This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject
In the Introduction, I outlined three theses concerning the way in which pop music is experienced as meaningful by its audience. The first part of this series focuses on the first of these theses:
On recorded pop tracks, the vocals constitute a distinct 'vocal-subject' in relation to a non-vocal, musical 'situation'.
For each thesis, I will try to demonstrate a) how they are implicated in notions of power and control, b) how they can be used in analysis and criticism of pop music, and c) how this can inform hearings of political music, as well as political hearings of music. Part One is by far the most theoretical, philosophical section of the series, in that I try to explain what I actually mean by these terms, and how they might compare to existing theories of musical phenomenology: not only in the academic realms of musicology, philosophy and cultural studies, but also in everyday fan discourse and journalistic pop criticism.
The development of my argument through Part One can be understood through the following questions:
What are the vocal-subject and objective musical forces? (Chapter 1.1)
How is the vocal-subject dominated and controlled by the objective musical forces? (Chapter 1.2)
How might this power relationship be used to articulate our contemporary political situation? (Chapter 1.5)
This post, in particular, borrows from various philosophies of music, in order to provide a context for what is my own idiosyncratic analytical method, which I will go on to demonstrate extensively in Parts Two and Three. The method came first, in that I believe it is fairly representative of the way that I listen to music anyway. For this reason, my use of philosophies of music differs from many of the theorists cited, in that I am not trying to prove anything essential about music-as-such. Instead, I am trying to pin down a certain 'structural homology' which I believe is fundamental to my own appreciation of pop music as meaningful and valuable. It is by no means imperative that you read this post before my other analyses, I believe they should be fairly relatable given enough good faith, but I provide this kind of reflection for the sceptical and the incredulous, as well as to link my ideas to broader trends in academia.
Who is singing the song? Vocalist, vocals, voice, vocal-subject? These terms are not synonymous. The vocal-subject is not the vocalist.
Why talk of a 'subject' of the pop song? Is there just a single 'I' to a recorded song? What kind of subjectivity could support such an 'I'? And how do we, as listening subjects, encounter this other, singing subject?
And why put such emphasis on the vocals - just one ingredient of the pop song? Given the rise of electronic dance music at the cutting-edge of musical innovation, with its connoisseurship of subtly differentiated timbres, textures and beats, why return to the tired predominance of the sung word? The tired old ego of the lead singer? Is the logocentric lure of the lyric that great?
The vocal-subject is not the lyrics.
The vocal-subject is not even the vocals.
What is the vocal-subject?
I will try to explain in ten large-font statements. (The rest is just detail)...
STATEMENT 1: The human voice is fundamentally different to all other sounds
The vast, vast majority of pop music (including a good proportion of dance tracks) features some sort of solo vocal. Is this just historical circumstance, a chance feature of the form as it has evolved? Perhaps, as a trend, it has been perpetuated by pop music's commodity status, by the interventions of cynical market researchers. But if this is the case - that people prefer music with vocals - why does this preference exist? Or, rather, how does this preference exist? How do listeners hear vocal music differently from instrumental music? Is it just a kind of fear of the unfamiliar, or a lazy reliance on lyrics as a crutch, preventing them from having to engage with the music, or even (and we're getting into real Frankfurt School-style cynicism here) preventing them from confronting the vacuousness of the music? Such crude theories don't really explain anything.
The argument of the thesis is that, as humans, we hear vocals in a qualitatively different manner to the way in which we hear all other sounds. We identify with the voice as an unmediated, human presence. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, we can hear the bodily provenance of the voice and associate it with our own visceral experience of producing vocal sounds. Secondly, we can usually identify from the voice certain aspects of the vocalist as a person - such as gender, age, race and ethnicity - and even obtain an impression of their personality, which transfigures the voice into an image of a person to whom we can relate. And, thirdly, the human voice always implicates some additional field of signification, whether it is a recognisable language, the faintly-comprehensible lilt of a foreign language, or the expressive content (pleasure, pain) of non-linguistic sounds. This overriding response of immediate identification, combined with the clear distinction between this human presence and all the other sounds in a mix, even if we 'know' how they're produced or who 'really' produced them (i.e. human musicians), is so fundamental that we can oppose the vocals to other sounds in a relationship of subject (or ego/individual) and object (or Other/society).
There can be other 'subjects' in music, of course: lead guitar or melodic synth, violin or piano solos. But even where they emerge from the mix, the bodily presence of the vocalist, and her/his recourse to linguistic meaning and extra-linguistic vocal expression, will always privilege her/him as the principal subject - that is to say, the 'protagonist'. This is not enough to constitute the vocal as the 'subject' of the song, of course. What transforms the sound of the voice into the 'vocal-subject', and the point at which the pop song becomes meaningful, is the fact that the vocal is perceived to relate very closely to all the other sounds - to be ordered together with them into an integrated, often 'harmonious' whole.
But what does it actually mean for a recorded track to have a 'subject', vocal or otherwise?
STATEMENT 2: The best way to understand the idea of the Vocal-Subject is as a structural homology
Music critics, whether professional or amateur, self-proclaimed or casual, use many different types of language in building up their discourse around music. We talk of music as something composed, performed, recorded, consumed, heard or distributed, biographically, autobiographically, intertextually, analytically, in relation to a musical style or genre, to a geographical location, to particular uses or ‘extra-musical’ practices, drawing on lyrical ‘content analysis’, on equivalencies between music and accompanying visual and performative aesthetics, on musical recordings and performances as meaningful objectives within a subculture or youth movement, or in relation to a historical moment or event, as determined by or determining technology, as performing gender, race, class or sexuality, all the way through to relying on descriptive clichés, resemblances to other artists or music, to experiences, atmospheres, scenarios or states of being, etc etc etc etc.....................
These multifarious discursive frames and fields, vocabularies and imaginaries are usually employed freely and intuitively, combined and elided, in the general playfulness accepted as inherent to writing about music, that proverbially impossible feat.
This series of essays will continually return to one particular mode of talking about music, which is used frequently, casually and to good effect in music criticism, employed with a greater reflexivity in cultural studies, but almost never used in the more empirical discipline of musicology. This is the ‘structural homology’, meaning basically that in music, as in most things, certain structures within the medium can ‘stand-in’ for similar structures in other domains of life (e.g. social, political, biological).1 This allows them to refer to these things directly, without relying on language as a translating index. Although, in practice, language is also used a fair amount in pop songs to refine and lubricate certain structural homologies, it certainly doesn’t have a determining factor on all of them. For example, the coming together of two melodies previously opposed, in a new harmonious unity, can mean ‘reconciliation’, even though what we’re really experiencing is just a configuration of sound waves of different frequencies. Depending on the presence of other musical or ‘extra-musical’ signs, alongside the individual knowledge and predisposition of the listener, the same musical event could also come to mean ‘romance’, ‘truce’, ‘sex’, ‘solidarity’, 'equality', ‘dialogue’, 'alliance', ‘conspiring together’ or ‘ganging up’, along with varying degrees of specificity.
