3 Jan 2014

Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject: Introduction

Around half a year ago, I began to draft a blog post outlining some ideas that had been floating around my head for ages. I kept writing and writing, one essay split into two and those two split into four, and the argument kept escalating until I had something book-length planned out. I was excited enough about my ideas not to want to give them too short a shrift. As it happens, by this point, the shrift is very long indeed, but I’m happy enough with the results to stop writing and start editing, and the results will appear on this blog over the next few months. This first post is the introduction, then, to what I’ve been calling my blogbook. Copyright fees are far too expensive for song lyrics and music examples, which are central to most of my arguments, for any hope of paper publication in the near future, and I’m keen on the idea of open culture publishing anyway. I hope to put together a downloadable PDF version of this book, and ideally some podcasts with real-time analyses; while the essays do make incursions into some pretty dense and wide-ranging academic domains from time to time, I would like to keep it as accessible as possible. I hope it also might provide some nice jumping-off points some very exciting texts that I’ve been enjoying over the last year or two (since I started my MA).

I intend to publish a new chapter every week, and I will link them all to a new index page, which will also feature a bibliography that grows as each new chapter is added. By the time all eighteen chapters have been published, it should constitute a pretty comprehensive Night Mail reading list for anyone interested in my key musicological, theoretical and critical influences. Many of the essays and reviews that I have already published on this site since 2010 have contributed to this study in some way or another, and I revisit a few of these old ideas within the new, more codified context of my larger project. It is certainly possible to read individual chapters separately – some are more 'academic' in style than others – but in order to fully comprehend my critical position, it's probably best to work through the chapters in order, or at least familiarise yourself with the three theses I outline at the end of this introduction.

Among the various appropriations from philosophy and political theory, new musicology and cultural studies, I hope music fans will find something of interest regarding a whole range of artists, most of them contemporary, some a little older, with which to engage, identify and/or disagree. If nothing more, writing this blogbook has been an important exercise for me, in that it has given me the chance to reflect upon and interrogate the way in which I personally listen to pop music, and through which I find music meaningful, valuable and inspirational. This, again, is something that I feel has never been adequately encapsulated in any of the texts that I’ve so far encountered, both in libraries and on the blogosphere (and I have been searching quite intensively). I have greatly enjoyed re-engaging with some of my favourite music in this way, and hope that there are other people who might derive a similar enjoyment from the various listening practices that I make use of, as a way of revisiting old favourites as well as approaching new artists and genres.

To introduce these listening practices, and my project in general, I want to start by laying out three key, overlapping questions, to which my inquiries can effectively be reduced.

Three Questions

1. Why and how are pop songs experienced as meaningful and valuable?

What does it mean to say that a song – as an assemblage of sonic, linguistic and visual signs – means this or that? And what is it that makes a particular song ‘good’? It should be clear that I’m talking generally (though not exclusively) about songs as units, not about the more extensively theorised large-scale musical objects of genres and styles, oeuvres and albums, or indeed smaller musical objects such as a particular riff or beat, a specific live performance or meaningful synth timbre.

One way to pose this question is to ask how and why a particular musical setting of a lyric ‘works’, and why a particularly remarkable pairing of lyric and setting might ‘work well’ and ‘mean’ distinctively, achieving consensus amongst a broad and fairly heterogeneous audience. While such meanings may be corroborated, deepened and nuanced through interaction with non-sonic aspects of the music (e.g. visual aesthetics), and in relation to a wider body of work (e.g. an album, oeuvre or genre), pop songs can also be uniquely meaningful independent of these medium-level musical structures and discourses (although never fully independent from the large-scale ‘listening culture’ which designates ‘contemporary Western popular music’ or even ‘music in general’ as it constructs itself for a particular individual or group). Central to this question, then, is the notion of how a song is experienced as meaningful and valuable; it is, first and foremost, a phenomenological question, which considers the apprehension and comprehension of the pop song as heard by a human in real time. My object of study is therefore the pop song as a thing that exists in the experience of the listener (the listener in question being, as I will explain later, myself). This means that the musician’s ‘intentions’ are pretty much of no interest to me (there are more than enough discussions of musicians’ ‘intentions’, in both recent academia and journalism, most of which I find pretty uninteresting).

