This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject
In the last two chapters, I set out the concept of the 'vocal-subject' in the pop song, as it exists within the 'song world' given form by the 'objective musical forces'. The relationship between these two elements of the song produces meaning through the distribution of power and control, agency and domination. In the chapters that constitute Part 1 of this essay series, I focus on just one particular direction of this power relation. This particular chapter will focus on the following two questions:
- How is the vocal-subject dominated and controlled by the objective musical forces?
- How does the vocal-subject resist this domination and control?
The two key musical dimensions by which instrumental forces in pop tracks manifest excessive power and control are: 1) through rhythmic-harmonic repetition, either on a small scale (beat-to-beat) or a larger scale (looped progressions/motifs), and 2) through ‘heavy’ and ‘powerful’ timbres (or textures). We might, after Michel Foucault (2004), label these as two ‘technologies’ of power by which the vocal-subject is subjugated, ordered and controlled. They vaguely correspond to his two categories of regulatory ‘discipline’ and spectacular ‘punishment’, and can be differentiated as below:
Examples: constant beats, grooves, looped progressions, pre-existent cyclic structures, grounds
Examples: thick, dense, heavy overwhelming timbres, distortion, overdrive, power chords
In the essay that follows, I will discuss the particular qualities of each ‘technology’ of power, making particular use of the work of Steve Goodman and his book Sonic Warfare (2010), but extrapolating his ideas onto the terrain of the song itself, and the sonic battles fought between vocal-subject and instrumental forces.
I will then explore the various ways in which the vocals can resist, co-opt, subvert or critique these technologies of power, and the social, political or psychological forces they might come to represent, against all odds. I will work through a number of tactics, in each case giving examples with an emphasis on self-consciously ‘political’ songs which, I believe, utilise these particular resistant strategies in support of their politicised lyrics.1
Beats, Grooves and Loops as Technologies of Control
Dance musics prescribe, direct and preclude bodily movement. They organise movement vocabularies through stylistic allusion and timbre, just as they organise speed, style and shape of physical action through rhythmic patterns, texture, tempo and 'bass materiality'. But there is a primary field of control which precedes and enables the manifestation of this kind of physical limiting and ordering. This is a field of control that operates on several levels simultaneously, primarily through small- and large-scale repetition. Repetitive beats, grooves and dance tracks anchor their power and materiality, as 'physical objects' and 'terrains' or as powerful directional 'beams' and 'flows', through their incredible resistance to change. The predictability of cycles of build-up and break-down, of smooth mixes and matched beats, permits the shedding of a certain cognitive flexibility of response on the part of the listener. This doesn’t meant that the listening attitude is any less responsive, but that responses are permitted to occur on a very small-scale physical level and in terms of large-scale libidinal flows – the ‘dance-floor teleology’ of climaxes, drops and plateaux (Fink 2005).
The experiential logic of repetitive music puts us in a particular state of readiness and receptiveness which, in abandoning the mind to a baseline of utter predictability (of the eternal sameness of any particular moment) throws the listening body open to discovery and surprise at every new moment. This might be compared to acclimatising oneself to the unfamiliar force of gravity on an alien planet, so that one might learn to juggle. However, it is also a fundamentally intuitive, uncritical mode of reception, by which the body and emotions are forced to adapt to each change and flow in the music.
Goodman’s concept of ‘sonic warfare’ rests on the idea of sonic technologies (or ‘weaponry’) that have a direct and irresistible effect upon the body. This is the ‘mobilisation of affect’ through sound – its pernicious ability to move, attract or repel the body intimately and immediately – which confounds and threatens the usual rational routing of stimuli through the brain, via concepts, language etc. Goodman recognises, in a certain tradition of music, a ‘tactical deployment of sound … whose objective is that of intensification, to the heightening of collective sensation, an attractive, almost magnetic, or vortical force, a force that sucks bodies in toward its source' (2010: 11).
This dynamics may be thought meteorologically in terms of heat and pressure, as in ‘the eye of the storm,’ or in terms of the turbulence of fluid mechanics: a power to generate a rhythmic rotation, intensification, and collective individuation (to render the crowd as a body in its own right). In this instance, the aim of mobilizing bodies extensively is accompanied and perhaps overridden by the primary objective of the intensive mobilization of affect. (ibid.)In this way, certain musical structures can congeal bodies into a crowd, and then mobilise the crowd into a body itself. Early on in his book, Goodman turns to Julian Henriques’s study of Jamaican sound systems and his concept of sonic dominance to provide an example of this technology at work. This is described as ‘a condition in which hearing overrides the other senses, displacing the reign of vision in the hierarchy, producing a flatter, more equal sensory ratio’ (Goodman 2010: 27) For Henriques, ‘sonic dominance … arises when “sound itself becomes both a source and expression of power”’ (28).
This duality – both source and expression of power – is crucial to my argument, just as it is productive of the extreme paradox concerning beat-driven music’s reception as both supremely empowering and utterly disempowering. While the rendering of subordinated, flattened-out dancing bodies through the shock-and-awe tactics of ‘bass materiality’ and ‘dread’, as described by Henriques, is surely a kind of radical enactment of total domination (sound as expression of power), the collective subject – comprised, powered and sustained by a multitude of individuals – is very often perceived as a powerful, oppositional force (sound as source of power). But there are further questions about the distribution of power which exist if we complicate what is the basic opposition between sound as material force on the one hand and the bodies of the dancing crowd on the other...
