This is the Sound of Uncool: Spandau Ballet & the Biopolitics of Cool
So what sorts of practices would or could potentially critique or subvert neoliberalism? I agree with Jason Read’s claim that “a political response to neoliberalism must meet it on its terrain, that of the production of subjectivity, freedom, and possibility” (36). Neoliberalism does co-opt everything. There is no outside. So it’s not a question of resisting or opposing from an irreducibly external position—as, say, art does for Adorno. Instead, we have to find ways of working with composition and repetition—their tools, their methods, etc. We can find examples of such work in two British bands from the 1980s: Spandau Ballet and Nitzer Ebb. Each band, in its distinct way, uses the strategies and tactics of repetition and composition—deregulation, noise-farming, and what philosopher Shannon Winnubst calls “the biopolitics of cool”—to produce minimally noisy, indeed, uncool (which in both their cases boils down to “too stereotypically white”) sounds and sonic subjects. They use sonic technologies and musical practices that minimize noise, risk, randomness, and chance. Because they are so rigid and conformist, they appear to be reactionary, when in fact their very rigidity and technical perfectionism prevents them from taking the risks—or making the glitchy, transgressive noises—that composition can use to generate surplus value.
The” biopolitics of cool.” In modernist aesthetics and politics, transgression is the critical, oppositional, counter-hegemonic practice par excellence. This is because power works by compelling conformity and rule-following (e.g., disciplinary normalization, mass production). In neoliberalism, transgression is no longer an oppositional practice, because it has been co-opted and put in service of maintaining and augmenting hegemonic relations of power. Avant-garde transgression, especially in the form of “unbound pleasure[,] is the distinguishing promise of neoliberalism, no longer something to be feared, avoided, moderated, or domesticated” (Winnubst 91), but something to be actively cultivated…in the “right” sorts of people. Deregulation actually incites privileged subjects to transgress their personal limits and social boundaries, because this risk-taking generates the human capital necessary to produce and maintain both individual success and social order as we know it. Thus, subjectivity consists in, as Attali puts it, “the permanent affirmation of the right to be different…the right to make noise, in other words, to create one’s own code and work…to compose one’s life” (Noise 132; emphasis mine). Privileged individuals are compelled to be as quirky, bizarre, unruly, and noisy as possible—to be, in Winnubst’s terms, “cool.”
Though Winnubst and I agree that “turning alleged social transgression into yet another site of entrepreneurial enterprise” is “one of neoliberalism’s best songs” (96), I want to use some actual songs to challenge her claim that there is still a “reservoir of intervention” (96) hidden within “the experience and concept of jouissance” (96). Winnubust finds this reservoir by turning jouissance on its head: instead of treating it as transgression, she posits it as a limit, specifically a “non-fungible limi[t] to the enterprising rationality of neoliberalism” (97). I think her move to limits is on the right track, but I don’t think jouissance is best medium or model for theorizing the function of limit as counter-enterprise. Winnubst is concerned with ethical limits—thresholds that should not be crossed, or thresholds that, when crossed, do ethical work (e.g., like call attention to racism).[i]The flaw with Winnubst’s account is she still conceives of limit in terms of threshold and transgression. For Winnubst, jouissance is a historically and materially specific experience—I feel it in this body, under these specific conditions. Material-historical specificity is a limit on neoliberalism’s imperative to absolute fungibility. In this way, jouissance transgresses—by arresting or shattering—the logic of fungibility. Here, then, the limit itself is transgressivebecause it disrupts norms of fungibility and flexibility.
