Scream: On Kelis, Human Capital, & Music

Scream: On Kelis, Human Capital, & Music

Recently, there have been a few EDM-pop songs about screaming: Usher’s “Scream,” & Britney’s “Scream & Shout,” and Kelis’s “Scream” (which is older than these former two, but only by a year or two). I’ve written about “Scream & Shout”; here I want to think about Usher’s and Kelis’s songs. Their similarity goes beyond lyrical content and genre–they share a specific compositional technique, a technique that I think is connected to EDM-pop’s neoliberal /biopolitical/superpanoptic episteme. These songs are not just about screaming–they musically scream, transgressing audio and/or vocal thresholds in the same way that literal screams intensify vocal output past the threshold of speaking and/or singing.  The “scream” effect is created by over- and/or under-driving musical signal. Overdriven vocals literally scream. Silences, sirens, and other exceptionally high- or low-intensity sounds create the effect of over-driven audio perception, implying that the song is screaming at a level of intensity beyond human perception (e.g., rhythms so fast we hear only one consistent tone, pitches below or above human auditory range, etc.).

Musical screams mark crucial structural moments in the songs’ composition. Both songs cap off their climaxes–what Dan Barrow calls a “soar”–with a pause that “musically screams” before hitting or “dropping” to a big bang. They take “noise”–over/under-driven signal–and make it do some of the most important compositional work in the song, anticipating and giving weight to significant structural features like the climax or the conclusion. The musical screaming either builds tension to its apex before spilling over into the song’s main “hit” or climax (or, these days, its drop), or it performs a sort of fake-out, building down rather that up, indicating the song’s end rather than its climax. So, these “Scream”s put noise to work.

Let’s look at Kelis first.

What “Screaming” Means

Screaming is a response to middling, not-fully-optimized privilege. It is both a reward and compensation for pushing yourself hard to achieve a relative amount of success. “You’ve won the right to scream and shout” (emphasis mine), but yet you’re “running in place,” stuck in a plateau (or a rut). As the lyrics say: “It’s not enough to live, so just dream/It’s not enough to say, so just…scream.” If the register, volume, amplitude, pitch, and intensity of regular spoken expression can’t do the job, if it’s “not enough to say,” then you can augment the register, volume, amplitude, pitch, and intensity of your voice by screaming. A scream is an overdriven vocal signal, ‘noise’ to singing’s ‘signal.” As the line “Don’t talk about it you’ve lost your cool” shows, overheated affective intensity should be expressed with overdriven vocals–not talking, not singing, but screaming. Screaming doesn’t express a particular affect or emotion so much as its overdriven character represents the voice’s general state of overdriven-ness.

When you’ve peaked out, when you have maxed out all the resources available to you, the only place to go off the cliff, over the edge.  With lines like, “You can’t back down,” and “Don’t call your bluff,” the lyrics clearly evoke this image of teetering on and jumping off an edge. Going over the edge literally means blowing your top, sort of like a volcano that explodes under the pressure of accumulating magma. The lyrics read like a rationalization for going “off the chain” or “off the hook,” as they say: “Let it out/You’ve had enough,” the narrator counsels us. In the same way that urban developers have to build “up” once all the surface space is built on, the only place to go is up: when you’ve maxed out extensively, you’ve got to, as !!! say, “Intensify.” In order to push past this plateau, you have to figure out how to extract surplus value from diminishing returns. In the same way that young women use vocal fry as cultural capital, or finance capitalists make profits by betting against a stock, we have to turn burnout into a resource. The challenge is to rework or recycle diminishing returns back into profits–i.e., to turn diminishing returns into amplifying ones, noise into signal. The imperative to ‘scream’ is the neoliberal demand to take your performance up to the next level by generating noise (lose your cool!) and recycling it back into signal (scream!).

We need to think about the difference between those in relatively privileged positions, who have maxed out at a peak or plateau, and the various precariats, who are managing to balance on the very edge of survival. This is the difference between peak and valley, apex and nadir. Do burnout and precarity require different methods of balancing? Does the process, method, and experience of overdriving signal differ significantly from the process, method, and experience of underdriving it? Or is it all just ‘noise’ in the end? While the song begs these questions, it doesn’t give us much assistance in answering them. So, I’ll put them aside for now while I address the song’s musical dimensions: its compositional form and Kelis’s vocal performance.

This tarrying with an upper asymptote, transgressing it, and then turning that transgression into profitable signal organizes the song’s main musical gestures: its climax and its conclusion.

