Tom Tom Club, Mariah Carey, and play as the stewardship of creativity
This was originally published on January 31, 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.
Between the fall 2022 arrival of Mariah Carey’s catalog to the Peloton platform and the internet’s ongoing speculation about aughts indie nostalgia, Tom Tom Club’s 1981 singles “Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood” have become a part of my regular listening diet these days. “Genius” is sampled in Carey’s 1995 hit “Fantasy,” which is then interpolated in Latto’s 2021 single “Big Energy,” and “Rappinghood” was covered by aughts indie acts Uffie and Chicks on Speed. These singles thread the last 40 years of pop music history–80s post-punk, 90s R&B, 2000s electroclash, and 2020s hip hop–together in a way perhaps no single set of songs do. Their closest competition might be New Order’s “Blue Monday,” with its interpolations by Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, and MIA, but for all its recirculation in pop and electronic dance music, “Blue Monday” hasn’t had any uptake in hip hop and R&B. Far from some minor hits by a Talking Heads side project, “Genius” and “Rappinghood” represent a uniquely influential approach to pop songwriting.
There’s a reason why these first two Tom Tom Club singles have been such a strong and enduring thread (earworm?) across both predominantly white and predominantly Black genres, and this reason speaks to ongoing issues in the contemporary media landscape, from use/appropriation to social media platform user experience. The thing that distinguishes “Genius” and “Rappinghood” from other hip-hop influenced post-punk songs by mostly white bands of that era–think Blondie’s “Rapture” or The Clash’s “Overpowered by Funk”–is that they center play and playfulness. According to philosopher Maria Lugones, positive (as opposed to agonistic/colonial) play “involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction or reconstruction and to construction or reconstruction of the ‘worlds’ we inhabit playfully, and thus openness to risk the ground that constructs us as oppressors or as oppressed or as collaborating or colluding with oppression” (Pilgrimages/Perinages, 96). Something like a practice of improvisation that riffs on both the artistic content at hand and the sociopolitical situation(s) in which that content and its improvisers are situated, play is the stewardship of creativity: play fosters creative materials and possibilities by framing them in a context of common contribution, care, and benefit. Unlike agonistic play or appropriation, positive play doesn’t enclose creativity and turn it into private property (whose benefits and obligations we all know are racialized, gendered, and sexualized). A feature of Black creative practices such as signifying and versioning, this sense of play made “Genius” and “Rappinghood” more amenable to reuse in hip hop and R&B, both because its aesthetics are aligned with those traditions, and because its politics foster creativity for those traditionally oppressed by copyright regimes and music industry practices.
“Wordy Rappinghood” was the debut single of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s Talking Heads side project called Tom Tom Club. Ostensibly a meditation on the philosophy of language organized around the refrain “what are words worth?”, the lyrics and the melody draw on several traditional childrens’ rhymes from around the globe. For anglophone listeners, the lines “a rap rap here and a rap rap there/Here rap, there rap/Everywhere a rap rap” are the clearest reference to detect, as they rework the English children’s rhyme “Old MacDonald,” which inserts a varying array of animal noises where the “rap” is in “Rappinghood.” The first section of “Rappinghood”’s chorus is a cut from the North African children’s tune “Aram Sa Sa,” which the couple likely heard on either the 1971 recording by Rolf Harris, or the 1964 recording by Liverpool folk band The Spinners, or perhaps just as parents of young children who happened to pick up the song from classmates or playmates (Weymouth and Frantz are married). As this music for children website explains, there are also hand movements that go with the song. The sing-song-y, simple, accessible feel of these traditional tunes shapes the rest of the song, with its short phrases, easy rhymes, and overall child-like perspective (e.g., “four-letter words I cannot say”). Sticking to short words and phrases, the lyrics could easily serve as the contents of a children’s picture book. “Rappinghood” doesn’t just represent childhood playfulness; it also includes the voices of actual children. The Weymouth and Frantz’s two daughters, Lani and Laura Weymouth, themselves children at the time, both sing on the record and are credited as songwriters on the track. From their songwriting choices to their choice of co-songwriters, Weymouth & Frantz’s intention with “Rappinghood” is pretty clear: this is a song about children’s games and child’s play.