Structural homologies are related to other types of musical ‘metaphor’ - or ‘iconicity’ in semiotic terms - such as sonic anaphones (musical sounds that refer to other sounds, e.g. guitars that sound like motorbikes), topics (a combination of stylistic features which refer to a genre and its associations, e.g. a pop song which uses beats and synths in its chorus to refer to a particular dance style and its attendant club culture) and genre synecdoches (the imposition of one or a few sonic signifiers that ‘stand in for’ a genre and its associations, e.g. an acoustic guitar used to refer to folk and hence ‘authenticity’, ‘the rural’, etc). However, for my purposes at least, structural homologies are more implicated in the relations between different elements within a musical track, especially over time (i.e. they operate diachronically rather than synchronically). Accordingly, I will concentrate a great deal (particularly in Part Two) on song structure – the procession of differentiated sections as articulated through changes in the vocal and non-vocal forces.
Song structure often seems to be taken for granted by pop critics, who are usually more interested in taking cross-sectional (synchronic) samples of the musical substances contained by these structures (e.g. the timbres, production effects and beat patterns, and how these might refer to other genres, artists, emotional states or other cultural associations). Where structure is observed, it is often understood in terms of changes in emotional state, or affective patterns of desire and satisfaction, tension and release, in particular in the analysis of dance music (which does, after all, require such patterns to fulfil its purported use), but also in the rhetoric of the ‘emotional climax’, etc. I would never deny that these affective structures, which operate on the level of deep psychosexual drives, have a major impact on the way that we receive and understand music. At the same time, these kinds of structures – the affective impact of music on the body – have been extensively theorised over the last few years, certainly at the expense of an understanding of other ways in which song structure can be employed to make music meaningful. Somewhere between music’s visceral effect on the body, and the purely linguistic signification of lyrics, there exist complicated structures of musical meaning which have gone relatively untheorised.
The framework for the various analyses and essays presupposes the operation of a particular structural homology (or family of related homologies), within the shared listening culture that I describe in the Introduction. So what is the nature of the structural homology on which this listening culture relies? What social ‘structure’ is being referred to in the pop song? It is the ‘social construction’ of subjectivity itself: the modern, Western (individual) subject and the world as experienced by this subject.
STATEMENT 3: The structural homology in question is between song form and bourgeois subjectivity
This is how it works:
- The vocals constitutes the singular subject of the song’s ‘world’ (whether this world is imagined as a ‘diegesis’ in which it has a 'narrative' presence (like in theatre or literature), or as a purely sonic ‘space-time continuum’ that is comprised by the track, in which it has the equivalent of a 'physical' presence).
- At the same time, all the non-vocal sounds on the track can be grouped together as what I will call the objective musical forces, meaning everything that isn’t the subject (i.e. ‘society’, the ‘Other’, but also ‘the world’ or ‘reality’).
- However, at the same time, the ‘world’ of the pop track in which the vocalist is the subject is a subjective world (the vocal-subject is at the centre of this world, as we are at the centre of ‘our worlds’, even though we ‘know’ that we’re not really at the centre of ‘the’ world - i.e. the supposedly ‘objective’ world of scientific research and news reports, which ‘our world’ really is). As a subjective world, everything in the world is related to that subject; as soon as the vocalist ‘appears’ in the track, s/he ‘subjectivises’ the whole track, and the rest of the track is instantly re-centred around her/him. In this way, the vocals-as-subject is always placed in/around/against/in juxtaposition to these objective forces, and the objective forces are understood as such by the listener, through their empathy with the vocal-subject’s own subject position.
- Finally, it is possible to understand the vocal-subject of the pop song more specifically as an ego-centred, rational individual subject constituted in language (i.e. in the lyrics). This has two further implications for this ‘homological’ model:
- The non-vocal, ‘objective musical forces’ on a track can also act as homologous to ‘irrational’ or unconscious forces that proceed from, or are contained within, the ‘psyche’ of the vocal-subject. These might be emotional states or flows that exceed or elude rational explanation or linguistic determination, drives from ‘below’ (the id, in Freudian terms), or injunctions/prohibitions from ‘above’ (the super-ego), which affect and are affected by the vocal-subject without necessarily being acknowledged by the supposedly free, rational and self-possessed ‘ego’ of the sung lyrics.
- The pop song (as ‘bourgeois form’ – which I will explain below) both acknowledges the primacy of language in constituting subjectivity (the very concept of the song presumes a voice singing to words), while simultaneously acknowledging the impotence of language as a system of signification (the very presence of music creates meanings that cannot be articulated linguistically). This is a kind of ‘composing out’ of the same principle in everyday speech – i.e. there’s more significance to a vocal utterance than a mere phoneme – and it begins with the singing voice, melodically and timbrally charged, and becoming meaningful in relation to its musical context.
I am preceded in this reasoning by musicologists such as Peter Manuel (2002), who writes of ‘an indirect causal relationship between the emergence of capitalist modernity and a coherent bourgeois aesthetic (reaching its classical phase in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), one manifestation of which is the predominance of closed, internally structured musical forms, especially sonata form and “song” form’ (47). Invoking this same concept of ‘homologies between social structures and formal structures’, Manuel discusses the song form as one of the musical features of ‘a semiotic revolution’, part of a ‘broader bourgeois aesthetic generated by modernity and capitalism’ (50). The new aesthetic privileged closed, teleological forms: ‘In painting, [it is] reflected in the new emphasis on creating a unified, complete, balanced, closed formal structure on the painted surface. … In literature, the obvious counterpart is the novel, with its tightly knit, rationally structured form’ (51).
A particular notion of the individual was fundamental to the revolution in subjectivity which accompanied the onset of the capitalist mode of production and its attendant socio-economic relations. Manuel writes:
The rise of individualism creates a new dimension of dualism between the self and society that did not exist before capitalism. As with the new emphasis on rationality, the emergence of what [Janós] Maróthy terms the ‘bourgeois ego’ is not a purely superstructural phenomenon, but is clearly linked to the rise of an economic system based on the output and production of the individual (or nuclear family), rather than the village, clan, or guild (52).New aesthetic forms dealt with the particular rather than the universal, focusing on a single individual and charting their development and transformation as they encounter and negotiate other social actors and forces. There was also a shift towards ‘realistic’, ‘subjective’ perception: ‘[In painting] new techniques of chiaroscuro and especially perspective heighten not only realism in general, but also the sense that one is viewing a scene from the vantage point of a specific individual’ (ibid.).
The work of Janós Maróthy, in particular his book Music and the Bourgeois; Music and the Proletarian, was central in proposing how this ‘semantic revolution’ impacted music. As Maróthy writes: ‘In music, the main formal expression of “ego-centeredness” is the solo song, emerging as the central category of bourgeois music as a whole, and entailing all the other consequences in tonal system, rhythm, polyphony and other formal elements of music.’ (quoted in Manuel 2002: 53). Song forms are ‘sectionally structured’, ‘closed’ and ‘teleological’, in contrast to musical forms based on variation and repetition, ostinato forms or strophic forms that can be altered and added to without disrupting the formal logic of the whole (i.e. the musical forms characteristic of many pre-capitalist and non-capitalist societies).