2. How do a song’s lyrics and its music function together?

In some senses the same question with a different focus, this question further specifies the object of my enquiry – the pop song as musical object – as implicating both the human voice and language (or, at the very least, meaningful, expressive vocalisation). In fact, another way of putting this question might be simply: What is a song?

As I discuss further below, my particular interest is focused more around how power relations are invoked and enacted on the level of individual songs/tracks, both on record and in a live context. My contention is that such ‘intratextual’ relations are fundamental in the operation of a pop song as an interaction between lyrical and musical content. While these relations extend to visual and theatrical aspects of the music, it is the relation between lyrics and music that is the least theorised. Such an inquiry might ask: What ‘is’ the music in a song? Specifically, a) what ‘is’ the musical information in the vocals, b) what ‘is’ the musical information that ‘accompanies’ the vocals, and c) how do the two interact?

A pop song's significance at the intersection of musical and linguistic discourses is routinely acknowledged in pop reviews and criticism, which tend to assess music and lyrics individually (and often make interpretive assertions about the relation between the qualities of both elements, if not their effective relation within the sonic substance of the music). However, this intersection is – for various reasons – under-theorised in both traditional and pop musicology. Traditional musicologists find lyrics problematic because they get in the way of inducing empirical ‘facts’ about '(the) music itself'. Since not all music has lyrics, and music without lyrics still has the power to be expressive and meaningful, it seems more in keeping with 'their' object of study, and its particular qualities, that they find the essence of 'the music itself' first before bringing words into the equation. For pop musicologists, the discussion of music as meaningful at all (particularly as a cognitive medium) is often seen as problematic, when so much pop seems to function through an 'affective', bodily communication. Rather than understand pop songs in the same manner as art songs, it is more in keeping with 'their' object of study to focus on those elements which art music seems to lack, or has routinely castigated or repressed, including a study of music as practice, as constitutive of identities and communities, rituals and subcultures, which has fairly little to do with the idea that individual tracks themselves can mean independently.

3. Can pop music be ‘political’ at a musical level?

It is pretty uncontroversial that some music is ‘political’ – Billy Bragg, Crass and Immortal Technique might be some immediate examples – but, in reviews and journalistic writing especially, a discussion of ‘political music’ as distinct from ‘music with politically engaged lyrics’ is hardly forthcoming. By ‘musical level’, I don’t mean in terms of ‘pure sound’, discounting the lyrics and the album covers and the performance contexts. Music is always a multi-sensory, multi-media assemblage. By ‘musical level’, I mean the level at which sonic elements interact with these other elements. A lot of the discussions of pop music in cultural studies give minimal attention to these sonic elements, beyond their classification of their basic features (timbre, tempo, dynamic, etc.) as an arbitrary signifier to be connected to a more specific set of visual signs: this is the sound of punk, this is the sound of reggae, etc.

The supposition that politics and ‘the music itself’ can (and should) be disconnected is a cliché of those reviewers who moan about the folly of preachy, didactic or pretentious artists who contaminate their otherwise admirable music with ‘irrelevant’ or ‘awkward’ political statements. But these reviews tend to maintain some claims of meaning, and even principles or ethics, for this ‘pure’ music (usually liberal and humanist, often with something to say about the power of love and the nature of the good life, freedom and a rejection of materialism, puritanism or the establishment, the value of empathy, honesty and the search for a kind of personal ‘truth’, etc etc.). Music itself (as distinct from speech) is intrinsically more radical and subversive than all this; it is both more precisely and persuasively meaningful and, at the same time, almost completely meaningless. As such, it remains a powerful tool (or weapon) that is up for grabs to pretty much anyone for any purpose. Artists have used it in many different ways, and to some extent this whole series of essays is a catalogue of the various political ‘strategies’ that have previously been proposed. Each essay describes a different way in which the political is invoked in interaction between sonic elements and lyrics or other non-sonic musical elements.