- Can the listener derive power vicariously from identifying with the producer or DJ?
- Is the music, as sonic object or action, perceived as a challenge to other dominant structures of power – i.e. as a ‘counter-power’?
- If so, can the listener derive power from identifying with the music, perhaps as a force which passes through them and out again, or – in the case of dancing – is transduced from sonic into kinetic energy?
- Can a physical engagement with such a musical counter-power be thought of as its realisation or materialisation in the world?
- Or, in more Adornian terms, is our enjoyment of sonic dominance not analogous to a totalitarian enjoyment of absolute power, by which the sonic force is a stand-in for socio-political domination?
Cultural theorists have put a lot of time and effort into challenging that last question, the Adornian charge of a proto-fascist love of domination in our willing entry into experiences in which our individuality is effaced as we’re flattened out into the body of the ‘throbbing crowd’. For me, however, the figure of the ‘vocal-subject’ is absolutely key to understanding how musical power is conceptualised in relation to the individual, and how such an encounter might be understood as meaningful politically. It is my belief that the vocalist, where a vocalist appears in such music, is positioned alongside the listener/dancer, against the sonic force or flow of the music. The vocalist’s vocal body is organised by the music in the same way as the dancer’s dancing body is, in terms of rhythm and tempo, melody and timbre, and as such, the vocalist is included in the dancing crowd. But, through the vocalist’s clear singularity and individuality, they are constituted as the ideal individual-within-the-crowd. In their being subjugated and dominated by the sonic forces of the music, the listener-dancer is invited to identify with the vocalist (i.e. vocal-subject) and thereby adopt the attitude of the vocal-subject towards those same sonic forces.
Henriques (2011) captures this idea keenly in his discussion of the ‘voicing’ of the unseen MC in the sound system, wherein the live vocalist appears (from the speakers) as a non-visible, ‘auditory’ body, as what Michel Chion has called an acousmêtre or auditory master:
The amplified voice of the MC is a major component of the auditory impact of the sonic dominance that the crowd continually monitors as part of their participation in the event. As the MCs themselves are sonically embodied, so is the crowd. The MC’s voicing is part of this embodiment, with all the additional weight and authority that their vocal production receives from its transduction and amplification through the electronics of the set. Voicing makes an intimate connection between speaker and listener, like touching; at the same time it separates them, as in the speaker and their own voice. For the crowd, there is a touching intimacy to the MC’s voice, even when this is the distorted voice that it can tend to be. (203)It is also in the positioning of the vocal-subject within the beat, groove or loop, and the recourse to language and other expressive vocal sounds, that some of the key topics of repetitive music have been formulated. These topics have been intrinsic to naming and framing the power dynamics exhibited in this music, attaching the various forces to non-musical analogues. The three key topics that I want to discuss briefly concern: sex, futurism and dread. All three intersect at various points, while each contains a number of potentialities for the vocal-subject in terms of power dynamics.
THREE TOPICS OF BEAT CONTROL : : :
/ / / SEX: The conceptualisation of musical flow as an erotic force – as an explicitly sexual libido – is practically a historical constant in all culturally conservative arguments against dance musics, which often (quite rightly) point to the direct, physical effects of the music on the body. The sense, in many early pop genres but most explicitly rock ‘n’ roll, of losing control of one’s inhibitions, of being possessed by a kind of primal force, is widely represented by the vocal-subject and performer as the effect of teenage love or lust; the familiar patterns of vibrating, thrusting and climaxing which the beat and harmonic progression instigate are supposedly catalysed by feelings of unconsummated sexual desire.
In rock 'n' roll, the fateful entrapment of the blues progression is translated into a masochistic jouissance of pleasurable longing, hurtling through verse after verse of the same cycling chords without consummation. From the beginning of rock, there has been a complex tension between the powerlessness of the vocal-subject in the face of their (musical) desire, and the vocal-subject’s over-the-top performance of their own powerlessness (like in the histrionic death wishes that were a key trope of Romantic love poetry) as a courtship gesture. Just as the vocal-subject can be positioned as subjected to sexual control - acted upon by the irrational pull of sexual attraction into an ecstatic, frenzied or melancholy state of captivation – so, they can equally (simultaneously) be heard in the position of seducer: able to deploy the irresistible flow of sexual excitement to wrest control of the listener’s body.