Manuel also quotes Anthony Giddens in his description of the ‘transformation of intimacy’ which occurred in bourgeois song, towards specific, personal sentiments of romantic love, and what he calls ‘a general process in which human agency is heightened and individuals and relationships are increasingly “disembedded” from prior social inhibitions, conventions, and moorings.’ (53).
In this way, the bourgeois song and its solo vocalist come to stand in for the bourgeois, ‘ego-centred’ individual - complete, closed and consistent within its own subjectivity - embarking upon its own individuated life narrative. To this structural homology, however, another level can be added which comes primarily from the music-based work of Theodor W. Adorno. Adorno’s whole corpus of writings on music relies fundamentally on a particular structural homology, reflecting the aforementioned ‘dualism between the self and society’ that characterises the capitalist subjectivity. Robert Witkin summarises Adorno’s approach:
Elements and relations and events within the musical work, the drama of its development and so forth, can be seen as having their counterparts at the level of social systems. Most obviously, the units, elements or ‘motives’ in the music can be identified with the individuals who make up a society, while the totality comprising the composition can be seen to correspond to society. Just as individuals can be spontaneous, subjective beings expressing themselves – and therefore objectifying their ‘inner experiences’ – in their actions and relations with others, so society can be seen as an external and objective force which organises the actions of individuals from the outside. (1998: 14)This outlook, which both situates the motivic ‘subject’ within the social context of the whole and opposes it to other non-identical motives within that context, has a lot in common with the notion of the vocal-subject. There are also plenty of disparities, the most immediate of which have to do with the fact that, whilst the vocal-subject is always predetermined in the form of the vocals, Adorno’s musical 'subject’ is a more flexible and nuanced construction (in part because he mostly discussed non-vocal music), attaching itself to the more conventional ‘musical subject’ in music analysis (i.e. the main ‘theme’ or melody) as well as the ‘motive’ – small units of melodic, rhythmic or harmonic identity – and, in fact, to any single ‘part’ of the composition as opposed to the ‘whole’ of the entire structure.2
When Adorno analyses a piece of music he identifies the particle, the ‘sensuous particular’, the element, with the ‘individual’ or ‘subject’, and the total form of the composition with ‘society’ as a ‘collective’ and ‘objective’ constraining force. Part-whole relations within a composition thus play a central role in Adorno’s musical analyses, and music itself is seen as capable, in its internal relations – its structural relations – of truthfully reflecting the human condition of the individual in society. (30)Casting around hopefully for antecedents to this theory of the ‘vocal-subject’, living and loving in its own subjective ‘song world’, there might be no better bet than some combination of Maróthy’s conception of the song form as homologous to the individualised bourgeois subjectivity, and Adorno’s conception of the part-whole relationship within a musical composition as homologous to the fragmented modern subject within capitalist society. Both these authors were unequivocal critics of capitalist modernity and bourgeois ideology, though this was manifested in different ways in their sociologies of music. However, if I take a certain ideology of a modern bourgeois subject as a starting point for a whole listening culture, it is not to criticise this listening culture or even this ideology, but to point to ways in which more specific criticisms can be made within pop songs by taking this ideology and this structural homology for granted, as a kind of sine qua non for meaning in general.
How does it work then, this structural homology, assuming that it does 'work'? I shall now break it down, beginning with the vocal-subject itself, before turning to the objective forces which constitute the ‘song world’.
STATEMENT 4: The Vocal-Subject is not quite a ‘voice’, not quite a ‘sound’ and not quite a 'person'
When we hear a voice on a recorded pop track, we are actually hearing a lot of different voices at once.3 They can be easily separated out, but they are often elided or undifferentiated when we actually write about music:
- The first voice belongs to the singer as a physical person – their ‘real, bodily self’ – who we recognise from photographs and interviews, who we see in live performance and who we ‘know’ to be singing the song in a real studio or bedroom somewhere, maybe with headphones and a lyric sheet, maybe taking one line at a time and mixing/splicing takes. We very rarely actually hear a vocal in this way. One example might be on a live recording of a momentous gig – a Fleetwood Mac reunion, or Amy Winehouse’s last performance, or something – when our hearing of the vocal performance becomes saturated with biography. Historically important bedroom demo recordings might also qualify, on which the singer also appears in the person of songwriter.
- The second voice constitutes the singer’s ‘vocal self’, which is the manifestation of the singer that we as listeners are far more familiar and intimate with. A far more significant voice, the ‘vocal self’ is the form in which the singer ‘appears’ on a recorded track – their voice (as ‘partial object’) becomes the totality of their being as we encounter them on the track. As such, we can ‘know’ the 'vocal self' of a singer, appearing ‘as themselves’ on any number of different tracks, albums, projects, remixes, etc., without any knowledge of them as ‘real, bodily’ subjects: the way they look, their personalities, personal histories, etc. When we can identify the artist on a track as x artist, even if we don't know the name of the singer or what they look like, we are recognising the 'vocal self'.
- The third voice is the ‘vocal persona’ of the track. ‘Vocal persona’ is a term that the musicologist Philip Tagg (2013: 343) uses to address the underexplored parameter of timbre in the signification of pop vocals. For him, it is the aural quality that makes a death metal vocal mean something different to a K-Pop vocal, for instance. My use of the term is slightly be different; it would be more in line with the ‘protagonist’ or ‘narrative voice’ of a lyric. Who is singing the lyric? To whom? Where, when and why are they singing it? Even when not taking on a fully-formed ‘character’, songs will always involve a unique persona. If the vocalist is singing a love song on one track, and a break-up song on another, they are adopting different personae even if they are just playing ‘themselves’ at different times and in different contexts. Of course, the ‘selves’ that they are playing are personae entirely constructed within the song and lyrics anyway. There is no more ‘truth’ in a supposedly direct, personal address by a singer-songwriter, to a supposedly ‘real’ lover, than there is in a highly ‘theatrical’ character song constructed for a cosmic diva. Both are personae and should be interpreted on the same level. Moreover, the 'vocal persona' is not identical to the 'narrative voice' of the lyric as a written text. A sad lyric, sung forcefully and shrilly, would constitute a different 'vocal persona' to the same lyric sung with a quiet, deadpan detachment.
At the other extreme would be ‘voice-as-sound’: if not the undifferentiated spectrographic representation of the vocally-produced sound waves as 'just another sound among sounds', then at least an understanding of the voice as ‘just another instrument’, or vocal tracks/sound events as undifferentiated from the instrumental tracks, or sound events for which the provenance is ‘unimportant’ (a kind of sonic 'death of the author'). As previously stated, I think it is very rare for the sound of a human voice to be divested of all its ‘personhood’, while still remaining recognisable as the sound of a human voice. Those instances where such an achievement is approached are, of course, very interesting for that reason. From scatting and beat-boxing to Jonathan Harvey and Karlheinz Stockhausen, from vocoding and pitch-shifting to the synthesised singers who populate Oneohtrix Point Never's virtual auditoria, experimentation in the gap between vocal and non-vocal sounds is always an experimentation in the uncanny valley between the human and the non-human (or post-human). The fact that these experiments can achieve such effects makes them the exceptions that prove the rule.4
The vocal-subject exists somewhere between these two extremes of voice as 'voice of a person' and voice as 'pure sound'. It takes for granted that there is an ‘I’ to most songs, and that this ‘I’, while embodied in the vocal track, has a formative relationship to the other sounds in the track. This has to do with their being temporally and spatially synchronous, and (with very few exceptions) their sharing a key, pulse and metre, as well as melodic, structural and harmonic elements.
