Melismas Like Jagger: on the race/gender politics of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”

Consistent readers of this blog know that I’ve been somewhat interested in the politics of melisma in contemporary pop music. I have a piece on Avril Levigne’s use of melisma to signify both “blackness” and sexual availability you can read here. Today, though I want to think about melisma in a different context: Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera’s use of melisma in Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” I will argue that their different melismatic styles are meant to reflect and reinforce race- and gender- based differences. I will ultimately argue that the “moves” Levine/Maroon 5 appropriate from Jagger are less corporeal/sexual “moves,” and more an approach to racial/musical appropriation.

In Maroon 5’s song, Levine and Aguilera each use very different styles of melismatic ornamentation. But let’s listen to the song first:

Levine uses ornamentation very sparingly: he only melismas on “mo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oves.” That’s a one-syllable word stretched into 9 syllables. However, unlike with Aguilera’s vocal work, Levine’s (relative to CA’s performance, excessively) deliberate approach allows him to clearly articulate each and every separate note. This clear articulation and deliberate pacing creates the sense of mastery: Levine is in complete control of the melisma—it’s not some runaway foray into potentially infinite noodling. The melisma ends on a repeated note—the last “o-oves” are both on the same pitch—thus creating a definitive end (even, perhaps, “resolution,” that prized tonal gesture) to Levine’s dalliance with ornamentation.

Aguilera, a gifted vocalist whose work in the 90s and early 2000s is full of difficult, complex melismas, doesn’t really make much use of extended ornamentation. In this track, her ornaments are very compressed: she may run through more than a few notes, but she does so very, very quickly. For example, the runs on “keep it” and “this” from 3:26-30 are extremely fast: she goes through a lot of notes really quickly. It’s also worth noting that she’s referencing her “secret,” the radio-friendly euphemism for her “sexual virtue.” Her ornamentation goes by so quickly it’s easy to overlook its complexity. (The only time Aguilera echoes Levine’s words (3:51-2), her embelisment is more like his—a deliberate splitting of the word into two syllabus—and less like hers—definitely not melismatic.) Technically, then, Aguilera’s vocal technique is more masterful than Levine’s: her melismas are harder, faster, and stronger than his. But they are read as evidence of less mastery because they are feminized. Slippery, hard to perceive, these quick, complex melismas are feminized in the same way that Carmen’s chromaticism is feminized in Bizet’s opera (see McClary’s famous analysis of Carmen in Feminine Endings). Remember, melismas are appropriate in referencing women’s sexuality (one’s “secret”), so melismas must mean ladybits, femininity, etc.

In my earlier post on (Avril) Levinge (too much homophony with Avril Levigne and Adam Levine…), I argued that in contemporary pop music, melisma signifies “blackness.” It’s associated with R&B, and especially with female singers who are (or read primarily as) black—Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, etc. So if melisma usually reads “black”, does “Moves Like Jagger”’s gendered division of melismatic labor keep with this standard racialization, or does the gender play destabilize the standard racialization of melisma?

It all turns on Jagger’s moves—literally (with the bendy melodic line of a melisma) and figuratively. Mick Jagger is infamous for appropriating stereotypical black masculinity: its supposed authenticity, toughness, and above all, hypersexuality. To have “moves like Jagger” is to have his black-hypersexuality-filtered-and-domesticated-through-whiteness. However, in the video, Levine doesn’t actually move his body in the style of Jagger—it’s white female women who don Jagger-esque costumes and mimic his dancing and body comportment. Levine refrains from actually really showing ANY “moves” at all—he mostly doesn’t dance. In fact, he stands there, tattooed, shirtless, and in black pants looking more like Iggy Pop or Peter Murphy than like Mick Jagger. But, that women perform Jagger’s moves, added to the fact that melisma is generally feminized in the track via its association with Aguilera, Levine’s claim to have “moves like Jagger” is primarily, or most directly, a claim to have mastered femininity. Interestingly, this claim about gender (AL’s masculinity can appropriate and domesticate feminized ornament and feminized receptivity generally) covers over the deeply racial politics of Jagger’s own moves. By making it seem like Jagger’s moves are mainly about gender, Maroon 5’s song burries the fact that, in their original context, they were highly and overtly racialized. More insidiously, the Maroon 5 song incourages us to ignore the fact that their use of “Jagger”-as-metaphor (well, as simile, technically) is still about race, too. Levine gets the lyric “moves like Jagger” from the overworn hip hop meme that rhymes “swagger” with “Jagger”. So while a lot of black male rappers are appropriating Jagger’s appropriation of blackness (in a move I call “postmillennial black hipness”), Levine is appropriating and domesticating this move made by black male rappers. To say he has “moves like Jagger” is to both appropriate the newly-trendy Jagger reference, and to domesticate it for mainstream white audiences: Levine changes the obviously more rhyme-appropriate “swagger” for “moves,” thus replacing a word with obvious connotations of black masculinity (swagger) for a more neutral, even old-fashioned term (moves). Like Mick and Keith back in the good-ol’ 60s, Levine is appropriating black masculinity as a means of demonstrating his sexual potency/power over women. This is the actual ”move” that Levine gets from Jagger: it’s not his dancing, or his attitude, or even his “swagger,” it’s his musical/racial appropriation.

Eventually I want to compare this use of melisma—which is quite disfavored these days among top-40 vocalists—to the “stutter”. The “stutter” is like melisma because it is an approach to vowel sounds: while melismas noodle around on pitches over extended vowel vocalizations, “the stutter” is the effect created when a producer either stops-and-starts a long vowel vocalization or cuts and loops a quick vowel vocalization. Unlike conventional stuttering, which usually pertains to consonant sounds, “the stutter” is an approach to ornamenting vowel vocalizations. I can think of a small number of examples of black artists using “the stutter” (e.g., the BE Peas), this is mainly something found in the work of white female pop singers. So, I think there is potentially something interesting in comparing the stutter to melisma, not just technically, but at the level of race/gender politics. But that will have to wait, b/c I’m off to the California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race next weekend.