/ / / / / / FUTURISM: Goodman draws heavily on Kodwo Eshun’s influential text More Brilliant Than The Sun (1998) when he discusses the legacy of the early-twentieth-century Futurist movement (and its obsession with noise, best represented by the work of Luigi Russolo), in terms of the much-discussed theoretical category of ‘Afrofuturism’. The rich aesthetic topic of Afrofuturism, which begins with a metaphor comparing the kidnapping of the slaves to alien abduction (and the subsequent pan-African myth of the motherland as ‘home planet’ or ‘mothership’: George Clinton, Sun Ra, etc.), transects with the notion of power and control in the figure of the ‘futurhythmachine’. This is the achronological, polyrhythmic technology which replaces the ‘white’ category of noise in a specifically Black Atlantic futurist music, most clearly manifest as a futurist tendency in UK jungle music:
The rhythmachine is an algorithmic entity that abducts bodies, modulating their movements. The rhythmachine lies between the beats, or is the glue that congeals individual intensities together. To be abducted by the rhythmachine is to have the sensory hierarchy switched from the perception of rhythmelody to texturhythm, becoming a vibrational transducer, not just a listener. (Goodman 2010: 60)In this sense, the futurhythmachine effects not just an abduction of the body into an alien environment, but the parasitic introduction of an alien (or bionic) control into the body. This is later discussed with reference to ‘dub virology’ – the 'infection' of popular styles with Jamaican dub influences on both sides of the Atlantic – which is experienced as a disintegration of the human voice on electronic dance tracks. For Goodman, all this constitutes a kind of bio-cultural warfare, orchestrated by the always-already-alienated Black Atlantic diaspora, as a way of unsettling and deconstructing white teleologies and futurologies. What is under attack is first the self-possession of the body, and the sovereignty of the rational intellect, and secondly the integrity of the voice itself, its humanity and expressivity.
(((FUTURESEX))): At the nexus of music as futurism and music as erotic flow is the specialised compound topic which casts the vocal-subject as ‘fembot’ (the ‘female’-gendered robot, almost always as a kind of sentient sex toy or man-made sex worker). Castigations of erotic excess in rock ‘n’ roll and soul musics culminated in the moral panic around disco music, whose cool diva-subjects were often positioned in a more straightforwardly powerful position than the (supposedly) passive adolescent rock ‘n’ roll heroes, convulsing with passion for the desired, absent female. Robert Fink, in his book Repeating Ourselves (2005), discusses disco (and minimalism) in specifically female erotic terms (as opposed to the ‘male’ musical teleology of a ‘thrusting, often openly violent’ ‘dialectical struggle’ towards orgasm (35)):
If we were to identify the pleasures of beat-driven repetitive music as jouissance, we would be linking them to a pleasure that is radically Other, that is by definition linked to an uniquely female sexuality, and thus to patterns more diffuse, fluid, cyclic, and holistic than the straight-line teleology of the phallus. (37)The ‘fembot’ topic, which has been dabbled in by pretty much all of the key postmodern divas (in music videos if not sonic aesthetics), from Grace Jones and Janet Jackson to Madonna and Kylie, Gaga, Britney, Rihanna and Beyoncé (as well as heavily informing contemporary R&B and the whole post-electroclash, synth-pop revival of the ‘00s), would seem to stem partly from a misogynist myth of the irrationality and insatiability of female sexuality. It draws on the supposedly ‘feminine’ (black/queer) bodily/affective dimension of disco, as negation of the ‘masculine’ (white/straight) realm of the intellectual and the spiritual, and – heard in these terms – can be understood as a kind of fantasy projection of the obverse side of the rock ‘n’ roll male as passive, controlled victim of physical urges. Such a hearing seeks to imagine the kind of subject, the kind of music, which could embody the active, controlling side of this binary. The cold, pulsating synth music often involved in the ‘fembot’ topic is heard as a stream of bewitching sexual energy that is deployed by the female vocal-subject as dynamo of extraordinary sexual magnetism. Within this topic, of course, the other side of this situation is clearly manifest: this same female vocal-subject as not only robotic, soulless, programmed for sex, but also as a spectacular object, an artificial objet petit a around which male desire can be focused.2
From misogynist myth of cyber-succubus to its second-wave corrective as a pure product of a male (aural) ‘gaze’ – the mystified, de-humanised robot woman as male pleasure machine – a third-wave hearing might look for the agency and power which female artists nevertheless extract from such tropes. Indeed the sexuality of the ‘fembot’ can equally be interrogated through Donna Haraway’s sci-fi feminism, in terms of the figure of the cyborg (1991). This is, I believe, one of those occasions in which a power analysis of the vocal-subject can be really useful – see Chapter 2.1 for a suggestion as to how Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ (one of the foundational ‘fembot’ tracks) might suggest a good sexual politics.