The actual ‘embodiment’ of the ‘I’ within the vocal track is a more complicated issue. We can easily understand the vocals to be the voice of a ‘person’, even the singing voice of a singing ‘person’. But, like in opera, just because the ‘real’ vocalist is singing on a pop track doesn’t mean the character (or persona) is singing. In this way, the persona is to a great extent constituted through song – through musical ‘costume’ or ‘character’, as Tagg might say – and in this way, the singing voice is the ‘person’. That is to say – with reference to the ‘voices’ listed above – both the persona and, arguably, the vocal self have no substance and therefore no identity beyond pure sound (and the listener’s imagination). It’s also possible to posit a distinction by which the musical, sonic substance of the voice’s presence on the track might constitute the ‘person’, while the expressions and actions of this ‘person’ is consigned to the linguistic significance activated by the signifiers whose shape this sonic substance forms.
At this point, we could wade in with Roland Barthes’s concept (after Julia Kristeva) of the ‘pheno-song’ vs. the ‘geno-song’. The pheno-song is ‘all the features which belong to the structure of the language being sung… everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression’, while the geno-song is ‘the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate “from within language and in its very materiality”’ (Barthes 1977: 182). We could ascribe the person to the geno-song – the materiality of the voice, which bears its ‘grain’ – while the pheno-song is the expression of that person, the ‘song’s song’ if you will.
This will bear heavily on later discussions of the vocal-subject as autonomous agent, capable of acting within (and upon) the ‘song world’, as opposed to just singing words within it. At that point, we could ask whether the embodied voice also corresponds to the agent, or whether it is the voice of the agent, or whether the agent acts through its voice (cf. J. L. Austin’s ‘performative utterances’ - Austin 1975), or – indeed – whether the vocal sounds are the actions. All of the above are possible, just as none of the above is in any way empirically provable. The practice of hearing which imagines the vocals as subject/agent is one in which that same subject changes its modality very freely, to articulate all different types of relationships and structures with the other elements on the track and with the collusion of lyrics, to mean a vast range of different, quite specific things, via the operations of structural homologies. In this way, a whole array of superficially quite similar pop songs can all mean something substantially different and relatively precise to the same one listener.
STATEMENT 5: The Vocal-Subject becomes itself when placed within its specific musical 'situation'
STATEMENT 6: This can be understood as a 'staging', like in theatre
One of the simplest ways in which this phenomenology of the pop song might be explained is as a ‘staging’, like in theatre. The vocals would constitute the protagonist, while all other sonic elements would constitute the set, scenery, lighting, sound effects/music, and sometimes also other characters with whom the protagonist shares the stage and interacts.
The idea of the ‘staging’ of a pop song, and of the pop song as drama, shouldn’t be confused with the concept of the ‘sound stage’ – a far more restricted, technical concept. The sound stage, in recording, refers to the auditory placement of sound sources (i.e. instruments, players and singers) within an (imaginary) performance space. The use of a sound stage gives the impression of a three-dimensional space within which the players (or sound sources) are arranged. Individual tracks made in discrete takes can then be positioned as if together in a real, live performance context (within a unity of space and time, etc.). Sound staging, in this sense, is primarily concerned with the production, rather than the reception, of a pop song and, although it obviously does have some bearing on the experience of the song as a ‘staging’, its effect on the latter is really no greater than other musical factors, such as texture, tempo, timbre, dynamics, song structure and even melody.5
The shape and nature of the ‘sound stage’, as constructed by a recording producer and engineer, is usually limited to an understanding of the pop song as an imaginary performance by musicians, together, in a room or somewhere. This practice of reconfiguring an ‘ideal’ performance context on record merely concerns a re-situation of the listener relative to the sound sources (or ‘musicians’) as such, with no specific bearing on the content of the sounds themselves, beyond a certain ‘realist’ discourse of ‘close'/'far'/'flat'/'deep’ etc. However, it isn’t players, singers or sound sources, that are the dramatis personae of music-as-drama, but sounds themselves.
The possibility of understanding music as ‘drama’, so natural as to figure as cliché in music journalism and some criticism, has already been debated in classical musicology.6 Fred E. Maus, in his article entitled ‘Music as Drama’ (1997), highlights the use of anthropomorphising terminology in an analysis of a Beethoven string quartet – musical events described as ‘an aggressive, abrupt outburst’, ‘clumsy’ or ‘calm’, etc. – to argue the importance of the idea of action in musical interpretation. Maus goes on to ask: ‘To whom are these ascriptions of action … made?’, arguing that neither ‘the composer’ nor ‘the performers’ can be adequately identified as the ‘individual agents’ in all such cases (67). He concludes that there is ‘a pervasive indeterminacy in the identification of musical agents’ and that ‘a single listener’s experience will include a play of various schemes of individuation, none of them felt as obligatory’ (68). In comparing the quartet to a ‘normal stage play’, Maus concludes that both share four key properties: ‘[They both present] a series of actions, performed by imaginary agents and perhaps fictionalized versions of the composer and performers, … that these actions are heard as taking place in the present, … [and] the series of actions forms a plot that holds the actions together in a unified structure’ (71).
Maus’s essay, especially where it touches on the notion of plot, influenced the development of recent theories of musical narrative, which focus on the particular ways in which music might fulfil the demands of traditional narrative forms. But the notion of ‘narrative’ in music – especially amongst classical musicologists, who tend to have a pathological fear of the over-determining effects of lyrics, titles, programmatic elements, anything ‘extra-musical’ – remains fairly controversial.
STATEMENT 7: But the form in which the listener encounters the Vocal-Subject is more like a 'third-person narrative'
One of the books which tackles music and narrativity most conscientiously, and even outlines a theory of 'voice' that has some similarities with the 'vocal-subject', is Carolyn Abbate's Unsung Voices (1991). In the book, Abbate asks whether music is ‘diegetic’ or ‘mimetic’, terms equivalent to the methods of representation in, on the one hand, literature (i.e. narrated/told) and, on the other hand, drama (i.e. imitated/shown). She comes down on the side of the latter because, following Paul Ricoeur's theories on narrativity, music isn’t able to employ the past tense, and therefore cannot be detached from the moment of narration.
Like any form of theater, any temporal art, [music] traps the listener in present experience and the beat of passing time, from which he or she cannot escape. No art is purely mimetic (that is, no art is merely the phenomenal world); rather, the mimetic genres move us by performing, they mime or even dance out the world in present time. They cannot disarm the action, or comfort us, by insisting upon the pastness of what they represent. (53)What problematises this conclusion is that reading a book is also a temporal experience, we are imparted the narrative through time and we experience it thus, in a linear fashion, unlike (perhaps) the apprehension of a painting. One cannot read the book without reading the book, so to speak, and reading the book will always engage the present of the reader, the only difference being that it can be 'paused' without too much disruption. So while the events of the book may be detached by time, the retelling is performed for us through time in the same way, with the same lack of comfort. In both cases, it is this performance of narration that should concern us. Here the distinction is not so great.
