out there singing your songs with their friends–that’s a cool legacy, regardless of what anybody else thinks’.”
Notice how Strickland describes the song as belonging to the karaoke singers and club patrons, to the people drawn together by collectively building a little world or community together through singing, dancing, and listening. “Love Shack” is the vehicle or medium they use to build a little pocket universe in that karaoke bar. By ‘build a world’ I mean something along the lines of what Beauvoir means by bringing being into existence–the collective project of making our world and giving it meaning, which includes supporting everyone’s ability to participate in that project. This kind of world-building is anti-work because it builds collectivity rather than generating private property.
This kind of anti-work approach to neoliberalism also appears in “Love Shack’s” music. Though the vocals may be accessible for your average karaoke singer, the track’s music is far from simplistic. Produced by mutant disco icon Don Was and featuring ex-Gang of Four member Sara Lee on bass, the song is what Was describes as a “modular” composition built on Lee’s very danceable bass vamp. The basic module is two four-bar lines (assuming this is 4/4); verses are anywhere from 2-3 modules, and the pre-chorus and chorus are always each two modules long with a build of tension at the end of the pre-chorus that releases on the downbeat of the chorus, which then maintains a plateau of energy. The song breaks down 2 times. First, there is a fairly conventional bridge complete with guitar solo. Then, after an other verse, pre-chorus, and chorus, there’s a soar. As I defined it in Resilience and Melancholy, a soar is a compositional device that builds tension by a Zeno’s-paradox-like intensification of rhythmic events; it is often followed by a drop, a period of silence filled with a bass wobble or a vocalization that leads into the downbeat of the next section. “Love Shack”’s soar starts with the repetition of “bang, bang, bang on the door” at increasingly loud volumes (five four-bar phrases, each increasing from p to ff). This intensification of volume then leads to an intensification of rhythmic events as the phrase is shortened to “bang bang! ON THE DOOR!” and repeated twice in each four-bar phrase for a full module. This module ends with Schneider screaming “You’re WHAT?!??” Then we have a brief silence in which Cindy Wilson’s “Tin Roof! Rusted.” serves as the drop. The song then ends with one final full chorus.
Here’s a diagram of the song: (X = 1 4-bar phrase)
X- intro (Shack! on downbeat)
X – Verse 1 (K&C/ATL highway)
X– Verse 2 (Fred/Chrystler)
X-pre-chorus — slight tension/release harmonically here
X pre-chorus — guitar ornament on downbeat
X-chorus – energy plateau — verse bass but horns instead of guitar melody;
X– Verses 3
X– Verse 3 but with a different bass –guitar on pickup to downbeat glitter
X– Verse 4 (glitter)
X –pre-chorus (love shack little old place/pre-chorus) — small tension/release w drum soar
X– pre-chorus– guitar ornament downbeat – LOVESHACK BABY!
X- “Verse” 5 (that’s where it’s at) — but everything up to bridge mixes elements of V/PC/C
X- that mixing creates tension that is released in bridge
X — Verse 6 (shimmies)
X– phrase ends in rhythmic tension release from pre-chorus
X- Verse 7 (movin/groovin)
X– bridge/guitar solo — crowd noises
X–Verse 8 (Fred + crowd noises)
X – breakdown — crowd noises — beginning of soar over verse bass vamp
X – breadown
X- bang — minimal guitar, just some strikes
X – mf — same instrumentals
X – f — same instrumentals
X- ff — more guitar strumming
X – bang ban — full verse bass here
X — soar climaxes with “YOU’RE WHAT”
Drop–Tin roof rusted
So, the song’s main climax, the part that *everyone* joins in and shouts along to in karaoke, is a soar. Soars are musical depictions of neoliberal logics of creative destruction: they turn damage into pleasure. But Wilson’s vocal performance in the drop changes the texture and function of that pleasure; the drop doesn’t serve as a representation of individual entrepreneurial success but as a gateway to a pocket universe listeners and co-singers create together. The studio production team told interviewer Barbara Schultz that Wilson, sister to Ricky Wilson (the band member who had earlier died of AIDS) was “‘pretty down for a lot of the process’…’You can hear it in that ‘Tin roof- rusted’ thing,” Was says. ‘Cindy got very emotional. It was like in 12 seconds she went from extreme glee to really depressed about that roof rusting.’” You can hear that shift: the first half of the phrase, “Tin Roof!,” is delivered at full force, but the latter half, “Rusted” is lower in pitch, in intensity, and mood. Wilson delivers “Tin Roof! Rusted” in a way that connotes disappointment or resignation–the way one might be disappointed when something that should be shiny (a tin roof) is rusted. She does something similar to what Katherine McKittrick and Alexander Weheliye identify in Rihanna’s vocal performance over the soars in “We Found Love”: “Fenty’s voice, which remains almost impassive, displaying a “cool affect” that sounds like it is resisting the booming rush of the song structure/instrumentation” (23). Though the music builds and soars, her vocals stay cold, detached, and flat–melancholic, in other words.
Wilson’s melancholic performance keeps the soar from reading as resilience. Resilience is a way of working on the self to create surplus value out of loss and damage; melancholy doesn’t do that work. If you take Wilson literally here, she’s talking about degradation and loss, and she performs that phrase in a way that suggests those same phenomena. Instead of resiliently overcoming that degradation, loss, and grief at an individual level, the song takes Wilson’s own statement of grief and loss and turns it into a moment for everyone to chime in. In “Love Shack” karaoke, Wilson’s melancholic drop serves as a site of collective aesthetic investment. Wilson’s melancholic drop builds a form of sociality through mutually-crafted musical pleasure. And this pleasure isn’t the result of overcoming loss and damage, but of being together in a shared physical and cultural space where the terms of our relation are this song and the fun we have singing it together, not the terms of neoliberalism. The pleasure isn’t just the aesthetic pleasure in the song, but the pleasure of sociality, of being in communion with other people as you have fun. The bad feelings don’t go away, but the song creates a structure for people to collaboratively create something fun that exists in addition to and alongside those bad feelings–a pocket universe where we get some relief from the pain and brutality of everyday life under neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism and resilience discourse recycle damage into pleasure and profit. “Love Shack” makes that damage audible (in its soar and Wilson’s melancholic drop) and present, but much like an over the counter pain reliever, it doesn’t eliminate the pain so much as make it less perceptible to us.
 For example, a 2010 interview with a Bloomington, IL newspaper: “When asked if he thought they were mixing camp and postmodernism, Schneider nixes the camp (“no, not camp”) then pauses at postmodernism. “It’s always been more about our surreal sense of humor, but, yes, I guess you could call it postmodern, since we were using stuff from both the past and future.”” (The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois) September 30, 2010 Thursday Flying high The B-52s are roaming their way back to Central Illinois BYLINE: firstname.lastname@example.org;By Dan Craft SECTION: GO!; Pg. D1). Similarly, in a 2008 intervew with the London Times, Schneider says “”Sometimes it’s a complimentary interview and they still get it totally wrong. It’s like they want to write that we’re ‘the campest, nuttiest this or that’. I mean, camp means that you’re unintentionally funny and I feel …” His voice trails off.” (The Times (London) July 18, 2008 Friday Sex, drugs and soft lobstersBYLINE: Pete Paphides SECTION: FEATURES; Times2; Pg.13)