I Love It!: Icona Pop’s Feminine Endings

Icona Pop’s “I Love It” is definitely going to be one of the big songs of 2013. It’s a great little pop song that’s all over charts and in several advertisements. Some people are writing about the sociological and cultural implications of the record, but I want to pay attention to its music…because I think its composition has something really interesting to tell us about contemporary EDM-pop aesthetics and gender/femininity.

Musically, the most important part of the song is the descending gliss that introduces it (0:00-0:08) and reappears throughout, in the choruses and later throughout the verses too (a total of 14 times). The gliss is four bars long, as are all the song’s phrases. It stays for a measure on the dominant (V), descends over the course of the next measure to land on the downbeat of the third measure on a very, very overdriven tonic (I); this tonic is sustained through the end of the phrase. (The phrases in the verses also follow this two-bars-dominant-to-two-bars-tonic structure.) This gliss is the song’s main source of musical pleasure. It sonically performs or expresses the “FUCKIT” (or, perhaps “fuck you and your norms”) affect that the lyrics describe: “I don’t care, I love it!”.

This descending gliss delays and undercuts the affective intensity of the song’s drops and soars. First, as the first verse transitions into the chorus, there’s a bit of a drop (sort of like the pop drop in Taylor Swift’s Max-Martin-produced “I Knew You Were Trouble,” but even more gentile). At about 0:20-0:22 (after they sing “bridge”), the instrumentals cut out in the last beats of the phrase as “I don’t” leads us over the instrumental pause to land on “care” on the downbeat (0:23). Though the lyrics and the metrical structure indicate that this downbeat should be the most forceful part of the drop, the instrumentals don’t give us the other element of the drop–the wobble–until two measures later, when the timbrally-overdriven tonic comes in and is sustained for two more measures. This note is so distorted that it functions like a dubstep wobble, even if, by the standards of even Top-40 radio, it’s a pretty tame wobble. The tone is distorted to the point of vibrato-like pulsating, which gives it a “wob-wob lite” feel. But the point is this: the song uses a pause-drop technique similar to Skrillex’s (there’s even vocals bridging the pause and landing us on the downbeat), but delays the entrance of the wobble, thus undercutting or the initial impact of the drop. The wobble, here, comes in on a “weak” part of the compositional structure–the downbeat of the consequent phrase, not the downbeat of the antecedent phrase. In this way, it functions analogously to what, in tonality, is called a “feminine” ending. As Susan McClary famously explained in her book Feminine Endings, 19th century Western music theorists used the term “feminine” to describe cadential movement that resolved on a weak beat (so, not the downbeat). The resolution was “feminine” because it was “weaker” than one that landed on a strong beat. “I Love It” updates “feminine endings” for extra-tonal contemporary pop, translating it from from tonal cadences to dubstep/EDM-pop drops. “I Love It” is a “feminine” drop…sort of, in a way, a l’ecruture feminine-style response to brostep.

The song also uses the descending gliss to rework EDM-pop soars. The break (0:54-1:09; 1:55-2:10) functions like a very, very weak soar. It doesn’t rhythmically intensify, like most soars do; the drum machines continue to beat out the same syncopated pattern throughout without condensing this pattern into shorter note-lengths (eighth to sixteenth to thirty-second, for example). However, the bridge does somewhat timbrally intensify–there’s an extremely weak swoosh up to “I don’t care”. Having only barely soared up, the downbeat of the chorus lands not on a climax, but on the beginning of the descending gliss; the soar doesn’t lead us up to a peak but slides back down to a valley. In fact, the descending gliss serves as an inverse soar. It’s the main source of musical tension/release, the song’s main musical device for producing aesthetic pleasure. But instead of maxing-out, it bottoms-out.

This bottoming-out is neither a proper soar (because these are about amplification, not deflation), nor a proper drop (because these are about shock, disruption, and interruption, not slick, slippery, easy gliding and glissando-ing. Wasting soars and drops, making them less intense than they coudl be–this is just like crashing your car into the bridge. It’s a huge waste of resources. A blown opportunity. An unwise investment. This is not YOLO maxing-out, but the very opposite: I could have a night out on the town, but instead I’m going to wreck my car–the thing that gives me access to both working hard and playing hard–and spend the night watching it burn, not partying hard. You’re not doing it because it serves any interest–it’s just wasteful pleasure: I don’t care, I love it! (It would be worth thinking more carefully about the relationship between this sort of aesthetic dis-interest–as in, not accruing interest or human capital–and classical aesthetic disinterestedness/objectivity.)

So, in a way, I think Icona Pop is a femme alternative to Ke$ha-style YOLOing (which, as Micha Cardenas has argued, is also a specifically femme style of performance). Ke$ha is definitely cool-hunting: she’s trying really hard to craft an image of an over-the-top, maxed out “crazy kid.” But K-dolla uses her crazy as her source of human capital–it’s what makes her different from all the other white female US pop divas. Icona Pop’s car-crashing doesn’t produce enough/sufficient/properly-tuned capital…it’s not an investment on which they can expect a return so much as pleasure for pleasure’s sake (I love it, I don’t care). So, instead of accumulating capital–in the form of femme hysteria, crazy, or musically in the form of a soar or a drop–they throw it away, bottoming out instead of maxing out.

In a way, Icona Pop didn’t properly capitalize on the opportunities this massive hit gave them. The song has been used in such a way that Icona Pop are seen as sellouts rather than inventive artists and/or feminists. As Flavorwire‘s Judy Berman remarks,

But now that it’s impossible to hear “I Love It” without thinking about women and shopping, the song’s evolution has become an exceptional example in which the distinctive personality of a relatively unknown act is overshadowed by the mass-market brands with which it’s associated. Icona Pop’s quest to monetize their first big hit has stuck the duo with an irritating identity that might be impossible to shake.

“I Love It” isn’t just associated with women/femininity, but with a particularly kind of “uncool” femininity–women who shop for mass-market brands, who aren’t appropriately quirky, idiosyncratic, or educated enough to have a “cool” personal brand. “Cool” women are entrepreneurial; they turn their crazy into coolness, which has value. Uncool women shop, practicing a worn-out commodity fetishism that gleans their personal identity from the brands they buy/wear. Instead of building their personal brands, they rent others’ brands.

“I Love It” is feminized in a lot of ways, and both the song’s composition and its reception can tell us a lot about contemporary white femininities. As post-feminism folds privileged women into patriarchy (e.g., women in combat, lesbian weddings, leaning in, etc.), “I Love It” explores several types of femininity that are still devalued. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this–are there more ways in which femininity is at stake in either the song or its reception?