In plays, for instance, there is still a calculated, constructed ‘vantage point’, a position, from which the audience can or can’t see action, hear words, thoughts and events. The audience isn’t suddenly omniscient just because there’s no mediating narrator present. While the audience is perceiving the mimetic ‘reality’ happen directly, they are also (usually) passive and powerless to change their angle of sight or depth of hearing, or to watch the reality continue after the play has ended or between scenes separated by the passage of time. There is, of course, some unseen ‘narrator’ present-in-absence (the playwright, in the guise of the director maybe) who is selecting which aspects of this hypothetical reality to show or not show, in order (presumably) to create an engaging and meaningful narrative. It is this unspoken narration that is playing out in present time, not the events themselves, which may belong to the past or only exist outside of time.
This is also the case for novels; whether written in the first or third person (or even in some alternative, postmodern ‘person'), the question of the unreliable, moralising narrator is a fundamental one. The vocalist in a pop song can ‘narrate’ through the lyrics, of course; we can hear the lyrics as a first-person narrative. We can also hear them as a kind of dramatic monologue; the character appears on the ‘stage’ of the track and recounts their story, while other occurrences (the objective musical forces) happen around them. But this is too simple, the equivalent of a radio play: a ‘naturalistic’ speaking voice, sound effects, maybe diegetic music. It is the musical factor – the sung music and the surrounding musical textures - which provides the third dimension, already acting as a mediator for the events and environs within which the vocal-subject appears to tell/sing its lyrics. The musical saturation of the track takes the ‘staging’ of the vocal-subject’s drama beyond mimesis.
Instead, I think it’s worth listening to the pop song in relation to the third-person narrative of a short story or novel. The third-person narrator (who is only sometimes a (fictionalised) ‘author’) is a strange construct. Supposedly omniscient, not only can they recount events occurring in several places at once, but they can usually penetrate into several different characters’ heads and articulate their most intimate thoughts, feelings and impressions, as well as critically reflecting on their semi-conscious fears, assumptions and intuitions. However, this narrator is usually also clearly not omniscient. They withhold their knowledge from the reader so as to preserve suspense, and usually have access only to a restricted number of characters’ physical and psychic worlds (sometimes only the world of one central protagonist). In this way, the narrator is usually placed somewhere near to these central characters, often demonstrating a greater understanding of them than they do of themselves, and yet not an infinite understanding. Nor is the narrator usually implicated with them in any way, sharing in their stakes, responsible for their decisions or ultimately their welfare. However, the narrator does have a huge amount of power over the extent to which the characters’ worldview is reproduced within the worldview of the narrative, the extent to which the characters’ are empowered to represent themselves in their own stories. The narrator mediates between the outer world and the characters’ inner worlds. But, most importantly, the narrator exists – unlike the actual author of the book – within the reality of the novel. When the third-person narrator describes events, they are described as real events for the narrator.
In fact, I think the third-person narrative voice can be conceptualised on three levels that correspond to the levels I previously introduced as the most common representations of the vocals: the ‘real self’, the ‘vocal self’, and the ‘persona’. The ‘real self’ in the third-person narrative is the author, writing a book recounted by a third-person narrator. At the level of the ‘vocal self’ is also the aforementioned third-person narrator, who exists within the narrative world if only to be considered authoritative. They are semi-omniscient, and mediate between the ‘outer’ world of the narrative’s diegesis and the inner world of characters. (This might also be construed as the author’s ‘narrative voice’, recognisable from book to book by a shared style, personality or attitude, even for readers who don’t know anything about the ‘real’ author themselves). Finally, the ‘persona’ is the protagonist character themselves, whose subjective experience, despite its limitations compared to the knowledge of the narrator and reader, still dominates the flow of the book and its perspective, in order to retain the principle of suspense and allow us to empathise with the character as a fellow individual subject.
We’ve learnt to hear the pop song (just as we read the novel) on the second of these three levels: the level of the narrator, distinct from the protagonist but existing in the same reality, 'performing' their narrative at a certain remove. This means that there is potential for the musical equivalent of ‘dramatic irony’ in a pop song. We perceive more than the vocal-subject (character/persona) perceives, and so we know more than them about their own narrative. We might imagine that the ‘persona’ is talking/thinking honestly, freely and with self-possession, in the lyrics, but as listeners we hear more than the ‘persona’ hears. The music in both vocal melody and accompaniment overspill the lyrical content. And yet, at the same time, the world that we are able to perceive, from a more detached and privileged position than the subject, is still the subject’s world. The song is still about them; it is ‘their’ song (just like the third-person novel with a central protagonist is still ‘their’ story). It is a representation of their interior-exterior experience of the world.
Perhaps the greatest distinction between the third-person narrative and the pop song, then, is that every pop vocal is purported to be its own first-person monologue. The 'persona' believes themselves to be expressing their thoughts freely and directly, whether thinking, speaking or singing, representing themselves in a way that most literary characters don't assume to be. We hear their song through the narrative frame of the track, through the 'vocal self' as conduit, and we are compelled to respect this song in spite of the privileged perspective granted to us by the narrative detachment of the track as a frame. The vocal-subject (as opposed to 'persona') can only be fully perceived from this privileged position, in relation to their inner and outer subjective life. In this way, the narrative position that grants us access to this subjective life is a complicated device ethically, in that it begins the work of empathy for us. The supposedly infinite Otherness of the persona at the core of the song is partially unfolded before us, and the question is whether or not the persona is in full control of how this unfolding into music occurs, and how accurately it represents them to us. The vocal-subject, as opposed to singing-Other, becomes itself through this narrativised position. Although these essays will generally seek to support the agency of the vocal-subject as a kind of pedagogical construction, treating this narrativised position as transparent, the position of the listener within this listening practice (just like that of the reader of the novel and spectator of theatre or cinema) remains an ethically complicated one.