With its open-ended riffing on a common text and performance tradition for no purpose other than shared enjoyment, “Rappinghood”’s sound, mechanics, and ethos are a version of what Lugones calls play. The song experiments with different flows/rhyme patterns and different vocal timbres throughout the recorded version, with no one method definitive or privileged; the point is to play around and try things for no other reason than being open to creativity and surprises. In this sense, “Rappinghood” embodies Lugones’s definition of play and playfulness as a situation where “we may not have rules, and when we do have them, there are no rules that are to us sacred. We are not worried about competence. We are not wedded to a particular way of doing things…Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competence, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred, and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight” (96). In other words, in play structure is provisional and always open to restructuring, if that restructuring is fun and interesting. In such a context, there can be no mastery because there is no singular right way of doing things. The point is to share in the common creative riffing on a shared text and performance practice.
“Rappinghood” abounds in examples of such playfulness. Most obviously, there’s the momentary slide into French at the end of the second verse. Although this song is primarily in English, that rule gets put aside for a moment to try out a different language and a slightly different meter (groupings of 3 syllables rather than 4). It doesn’t matter if the listener understands what the French lyrics mean; the point is to try out a new variation on the existing pattern and have fun without worrying about mastery.
Ethnomusicologist and hip hop studies scholar Kyra Gaunt argues that this sense of play was a common feature of early hip hop culture, and that it arrived there via Black girls’ rhythmic games such as hand-clapping games and double dutch. Though Black women and girls’ role in early hip hop culture has largely been erased from orthodox histories of the genre, Gaunt’s archival work shows that there were direct and explicit connections between the then-newly codified sport of double dutch and the hip hop scene. For example, she notes that there was a “1982 European rap tour featuring Rock Steady Crew and Double Dutch Girls” (That’s The Joint, 260); on this tour, a double dutch team appeared as openers for the headlining rap crew. This lineup suggests that at one time double dutch was seen if not as, then as akin to, one of hip hop’s core elements (MCing, DJing, graffiti, breakdancing). Due to double dutch’s–and Black women and girls’–presence in the early hip hop scene, the sport’s sonic vocal dimensions influenced early rap styles. As Gaunt explains,
Hand-clapping game songs, as well as double-dutch, may feature in part or throughout a tuneful declamatory (using two to five pitches within a narrow range). This style closely resembles the melodic orientation of rapping found in hip-hop music: a narrow range of pitches used to carry the ideas of the narrative or theme synchronized with other musical activity such as segments of previously recorded music woven together by a disk jockey. (That’s The Joint 253)
The pitch and rhythmic/metric conventions of Black girls’ game songs are very similar to those of early rap styles, which, as Gaunt argues here, suggests that the former, established practices influenced the latter, emerging one. Although dominant narratives of hip hop culture’s origins center what Nelson George calls the “founding fathers” (Bambaataa, Herc, Flash), the sound of early rapping evinces another, forgotten influence: Black girls game songs. As Gaunt puts it, “ideals of black cultural performance as observed in ring games, hand-clapping games, and double-dutch jump rope” were so deeply embedded in early rapping styles that we must understand Black girls’ “experiences as central, rather than peripheral, to black popular music culture” (251).
Black girls’ game songs’ influence on early hip hop was not limited to vocal style; according to Gaunt, they also imparted a sense of play. As Gaunt defines it, “play is considered an experience or an act that is performed for its own sake, for pleasure or reward known as flow. The rewards for flow experience are said to be intrinsic, often marked by imaginative creativity, improvisation, and adventurousness” (252). A practice of creative experimentation done solely for the pleasure of such rule-bending exploration, Gaunt’s notion of play is basically the same as Lugones’s. Play is the foundational aesthetic quality of Black girls’ game songs, and it’s this aesthetic that such game songs imparted to early hip hop culture. As Gaunt notes, the very notion of “flow,” which “rappers in hip-hop culture use to characterize the creative energy they experience when writing, performing, or extemporaneously ‘freestyling’ rhymes or spinning records” (252) came to hip hop from these game songs. Though we often attribute flow to individual rappers or groups (e.g., Migos flow), Gaunt emphasizes that “flow is also used as a communal sensibility” (252). Flow–which Gaunt links to play–is a central dimension of hip hop musical performance, and it came to the genre from Black girls’ game songs.
With its short phrases and simple rhyme schemes, “Rappinghood” exhibits flows common in early hip hop. And with Gaunt’s argument about Black girls’ game songs in mind, that shouldn’t be surprising, as “Rappinghood” interpolates actual childrens’ game songs like “Aram sa sa” and “Old MacDonald.” In fact, as a game song that coordinates with movements, “Aram sa sa” is effectively an African analog to African American hand-clapping game songs and double dutch chants. Though the contributions of the Black women and girls made to early hip hop have unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) been erased from dominant narratives, “Rappinghood” and “Genius” persist as records of them.
