Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” & the financial logic of the derivative

To get a sense of how Indie Rock-gone-pop aesthetics have shifted from modernist ideals of transgression to neoliberal ideals of success, you need look no further than the difference between U2’s 1987 “Where The Streets Have No Name” and Panic! At The Disco’s 2018 “High Hopes.” The videos for both songs culminate in each band performing their song on top of a building in downtown Los Angeles. The similarity of their settings highlights the differences in both the video and lyrical narratives and in the songwriting.

The video for U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” shows the band performing an quasi-legal show on an L.A. rooftop. This was in part an allusion to The Beatles’ 1969 pop-up performance on top of the Apple building. Interviewed on the occasion of the video’s 30th anniversary, the director explains that “the intent “was to be disruptive, the truth be told. And just for the point of rock ‘n’ roll.’’ Disruption was part of embodying what “rock and roll” meant in the late 80s. And this was built into the video’s narrative: even though the production team made some attempts to clear everything with the city, the video was supposed to depict the band’s performance getting shut down by the cops because it was, presumably, illegal. Depicting the band as outlaws, the video reflects the song’s lyrics, which are about “tear[ing] down walls that hold me inside” and existing in a barely-governed place (i.e., a place so lawless that the streets don’t have names–presumably the “wild west,” given that the song is from their Joshua Tree album, whose cover features a picture of the band standing in front of such a plant in the California desert.) The intro to the video features local radio DJs announcing the event with the caveat to “use caution” because “it is not one of those..delightful neighborhoods.” So the whole narrative is about transgression, about going somewhere outside the law…or at least decent white bourgeois society. And this idea of transgression informs the songwriting. Typical of their songs of that era, “Where The Streets Have No Name” is one big, slowly-burning tension-release structure that climaxes in a repeatedly spun-out chorus. This keeps with broadly modernist ideas of building towards transgression but ultimately domesticating it (cf. McClary).

“High Hopes” likewise features the band performing on an L.A. rooftop, but it’s on a very different building in a very different kind of Los Angeles. As the video shows us, this song is literally about climbing the corporate…building. Defying gravity (but not in the Wicked sense), lead singer Brendon Urie scales the glass walls of an L.A. office tower not by climbing them, but by walking straight up them, his body parallel to the ground. The gathering crowd is wowed by his capacity to break the laws of physics and seemingly unconcerned with his breaking the laws of man (like, uh, trespassing).

Unlike the lyrics of “Streets,” which are all about running away to transgress laws and norms and liberate oneself from what Marcuse calls “the performance principle” (basically, the discipline shaping individuals into the most productive workers), the lyrics in “High Hopes” describe a transformation that comes with a quasi-magical surmounting of a big obstacle, such as the laws of physics or those of austerity. The way to succeed, toward the American Dream, isn’t hard work or labor but the capacity to inventively disrupt the order of things, relations of spacetime and money.

Disrupting the logic of spacetime or the laws of physics or the basic order of reality is exactly what “the financial logic of the derivative” does. Financial derivatives break down individual units into sub-individual data points and then create counterfactual relations among those sub-individual parts: chopping and screwing sub-individual data points allows you to derive possible relations where in reality there are none. Thus, as Adam Arvidsson puts it, “through derivatives it is possible to construct a ‘higher order of continuity’ that can render apparently incompatible entities comparable and as a consequence, potentially valuable” (3). Derivatives replace Gaussian continuities with a “plane of compatibility” (Arvidsson, 3). On this plane of compatibility, the causal or empirical connections among data doesn’t matter, nor do the correspondence between this plane and empirical reality; what does matter is the consonance or otherwise “unknown correlations” (Arvidsson 6) among various patterns of relation among a collection of points. These consonances then ground decisions about what to do in empirical reality, such as what risk score to assign an individual or what sorts of ads to target them with on social media. But, importantly, they don’t have to have any basis in that empirical reality and are more often than not counterfactual in the narrow sense of being against the actual facts. This is what the video’s building ascent narrative expresses: to fulfill the narrator’s hopes for success against austerity (“Had to have high, high hopes for a livin’/shootin’ for the stars when I couldn’t make a killin’/Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision”), the narrator must disrupt the very order of reality itself, represented here by the laws of physics.

That’s one way the song and video’s narrative is informed by the logics of post-Gaussian neoliberalisms, such as the logic of financial derivatives. The songwriting is also shaped by these logics, which, as Arvidsson demonstrates, saturate the mathematical operations social media companies like Facebook apply to user data. Spotify is one such company; as Liz Pelly and others have shown, songwriters have begun to alter their practices to best game this system. One common way they do this is frontload the first 30 seconds of the song with all the good stuff in order to keep listeners from skipping to the next track. “High Hopes” begins right away with the hook; there’s no slow build as in “Streets.” With its synthesized horns and shout outs to both march-like and trap percussion, the songwriting takes inspiration from The Greatest Showman soundtrack, which was the top-selling of 2018 in the US and UK. There is, however, some building of tension after the second verse (which is really a half-verse), we get a pre-pre chorus (“stay up on that rise”) followed by a double-length pre-chorus (“Mama said” + “They say”). Then we get an a capella run through of the first half of the chours followed (finally) by a repeat of this first half of the chorus that soars up to a drop (the downpitched “high, high hopes”) that leads us back to the full chorus. As I’ve argued extensively elsewhere, the soar-drop structure is an aesthetic expression of probabilist, Gaussian neoliberalism. Combining a bit of a soar with a song structure otherwise optimized for streaming success, “High Hopes” uses probabilist and post-probabilist neoliberalisms in complementary ways. Though theorists often separate and opposed probabilist and post-possibilist logics for the sake of analytical clarity, in practice they’re overlapping and synergistic.