Rodrigo’s “get him back!,” Funky Drummer, & gendered resilience

The “train beat” is a drum riff typically located in country music (Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is a commonly-cited example), but it’s found across the blues-rock spectrum. My personal favorite example of it is Ministry feat. Gibby Haynes’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” but this thread on r/drums titled “What are some of your favorite ‘train beat’ songs?” include suggestions that range from “Two Step” by Gen X yuppie fave Dave Matthews Band to Nine Inch Nails’s “Wish.” 

It’s called “train beat” because it sounds like the cyclical clacking of a train’s wheels: the basic rhythm is: eighth notes on the snare, with an accent on beats 2 and 4, while the bass drum hits on 1 and 3. It literally chugs along, like a steam train. It’s the sound of combustion-driven speed. That’s why Ministry can so easily use it in the context of gas-powered cars: they’re also driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

Clive Stubblefield’s 1969 “Funky Drummer” beat takes the train beat and…makes it funky with some syncopation. In their “Behind the Beat” company blog post, renown drum machine manufacturer Roland explains the technique as follows:

First, start by isolating and playing the one-handed sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern. Then, bring in the bass drum on the 1, and “&” then “&” and “e.” Next, add the forte (loud) snare on beats 2 and 4 while maintaining ghost notes—soft snare hits—for the additional snare beats. The trickiest part is closing the hi-hats in time while keeping the ghost notes steady. Note that the first open hi-hat occurs by itself and the second comes along with the bass drum on the “e” of beat 4.

With two main base hits (here two sequential eighth notes rather than quarters), the snare accented on 2 and 4, and sixteenth notes in the hi-hat, the same overall train beat structure is there, just synchopated a bit.

“Funky Drummer” is the basis of another drum groove called the “baggy beat” after the style of clothing popular among the late 80s/early 90s Madchester scene where it emerged. Classic baggy beat tracks include The Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold” and The Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free”. In these songs, it’s less a matter of petrochemical-fueled combustion engines puttering along and more a matter of MDMA-fueled bodies dancing the night (and early morning) away, synthetic chemicals helping their bodies burn the midnight oil more energetically than they would otherwise be able.

From the train beat to Funky Drummer to the baggy beat, these grooves are all sonic representations of the transformation of biological matter (fossil fuels or body fat/sugars) into energy via the burning of calories. As Melinda Cooper argues in Life as Surplus, it’s the unit of the calorie that allowed industrial capitalism to compare the work of machines to the work of human laborers. This idea has its roots in the work of Etienne-Jules Marey, who wrote about it around the time of the U.S. Civil War. According to Cooper, Marey developed a theory of    

a common principle of production or labor—muscles perform mechanical work through the combustion of nutrients, just as the steam engine produces energy by burning carbon. The physico chemical labor of the body was measurable in the same terms as that of heat.  (107). 

Whether it’s coal, gas, or glucose, they all burn and create energy in the form of heat. Measuring that heat (that’s what a calorie is, a unit of heat) allowed the labor of human bodies to be quantitatively comparable to the labor of petrochemically-fueled machines. As Cooper puts it, “There was thus a fundamental equivalence between the labor of the organ and that of the machine—the equivalence of abstract, divisible labor time” (107). As her choice of the phrase “abstract, divisible labor time” suggests in its echoing of Marx’s discussion of commodified labor in Capital, this idea that both human and machine labor are reducible to a quantity of heat is literally and figuratively Fordist. Abstracted into discrete and fungible units, labor is ripe for commodification and assignation of an exchange value.

As sonifications of a moving steam train, the train beat and its variants are sonic representations of this Fordist notion that labor is energy in the form of heat. Die Krupps feat. Nitzer Ebb’s “Machineries of Joy” makes this point about as directly as possible. The first verse begins with the lyric “Meine Musklen sind Machienen” (my muscles are machines), which is sprechstimme-d over a modified version of the train beat: there’s a bass hit on 1 and 3, skittering sixteenth notes, and then quarter notes with an accent on the 2 and 4. A classic in the genre known as “Electronic Body Music,” “Machineries of Joy” is the quintessential example of the confluence of Fordist ideas about the commutability of machinic and physical human labor and the train beat tradition.