/ / / / / / / / / DREAD: Inextricable from the ‘sonic dominance’ that characterises the bass culture of Jamaican music (and its many derivatives – jungle, dubstep, etc.) is the notion of dread. Here, ‘dread’ is close to aesthetic experience of the sublime – of awe, or the fear of God – which is always to some extent pleasurable:
Sonic dominance is both a near over-load of sound and a super saturation of sound. You’re lost inside it, submerged under it. This volume of sound crashes down on you like an ocean wave, you feel the pressure of the weight of the air like diving deep underwater. There’s no escape, no cut off, no choice but to be there. (Henriques 2003: 456)Goodman makes use of an essay by Simon Reynolds to link this sense of dread, which – detached from a theist (Rastafarian) fear of God becomes more like an existential angst of the type that Kierkegaard describes – with ‘90s urban electronic styles that ‘[produce] a kinesthetic sound simulation, enacting the dystopic megalopolis through sonic affect “in all its dread and tension”’ (Goodman 2010: 2-3). These ‘militaristic’ styles (like east coast hip-hop and hardstep jungle) ‘“act as mirrors to late capitalist reality, stripping away the façade of free enterprise to reveal the war of all against all”’ (in its dystopian dimension, this topic is closely related to certain strains of Afrofuturism). This kind of urban fear and loathing, angst and panic, decay and dissolution, is reproduced in the music of those populations which it affects most keenly, in order (Goodman argues) to transfigure it into a kind of pleasure:
The production of vibrational environments that facilitate the transduction of the tension of urban existence, transforming deeply engrained ambiences of fear or dread into other collective dispositions, serve as a model of collectivity that revolves around affective tonality, and precedes ideology. (xx)This usage of transduction (in electronics, the conversion of one kind of energy into another) as an aspect of musical reception is pioneered by Henriques, who argues that ‘the human body can be considered as a sensory transducer – in dance’ (Henriques 2003: 468). As part of ‘sonic embodiment’, the flow of musical energy is transformed into physical, kinetic energy by the dancing crowd, ‘automatically and without thinking about it’. The inclusion of the (bodies of) the listeners as transducers within the apparatus of power also permits the transduction of one type of power – what Henriques called power-over or pouvoire – into another – power-with or puissance. This is treated with all kinds of sensitive ethnographic nuances in Sonic Bodies, and yet there is always an undercurrent – brought out in Goodman, and in Reynolds’s assessment – of Adorno’s ‘totalitarian’ identification with the aggressor:
The notion of sonic dominance helps to conceptualize the nexus of vibrational force in magnetic, attractional mode. In the overpowering, almost totalitarian sensuality of bass materialism, it also illustrates the mobilization of a sonic ecology of dread: fear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a popular musical context. (Goodman 2010: 29)Within this topic, it is often the vocal-subject’s role to attempt to escape, to evade the authoritarian, oppressive or violent sonic forces and to exceed their reach. This is often a key performative dimension of rapping, as I will discuss in a later chapter.
‘Tracks’ vs. ‘songs’ AKA ‘Structure’ vs. ‘agency’
So the vocal-subject can be experienced as the sonic body of the listener-dancer, situated within the structuring and dominating beat, whose vocal presence is the material trace of their bodily presence, as well as the substance and trace of all their actions. What kind of agency does the vocal-subject retain?
The beat/groove delineates rhythm and metre, as well as tonality and harmony, against which the vocalist can push or pull, within the logic of which they can excel, demonstrating dazzling virtuosity which can be (and often is) fitted neatly into the humanist ideal of human flourishing in restrictive or oppressive conditions. 'The triumph and resourcefulness of the human spirit'. 'The affirmative vibrancy of subaltern cultures'. It is the opposition of the human voice (or anthropomorphised, in the case of certain instrumental solos) against the non-human backing which allows for this ‘resistant’ hearing of so much black and gay music for example, not to mention certain feminist and queer interpretations of opera divas (see Abbate 1991, Koestenbaum 2001). In all these cases, the human subject doesn’t just express or affirm itself in spite of the structuring, dominating aspects of the accompanying forces, it uses the musical world in which it has been placed to achieve new heights of virtuosity or expressiveness.
This is the argument that I’ve laid out in more detailed in the previous chapter (the resilience of the blues subject), and the argument which stands in opposition to Adorno’s critique of jazz, which specifically calls out this notion of the (rhythmic/tonal) agency of the melodic soloist as instances of ‘false’ and ‘illusory’ freedom. To draw attention to this argument is to point out the limits of the vocal-subject’s agency, which is to affect and change the accompanying forces themselves, to alter the groove/beat through an act of singing. If the voice can be heard as the sonic materialisation of the very idea of agency, and the accompanying forces the materialisation of the idea of structure, then such instances would involve the subject demonstrating the requisite agency to change the established structuring systems and laws, through their actions within these extant systems.
This division, between power relationships in which the vocal-subject can affect the structure of the beat or groove, and those in which the vocal-subject merely asserts or expresses itself within this beat or groove, is fundamental to an analysis of music, power and politics. But it can also be used to theorise the difference between a ‘song’ and a ‘track’, which has become more and more complicated as the worlds of dance, pop and indie musics coalesce within a single discourse.
In these terms, a track employs a musical power relationship in which the vocal (if one is present) exists within a beat/groove that it cannot affect. This beat/groove ‘is’ (of course) the track – the track is the beat/groove as a plane first and foremost (at once both physical – in terms of the recording media – and conceptual), upon which the vocal can appear, move and act, but needn’t appear for the track to exist and extend in the same form.
A song employs a musical power relationship in which not only can the vocal-subject act within the beat/groove (or other accompanying texture), and use it for expression or affirmation, but these actions can alter (and eventually will determine) the structure of the accompaniment.
The value of understanding ‘songs’ and ‘tracks’ in this way emerges, as with most things, with the exceptions and the outliers, the more ambiguous instances. It is not just a simple division between dance music and vocal music, or black music and white music, or subaltern pop and bourgeois pop. Certain recordings may begin in the manner of a ‘track’, or use textures and instrumentation usually associated with genres that tend towards ‘tracks’, before being hijacked by the vocal-subject, who may affect and shape these textures in the manner of a ‘song’. In the same way, a recording may begin with all the signifiers of ‘song’ music, but proceed without giving the vocalist any kind of purchase on the structure or direction of the accompaniment. My analysis of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ in Part 2 will aim to demonstrate that this recording, while sounding like (and probably being described regularly as) a ‘track’, functions quite exemplarily in the manner of a ‘song’. Remixes can very often be heard as examples of vocal-subjects from ‘song’ worlds being displaced into more rigidly structuring and controlling ‘track’ worlds, often with interesting repercussions on the meaning of the vocals and the recording in general.