STATEMENT 8: The Vocal-Subject is constituted by the other elements in the track
Perhaps the most important quality of the vocal-subject is that it is not only distinguished from and contained within, but also constituted by, the other elements in the track. The paradigmatic example of this is the way in which the harmony and beat contextualise the pitch and rhythm of the melodic lines, giving them their identity relative to their environment and to other potential subjects. This is in keeping with Adorno and Marxism generally: ‘The individual is … not defined as that which stands apart from others or from society, but as that which is constituted only relationally: that is, only in and through relations with others’ (Witkin 1998: 47).7
In this way, the vocal-subject in the pop song is never just ‘itself’ – i.e. the vocal track. If you were to mute all the other tracks in the mix, the vocal-subject would not be identical. [Although in that case, the objective sound forces would just be replaced by the ‘presence of silence’ which is ‘heard’ on a track that we know is playing (i.e. we are ‘listening to’) but is not producing sound, plus probably some ambient noise/echo/reverb which would equally constitute an objective environment.] The vocal-subject is constituted in its relation to the other sounds on the track, which also help to demarcate the spatial-temporal limits of the track (along with their sonic equivalents – e.g. the limits of dynamic range, frequency range) and hence the ‘world’ in which the vocal-subject exists. In a strange way, however, this is also a 'world' constructed by the vocal-subject for the purposes of expression. As an ephemeral pocket of space-time, with its own musical laws and physics, the coming-into-being of a ‘song world’ is first and foremost justified by the fact that it contains, prominently, a single (closed, teleological) expressive thought or message which is defined and delivered by the vocal-subject, and usually comes to entitle that ‘song world’.8 So the ‘song world’ is also the subject’s world, even while it creates that same subject, and exceeds (in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways) the limited expressive potential deployed in the lyrics themselves.9
What is this ‘world’ of the song then, and how does it relate to what we might traditionally consider the ‘text’ of the song, i.e. the lyrics and their associated melody, as sung by the voice?
This ‘world’ has many different names – the track, the production, the accompaniment, the beat, the groove, the backing – which are not, of course, interchangeable. These different conceptualisations of the non-vocal sounds of a pop song point to the various different ways in which the substance of the 'song world' can be understood, which in turn determine the ways in which the vocal-subject can interact with this 'world'. Some imply a hierarchy between the two, some presuppose the anteriority of one before the other, some connote a shared dimension of space while others connote a shared dimension of time.
For all their differences in meaning and modality, the non-vocal musical track heard in this way (i.e. in relation to a vocal-subject as described above) can always be described as an interior-exterior world, perceived (by the listener) through the subjectivity of the vocal-subject. As mentioned before, it is perceived as an object world (or an-Other world – the world of the Other or the world-as-Other), but it is also a world of forces and flows, as much as of material objects and agents. The exterior dimension of this world can be understood as a sort of ‘space-time continuum’ specific to the song. This fits in with interpretations of the track as a place or time period, a field or flow, an ambience or sequence of events. The interior dimension can, in turn, be understood as a psychic world, of thoughts and obsessions, memories and fantasies, emotions and desires.
The world of the track is an interior-exterior world, because both dimensions co-exist, not just in turn or simultaneously, but within and through each other. This is, of course, the result of bestowing such a central role on the vocal-subject. The dialectical interior-exterior musical world in which the vocal-subject exists is that thing that we know as the human subjective experience, in which the outside world is only comprehensible through our inner world, and our inner world is only comprehensible in relation to the outside world (which includes language). Bearing this in mind, I will discuss both dimensions separately, in a little more detail.
STATEMENT 9: As an exterior world, the pop song has its own 'space-time'
Michel Chion (1994), a theorist of sound in film, has made the point that the ‘empty’ film soundtrack is not equivalent to the empty screen. The screen has a frame, constituting a pre-existing 'container', which can be seen to contain no images. The soundtrack, however, has no audible frame; a soundtrack containing no sound is indistinguishable from silence, it is impossible to detect where the sounds 'should be'. This is true for any idea of sonic ‘space’: there is no audible ‘empty space’ that precedes the first sound.10
In their Music and Cultural Theory (1997), Shepherd and Wicke discuss the implications of this phenomenon for music in general:
The character of the relatedness of auditory events in music can no more be thought of as a consequence of the ‘placing’ of notes in musical time and musical space (that is, notes placed in the pre-existing, empty hopper of musical time and musical space which then lends definition to their relatedness) than can individual auditory events in material reality be thought of as being ‘placed’ and ‘related’ in auditory time and space. Auditory events may be deployed in mechanical, which is to say, visual time and space. Auditory time and space (which is really a unified auditory time-space field) does not constitute a pre-existing, empty hopper in the same way that visual time and space is frequently conceived of doing. Auditory events are auditory time and space. Auditory time and space (time-space) can only be articulated and is thus articulated (as a unified field) inalienably through the articulation of auditory events in relation to one another. (135)This is absolutely fundamental to the idea of the ‘song world’. For those artists and producers working on software sequencers, using a horizontal axis to represent time and with lots of empty channels to be filled with sound objects, musical space can be conflated with its visual representation. This was just as true with the empty staves on traditional musical score. These theorists counter such misleading visual metaphors by pointing out that, if we think of the recorded track as a world which is given physical, material (and even affective) qualities by the sound objects that fill it, we are ignoring the fact that the sound objects also are this world. The sounds themselves delimit the proportions, dimensions and ‘physics’ within which the vocal-subject exists. Viktor Zuckerkandl writes about a musical piece’s ability to ‘gather up’ its own world, aggregating and congealing into a quasi-material substance, a ‘molar’ form somehow imparting a homogenous quality onto a sequence of ephemeral sound events in time. Shepherd and Wicke discuss this in relation to what he calls the ‘simultaneity’ of musical past and future within its present moment:
Musical experience thus contains the listener, ‘positions’ the listener, as it were. Musical experience does not occur because listeners step outside the present and through the action of their consciousness bring previous and future tones into simultaneous existence with present tones. Previous and future tones are brought into simultaneous ‘virtual’ existence through the ‘action’ of the present tone itself. Past tones cannot as a consequence be thought of as ‘going out of existence’. (132)For Zuckerkandl, a sense of pulse is crucial to this effect, but the way in which this primordial pulse is manifested differs between pop music and classical music.
...music in time
We can usually think about the beat/drums/drum machine/rhythm section, as functioning in a slightly different way to the other musical elements, by effectively aggregating musical time as a ‘terrain’ or ‘stream’ upon/within which other forces can exist. This is, perhaps, similar to the more common analogies of the pulse, metre and tonality providing the orienting logic, or what I'll call the 'physics', that make sense of other musical objects, like melodic lines and licks. The beat as a pre-existing ‘terrain’ enables such meaningful musical phenomena as the downbeat and syncopation. However, a drumbeat or a bassline is not actually analogous with a tonal centre or metre per se. They effectively summon such orienting ideals into existence, while themselves still constituting musical objects which exceed pure tonality or pulse.
There can also be a sense that the pulse is something which precedes the track, and continues on after it has ‘ended’: that ‘the beat goes on’ so to speak. Understood in this way, actual drumbeats simply ‘reveal’ the pre-existing pulse, in a manner akin to the muddy footprints of an invisible man. This is, of course, particularly pertinent to dance music, and pop derived from dance music, in which tracks are designed to be beat-matched and mixed into a night of unbroken pulse, upon which the successive musical worlds ride.12 The customary fade-out at the end of many older pop songs also provokes these kinds of questions. Even in the case of club music though, we can only imagine a continuous and invisible flow of regular pulse onto which the tracks are fitted if we are alerted to its presence through that very fitting process. Again, as Chion and Zuckerkandl suggest, music’s sound configurations create their own ‘track’ or ‘channel’, and it is the succession of beats that arranges the sound events into something like a homogeneous musical world, stretching simultaneously into both future and past.