The extent to which a musical object can have a ‘political strategy’ – having to do with social structures, social activity, and the transformation of these – is, I understand, potentially contentious. It can be argued that all art is political, just as easily as it can be argued that no art is political, and these depend to some extent on definitions of ‘the political’ anyway. But for me, I think the key is in the specification of the pop song – the object of analysis – as existing in the experience and interpretation of the listener. All this brings me to a fourth question, a kind of meta-question, which encompasses all the others...

Bonus Question

4. What might be the role of the critic in contemporary pop music?

What the role of the critic certainly shouldn’t be is a kind of buyers’ guide, digesting albums into keywords or reducing them to a basic stylistic genealogy, before attempting to gauge whether they’ve ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’ at their stated aim, at being ‘current’ or ‘fresh’, processing them within the requisite formula that passes as ‘disinterestedness’. Then there are the historians of scenes, movements and trends, which is a critical activity, albeit one hidden beneath a pretended neutrality which can prove as disempowering as their frequent subservience to the artists’ own accounts and opinions. And there are those bloggers who feel no hesitation at offering their most immediate and intuitive reactions in the most self-consciously subjective way, but who occasionally seem to perpetuate an ideology within which all musical reception and taste is founded on unaccountable, impenetrable personal quirks, on nostalgia and circumstance, on the purely arbitrary investment of meaning, as if there were no concrete qualities to music at all (beyond what we can agree on about the lyrics and, again, the artists’ own statements). This latter category (probably an unfair exaggeration, founded on a few extreme of examples of well-meaning writers trying to escape the tyranny of chauvinistic assignations of absolute value) would surely provoke the question as to why write about music at all (to which the answer may just be the inescapable narcissism of the blogger – ‘All music is about me’).

My own critical project is as shamelessly subjective as the most self-obsessed blogger or chauvinistic fanzine writers of yore, but at the same time I try and keep my agenda on show at all times (to the extent that such a thing is possible). The fact is that there can be no purely effective political art without the right discourse to ‘activate’ its political potential. Almost any aesthetic object can be deployed politically to some extent, and there are of course limits to which any of this can effect the kind of action or change that it might wish to. In this way, just as certain critics take it upon themselves to defuse attempts at politically-committed art for the sake of their ideology of an ‘autonomous’ self-evident music, so other critics can attempt to restore the political commitment to this art through what Robert Witkin called (with reference to Adorno’s deeply politicised music criticism) ‘composed hearings’.
Adorno’s formal analyses of musical works are preoccupied with meaning in the context of a hearing of the works. Adorno’s analyses develop a sophisticated appreciation of what he hears as ‘significant’ in the music… They are…centred more on a ‘composed hearing’. (Witkin 1998, 13)
Apart from my indebtedness to Adorno, maybe with these politically committed ‘composed hearings’ I’m proposing here a critical attitude to pop music that is more akin to contemporary literary criticism, which seems to give a bit more agency to the critic as one reader among many, as valid a ‘host’ of the ‘parasitic’ (or ‘viral’) text as the next human. If I steal from musicology, from music journalism and cultural theory to compose my ‘hearings’, it is because I have feel no responsibility to any of these.1 If I use my ‘hearings’ to force critical, emancipatory and utopian meanings into pop songs where there might never have been before, it is because I feel a total responsibility to these tasks, just as I feel all music (and indeed all human production) does too.

Listening Cultures

A few final disclaimers, to further guard against any potential belligerence. As stated, when I discuss pop music, I'm talking about music as experienced (i.e. phenomenologically) and interpreted (i.e. hermeneutically) within a practice of listening that is learned or socially constructed, what might be called a ‘listening culture’. I'm not particularly concerned with making essentialist statements about what music objectively is; there are plenty of other people pursuing that rather dubious task.

My analytical framework in this essay is fitted to the dominant cultural discourse of Western popular music - in its recorded and live forms - and how it produces meaning within culturally-shared conventions, imaginaries, ideologies etc. This is not to say that this is ‘how pop music works’ per se, just that it is (I believe) how a particular, ‘literate’ pop music audience understands ‘their’ music to be capable of producing meaning, value, beauty, and various other effects/affects. While the actual meanings produced will differ from listener to listener, I believe that there is a significant audience for whom this music organises and distributes meaning in the same way. This is part of contemporary Western pop music’s particular listening culture and, while musics from other times and places might be produced without anything like these frames in mind, it is a function of this particular listening culture that we receive these other musics in the same way, interpret them primarily through our default listening practice, and try to make them mean with this model (which is historically-determined, and certainly conditioned by the dominant mode of production, its ideological apparatuses and hegemonic discourses etc.).