While this Fordist idea about labor as heat is rooted in the laws of thermodynamics–energy cannot be created or destroyed, entropy exists and heat always converts to energy at a loss, etc.–neoliberalism is instead committed to different, incompatible frameworks such as resilience and creative destruction. As Cooper puts it, “neoliberalism and the biotech industry share a common ambition to overcome the ecological and economic limits to growth associated with the end of industrial production” (11, emphasis mine). There is only so much oil and coal in the ground, and there is only so much carbon we can put into the atmosphere before we crash civilization entirely; the laws of thermodynamics form a closed system in which energy is neither created nor destroyed. At the same time, having colonized the globe and maximized the profitability of the industrial production and exchange of commodities, Fordism had, by the 90s, reached its limit. An ideology of creative destruction has no need to respect physiochemical or economic limits: the whole point is to generate value by crashing something and flipping it.  “The delirium of contemporary capitalism,” Cooper argues, “is intimately and essentially concerned with the limits of life on earth and the regeneration of living futures—beyond the limits” (20). In its psychological sense, the term “delerium” refers to the attempt to exist in a counterfactual reality, “to refashion the world” (20). Neoliberalism is “delerious” in the sense that it bets on speculative futures in which the limits of present reality have been transgressed, this present reality has been destroyed, and markets have bounced back even stronger than before. For example, Cooper’s study points to “the promises of biotechnology as a way of internalizing, and thus overcoming, all limits to growth—from the waste products of industrialism to the very finitude of the earth” (18). What kills most of us will make markets stronger. For example, the ideology of resilience makes things like the basic laws of biology, chemistry, and physics obsolete, because destruction is the catalyst for creation, then it’s not just possible but preferable to “disregard the effects of waste production entirely” (25). In a framework where anything can and ought to be overcome (at a significant profit), what we used to call “negative externalities” back when I taught business ethics aren’t so negative anymore. The resilience of neoliberal markets overcomes even the physiochemical laws of matter, like the laws of thermodynamics, to produce more surplus value than Fordism’s caloric model of work could allow.

Qualitatively, Cooper describes the resilient production of presently impossible excesses of value as “evanescent” (30). Scholars like Michelle Murphy have used similar imagery. In her work on the figure of “The Girl,” Murphy shows how the resilience of girls of color in the Global South is represented in NGO and nonprofit communications as “a pink and purple globe blooming with flowers that rise into the planetary stratosphere.” In Resilience & Melancholy, I argued that the explosive, snowballing production of value thought to be generated by resilient overcoming is sonically represented in 2010s pop music as what I call “the soar”: a Zeno’s-paradox like intensification of rhythmic events that mimics the transgression of the limits of humans perception. If the train beat sonifies Fordist models of value-production, the soar is one way neoliberalism models resilient markets.

Laying a narrative of feminine resilience over a Funky Drummer groove, Olivia Rodrigo’s “get him back!” uses the gendered performance of resilience to bring Fordist representations of work, labor, and value into neoliberal economies of resilience and creative destruction.

Beginning with an acousmatically-voiced countoff and introjection asking “Wait, is this the song with the drums?”, “get him back!” directs audiences to the fact that the drum track is an important element in the song. 

This song is on an album that so explicitly references 90s modern rock that The Breeders were the opening act on its tour, so between the Funky Drummer groove and the lyrical content about a shitty boyfriend, “get him back!” points directly to one song: the Afghan Whigs’s 1993 single “Gentleman.” Recorded, like Stubblefield’s Funky Drummer beat itself, in Cincinnati, it has a then-typical baggy beat in the drums. More notably, this lead single off an album about the breakup of a toxic relationship narrates the perspective of a guy singer Greg Dulli describes as “a real kind of heel…I pressed on to see how much further I could go into the dark psyche of the ‘90s male.” While Rodrigo’s music generally depicts teen relationships and Dulli’s lyrics voice more of an adult perspective, I was 15 when “Gentlemen” came out, so for me at least my teenage archetype for “shitty boyfriend” was Dulli’s character on this record. For that reason, with the drums and lyrical content echoing “Gentleman,” I hear Dulli’s heel boyfriend as exactly the guy Rodrigo wants to “get back.” And when the lyrics to Rodrigo’s song describe her ex as possessing an “ego,” a “temper,” a “wandering eye,” and “weird friends,” Dulli’s character does seem to fit the bill.