However, fungibility isn’t what fuels the biopolitics of cool—transgression is. Fungibility certainly facilitates transgression: as I argued in my “Loving the Alien” piece in The New Inquiry, xenomania (hipster appropriation of global pop music) is facilitated by the fungibility of all music as data/mp3 files. Fungibility is a means to the end of generating the superficial “noise” or “difference” that makes, say, Diplo’s music seem “cool.” He is “cooler” than other white DJs because his tracks are heard and experienced as musically and culturally “noisy.” Neoliberal enterprise is fueled by fauxgression—chance that isn’t really chance, noise that is really signal. Counter-enterprising practices will subvert, frustrate, and fail at the imperative to transgress. The biopolitics of cool asks the privileged to “push it to the limit,” as both Foucault and Usher put it. Counter-entrepreneurial practices fail to push limits; they stay well within them. They are not unruly, but exquisitely ordered. They are not noisy, but virtuosicaly tuned, balanced, and (re)mixed. So I think limits are important for theorizing counter-enterprising practices, just not exactly in the way Winnubst thinks they are. Limits are not transgressive (i.e., of being even more cool or avant-garde), but means of articulating alternatives to transgression. Staying within limits, one practices an ethos and an aesthetics of uncoolness. This is what Spandau Ballet & Nitzer Ebb show us—they perform two different styles of uncool white masculinity.
Uncool: I use Spandau Ballet and Nitzer Ebb to flesh out and complicate the theory of “uncoolness” that J. Temperance develops in The New Inquiry.[ii]He builds his theory of uncoolness from an very generalized account of Yacht Rock—a late-70s/early-80s easy listening genre characterized by “disinterested, intentionally trite lyrical themes and an almost nonchalant instrumental virtuosity or ‘smoothness’.” Yacht Rock’s aesthetic avoids all musical transgression—no indecent lyrics, no noisy, dissonant, or otherwise offensive sounds. While the avoidance of transgression makes the genre and its fans appear like “hapless pawns of reactionary Reaganism,” their “blandness” is actually an attempted alternative to Reganomoical/neoliberal “conquest of cool.” The pursuit of transgression feeds neoliberal hegemony. So, “yacht rock was counterrevolutionary,” Temperance argues, to the extent that it “open[s] up a space in which the popular was not subservient to the status games of coolhunting and the disciplinary function of novelty” (Temperance). This counter-biopolitics of uncool works by smoothing rock’s edges and edginess into noise-free, risk-free “soft” or “lite” versions.[iii]Smoothness has no edges. Thus, it’s a sort of non sequitur to the neoliberal imperative to push things to their limits. It doesn’t oppose or reject the biopolitics of cool so much as de-escalate them. Relax, indeed. It’s not just edges that are smoothed; edginess is a mark of status, so without edges, status-hierarchies collapse. Smooth uncoolness is, or at least is ideally, democratic. Its ethos, as Temperance explains, is “pleasure for all, not just for those with the habitus sufficient for detecting the opportunity of it in hurling insults at aesthetic inferiors.” Coolness is hierarchical; uncool is non-hierarchical. Uncool practices engage relations of privilege and oppression in new, non-hierarchical forms. Uncool isn’t necessarily more progressive and democratic than cool/hipsterism; it’s just racist and sexist in different ways.
Uncool is a strategic response to the biopolitics of cool available primarily to those already privileged enough to be potentially “cool” subjects—which is to say, those doing the appropriation, not the appropriated-from. Remember, coolness is a way for an avant-garde elite to separate themselves out from the “average” members of an already-elite group. It may even be a specifically white counter-hegemonic strategy, because the imperative to coolness or hipness has historically targeted white subjects (see, for example, my work and Ingrid Monson’s work on this topic).[iv]Hipness promises rescue from white anomie and ennui. Uncool, on the other hand, “allows listeners to disappear into the “bland,” the uncool, the anonymous, the faceless, and sail away” (Temperance). This anonymous blandness is actually racial whiteness. Instead of co-opting stereotypical blackness as a way to “spice” oneself up and amplify the corporeal/affective experiences muted by racial whiteness, uncool mixes or cros-fades everything back to either smooth white, which can be easy, warm, and suave, as in Spandau Ballet, or hard, unforgiving, and sleek, as in Nitzer Ebb.
I use Spandau Ballet’s “True” & Nitzer Ebb’s “Getting Closer” to push Winnubst’s concept of the biopolitics of cool up against Temperance’s idea of uncool subversion; these examples in particular clearly demonstrate both (a) the racialized and gendered dimensions of un/cool, and (b) particular musical performances of ‘uncool’—not just an overall aesthetic of uncoolness, but specific compositional and performance choices that smooth edges and de-escalate risk.