I can make no claim for this listening culture beyond the fact that it is ‘my’ listening culture, but on the belief that there are a significant number of people with whom my tastes, opinions and interpretations seem to ‘agree’, I’m writing all this with the belief that it is shared, to some degree, with a sizeable group of the population. As the primary axiom of this listening culture, then, I will treat contemporary Western pop music as a music whose ‘song texts’ are closest to their ‘essential’ forms as recorded ‘performances’ on official ‘studio’ releases.2 I’m not saying this is a right or ‘true’ way of imagining musical texts, but I think it’s important to acknowledge this way of thinking if we want to analyse how the relationship between live and recorded performance is understood, how songs become meaningful, and how musicians can create songs that are more likely to deliver certain (critical, emancipatory or utopian) agendas effectively.

Music, Power and Control

These essays are about power in pop music, along with its corollaries: control, domination, repression, autonomy, resistance, freedom. Dynamics of power and control are played out in pop music on very many levels. The ‘performance of power’ is a fairly common subject of study in cultural studies and pop music studies, often with reference to race, gender and sexuality, with a focus on lyrical content, visual aesthetics, ‘extra-musical’ discourse (e.g. interviews with musicians, liner notes) and the performing body (e.g. gesture, stage presence, dance moves), but these theorists do also take sonic elements into consideration, especially on the macro-levels of genre and of an artist’s or band’s oeuvre. Similarly, power relations between performers, within institutions such as labels, radio stations and publications, between performers and their audiences, and (especially) amongst the audiences themselves (for instance, in notions of 'high art vs. low art' and in Pierre Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital), has become a rapidly expanding field of research for sociologists since the mid-twentieth century.

My particular interest is focused more around how power relations are invoked and enacted on the level of individual songs/tracks, both on record and in a live context. My proposal is that an understanding of the pop track as a sonic ‘staging’ of a shifting dynamic of power and control, structure and agency. There are three pivotal theses that I want to put forward, adhering to the particular hermeneutic framework of this listening culture, with each thesis identifying a terrain on which power struggles are dramatised meaningfully. While these could all be contested, they stem from what I believe is a fairly hegemonic understanding of Western pop within the shared discourse of its most powerful actors, including the musicians themselves.

The Three Theses

1. On recorded pop tracks, the vocalist constitutes a distinct ‘vocal-subject’ in relation to a non-vocal, musical ‘situation’

There is a fundamental, qualitative difference between the way we hear a human voice on a track to the way we hear all other sounds. We identify with the voice immediately as a human, bodily presence within the track: sound produced by a vibrating body without the mediation of a material tool. The voice’s recourse to linguistic communication, as well as other, non-linguistic expressive vocal gestures like moans, grunts and sighs, also unavoidably raises its significance within the mix, to the point where it is usually possible to frame any track with vocals as an opposition between those vocals and all other sounds.

These other sounds can be constituted and conceptualised in many different ways. Initially heard as ‘situation’ or ‘context’ – accompaniment, production, track, groove, beat – the relationship between these other sounds and the vocal-subject can be defined as a power relationship (i.e. a particular distribution of the power-to-act-upon-the-other). The voice might summon, compel or control the accompaniment, resist it or co-opt it, be coerced or transformed by it, undermine, redirect, détourn or reframe it, just as the accompaniment might do the same to the voice. The voice - through linguistic reference and metaphor - is also empowered to name and frame this other musical substance (or collection of substances): this ‘named’ substance might be a force or an object, a sentiment, mood, fantasy, memory, multitude, phantom, some mimetic ambience (dancefloor, birdsong, urban angst), a physical or social environment, ‘world’, psychic projection (not to mention any number of psychoanalytical categories: shadow, 'Real', objet petit a, etc.). The terms of this power relationship are defined in this way, and through other learned aesthetic expressive gestures, genre conventions, stylistic topics and their associations in the minds of the listener.