I will explore the complex dynamics between vocal-subject and accompaniment in ‘songs’ in later chapters; for now, where I talk about beats and grooves, I will focus on their presence in ‘tracks’, in which the vocal-subject cannot effect structural change and must look to other forms of resistance. It is these other forms of resistance that I enumerate below.
Alongside the ‘centripetal vortex’ of the beat and the groove (Eshun’s futurhythmachine), Goodman discusses another ‘tactical deployment of sound’ in his book, one that is ‘subordinated to the strategic aim of crowd dispersal, to the dissipation of a collective energy, to repulsion and dissolution of clusters, and to the individualization of the movement of bodies’ (11). Goodman engages with this other musical ‘technology of power’ – ‘centrifugal, efferent, repulsive’ – through various investigations of the use of sound and music in actual warfare, and diversions through the predilections of the Italian Futurists towards both war and noise.
This is the kind of musical ‘power’ that is wielded through excessively loud volume, extremes of pitch and thick, ‘heavy’ timbres. Its power is exercised through a kind of punishing assault, producing pain, discomfort and terror, rather than the sort of seductive control wielded by the ‘centripetal’, rhythmic technology. We might locate such technologies of power in noise music, rock, punk, metal and avant-garde electronic musics, although they certainly also have their place in dance musics as well.
The noisy, distorted guitars, thunderous drums and screaming vocals of metal and hard rock music clearly contribute to a viscerally violent sonic assemblage which, in combination with lyrics, performance and visual elements, contribute to a presentation of a dangerous, fearsome power on the part of the music and musicians as a composite, which at its most obvious level can be (and has been) received as an assault on society itself. This power is presented as both potential – the noise as a threat – and actual, as painful, intolerable, an imposition on the world (both the bark and the bite, so to speak). Robert Walser’s book Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993) aims to articulate how the listener experiences this power, not as a threat or as physical violence but as something with which to identify; for Walser, ‘heavy metal revolves around identification with power,’ as well as ‘intensity of experience, freedom, and community’ (53).
Nevertheless, in Walser’s discussion of how this identification functions, several ambiguities arise. While the distortion of the lead guitar and the ‘excessive power’ of the vocal distortion add to the generalised assault of the musical noise, the specific moment of identification with power comes with the vocals (or electric guitar) as resisting and transcending the oppressive weight and force of the rest of the texture. This power, therefore, is not only a material power of timbre but also a kind of agency: a freedom from control.
Musically, a dialectic is often set up between the potentially oppressive power of bass, drums, and rhythm guitar, and the liberating, empowering vehicle of the guitar solo or the resistance of the voice. The feeling of freedom created by the freedom of motion of the guitar solos and fills can be at various times supported, defended, or threatened by the physical power of the bass and the violence of the drums. The latter rigidly organize and control time; the guitar escapes with flashy runs and other arhythmic gestures. The solo positions the listener: he or she can identify with the controlling power without feeling threatened because the solo can transcend anything. (53-54)In this way, according to Walser, the power of the voice (or lead guitar) is sometimes one with the power of the accompanying forces, and sometimes opposed to them. Walser discusses the controlling aspect of the pulse in the same terms as the controlling technology of the beat discussed above, while enshrining the kind of resistant freedom of syncopation that Adorno would castigate as ‘illusory’:
Accents and rhythmic deviations, whether performed by the vocalist, the guitar soloist, or the whole band, are all the more significant for being played against the solid pulse that characterizes metal… Ensemble punches and solo or vocal syncopations alike strain against the beat more than the barline. (49)Yet the timbral and dynamic power of the vocals is described in precisely the same terms as the distortion of the guitars:
Human screams and shouts are usually accompanied by vocal distortion, as the capacities of the vocal chords are exceeded. Thus, distortion functions as a sign of extreme power and intense expression by overflowing its channels and materializing the exceptional effort that produces it. (42)In the same way, the riff is a kind of ambivalent figure – heavy and powerful, with a clear identity, but repetitive and dominating, and lacking the radical freedom of the shredding solo. This ambivalence, between identifying with and opposing the oppressive and violent qualities of the music, is replicated in much of the lyrics and discourse surrounding the music, not least in the fans’ and musicians’ relationship to the various pagan, occult and demonic topics with which the music is often closely tied. It is also this ambivalence which permits for the existence of both devout Satanist and Christian metal bands. Listeners can enjoy the thrill of the fear and panic of damnation, impacted upon their bodies through the materiality of the sound, while identifying with the most powerful and liberated subject within this scene musical conflict as warrior and victor, whose power and force must necessarily exceed the most awesome of its opponents.
