Is the Post- in post-identity the Post- in post-genre?

I’m giving a talk this Friday, 25 March at Columbia University. Here are the details.

Here is a link to the text of the talk. I’ve pasted the intro below so you can get a preview.

From “race records” to disco demolition’s not-so-latent homophobia to brostep and bro country, identity politics are an important component of American pop music genres. We use stereotypes about gender, race, sexuality, and class as tools drawing, expressing, and policing genre boundaries, and for ranking the value of genres, styles, and songs. For example, feminists like Susan Cook and Angela McRobbie have argued that we associate socially devalued genres with socially devalued people–namely, girls.

Now, however, mainstream political discourse treats identity politics as something old-fashioned; we have supposedly overcome the sexism and racism on which they were based. As Alana Lentin argues in Feminist Legal Theory, (neo)liberal democracies practice a “politics of diversity” grounded in a “consensus around the notion that western societies are post-race” (1). Similarly, beginning in 2014, mainstream publications like Time, USA Today, Noisey, and Buzzfeed evaluate pop stars’ and pop songs’ commitment to feminism: feminism, not sexism, is the new norm and expectation, because our willingness to accept women’s overt feminism is proof that society isn’t sexist anymore. Just like overt sexism and racism have fallen out of fashion in the liberal mainstream, the idea of genre has similarly fallen out of fashion in pop music aesthetics: it’s one of the things Taylor Swift shakes off in “Shake It Off,” and, as Diplo says in his March 2015 interview in Cuepoint, “we’re trying to break the genres down man. Like, it’s a big genre castle, that’s Babylon. We’re trying to break it down and set it on fire.”

Diplo’s hate for genre provincialism echoes the rejection of aesthetic provincialism that Kwame Anthony Appiah cites in the beginning of his 1991 article, “Is the Post- in postmodernism the Post- in postcolonial?” According to Appiah, late 20th-century Western intellectuals think “that the first and last mistake is to judge the Other on one’s own terms” (339). This is a symptom of postmodernism’s definitive move, where an “antecedent practice whose claim to exclusivity of vision is rejected” (Appiah 348). Here, the antecedent practice is Western modernity’s Eurocentrism. “The post- in postcolonial, like the post- in postmodern” (348) is not just “a post- that challenges earlier legitimating narratives” (353), but a post- that challenges the same legitimating narrative postmodernism does: the universality of European modernity.

Like the post-s in their PoMo & PoCo cousins, the post- in post-identity and post-genre rejects an older practice’s claim to exclusivity. It’s the same move, but applied to a different object: in this case, purity. This “post”- marks the preference for incorporating all differences into one heterogeneous mix over sorting different phenomena into internally homogeneous segments or subgroups. Reading Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Diplo’s Cuepoint interview, and a few other musical examples alongside Cristina Beltran’s and Jared Sexton’s work on post-identity neoliberal multiculturalism, I will show that purity was once privileged, but now diversity is.

But some kinds of diversity are better than others. In post-identity/post-genre discourse, diversity is good because it’s evidence of progress or “post-”ness. If it doesn’t feel like the overcoming of obsolete commitments to purity, diversity is perceived, ironically, as evidence of homogeneity and inflexibility. Comparing Swift and Diplo’s post-genre-ism to Bruno Mars and Pitbull’s, I show that post-racial whiteness is what makes post-genre performance legible as such. Progress past traditional commitments to white racial purity is both the defining characteristic of post-racial whiteness, and what makes multigenre pop practice count as post-genre. The “post-” in post-identity is what distinguishes post-genre practice from supposedly more primitive forms of genre transgression, such as the love-&-theft-style cultural appropriation Eric Lott identifies in 19th century blackface minstrelsy or Pitbull’s Latin American style racial/musical mestizaje.