Playfulness is what has given “Rappinghood” and “Genius” such enduring and varied lives. Taking rules as something to be riffed on in a creative context unconcerned with competence or mastery, both songs encourage further riffing, versioning, and creative experimentation.
A few different covers of “Rappinghood” came out over the years, a cluster of them during the aughts post-punk revival. The most important of these is the arty electroclash group Chicks On Speed’s 2003 cover. Recreating the original version’s looped riff on their signature lo-fi electronic equipment and featuring guest vocals from Anki Lepper, Inga Humpe, Jill Mingo, Kevin Blechdom, Le Tigre, Miss Kittin, Nicola Kuperus, Soffy O., and Tina Weymouth herself, the COS version of “Rappinghood” picks up on the original’s playfulness and pushes their cover in new directions. As The Manchester Evening News put it in their 2004 review of the single, “The idea of a band forming as a concept at art school might strike fear in most fun-loving pop fans, but Wordy Rappinghood is old school block party hip hop with a sloppy grin across its face.” As this review hints, the track is less concerned with perfection and more concerned with fun. For example, in the song’s music video, the group and some of their friends appear to be crashing Art Basel Miami, a Very Serious Blue Chip Art Event, and dancing awkwardly on the beach. This playful vibe extends to the songwriting: the song’s multiple guest vocalists give it the feel of both the call-and-response-y-ness of girls’ game songs and early hip hop tracks, where members of crews like The Furious Five and the Cold Crush Brothers passed the lead vocal around among themselves. This child’s game-song-y feel is likely what YouTube user arn blabla refers to in their comment on the music video that “this sounds alike [sic] The Slits.” This version of “Rappinghood” amplifies both the game-song-y sound of the original and its use of musical play: just as the original varies the flow, the multiple vocalists in the COS cover vary both flow and timbre. Musically, COS’s “Rappinghood” cover explicitly refers to and adopts the original version’s feminist aesthetics of play.
Playfully weaving together the voices of many of the women artists in their indie electronic dance music scene, COS’s “Rappinghood” both represents and performs a form of sociality in which these women are connected to and support one another and to the artistic tradition(s) that influence them. Playing with that tradition and with one another, the musicians involved in this “Rappinghood” cover renew both the song and themselves. This renewal is a form of care that Black queer feminist media theorist Kara Keeling calls “shared stewardship” (Queer Times Black Futures, 171). Taking Grace Jones’s practice of interpolating bits of her past works into new ones as an example, Keeling defines stewardship as a practice of “experimenting within and through the various modulations designed to control what her stardom can do vis-a-vis race, gender, sexuality, and nationality” (171). By experimentally and playfully repeating past performances that were shaped by the patriarchal racial capitalist conditions of production in new contexts, Jones opens out new possibilities that, so long as they are received playfully and do not become reified as a new set of rules, forge new relations beyond the limitations of patriarchal racial capitalism. For example, Keeling argues that one condition of Jones’s stewardship of her body and her image is that she “refuses to entertain the injunction that she seize control of her skin and enforce her ownership over it in a way that might be widely recognized as ‘proper’” (154). Playful experimentation can’t be “cleaned up” and formalized into a new system of rules or propriety, because then it ceases to be play. (I am reminded here of Elliot Powell’s work on the queerness of unmastered recordings, where the unpolished nature of demos and other “incomplete” recordings opens out various forms of sonic and textual queerness.) Stewardship, in other words, is the practice of playfully maintaining something and tending to its upkeep. The Black girls’ game-song tradition on which “Rappinghood” and much of early hip hop draws is a tradition of stewardship, where songs are playfully passed down from one generation to the next as something the community maintains, not as the private property of any one entity (such as the copyrighted “Happy Birthday”). Adopting this playfulness, the aesthetic (if not the reality of the recordings as copyrighted IP) of both the original “Rappinghood” and the COS cover model stewardship as a form of musical sociality and stewardship.