This ambivalence has become conventional in a lot of metal and hard rock music, in which fans, vocalists and guitar heroes remain triumphalist (and powerful) in the face of or the midst of the violence, oppression and chaos of the music. But other vocal musics which feature similar heavy, thick and oppressive instrumental forces can position the vocal-subject, along with their lyrical discourse, in a way that makes a more pointed use of this ambivalence, as I will attempt to show.
THREE STRATEGIES OF RESISTANCE : : :
THREE STRATEGIES OF RESISTANCE : : :
The following examples range fairly broadly, in terms of genre and ‘actual’ production, performance and reception context. Part of the purpose of this book is to lay aside all the assumptions that these considerations foster and compare these disparate recordings – which might, nevertheless, easily be imagined to feature side-by-side on any given iPod playlist – as explicit attempts at ‘political’ music first and foremost. Thinking in these terms, rather than through genre or performance context, might hopefully assist in imagining these tracks as representing different strategies by which we might attempt to engage musical politically here and now, and how a musical deployment of power might figure in such strategies.
1. Harnessing Musical Power
The most obvious way in which a vocal-subject can retain power within a track is to hijack the track for its own purposes. This usually involves what Adorno would call ‘identifying with the aggressor’, expressing and affirming oneself within the logic and structure of the track’s world, but it can be transformed into a more focused political project through making use of the voice’s unique capability to ‘name’ and ‘frame’ the musical world via recourse to language. Hence, the technologies of power and control active in a particular groove can be coded, co-opted and channelled to a specific purpose. In these instances, the vocal-subject will neither ‘lose themselves’ in the musical environment, nor provide a virtuosic, emancipatory counterpoint, but will instead ‘ride’ the musical flow, often at its head, affirming, reproducing and intensifying the sturdiness of the groove, beat or riff. In reggae sound system culture, as Henriques attests, this is called ‘riding the riddim’: ‘The term ‘riding’ suggests that such rhythmic energies [of the accompaniment track: the 'riddim'] can be bridled to become safe and useful. This is the MC’s job…’ (194). In an interview with DJ Squeeze, Henriques points up the responsibility that an MC has with this power to assign meaning to the musical flow:
DJ Squeeze makes the distinction between musical and vocal sounding when he says ‘sounds do not corrupt’ – that is to say, they are natural in themselves, rather than inflected with value or meaning. He continues:
The music – doh ray me – doesn’t corrupt. It is pure in its form, it’s what you use it to do, the message you put with it to send. It’s the medium, then the messaging you put with it, then it connects that way.
But this aspect of vocal power can have dangerous consequences, he continues:
It depends what [message] you put with it [the music]. All of a sudden ‘put hands in the air and kill batty man’ [male homosexual] becomes the norm because they are brainwashed. They caught the rhythm first, and the rhythm works for them. (187)
> > > > > > > > > Fela Kuti – Who No Know Go Know
Like a lot of jazz- and funk-derived musics, Fela Kuti’s music could be non-vocal music. There are plenty of similar tracks that might run their individual courses - building dense grooves, unleashing catchy horn heads, featuring solo after solo, before reprising – without any vocal-subject appearing. And these vocal-less tracks wouldn’t lose that much, superficially, in terms of musical character and impact, when compared to the tracks which do add vocals to their roster of band forces and featured soloists. And yet a vocal-subject does invariably appear in Fela Kuti’s music, and a solo vocal-subject at that (albeit accompanied by a chorus response). Rather than downplaying the prevalence of the vocalist on these tracks, we should ask why a vocalist does always crop up, and why he nearly always crops up around the eight minute mark. What effect does this have, in establishing a relationship between vocal-subject, lyrics, and the entire musical world that has preceded these and into which they fit neatly and affirmatively? 3
Fela Kuti’s politically-loaded lyrics (critical, satirical, revolutionary) emerge, along with his vocal-subject, strategically towards the end of his long compositions, after the groove has been thoroughly locked in, and the listener/dancer has abandoned themselves to the commanding logic of the beat and theme. Afrobeat convokes a broad range of instrumental forces, building them up incrementally and showcasing them in turn, as a collective of individuals rather than a textural block. This is a particularly inclusive way of drawing in its own throbbing crowd, seduced by a homogeneous groove comprised clearly of individuated (‘organic’) instruments. Consent is produced in the listener/dancer through a musical praxis that is itself all about consent. And this consent is allowed to emerge over time, as if from the encounter with the ‘impartial’ abstractness of the notes being played. But once this consent is generated, it is tied to the vocal-subject’s words, just as the whole track is shown to be introducing this vocal appearance. The listener was agreeing with the vocal-subject all along, because this – as the voice makes clear – is what the whole track is about. There is a keen difference between the way in which Fela’s commanding vocal-subject comes in, embarking upon a political rhetoric, and some of the soul and funk vocal positions which respond to the music, and rebounding off it as music. There is no reference to the music as music here, or as feeling or libido or force. The music really is, in retrospect, waiting for the vocal-subject to arrive, to give it its meaning, to allow it to ‘sing’ (which it then does in the form of the response refrains).