2. All recorded tracks are imaginary, idealised ‘live’ performances

When listening to a track, musical structure is experienced as the spontaneous unfolding of musical events within time (events might include: the beginning of a new section, the entry of a new sound object, the return of a riff, etc). They are experienced as spontaneous because they appear to spring from silence and inaction, without prior indication (not 'caused' by anything 'outside' of the track – the wave of a conductor’s baton, visible scrutiny of a score, count-in of ‘2-3-4’ – but experienced instead as a reaction to other sound objects or sound sources audible 'within' the track). This progression of events is experienced from moment to moment. These events are also heard as unfolding within an assumed unity of time, i.e. not as they were actually performed (which is usually through an additive succession of takes, followed by the application of production effects/mastering, not to mention the ‘dead labour’ involved in callibrating synthesiser sounds). There are very few instances in which this isn’t the case, and these usually involve the use of samples which don’t attempt to hide their own ‘mediated’ quality (e.g. fragmented, filtered, featuring radio/vinyl noise, detuned, ‘chopped and screwed’ etc).

The recorded track is also an imaginary space (i.e. not necessarily an assumed ‘recording studio’) within which sound sources and sound objects can appear as 'actors', ‘characters’ even. Within the imaginary (and extremely abstract) space-time of each individual song, the recorded track becomes an imaginary ‘sound stage’, and the hypothetical ‘performance’ is a sonic ‘staging’ in which the vocal-subject is the protagonist. Recorded performances are then experienced 'as live', which is to say occurring spontaneously within a unified space-time (even if that space-time is fantastical, and the spontaneous sounds cannot be immediately understood as emanating from the recognisable actions of human musicians). In this same imaginary 'drama', all sound objects and sound sources are potential agents, capable of initiating events as the track unfolds, in a way which produces structure retrospectively. As well as appearing as potential agents, sound objects can also be imagined as the 'actions' themselves, or as 'states' (i.e. ‘of being’, ‘of doing’), or a combination of all these. The unfolding structure of the song can then be interpreted as a shifting dynamic of power and control, structure and agency, between the vocal-subject and accompanying forces, in which events are initiated by one or another 'actor', even while the meaning of these events is mediated, fixed and contested through linguistic reference or learned musical convention.

3. Live performance is an attempt to ‘realise’ the ‘imaginary’ performance on the recorded track. Since live performance practice can be seen as a strategy to translate a ‘theoretical’ performance into a manifestly ‘practical’ performance, it can be understood in terms of praxis 

The ideal balance of the mix, subtle nuances of execution, hyper-real perfection of tone and other meticulous production details render the recorded ‘performance’ necessarily irreproducible (which is to say, impossible/unattainable) in real life. The function of live performance - by which live shows differ from pressing play on a stereo system - is for the artist to ‘show’ how these songs can be recreated within a ‘real’ (or apparently 'real') unity of space and time. In this way, the praxis of live performance can be understood as a translation of the hypothetical sound-stage/diegesis of the track onto a physical stage, and into a real unity of space and time (i.e. ‘liveness’). It is a validation of the recording (i.e. the 'primary' pop text), demonstrating a song’s essential potentiality as a performance by humans for humans. The praxis of live performance takes many different forms: some compromise the essence of the ideal recorded track and its ‘perfect’ reproduction in favour of practicable liveness (or ‘authenticity’), some compromise the autonomy involved in a completely 'live', spontaneously-produced performance for a more ‘perfect’ rendition of the ideal track.

The balance struck between autonomous live production and the faithful reproduction of the recorded track can be understood as meaningful in relation to the political categories of production and worker autonomy, and the notion of utopia. Live performance isn't just the 'practical' corrective to the 'theoretical' recorded performance; it also has a pedagogical aspect to it, in that it involves deconstructing and reconstructing a musical performance step-by-step, to be apprehended by an audience.

It is my belief that a listening practice that takes the hermeneutical position put forward in these three theses allows pop music to appear meaningful in a particular way to a particular audience - an audience that would most likely believe pop to be meaningful, effective or valuable in a particular and unique fashion. It is also my belief that this audience, and their associated listening practice, constitute the most widespread – hegemonic, even – listening culture committed to Western pop music as a meaningful and valuable cultural phenomenon. 

