That #Selfie Song–how it sounds, and a few thoughts on human capital

The Chainsmokers’ song “Selfie” is the new novelty song that everyone (or, almost everyone) loves to hate. In this Fact Magazine critics roundup, the song is called everything from “a low point…even for EDM,” to the one thing worse than the “arena-bound, taurine-fuelled, optimised-for-raging EDM” that the song nominally parodies. It seems like everyone hates it because they think it embodies what one might interpret as Tiqqun’s “Young Girl,” the ideal subject of neoliberal capitalism, human capital itself–or at least, the song gives voice to who we derisively imagine that ideal neoliberal subject to be: the vapid, selfie-obsessed young woman who is only concerned with amping up her value (her “likes” on Instagram) and her enjoyment (or her male/bro equivalent).

Is all the derison targeted at what the song’s about? Or do people dislike it because of how it sounds? Or both?

I want to leave aside, at least for a moment, what the song is about and focus on how it sounds, how it works as a piece of music. Maybe a better understanding of the music will give us a more nuanced grasp of “#Selfie”’s lyrical and visual content, and people’s reactions to that content.

The song is basically a combination of (a) a ripoff of the treble synth riff, cued up here, from LMFAO’s 2011 “Party Rock Anthem” and (b) the soar from Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” The LMFAO rip is first audible in the very beginning of the song, and the Soar (the soar is: (1) the Zeno’s-paradox style rhythmic intensification up to and past the limit of our ability to hear distinct rhythmic events + (2) the measure of instrumental silence with the “but first, let me take a selfie” vocal + (3) the “hit” or drop on the following downbeat) you hear starting here:

So, musically, the song regurgitates two, well, old megahits. “Party Rock Anthem” and “Gangnam Style” are not fresh or trendy–they’re worn out, too young to be retro but too old to be hot. Though the song’s soar would not have been out of place in, say 2012, most contemporary EDM pop uses a much more restrained, less exaggerated and crassly maximalist soar. (Think, for example, of the soar in Calvin Harris’s most recent single, “Summer.” Compared to his 2012 “We Found Love,” the soar in “Summer” sounds refined and demur.) Compared to its contemporaries on the pop and dance charts, “Selfie” sounds both backwards and vulgar (both excessive and common). But this is the point: it’s a parody song. It’s not designed to sound “good.” It’s presenting us a caricature of EDM at its supposed worst, much in the same way that “Spaceballs” parodies late 20th c space operas, or “Scream” parodies horror films. This raises the question: if you’re making a parody EDM track to skewer mainstream EDMC (EDM culture), why make that song about selfies? If the Chainsmokers were looking for some lyrical content to compliment their sonic caricature, why choose the so-called “selfie” as this compliment? Why is the selfie–or what the song presents as a selfie (which, like the musical content, is likely a caricature of ‘selfie’ practice)–the best content to compliment this sonic caricature?

I’ll get back to that question later. For now, I want to stay focused on the music. First, it’s interesting how the refrain “but first, let me take a selfie” serves in place of the scream or silence or other sonic shock that precedes the drop. For example, in a lot of brosteppy songs, the drop is immediately preceded by some sort of distorted, disruptive vocal–”bangarang” in Skrillex’s “Bangarang,” “tsunami” in DVBBS’s “Tusanmi,” you get the idea. I like to think of that vocal disruption as analogous to the “shock” in shock capitalism: in the same way that a tsunami wipes out civilization and prepares it for redevelopment, the sonically distorted “tsunami” interrupts the flow of the song and prepares listeners to experience the reintroduction of order (the ‘hit’ on the next downbeat) as even more intensely pleasurable. The idea is that this apparent disruption isn’t actually disruptive–the shock is not an end, but a necessary first step. Why, then, would a girl taking a selfie be so (apparently, but not actually) disruptive? Why does the girl selfie need to seem like a disruption? Who benefits from–where’s the profit or surplus value in–the perception that girl selfies are disruptive?

Perhaps the answer to these questions is this: the devaluation of girl-selfies as disruptive is what makes other kinds of human capital appear both more valuable and less disruptive/violent/appropriative/etc. In the same way that the song’s hook and soar are too crass and unsophisticated for anything but the dumbest and most mainstream of EDM listeners, are selfies just too crass and unsophisticated a means of human-capital building? I mean, anyone can take a selfie, but not everyone can, say, take an unpaid internship, get plastic surgery, lose weight, quit smoking, etc. Or, perhaps in the same way gendered devaluations of pop music give “classic” or “intelligent” music its (gendered) value, the devaluation of girl-selfie-capital gives more sophisticated kinds of human capital its worth. (As musicologist Susan Cook argues, “the ‘popular’ gives the ‘classical’ its worth; the ‘classical’ is worthwhile only if the ‘popular’ is worthless” (141).)

So, that’s the song. I want to think more about the video, which I will probably do later this week. Briefly, I think the video, insofar as it is “about” pop music as social practice (in the art historical sense of ‘social practice’), is also about, both in its content and its form, the role of virality in the contemporary music industry. Might ‘virality’ be a way of framing or understanding the music industry as producing a type of posthuman capital? In other words, is “virality” something analogous to “human capital”? I dunno. Gotta think more about that. Watch this space.