This kind of stewardship is also present in Mariah Carey’s 1995 single “Fantasy, which” samples the instrumentals from “Genius of Love.” “Fantasy” loops “Genius”’s squeaky sixteenth-dotted eighth riff to form the foundation of an R&B song about romantic fantasies. It also includes a few lines from the “Genius” in the bridge. Carey’s song adopts “Genius”’s playfulness and applies it much in the same way Grace Jones played around with her own past work to situate it in less sexist, racist, and capitalist terms. Taking “Genius” as its sonic and musical foundation, “Fantasy”’s choruses interpolate one 90s West Coast hip hop’s signature tropes: the arpeggiated treble synth (almost, but not quite as high pitched as Carey’s upper range). As hip hop studies scholar Justin Williams argues in his article on the role of “automotive listening” in West Coast hip hop, these treble sounds were common in 90s G-Funk because they wouldn’t be masked by the mid-range frequencies made by car engine and road noises, and you could actually hear them when listening in your car (as one is wont to do in LA). For example, that timbre features prominently in the introduction to Dr. Dre’s “Aint Nothin But A G Thang”. G-Funk, commonly associated with “gangsta rap,” was, in the 90s, an infamously hypermacho and misogynist scene. bell hooks talks about this with Ice Cube in their 1994 interview, where they point out that hip hop’s reputation for extreme misogyny is actually an attempt to scapegoat Black men for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s generalized misogyny. By interpolating this treble synth riff, with all its associations with hypermasculinity and misogyny, “Fantasy” takes a potentially negative sonic trope and articulates it in a musical context that recalibrates its web of associations away from men and stereotypical Black masculinity and towards Black girls’ culture and sonic traditions (game songs, double dutch, etc.). Reinforcing the fact of this trope’s reiteration in a more femme and feminist context, at 2:38 in the video Carey sings that same trope, taking advantage of her famously super-high range to re-articulate that G-Funk trope in her own voice. Here, her high-pitched vocal riffing is less a demonstration of virtuosic mastery, and more an example of the playfulness “Genius” exhibits and references. In her musical play with this G-Funk trope, Carey re-orients the then-current narrative about hip hop towards the people and the contributions that had been written out of that narrative: Black girls and women. (There’s more evidence to suggest that Carey understood “Fantasy” to be at least in conversation with, if not part of, the current hip hop scene. With its remix featuring Old Dirty Bastard, “Fantasy” was the first of a now-common type of song that mixes sung vocals (traditionally by a woman) with rapped lyrics (traditionally by a man).) Drawing new attention to this tradition, “Fantasy” keeps it alive to influence younger generations of artists, like Latto. To steward an expressive tradition is to engage it playfully, like Carey does, maintaining the tradition without claiming ownership of it, and in so doing preserving forms of sociality that aren’t predicated on patriarchal racial capitalism and its harms.
Stewardly play is a helpful model for interacting with cultural traditions in ways that don’t appropriate or enclose them by turning them into private property. Nowadays, social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter make it easy to capitalize on what might otherwise look like play in Lugones’s sense. Dril’s shitposting drives tons of engagement on Twitter, and even though it’s unlikely the user behind that account is seeing any profit from their work, Twitter sure is. Similarly–and this is something Gaunt has also written about–video platforms like YouTube and Twitter open Black girls’ musical gaming and play to a global audience whose main concern is generally not these girls’ well-being. Play is something that has to be performed mindfully, and is not a cure-all for problems of artistic exploitation, appropriation, and erasure. As Lugones’s original discussion of play argued, genuine play is possible only in contexts where one’s full personhood is both respected and supported (as she put it, in contexts where one feels “at home”). So the question is less about playing or being playful, and more about creating contexts and environments where people are actually, genuinely able to play. In other words, the focus shouldn’t be on becoming a playful individual, but on working together to create spaces, environments, and relations where we (ourselves and the people we concretely relate to) can play. That’s what the shared stewardship of creativity–or play-is: doing your part to contribute to a material and social world that supports play.
I think WOXY is a great example of this. As I argue in my forthcoming book, the station is proof that true independence is only possible when practiced with and for other people. Although they played Tom Tom Club, Chicks On Speed, and a little bit of underground hip hop (think Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy, early Run DMC before white people outside NYC knew about hip hop), WOXY definitely came to their philosophy from a very different place than Tom Tom Club or Carey did–i.e., they weren’t connoisseurs of Black girls’ cultural traditions and values. However, I think that makes the overlap between their idea of independence and what the feminist/feminist of color traditions I’ve discussed above frame as stewardly play: this practice exists in artistic communities of all sorts, and if we play around with it enough, we can all finds the versions of it that work best in our own worlds.