...music in space
The abstract principle of a musical space-time, which may or may not be a phenomenological constant for the very apprehension of what we’ve come to know as music, transforms into an ‘exterior world’ when specific physical or semiotic characteristics begin to be suggested by the actual sounds (and lyrics). This could be very literal indeed, involving the invocation of topical associations that connote a particular time and place. In some cases, the musical forces are actually denotative of a 'musico-physical' space-time. The most obvious examples of this are songs in which the objective musical forces are imagined as the song's own, closed ‘diegetic’ dance track (in the sense of music played within the diegesis of a narrative, i.e. by characters who are musicians), playing in some imaginary club in which the vocal-subject is singing/dancing. Listening to this type of track, particularly when it is played in an actual club, positions the listener themselves, alongside the vocal-subject, within the fantasy club which is both the present place and simultaneously an-Other place. (Examples might include Taio Cruz’s ‘Dynamite’ and Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ – I discuss this device more extensively in Chapter 2.1).
Most of the manifestations of musical space, however, aren’t anywhere near as literal as this. Musical textures, timbres and production effects can suggest physical spaces and locations, but also qualities of space (e.g. close, thick, liquid, airy) which affect how the various musical forces and objects interact with each other, unfold within themselves, and contain the vocal-subject. Space can also be evoked through ‘prepositional’ effects (with one element ‘on top of’, ‘next to’, ‘far away from’, ‘on the other side of’ or emerging ‘through’ another, etc.) which, to reiterate, aren't only the result of placing sounds on a 'sound stage', but can be produced through pitch, melodic shape, timbre and texture as well. Within musical structures, the differences between sections can suggest three-dimensional space through differentiation of ‘terrain’ – from flat to undulating, from static to dynamic, low pressure to high pressure, high gravity to weightlessness, etc. – which might only be discernible in relation to each other.
In this sense, one might characterise musical ‘space’ as what Philip Tagg (2013) terms ‘syncrisis’ (the qualities of musical form which can be heard in the 'dissection' of one particular musical moment – i.e. texture/timbre) in opposition to his ‘diataxis’ (the qualities of musical form which can be heard from moment to moment through time).13 Indeed, in the rich and idiosyncratic vocabulary that Tagg has developed for the purposes of describing popular music, he has provided some useful terms for discussing the phenomena in question: ‘spatial anaphones’ are sonic configurations that refer iconically to spatial phenomena (i.e. what we might hear as depth/height etc.), while his notion of ‘figure and ground’, as distinct elements within the syncrisis, goes some way towards capturing what I’ve called the ‘(vocal-)subject’ and the ‘objective forces’. In his ‘Modern Musicology for Non-Musos’ (2013), he posits as a fundamental question for the practice of listening to music: ‘Which sounds are more ambient, creating more of background or environment, and which ones are more like a figure (near or far) against that background, or in that environment?’ (300).
Tagg has created an extensive codification system for signifying devices in music; his analyses break songs into tiny semantic units, which he calls ‘musemes’, in order to (eventually) reconstruct a hearing through a painstaking process of semiotic quasi-empiricism. My analytical method is far less meticulous than Tagg’s, which is probably one of the reasons why I don’t discriminate between the signifying value of ‘spatial anaphones’ and what he calls ‘kinetic anaphones’, i.e. sonic configurations which suggest physical movement, changes in ‘spatial’ state over time. As previously stated, sometimes an impression of musical ‘space’ can only be articulated through difference over time, which is to say that the sonic qualities of a section’s ‘syncrisis’ are made meaningful (in terms of ‘spatial anaphones’) through a song’s ‘diataxis’. How high/heavy/empty is a particular ‘place’ relative to the distribution of musical ‘space’ across the song, and how does that affect the quality/meaning of that space/place?14
STATEMENT 10: As an interior world, the pop song can be understood in terms of the psyche
Another of the analytical questions that Tagg (2013) suggests to his readership of ‘non-musos’ is: ‘Which sounds are internal (“thoughts in sound”) rather than external (“statements out loud”)?’ (300). As an illustration of his concept of ‘aural staging’, he cites Serge Lacasse’s analyses of two Peter Gabriel recordings ‘in which a powerful dynamic between inner thoughts and emotional outbursts is created through the subtle treatments of vocal tracks in relation to the rest of the music.’ (299) This pushes us into the second, co-existent dimension of the subjective song world: that of the interior world of the subject – the psyche.
In a way, this brings us into far less controversial territory. While music writers frequently describe musical textures and events in terms of both exterior and interior worlds, the scientifically-ratified discourse of music and psychology, and the much-discussed affective power of music, lend a certain easy legitimacy to talking about musical forces in terms of emotional swells, flows and climaxes. By understanding the play of musical forces as invested within a particular subjective world – an enclosed human psyche, attributed to the vocal-subject or some associated hypothetical ‘person’ – I do not wish to exclude all these fundamental ideas about desire and the satisfaction of expectation, ‘natural’ or acculturated acoustical inclinations, memory and nostalgia, libidinal flows, intensities, repetition and sexual drives, etc etc. There is a complicated and confused entanglement between all these phenomena, and the more isomorphic ‘affective anaphones’ by which shapes, textures and movements in sound represent patterns of emotions, perhaps mediated by visual or linguistic metaphors (sadness being ‘low’, for example).15
Hearing musical objects and events as emotions, rather than just productive of emotions, has some strange implications. Melodic lines, harmonies and timbres can become representative of emotional states or directional flows of emotion (e.g. a welling-up of sadness, a wave of ecstasy, an eruption of anger), concretising emotion in sound while engendering that same emotion in the listener.16 The result is a kind of ‘reification’ of emotion, that some might suggest is the very material of music, yet this ‘reification’ swathes itself in what feels like the traces of that emotion as it was originally felt (by persona, vocal-subject or listener, as coded by cultural convention and stored in our collective 'emotional memory'). It exudes the fragrance of what we take to be the real emotion that we imagine, in empathy with the fantastical subject of the song, to be contained within it. And what makes it feel real, and the empathy feel valid and natural – what sustains the whole experience, in fact – is the basic affective quality of the sound itself. We’re always feeling something, and we reach out to the music to make sense of that feeling (to territorialise it, in Deleuzian terms). As Slavoj Žižek has said: ‘With music we cannot ever be sure. In so far as it externalises our inner passion, music is potentially always a threat’ (Žižek 2006).
To remain in Žižekian territory, objective musical forces aren’t only used to materialise emotional content, through this composite iconic-affective process. The same ‘syncrisis-diataxis’ construction that I called ‘space-time’ in the exterior dimension of the subjective world can call forth meanings relating to interior, psychic conceptions of space, place and time. Repetition and differentiation of musical sections can articulate memory, patterns and trains of thought, and attitudes (e.g. nostalgia, fear, anxiety, ambivalence) with respect to particular musical objects and arrangements. The ‘prepositional’ syntax relating the various musical forces also lends itself to the concept of levels of consciousness – preconscious, unconscious – along with the accompanying concepts of doubt, unease, obsession and repression, liberally deployed in pop music's ubiquitous depictions of love-as-psychosis/neurosis.