As many critics have noted, “get him back!” turns on the phrase’s equivocal meanings. Prior to the bridge, Rodrigo expresses a wish to get back together with her shitty ex, perhaps even by “fixing” his troubled demeanor. However, mid-bridge, she sings that she “want[s] to kiss his face…with an uppercut,” thus shifting the meaning of the titular phrase from reunion to retribution. And the drum track has everything to do with this shift in meaning. At the beginning of the second verse, which is the only time where she expresses potentially tender feelings toward her ex, the drums drop out. They come back in the verse’s second phrase, after she decides not to send the love letters she’s written to him. There’s another chorus, extended by two bars. Then the drums drop out again at the beginning of the bridge, where the first phrase alternates between the two meanings of “get back” and handclaps and other percussion replace the drumset. Once we hear “uppercut,” the drums start to come back into the mix (i.e., the drumset is present, but not in full Funky Drummer), as the song builds to a climax through a second repetition of the bridge’s lyrics condensed into four rather than eight bars. There’s a bit of a drop as the drums drop out as the sung-in-unison chorus hits. But once “I want sweet revenge” hits, Funky Drummer comes back for the song’s final climax. “get him back!” uses the Funky Drummer beat to indicate the fact that Rodrigo’s narrator has overcome her toxic attachments to her sketchy ex boyfriend and is making him pay for his mistreatment of her.

As my use of the word “overcome” here indicates, many critics have taken this song, and her album GUTS in general, as an expression of feminist resilience. The New York Times’s August 2023 combination-album-review-artist-profile identifies three different ways the album exemplifies such gendered resilience. First, Rodrigo has overcome the rigid and unforgiving standards publics typically have expected from young women pop stars like Britney Spears: “Young women in pop face a dizzying array of pressures: to look a certain way, to compete against each other, to be role models, to project acceptable emotions. So it’s notable that Rodrigo has largely opted out. On “Guts”…she is simply a rock star.” To be “simply a rock star” and not a “woman in rock,” Rodrigo appears to have overcome gender itself. Relatedly, the piece also praises for its “fierce…uncorking of emotions” that “aren’t societally [sic] acceptable to externalize…especially as a girl.” In this respect, Rogrigo is presented as having spectacularly overcome stereotypes about “angry women of color” (Rodrigo is Philipina-American). And finally, the piece credits Rodrigo with resiliently reinvigorating rock as a genre:  

“Guts” leans into rock, which largely receded from the center of music a decade ago. As streaming pushed hip-hop, pop and global sounds to new heights, the most innovative and exciting rock has been bubbling beneath the surface, driven largely by young women….She’s Trojan-horsing in rock’s musical brashness and emotional spikiness under the cover of pop stardom.

According to the Times, both the feminized spectacle of pop stardom is “cover” for the album’s ability to return rock as a genre to the peak of both cultural capital and market success. Debuting at number 1 on the Billboard album chart with all of its songs hitting the top 40 of the Hot 100 the same week, GUTS is rock’s resilient overcoming of its second-tier status. With its “evenescent” flurry of chart success, “Guts” exhibits the kind of fractal, snowballing market success that neoliberal discourses expect. In other words, GUTS used the performance of feminine resilience to flip rock from distressed asset into spectacular market success.

As a significant component in this resilient remaking of rock, “get him back!” folds the sound of Fordist markets into neoliberal ones. Though the structure of feeling expressed in Funky Drummer is Fordist and rooted in the laws of thermodynamics, “get him back!” overwrites or remixes it with the structure of feeling of feminine resilience. In a financialized economy, it’s never enough to just follow the old Fordist model and make things people want to buy/read/hear/etc.; investors don’t just demand regular profitability, they demand the massive explosion of profitability that only creative destruction can produce. In this respect, to the extent that the aesthetics of Fordism–such as rock music–are themselves in crisis, they can be remade into resiliently profitable assets. Hitching the Funky Drummer groove to Rodrigo’s performance of feminist overcoming, “get him back!” shows how resilience discourse has made that happen.