Musical Screams: Soars

“Scream” uses the EDM-pop technique of the “soar” to build up to climaxes, and to indicate the song’s end. In general, soars evoke and/or actualize musical “screams”: they generate implied or explicit noise, and use that noise to amplify the song’s big musical climax or payoff. That’s the musical economy of the scream-soar: it generates noise and processes it into musical profit. In this particular track, however, the song screams while Kelis does not.  Why doesn’t Kelis scream? And why does the intensity of her vocal delivery appear to be inversely proportional to the intensity of the instruments’ screams?  A close reading of the song’s structure–i.e., its soars and plumets–will help me explain the musical economy of the scream-soar and consider the significance of Kelis’s non-screaming.

Assuming 4/4 meter, the song is composed of 4-bar modules arranged in A-A-B-C-C-C1-C1-A-A-B1-C-C-A-A-B1.1. The musical screams happen in B1 and B1.1. In this table, each row represents 1 4-bar module.

A first verse
B It’s not enough to live, so just dream
It’s not enough to live, so just dream
failed scream
It’s not enought to live, so just dream
It’s not enough to say, so just…scream
C You’ll never know
if you don’t let it out
failed soar
[treble synth default pitch, descending in pitch at end]
You’ve had enough
they’ll call your bluff
[treble synth octave jump, rising in pitch at end of consequent phrase, further intensifying]
C You can’t back down, lost in a crowd/You’ve won the right to let it out
They’ll talk about you’ve lost your cool/There is no point who makes the rules
[pace of vocal delivery doubles]
So let’s get to it, now you’ll prove it/Break out, scream and shout
Scream and shout, scream and shout/scream and shout……
[wooshing sound begins, rises, peaks, starts falling on last “scream and shout”]
[scream and shout always on last 2 beats of measure]
C1 continued pitch-descent in stuttery synth & dying-out of wooshing sound  
minimal soar: the eighth-note ostinato in the bass gets increasingly louder as we approach the downbeat of A.
A second verse
B1 last 2 bars, stuttery synth increasingly prominent & distorted successful scream
soar/scream builds as treble synth passes past threshold of rhythmic perception (hear solid block, not distinct rhythmic patterns)
C failed soar, but experienced as plateau…
no C1 this time; directly into A
A final verse, feels like continuation of CC plateau
B1.1 just like B1, but last measure deflates–a nose-dive rather than a soar

The verses establish a base-line (not a bass line) level of intensity. This is the musical plateau we’re stuck on. Looped chord progressions (e.g., the piano’s rapid arpeggios in the right hand and more deliberate ascending/descending chord progression in the left hand) create the effect of running in place or treadding water–frantic motion just to keep up, to not fall behind–you’re moving but not going anywhere, spinning your wheels. We cycle through progressions, but they never resolve or develop; harmonically, we never move “forward”.

In B, the song attempts a scream as it weakly soars up to a crest in C. The soar is successful: a male voice performs a count-off (1, 2, 3, 4) anticipating and leading in to the crest of C. The scream, however, is not. There’s a slight hesitation in Kelis’s vocal delivery–she says “scream” rather than screaming it, and instead of landing on the downbeat, as the “dream”s do, “scream” falls late, on beat 2.

Hissing sounds on downbeat of this section signal hitting/arriving at a crest or plateau. C is a higher plateau than A, a jumping-off-point for an attempted soar that ultimately misses its mark.  Both C sections build in intensity, only to deflate at the end of the second C section and through C1.  The whooshing sound in first intensifies the musical texture, but as it dies down, sort of like someone blowing and running out of breath, it has the opposite effect, deflating rather than inflating the affective intensity. Most soars would peak at the end of the fourth bar to land extra-hard on the downbeat of the next section. This soar peaks in the third bar of the last four-bar phrase, where the wooshing and the stutter-y pattern in the treble synth that rose in pitch throughout this 4-bar section about-face and start descending in pitch. The deceleration begins in the final bar of this section, and continues into C1. C1 is reverse-soar, a plunge. It doesn’t nose-dive, but consistently decelerates, leading back to A. The soar thus falls short, reaching for the peak but failing to go all the way. It’s like there just wasn’t enough momentum to propel the song through to the end of this phrase.

In the second verse, we’re back where we started, running in place. This time, however, we gain enough momentum to give B the oomph it needs to be a genuine, successful scream–B1 is thus an intensification of B. The scream is most clearly demonstrated by the stuttery synth: as it increases in pitch (as in B), it also increases in rhythmic intensity; its signature rhythmic pattern gets exponentially faster and faster. This part breaks through to the musical foreground in the last half of the first four-bar phrase of B1. It is increasingly distorted throughout the rest of this measure up to the third beat of the following measure. This distortion builds the soar: the rhythmic pattern gets exponentially faster, the pitch gets higher, and the timbre is pushed “into the red.” The soar crests in a scream in the third and fourth beats of the second measure of the second four-bar phrase in B1. Here, the rhythm outpaces our faculty of auditory discrimination–we hear it as a solid block of sound, not as a pattern of individual events. The song screams by crossing the threshold of our auditory perception; it overdrives our ears, and we hear this as a scream. I’ll consider the significance of this scream in more detail below. For now I want to continue on explaining the song’s form.