Because the ‘subjective world’ of the pop song is one which can exceed the consciousness of the vocal-subject at its centre (as listeners, we are able to hear the whole world from outside of it, at a relative distance despite its emotional draw), the objective musical forces often take on the role of the unsayable, the inexpressible, the ineffable or even the unknowable/insensible. As I’ve previously mentioned, this allows Freudian concepts like the id and super-ego to come into play as concrete musical materials, without necessarily identifying themselves within these categories. The listener’s privileged position, both hearing the whole of the vocal-subject’s psyche - sensing clearly the pull of the various drives and injunctions on the small, ‘freely expressive’ ego of the singing voice at its centre - while simultaneously empathising with that singing ego affectively, allows for a kind of intrapsychic ‘cognitive mapping’ (in Fredric Jameson’s terms, see Jameson 1991). The listener both experiences the result of the psycho-social world on the vocal-subject, empathising with a supposedly free and articulate voice, while simultaneously perceiving the complex workings of the ordering and guiding forces upon that subject, in the material form of sound and its patterns/structures. Using Freud and Jameson to supplement interpretations of ‘interior’ song worlds presupposes a certain type of subject-ego, easily controlled and coerced by the total forces of the unconscious on one hand, and global capital on the other.
The vocal-subject is thereby produced, determined and acted upon by the objective forces that make up its interior and exterior world, threatening the ideal of free, autonomous expression which is the supposed prerogative of the song. The next chapter looks more at these notions of power and control, bringing Adorno’s sociology of music squarely to the fore. However, we will see that, in music at least, there is as much argument for the existence of a subject with real freedom, agency and power, as there is for one wholly produced and determined by indifferent or coercive forces. Whether this can be heard as one of music’s particular tools of resistance, the pedagogical performance of a radical agency, probably depends on whether this mode of analysis can be considered to have any universality beyond the realm of playful analogy and thought experiment.
1 The notion of the 'homology' was introduced into cultural studies, from Lévi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology, primarily by Paul Willis and Dick Hebdige, who were both working at Birmingham's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the '70s. See Willis 1978 and Hebdige 1979.↩
2 The structural homology that he employs (and which comes to overdetermine all of his music criticism) is itself determined by the kind of repertoire that he was most interested in. Adorno was mainly concerned with late-Romantic and modernist orchestral and chamber music, occasionally also opera (particularly the works of Wagner, Berg and Schoenberg), while the same analytical framework forms the basis of his polemics against neo-classicism, popular music and jazz.↩
3 This approach to thinking about the singer's multiple voices was informed by David Graver's article on 'The actor's bodies' (1997). It also has a lot in common with the different vocal levels of opera, enumerated by Michel Poizat in his The Angel's Cry (1992), and summarised by Carolyn Abbate (1991): 'The first level is a rational, text-oriented one, in which the singing voice retreats before literary elements (words, poetry, character, plot). Recitative is, of course, the best representative of this mode. The second is the level of the voice-object; the third consists of moments at which either of the first two are breached by consciousness of the real performer, of witnessing a performance' (11, for the 'voice-object', also see Abbate 1991).↩
4 And even when we get used to' a device, like autotune or pitch-shifting, I don't believe that this means we've 'gotten used to' the sound as sound, so much as we've accepted new ways of being human. The opposite can also be true, cf. the fall of the castrato. There is so much written about these issues that I'm not going to say much more about it. Check out, for example: Abbate 1991 on the voice-object, Moten 2003 on the idea of the black voice as resistant object, Kretowicz 2012/2013 on recent trends in gendered vocal processing, and Harper 2012/2013a/2013b/2014 for various discussions around vocal processing in relation to the 'uncanny valley' effect.↩
5 Serge Lacasse (2010) has done some interesting work on the ‘staging’ of sound, which is relevant to these essays particularly where it touches on vocal production, but his essays are also very focused on the technical methods of production and its purported effects, and quite distant from my analytical framework, which begin with the listener and from phenomenology/hermeneutics.↩
6 A famous, frequently-cited example of this occurs in Chapter 5 of E. M. Forster's Howard's End, when Helen hears in the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony 'a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end' (2008 (1910). ↩
7 An alternative comparison might be the Structuralists, who looked to the idea of difference as productive of identity, an idea that proceeded from Saussure’s linguistics. In turn, Jacques Lacan discussed subjectivity and the Self in relation to ‘lack’ as productive of ‘desire’, whose relation to subjectivity and difference is discussed by Judith Butler, particularly in relation to gender. In each case, the subject is produced/determined by something outside of 'themselves' (in contrast to the Existentialists, for example.)↩
8 'Song world' does perhaps bear a relation to the commonly-used term 'soundworld', which usually designates a kind of distinctive, homogeneous quality to the track (or album or oeuvre) in question. 'Soundworld' is much vaguer and more descriptive, though; it might be used to describe something of the characteristic aspects of a particular 'song world'.↩
9 Of course, this has significant implications for the practice of remixing, when the exact same vocal track is transplanted into a new musical environment. I will go on to broach these issues in a later chapter.↩
10 The exception here is, of course, when a hiss/crackle can be heard, a kind of ‘present absence of sound’, which causes the ‘frame’ of the soundtrack to appear: heard to contain no sounds. The essence of sonic ‘hauntology’, I discuss this further in my Burial essay (Chapter 1.5).↩
11 To some extent, this already comes into play through the visual representation of passing time – the movement of digits on the ‘time elapsed’ counter, the position of the playback slider, or even the sight of a record spinning – which can certainly become a part of the listening experience. This might appear to contradict Chion’s idea, by indicating (through ‘extra-musical’ means) a ‘time in which the song is happening’, if not a space.↩
12 Or does a dance set constitute one world, unified by unbroken pulse, which changes its character, organization or regime over time? a musical history? I’ll talk more about the ‘world’ of the DJ set and club night in Chapter 6.2.↩
13 Of course, it goes without saying that pure 'syncrisis' in music cannot really be experienced. It would be like imagining a one-dimensional image. Music can only be realised through time.↩
14 I believe a further investigation of musical 'space' would do well to refer to Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) concept of the ‘production of space’ – with space understood as a social product, enabling or delimiting certain modes of living, and deeply implicated with power and control. The relevance of the concept might become clearer when I go on to describe the ‘social’ qualities of these objective musical forces and their interaction with the subject, in Part 2.↩
15 Rather than the sheer volume of theories surrounding music and emotion getting in the way of, or invalidating, this more extravagant interpretative framework, I believe that the affective characteristics of music can be deployed (to the extent that we share in a recognition of their effects and meanings) in order to help us empathise with the vocal-subject whose mind (and body?) we are entering. The immediate, affective power of music contributes to our immediate and intuitive identification of vocal-subject as subject. Moreover, I consider the perception of a pop song as representing the subjective world of a human vocal-subject, and an interior/exterior world at that, to enable us to understand and ‘feel’ many of these affective forces as particular/specific human emotions (rather than just pure intensity/desire/jouissance/emotion in general).↩
16 Whether a sad song does actually make us feel sad is disputable - see Davies 1997.↩