In terms of a political strategy, the resulting effect means that, firstly, a kind of abstract musical force is produced and mobilised – physically and affectively – which we might equate with a flow of pure desire, a restless energy or forward momentum. After ensuring this desire is flowing powerfully, collectively and abstractly, the vocal-subject emerges to yoke this desire towards a particular cause or end, directing it towards political change or against an oppressive regime. And this is the very meaning of ‘Who no know go know’: those who don’t already know [what’s going on/what this is all about] are going to find out pretty soon. The song, in its recorded version on the album Everything Scatter, is a rallying call to join with the pan-Africanist movement advocated at the time by such leaders as Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Touré and (controversially) Idi Amin. The chorus repeats the response ‘You no know’, chastising the African population who fail to heed these calls; Fela (the self-titled 'Chief Priest') then repeats the prophecy: ‘Who no know go know’. In this case, the music is the movement.
The dancers who are oblivious to the meaning of the song are awakened to its import by the singing subject, just as the Africans who were oblivious to the political tide which seemed to be carrying them through the early years of independence to a new kind of solidarity and socialism were awakened to its presence in the music of Fela Kuti as quintessential artist of an independent, progressive Africa. They are 'interpellate' as sonic bodies, along with the vocal-subject, rhythmically and melodically positioned within the groove. In this sense, the vocal-subject brings out a political resonance in the knowing of the music – how to listen to it, how to move within it, how to interact with it – that Julian Henriques theorises in his book in terms of ‘ways of knowing’ and, later, as a ‘sonic logos’. To know the music, the vocal-subject attests, is to know that the desire, passion and freedom of the music is also intrinsically political. In this sense, ‘who no know go know’ is the same as saying: ‘The rhythm’s gonna get you’.
It is fairly conventional in Western, anglophone pop music (and art more generally) to distrust the political potential of musical forms which seem geared primarily towards producing pleasure. The association of instrumental dance music with the body and sexuality, as well as a control which bypasses or overpowers the rational vocal-subject (our representative within the song-world), has meant that most self-consciously political music in our culture has taken linguistically- and vocally-centred forms – folk/acoustic music, hip-hop – or ‘ascetic’ forms – punk, post-punk and experimental. There is a sense that 'the political' must come from individual, rational consideration or from provocation against the simple musical pleasures of melody and groove, which risk tapping into an unthinking, reactionary populism. This can also mean that, to apply a sincere political message to an otherwise ‘uncomplicated’, pleasurable musical style is usually heard as an awkward fit, the cerebral, discursive politics ‘spoiling’ the physical, intuitive music. That politics tends to fit a lot easier into dance-based and lyrical musical forms in Africa or South America, for example, does suggest a different idea of the political, and its relation to the social in these cultures, from how it is considered in the capitalist heartlands. Such explicit articulations of ‘the political’ are permitted a strong social, libidinal and affective dimension, in a way that would seem strange to us, so deeply conditioned by years of cynically upheld representative democracy.4
Music like Fela Kuti’s, in which an infectious flow of eroticised desire – the bodily effect of the Afrobeat groove – can be focused and reproduced through a lens of political desire (for freedom, justice, peace, dignity) would be inconceivable in a capitalist country in which we are taught to believe that we have the original monopoly on all these things (that we even invented the concepts, with a little help from the Greek and Judaeo-Christian traditions perhaps). While we might tolerate such expressions from the peoples of distant societies, whose desire for uncorrupt governance, freedom of opportunity and expression we might condescend to relate to, such aestheticised expressions of group desire under the political ideology of ‘centrist’ cynicism and ‘capitalist realism’, could only look like dangerous populism or naïve utopianism (and, to be fair, this is exactly the kind of ‘danger’ that Henriques’s interviewees identify in the case of dancehall homophobia).5 Hence, our tolerance for a politicised vocal-subject is reduced to that of a musical ‘commentariat’, or bona fide spokespeople for particular marginalised groups, like ethnic and sexual minorities.
> > > > > > > > > The Prodigy (feat. Pop Will Eat Itself) – Their Law
What might it mean to say that the Prodigy’s anti-Criminal Justice Act anthem ‘Their Law’ actually has a vocal-subject? The track combines clattering breakbeats with chugging metal guitar, mobilising both types of warfare 'technology' simultaneously, in a dread-laden outpouring of cyberpunk discipline and punishment. Vocals appear in three forms in the track: 1) in the sampled introduction, which is clearly mediated and cannot be heard as vocal-subject, 2) in the repeated phrase embedded at certain points in the main riff – ‘I’m the law, and you can’t beat the law’ – processed so as to sound like turntable scratching, and 3) the chanted phrases that articulate the end of each section:::
Crackdown at sundown
Fuck 'em, and their law
These chanted phrases, appearing at the end of the guitar-dominated A section, towards the end of the synth-led B section, and then at the end of the repeat of the truncated repeat which closes the track (in its single version), ‘replace’ the final bar of each section; the rest of the texture cuts out, leaving the voice to utter its rhythmic slogan unaccompanied and, in each case, to usher in a new texture or section. This effect recalls the practice of a DJ cutting out the track at strategic points, allowing the dancing crowd to fill in the silence with the chorus or refrain which, presumably, was also the purpose of these moments: to join the throng together in denouncing the Criminal Justice Act 1994 which effectively banned the very practice of raving. As these vocal utterances are built into the structure of the track though, the impression is of the ‘unpeeling’ of the corner of the thick, heavy instrumental flow, to hear the voice ‘underneath’. One might imagine that the chanting continues all the way through, but is only perceptible when the rest of the track cuts out. This frames the whole onslaught of beats and riffs as the expression of an angry mob, which is ‘translated’ in the final bar of each section (as if a ‘translate’ switch is flipped for four beats). The effect is bolstered by the distortion applied to the voice, which equates it with the guitar rumble. Each iteration of the slogan effectively affirms that each preceding section of the track, as it builds up and charges forward, as well as the physical and emotional energy expended in dancing to the track, is always accumulating against ‘them’ and ‘their law’, before being released (like opening a shaken-up cola can) in the chanted expletive (or possibly the ‘drop’ which follows each).
