From the gendered pop/rock binary to resilient or aggrieved vibes

Olivia Rodrigo's Guts proves she's far more than just a Gen Z star - BBC  Culture

This was originally published on September 23, 2023 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

The contrasting responses to Wenner’s comments and Rodrigo’s album are a clear indication that the theoretical models of gender and race politics and their connection to music aesthetics that we have been using for decades to explain what’s bad about the former are not helpful for analyzing the political and aesthetic stakes of the latter. Nearly twenty years after Kelefa Sanneh’s “The Rap Against Rockism” was published, we are in a context where post-poptimism (skepticism towards poptimism as something that’s been co-opted by the corporate music industry) and corporate feminism mean that neither the pop/rock nor the gender binary function as single, clear, analogous hierarchies in which rock is masculine (and white) and pop is feminine (and usually also white). Whereas Wenner operates by the old 20th century rockist playbook in which white women and people of color aren’t intelligent enough to be true rock gods, Rodrigo’s success suggests that not just rock, but what was traditionally the most authentic and elite corner of the rock world–indie rock–is primarily music for teen girls, who are traditionally the least valued and prestigious group of listeners in the music industry. We’ve gone from the Wenner-style view that rock is absolutely not for girls because girls are low-status and rock is high-status, to rock can be for girls because girls have the potential to be high-status, just as rock has the potential to recover its once high status.

Rock (i.e., the music made by straight white guys with largely modernist aesthetics) used to be so synonymous with the vanguard of the music industry that the industry’s main historical institution is called The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the genre has lost its edge both commercially and critically, as fans and music writers have turned towards other styles. As this 2022 feature from suggests, from the old way of thinking about rock, it’s been over 20 years since a rock song topped the Billboard Hot 100: “If you want to drill down and filter out such alt-pop artists as Billie Eilish, Lorde and those already mentioned, the last traditional rock song to hit No. 1 was Nickelback’s 2001 single “How You Remind Me.“” In other words, if you follow the traditional gendering of rock and exclude young women working in loosely modern rock idioms, the last hit rock song was by…Nickleback, possibly the least respected musical act in the anglophone world. Similarly, The New York Times wrote in 2017 that white women and people of color are at the heart of an indie rock renaissance. This association of women with indie rock is then reflected in Billboard’s splitting of the Alternative Songs into Alternative Airplay, which tracks plays on alt rock radio (geared to men 18-14), on the one hand, and Hot Alternative Songs, which tracks streaming and sales. In this context, once-prestigious heavy rock occupies a bro-ified ghetto, whereas the lighter more traditionally feminine styles rejected by alt rock radio programmers precisely for their lack of appeal to men listeners is undergoing an increasingly active renaissance. 

At the same time, the politics of gender, race, and sexuality are all reorganizing amid ideological and technological shifts. For example, though femininity is still by and large socially devalued to the point that the ability to get pregnant is being increasingly criminalized, privileged women like Sheryl Sandberg, Elizabeth Holmes, and even Sara Palin and Amy Coney Barrett have been able to “Lean In” to elite and authoritative positions from which they have traditionally been excluded. Similarly, as scholars such as Melinda Cooper and Ladelle McWhorter have shown, though anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is very prominent these days, queerness and queer antinormativity aren’t necessarily opposed to cisheteropatriachal power relations. Just as the “welfare queen” figure is demonized not for the abnormality of her sexual behavior (i.e., for having heterosexual sex that leads to pregnancy and childbirth) but her lack of private responsibility for her sexual decisions, antinormativity–such as the lack of fixed rules–can be functionally analogous to neoliberal ideals like deregulation. And just as white supremacist fascism becomes the accepted position of the Republican base, elite private institutions like Ivy League schools and Fortune 500 companies tout their commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The old hierarchical binaries masc/femme, white/black, straight/queer, rock/pop just don’t describe the musical-political reality of 2023.

Those old binares are also imbricated in another binary power relation we’ve inherited from Enlightenment political philosophy: the public/private binary. This idea is the result of some very complicated philosophical gymnastics white European patriarchy used to hide the fact that liberal formal equality before the law (i.e., civil equality) was actually a fiction, because civil personhood was restricted along gender, racial, sexual, and class lines. From couverature to partus sequitur ventrem to terra nullius, the law excluded white women, Black people, and indigenous peoples from civil society and relegated them to the private sphere, where there were no civil obligations to preserve any sense of equality. The civil or public sphere was the realm of freedom, and the private the realm of subjection. As I explain here, the public/private binary was also part of the fine art/craft hierarchy that was theorized by some of the very same philosophers who developed its political incarnation: 

The autonomy aesthetic regime grants art is analogous to and philosophically intersects with the autonomy of the liberal subject. Cleaving the public sphere from the private in parallel to the way Kant cleaves fine art from craft, classical liberalism holds that autonomy exists in the civil sphere, whereas the private sphere is the realm of material need and dependence. Just as art’s autonomy comes from its purported ontological separation from everyday life, the liberal subject’s autonomy exists outside the sphere of life’s reproduction.