In B1 we have soared up to a new, higher plateau. The omission of a deflating/decelerating C1 section from the next CC-AA repetition indicates that we’re no longer running place–we actually went somewhere. We may not be at the peak yet, but we’ve progressed past our starting point. And we stay here all the way through to the last two measures of the song, which is an riff on B1. B1.1 starts to soar up to a scream just as B1 does, but, in the last measure it does not push past the peak in a scream, but nosedives, rapidly free-falling away from the peak. The soar marks the song’s climax, and this plunge marks the song’s end. Screaming does musical work; it’s not extraneous to the real music, it is the most functionally important part of the song’s composition.

Kelis doesn’t scream…or does she?

Kelis never actually screams in this song. She only ever under-drives her voice, going from singing down to speech/recitative. The most musically climactic moments are accompanied by Chicks-on-Speed-style white-girl rapping. For example, at the climax of the actual scream in B1, Kelis says “sound…the alarm” in a very measured, deadpan, almost affect-less and robotic way. The blank affect and hyperquantized rhythm of her vocal delivery do the opposite of “scream”–she’s not overdriving beyond our capacity to measure and/or control, she’s almost overdriving measure and control itself. Instead of using moderation or balance as instruments to achieve the most intensely saturated experiences–i.e., to push the song as far into the red as possible without blowing the speakers or our ears–Kelis appears to intensify the practice of moderation itself. This under-driving can be interpreted in a number of ways:

1. Refusing to play into the stereotype: When black performers, especially black women, are singing, they’re performing their assigned role as affective amplifiers, entertainers, commodity industry workers. When they “scream” (literally, when they intensify their singing in ways that resemble or suggest screaming, or figuratively when they express excessive affect), their excess is expected and appropriated. Their perceived excess is the excuse or boost mainstream white audiences need to bust out of the confines of whiteness and “let it out.” It helps us feel “crazy in love” or “bootylicious” or whatever. Or, it’s like the energy shot that makes it possible for us to both, as Ne-Yo and Akon sing, “work hard” AND “play hard.” On the one hand, Kelis’s under-drive vocals could be interpreted as a refusal of this role. Kelis could be using this deadpan subversively, winding down where hegemony wants her to amp up.

2. Keeping her profits to herself: The play between overdriven instrumentals and underdriven vocals suggests the relationship between privilege and precarity: the “you” to whom Kelis’s vocals are addressed can close in ever-more-narrowly on maximal optimizaiton only on the condition that Kelis–who is both the material support for “your” sonic success, and a black woman (and the latter has a lot to do with the former)–consistently underperforms. She would underperform if she could not take full advantage of the human capital–i.e., the affective labor, the amping up, the ‘screaming’–she generates. Privileged listeners can turn a profit on Kelis’s noise by using it to augment their own human capital, which they will then re-invest in themselves. Kelis, however, has to alienate her affective labor; if and when she “goes gaga,” it will be at a loss to her.

3. Maybe she doesn’t have to literally scream to be heard as screaming: Kelis’s deadpan could actually register as more of a scream than an actual scream would. If we expect black female singers to go gaga, then it would be more disruptive for Kelis to keep her cool. If black women speak when they are expected to scream, they’re acting out of line. In neoliberalism as in Plato’s Republic, everyone has to stay within the range/phase space appropriate to their “profile” (or assigned range/phase space), under-driven signal will be just as disruptive to the system as under-driven signal would be. It doesn’t matter which limit–the upper or lower–you transgress; going out of phase space/range makes you noisy.So instead of screaming, Kelis makes noise by under-driving her voice. This hyper-ruliness reads as noise, as a scream, because she’s not being “unruly” in the ways the system is designed to account for and profit from. So, perhaps Kelis does really scream, at least aesthetically…by doing the auditory and vocal opposite of literal screaming. Maybe this is her critical response to the demand that women of color be “otherness machines,” the desire/implicit bias to hear even their declarative speech as outrageous, unruly screaming.

So, I’ll get to Usher in a later post. Be on the lookout!

Also, this is going to be part of what I currently imagine as the preface to one of my manuscripts-in-progress, so feedback would be much appreciated!