Regimes of “True”: Spandau Ballet is a British band from the early 1980s that is often associated with the lighter, more commercial side of post-punk (e.g., new romanticism or new wave). Their chart-topping single “True” is well-known to contemporary audiences as a prime example of kitschy easy listening—that is, as conformist music for yuppies. It is so expertly performed and mixed, and the composition is so well wrought, that there’s nothing transgressive about it. It does not jar, jolt, or challenge. Its chords stay well within tonal pop/rock clichés, and even its climax is lukewarm enough for any elevator or dentist’s office. It has neither the bounce nor the quick tempo of AH-HA’s “Take On Me,” nor the rough guitars and brusque masculine vocals of Hughie Lewis’s “Hip to Be Square.” It’s so smoothe and suave that it is almost paradigmatically “bad” music; it’s a song everyone loves to hate.
“True” sounds like it stays within well-defined sonic limits, and thus also well-defined sociopolitical limits. People think it sounds like bourgeois whiteness. But bourgeois whiteness is no longer a practice of squareness and conformity; in the biopolitics of cool, bourgeois whiteness is a practice of pushing limits—more like asymptotal curves and less like quadrahedrons. This song pushes no limits. And if you think opposition means transgression of regulations, then the song is not oppositional. But, if you are trying to critique and challenge deregulated and deregulating hegemonies, then opposition (which is not the most accurate term here, I’m just using it for parallellism’s sake) means establishing limits and sticking to them. When transgression and risk-taking serves hegemony, safe and bland choices are a way to opt out of that game. If overall stability requires and feeds on individual variability, and prefers extreme individual variation, then individual invariability is actually destabilizing. This is why people get so irritated by the song. They want it to be noisy, need it to be noisy. But it’s frustratingly smooth and suave; there is no burnout here, no living on the edge, no risk.
This smoothness and risk-avoidance is particularly apparent in the song’s formal structure. It does solicit some instability, but it prepares audiences for the bumpy ride, and smoothes out the edges it does cut. There are two primary and interrelated ways the song’s formal structure smoothes out edges: First, in the play between macro-level and micro-level disruptions of meter and phrase length, the song introduces some instability, but uses foreshadowing to make this instability predictable. Second, and most importantly, the section that, in this type of pop song, is conventionally most musically unstable—the bridge or break—is, when compared to the verses and choruses, the most musically predictable and “resolved” part of the composition.
Microcosmic edginess comes pre-buffed by macroscopic foreshadowing. The verses use triplets to suggest rhythmic/metric edginess. In the last four-bar phrase of each verse—section F in the chart—the main lyrical hook (“I-want-the truth-to-be”) is rhythmically stuttered across two sets of eighth-note triplets. This sudden shift to a 3-beat pattern in a 4/4 meter could sound jarring because the triplets disrupt listeners’ expectations of rhythmic units divisible into 2s or 4s, and thus easily quantizable to 4/4 meter. However, the song’s larger formal structure foreshadows this brief shift from 4 to 3. Both the choruses and the verses insert three-bar phrases into otherwise reliably 4-bar phrase structures. The chorus is 11 bars long, 4+4+3, and the verses are 18 bars, 4+3+3+4+4. Though they both foreshadow at the macro level of phrase length what will later happen at the micro level of melodic motive, the verse is a more accurate spoiler, because its 3+3 phrase pattern is an exact analog of the two-triplet rhythmic pattern in the melody. The macro-level phrase structure is a spoiler for the micro-level rhythmic motive, effectively making the latter less shocking and easier to digest.