The rock/pop hierarchy is a 20th century rearticulation of the good old Enlightenment art/craft hierarchy. The reason why rock got associated with the people liberalism grants civil personhood and freedom and pop got associated with the people relegated to the private sphere to do reproductive labor is because the public/private and art/craft or rock/pop hierarchical binaries are all analogous articulations of the same underlying power relation.

So, if both traditional gender and race binaries and the rock/pop hierarchy all rely on the same conceptual architecture as the classically liberal public/private distinction, it’s no surprise they both collapse once fifty years of neoliberalization in politics and culture have increasingly eliminated anything resembling “the public” and reduced everything to private markets, private responsibility, personalized algorithmic feeds, and so on. The relationship between musical style and political status works differently now than even in the 80s. The framework that gave us terms like “rockism” and “poptimism” is obsolete for thinking through the relationship between the sounds and the politics of GUTS.

There is a vast and extensive literature that develops a critical apparatus to explain why Wenner-style rockism is sexist, racist, and tied to an underlying white supremacist capitalist patriarchal modernist aesthetics. There’s Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. There’s Ingrid Monson’s work on white hipness and gendered, racialized, classed cultural appropriation. There’s Eric Lott’s iconic “Love & Theft.” There’s Susan Cook’s “Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular.” There’s my first book. There’s a lot out there. But when it comes to thinking through the gender, race, sexual, and class politics of current music like GUTS, that established critical apparatus is obsolete.

Thinking with feminist scholars Melinda Cooper, Michelle Murphy, and Sarah Banet-Weiser, it would appear that the old rock/pop binary is, in the era of privatization, reorganized into a different sort of private property relation where the resilient potential for profitable growth is opposed to the aggrieved sense of accelerating loss. As Banet-Weiser argues, the rise of social media has contributed to the growth of both “popular feminism”—feminism as a mediated pop cultural discourse or subculture of sorts—and its opposite, “popular misogyny.” As she puts it, “Misogyny is popular in the contemporary moment for the same reasons feminism has become popular: it is expressed and practised on multiple media platforms, it attracts other like-minded groups and individuals and it manifests in a terrain of struggle, with competing demands for power.” “Popular feminism” and “popular misogyny” are Banet-Weiser’s terms for the two poles organizing the contemporary “terrain of struggle” over the politics of identity. And in her analysis, these poles are complementary opposites both in content—feminism vs. misogyny—and form. Whereas “popular feminism insists on a spectacular visibility,” such as Beyoncé’s iconic FEMINIST performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, feminist influencers like Chrissy Chlapecka, and the virality of the #MeToo phenomenon, popular misogyny has its roots in the perception of spectacular loss. Speaking about popular misogyny’s origins, Banet-Weiser explains that “the global economic recession of 2007/2008 certainly played a role – and that recession had a distinct gendered dimension, where many men felt that they were the victims of economic catastrophe, that they lost jobs and security because women were taking positions of power (despite copious evidence to the contrary).” Whereas popular feminism represents itself through spectacles of resilient overcoming, popular misogyny makes a spectacle of perceived lost entitlement, specifically, the loss of the property-right patriarchy has traditionally granted men over women. 

As scholars such as Carole Pateman, Charles Mills, and Cheryl Harris have shown, classical liberalism frames whiteness and maleness as property rights; for example, the right to privacy codified in the US Bill of Rights frames civil personhood as a property right. However, as the fall of Roe v. Wade (which held the right to abortion is grounded in the right to privacy) shows, the civil right too property in-person is no longer so sacrosanct or useful as it traditionally has been. In the absence of civil personhood white masculinity is no guarantee of the entitlement to property in person and property in others those identities have traditionally guaranteed. 

When there is no such thing as society, only families and individual men and women, private family or individual wealth become the only guarantor of personhood; for example, wealthy, cishetero, able-bodied white women will still have greater access to abortion than those without those privileges. In this context, femininity’s traditional lack of real and human capital becomes the potential for exponentional resilience and growth. As Michelle Murphy argues, “Her rates of return are so high precisely because her value begins so low.” According to Murphy, the figure of “The Girl” has come to function as a representation of resilience, which I have argued is a gendered/feminized reframing of the neoliberal imperative to self-entrepreneurship. Femme subjects may have been kept from accessing wealth and human capital, but as long as they are sufficiently personally responsible they have the capacity to flip that low status into a high one.