The chapters that constitute this blogbook are effectively structured around these three theses, moving through them in turn, fleshing them out and using them as starting points in analyses of a broad range of pop music, with a particular emphasis on 'political' music.
  • The five chapters that constitute Part 1 successively tease out the first thesis, in relation to Adorno, taking in the early delta blues, the Fall, Rage Against The Machine, Antony & the Johnsons, Deerhoof, and ending with an extensive discussion of Burial’s music informed by Gilles Deleuze
  • Part 2 moves onto the second thesis, via ‘narrative’ theories of music, with an initial investigation that involves Donna Summer and Janet Jackson, followed by close analyses of songs by Ellie Goulding, the Arcade Fire and Emmy the Great. 
  • Part 3 unpacks some other dimensions of the second thesis, in relation to the concept of repression both political and psychological, along with discussions of the Magnetic Fields, Nirvana and the Smiths. 
  • The central analyses in Part 4 attempt to demonstrate the use of my theoretical model in comparing the musical deployment of power in three break-up songs by Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. 
  • Part 5 tackles the third thesis, first with reference to rock music and then with discussions of different electronic musics, in particular electronic dance music. 
  • The final part discusses rap music, with some reference to gender, and ends with an essay on Justin Timberlake and S&M.

1 AN ACADEMIC FOOTNOTE: I do draw on an admittedly ridiculously broad range of disciplines and thinkers in the course of the various essays and analyses, which is largely because I have yet to find one theorist or theoretical model that adequately provides a framework for the kind of criticism that I wanted to attempt. However, my primary inspiration is the ‘sociology of music’ of Theodor Adorno, which I discuss at length in the chapters which comprise Part 1 of the study. Another key musicological influence in this first part is Steve Goodman’s book Sonic Warfare. In Part 2, my main musicological resource is the so-called ‘theory of musical narrative’ that Byron Almén outlines in his book of the same name, drawing on Eero Tarasti and Vera Micznik among others. Elsewhere, I make use of ideas from Adam Krims, Robert Fink and Dai Griffiths. I also acknowledge some of the musicology that most closely resembles my project superficially, including that of Philip Tagg, Susan McClary, Richard Middleton and Carolyn Abbate. In the long run, though, what I’ve read of these well-known musicologists has always been quite frustrating, either too academically ‘rigorous’ to risk making any bold assertions, self-consciously defensive against that same empiricist academy, or floating in what feels like a cloud of impotent relativism, of the kind that is the polar opposite to many of my favourite non-academic writers and bloggers on music.
Most of my arguments have recourse to thinkers from other fields; I offer no apologies for ranging as widely as I do since, as far as I’m concerned, this is what theory is for. However, by this I don’t mean that theory is useful to demonstrate how such-and-such a pop song can be heard with reference to such-and-such a paradigm or concept, as if to valorise or defend the song in some way (pop songs don’t need defending), or indeed to valorise or defend a theory by demonstrating its relevance to pop culture. Philosophies and theories of life and living, culture and society, are useful in thinking about any cultural product that is implicated in, or indeed designed to be ‘about’, some aspect of life and living, culture and society. As far as I’m concerned, the subject of these essays is not pop music, but the subject of pop music.

2 I acknowledge that a lot of work has been done in musicology to debunk the dichotomy between recorded and live music. The painstaking deconstruction of the old Western classical ideology of the musical work as a score/text, which exists as an idealist ‘essence’ beyond the imperfection of individual live performances, has been too hard-won to risk instituting another ideology concerning the relation between live and recorded pop music (specifically that the studio-recorded, officially-released version of the track is the 'definitive text' of a pop song, which is then imperfectly reproduced in performance - live audience want to hear, as closely as possible, the song ‘as it sounded on the album’, etc.). However, I maintain that within the ideology of this listening culture, these recorded ‘performances’ are the ‘Urtexts’ of pop music, in the way that Western classical ideology imagines the ‘ideal’ form of classical pieces to reside in the score, or possibly ‘in the composer’s head’.

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