For all the formal and metric instability in the verses and choruses, the break or bridge, which is conventionally the most rhythmically active, funky, and unstable part of the song (it is called the breakafter all), is a straight 4×4-bar section. (See the phrases labled G in the chart.) It is the most square, predictable part of the song, the only part that goes for a full, uninterrupted 16 bars without cutting up into 3-bar phrases. The part of the song that usually generates the most tension and leads to the musical climax exhibits less tension than the other parts of the song. In fact, the bridge and break is so stable that it doubles, at the end of the song, as the coda. Codas conventionally rearticulate and reaffirm the song’s concluding compositional gestures, adding an extra layer of stability to the song’s final resolution. They’re like the extra sets of locks, deadbolts, or chains you put on your door to assure that it stays closed. So breaks and codas usually serve opposite functions—destabilization and stabilization, respectively. In “True,” they are identical: the coda repeats the same 4×4-bar structure used in the break, and only in the break.[v]
A (4) Intro
B (4) Chorus
D (4) Verse 1
D Verse 2
G (4) Break (16 bars)
F Truncated verse
B Extended chorus
G Coda/recap of break
The formal structure of “True” solicits edges—rhythmic stuttering and breaks—only to smooth them over. It de-escalates the “conquest of cool” and de-intensifies the logic of intensity. In so doing, the song creates a glut of unprofitable whiteness. The biopolitics of cool, like all practices of hipness, feeds on the “difference” of racially non-white and culturally non-Western people. Uncool practices don’t instrumentalize non-white/non-Western subjects and practices in the hegemonically most optimal ways. This is not to say that there’s not racist cultural appropriation happening—it’s just not the “right” racism. “True” invokes racist logics of cultural appropriation the line about “listening to Marvin [Gaye]”—this is a sort of Northern Soul-style reference to classic Motown. But this specific type of racial/cultural appropriation isn’t transgressive anymore. By the early 1980s, hip hop was the hot new black/Latin/Caribbean thing for whites (like Mick Jones in B.A.D.) to appropriate. This new type of hipster racism was more efficient and profitable for white supremacy than the older style of hipster racism. So part of being cool is being racist in the “right” ways, and “True” is uncool because it isn’t fashionably racist…it’s just predictably racist.
So, Spandau Ballet’s “True” is one example of uncool counter-enterprise. It eschews transgression in favor of bland, predictable easy listening. It doesn’t oppose the biopolitics of cool, nor does it work from outside or beyond the mainstream. The whole point is that it isn’t avant-garde enough. So, even though it’s supposed to be “easy listening,” it’s anything BUT easy for most elite whites. Or rather, its easiness is what turns them off, and causes them to respond with vehement dislike. The fact that this song is such a commonly-cited and well-known example of “uncool” or “bad” music is, I think, sufficient evidence that it actually is, in its non-transgression, quite disturbing to the biopolitics of cool.
Nitzer Ebb’s “Getting Closer” is not an easy listen: it’s loud, hard-edged, and forceful. This rigidity and inflexibility expresses a different facet of stereotypical whiteness: instead of Spandau ballet’s inoffensive blandness, Nitzer Ebb performs strict, disciplined, civilized, hyperquantized perfection. I’ve written about this in another post, which you can find here.
[i] Winnubst argues that when properly “historicized” and “racialized,” jouissance-as-limit can be “a way to intervene in the rationality of fungibility” (96): “Historicizing work resists the neoliberal fungibility machine” by positing thresholds that should not be crossed, e.g., thresholds of memory and forgetting. “Racializing work excavates resources to think through the ethical aporia of neoliberalism’s structurally damaging effects” by crossing thresholds of racial common sense, raising consciousness and giving us reason to act and think differently. (Winnubst 97).
[ii] Temperance, J. “The Birth of the Uncool: Yacht Rock and Libidinal Subversion” in The New Inquiry. 9/4/12. http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/the-birth-of-the-uncool-yacht-rock-and-libidinal-subversion/
[iii] As Temperance explains, yacht rock “sever[s] the link between music appreciation and status by rendering the popular into the smooth.”
[iv] Uncool may also be a generally masculinized form of counter-enterprise, mainly because coolness is demanded primarily of masculine subjects. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g., in my analysis of Rihanna), women are compelled to be resilient more than they are compelled to be cool.
[v] I need to push the resonance of this “in the break” with Fred Moten’s concept of blackness, and the fugitivity of blackness, as being “in the break.” What “True” does is whiten the break. There is black cultural appropriation in the song (the reference to Marvin Gaye), but not in the break.