At the same time, right wing media frames whiteness and masculinity as identities and statuses that are inherently threatened and victimized. From moral panics about “male loneliness,” so-called “white genocide” and low birth rates, to trans contagion panic and panics about immigration, to the idea that American needs to be made great again, there is a pervasive and unifying view that the things white men have been traditionally entitled to and the property rights that patriarchal racial capitalism traditionally uphold are increasingly threatened by the non-white, noncisheteropatriarchal barbarians at the gate. 

These two orientations to private property (not identities!) – the resilient and personally responsible potential for growth, on the one hand, and the aggrieved imperative to re-assert ownership – map out the two poles of the ideological territory of today’s mainstream popular culture. As Stuart Hall argues in “Notes On Deconstructing the Popular,” “What matters is not the intrinsic or historically fixed objects of culture, but the state of play in cultural relations: to put it bluntly and in over-simplified form –what counts is the class struggle in and over culture’ (190). These two poles represent two different elite factions battling over cultural and financial hegemony. For Wenner, policing style was a matter of policing identity. But today in the GUTS era, popular feminist and popular misogynist positions are negotiated not as matters of civil and aesthetic autonomy, but directly as property relations. Is a song’s sonic profile oriented toward blossoming resilience, or towards panic at threatened loss?

Whereas the rock/pop binary mapped racialized gender difference onto specific styles or genres of music, today the aggrievement/resilience poles instead function as vibes or orientations that can apply broadly across a range of styles. Just as panic at threatened loss can be equally well embodied by Moms for Liberty and Joe Rogan, blossoming resilience can be equally well sonified by Rodrigo’s modern-rock inspired GUTS as Beyonce’s disco-inspired RENAISSANCE or Taylor Swift’s “Taylors Versions” of her previously recorded albums. Similarly, a September 2023 dive into Apple Music playlists shows that just about any genre can be “chill”: there are playlists titled “Morgan Wallen: chill,” “Ambient Chill,” “Classical Chill,” “Lo-Fi Japan,” “Chill Africa,” “Chill House,” “BTS: Chill,” and “John Lennon: Chill.” The week of September 22, 2023, Spotify’s “Chill Hits” playlist included artists ranging from Kanye West, Doja Cat, Zach Brian and Kasey Musgraves, Lil Nas X, Halsey, Selena Gomez, Marshmello, Shawn Mendez, and Coldplay; ranging from hip hop to R&B, country, pop, EDM, Latin pop, and dad rock, this playlist takes the songs from artists across a range of genres that best fit the “chill” profile and throw them together in a playlist. The lines of struggle are less demographic and stylistic and more directly about orientation towards private property accumulation. And in the struggle between blossoming resilience and panicked aggrievement, these are both orientations towards wealth and ownership – they are just different routes there. Or, if you want to situate this in the context of finance capitalism and predictive analytics, these are different orientations toward the speculative capacity for property accumulation: growing what one traditionally doesn’t have versus taking back the property right one traditionally took for granted.

As Melinda Cooper has shown, the evacuation of the public sphere and relentless privatization of everything is a joint neoliberal-neoreactionary project. In this context, hegemonic aesthetics no longer need to mark the difference between civil society as the realm of freedom and the private sphere as the realm of subjection. Instead, aesthetic differences need to mark the difference between different orientations to private property; and in the case of 2020s pop culture, the two dominant orientations to private property are resilience and aggrieved reaction. The right wants to criminalize groups whom neoliberalism positions as best capable of resilience (because they start so low), like white cis women, non-cis people, public school teachers, immigrants (not “expats”), etc. Neoliberals want to put traditionally excluded individuals to work producing resilience (I’ve written a lot about that). In contrast to the early days of poptimism when it really did look and feel to many (including grad student me) like a genuinely feminist position, in the resilience/agrievement contest it’s difficult to find an underdog here that one feels good about championing. 

One thing that is clear to me is that any alternative to the resilience/agrievement opposition will not be found in a particular style or genre, but in an orientation toward private property. It will be a public vibe, a collective vibe, one where the responsibility for producing art and reproducing life are mutually shared and distributed. I have some ideas of what that might look like that I discuss in the Good Vibes Only book I”m working on, so more (hopefully) soon on that.

I also think this is further evidence that the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 impacted popular music–alt rock in particular–just as much as the Telecom Act of 1996. The WRA codified shifting gender, racial, and sexual politics that saw identity-based norms matter less than one’s capacity to be personally responsible for any risks or vulnerabilities posed by their gendered, racialized, or sexualized status. Resilience discourse is a great example of this: as I argued in Resilience & Melancholy, resilience discourse rewards women who can assume personal responsibility for the damage patriarchy does to them, and further punishes women who can’t. I think this is the subject of a book to follow the vibes book?