This is one way in which a vocal-subject is revealed within the track, but it is only half the story. As previously mentioned, the final few phrases of each section is overlaid with a hissing voice intoning ‘I’m the law, and you can’t beat the law’. This voice is woven into the rest of the texture, and is semi-discernible in the manner of the voice of a ghost hidden in white noise. Its effect is primarily percussive, but it gives an intractably ‘human’ dimension to the instrumental forces that are dammed/propelled by the chanted slogans. This factor is testament to the particular ambiguity of the track, whose refrain would seem to couch it as an outpouring of defiant energy (in the very form of the ‘repetitive beats’ which were explicitly proscribed in the 1994 Bill). The linking of the repeated phrase with the general affect of fear and threat would seem to explicitly couch the punishing power of the guitars and the controlling power of the beat as the musical representation of the very law that has supposedly forbidden them. There’s a kind of perverse revelling in the dystopian dread, an enjoyable mythologisation of the State as cyberpunk machine, which is captured in the very phrase: ‘Crackdown at sundown’. Heard in this way, the chanted slogan – which arrests the onslaught of the track – is hurled against the texture of the music, standing in for the authoritarian fury of the law.
The track has a kind of double existence, then, as a dance track in which – in a similar manner to the Fela Kuti above – the liberating, ‘menacing’ power of popular assembly, mass movement and the rave, as explicitly banned in the eponymous ‘Law’, is summoned as a kind of Leviathan which can be ridden into battle by a (universal) vocal-subject (‘power-with’), but also as a self-contained narrative track, articulated by the vocals, portraying the instrumental forces as oppressive (‘power-over’). In this second hearing, the A section gathers its menacing authoritarian guitar forces, eventually issuing its vocal injunction (‘I’m the law…’), which is overturned and extinguished by the first ‘Fuck them’, in turn initiating the B section, perhaps a more utopian space, presided over by the synth. But this too is compromised, by the ‘Crackdown at sundown’, which unleashes the same injunction, fragmenting the synth line, but this again is overturned by a second ‘Fuck 'em’. This leaves the forces stunned into inaction for a few bars, before the authoritarian guitars return to build again. The second ‘Crackdown at sundown’ actually catalyses a return to the synth lead, with its injunction, which is demolished by a final ‘Fuck 'em’, stabs of guitar effects flailing after this final gesture but unable to recommence. The vocal-subject is finally victorious, but – ironically enough – this victory also forces the music to end.
While the first of these interpretations is an example of a vocal-subject harnessing the power of autonomous instrumental forces, the second example clearly grants a significant amount of agency to the vocal-subject, which has the power to initiate new musical sections and create large-scale form. This second hearing also presents a more ambivalent and nuanced exploration of the relationship between dance music, power and authority, both resisting and taking pleasure in control, both condemning and fetishising state coercion.
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2. Resistance Through Anti-Lyric
Of course, just because a beat or groove remains rigid and immutable, doesn’t mean that the vocal-subject always needs to obey its regulations and move exclusively within the musical physics that it articulates. It is possible for the voice to detach itself from the strictures of the songworld, to dis-integrate itself from the metrical and tonal frames of the song. The musicologist Dai Griffiths (2003) makes a distinction between ‘lyric’ and ‘anti-lyric’, in the way that words of songs relate to ‘verbal space’: the ‘spaces of tonal music’s phrases’ which the words ‘occupy’. Griffiths explains ‘verbal space’ thusly:
We can visualize the combination of consistent phrasing and words producing lines… [L]ines can be full or empty, and words can be positioned at various points on the line; the line can be imagined as progressing left to right. The point at which a line begins and ends, the division of a musical phrase, can be imagined as being like a pillar in architecture, or as posts on a fence alongside the song’s ongoing road: the return of the pillar or post can be a moment of some drama. (43)Griffiths doesn’t expand much upon this concept in the article in question, but some of the images that he casually employs – ‘the song’s ongoing road’, ‘the pillar or post’ – point to phenomena that are crucial to my analysis. Nevertheless, he goes on to discuss how ‘songs can do things with verbal space: change position, or extend and contract the line’ (48). Words can fill the entire verbal space, or leave it empty, appearing at different points in relation to the ‘pillar’: the beginning of the phrase/downbeat/tactus etc., but also the beginning of a section. Griffiths calls the regular, predictable or concordant distribution of words, in relation to the succession of lines: 'lyric', which he associates with the technique of rhyme (as providing an indication of the successive placement of the line within the content of words themselves). He then speculates on ‘what occupies the space in technique’ after ‘the removal of lyric [i.e. rhyme] as guiding principle’. Despite the confusion between an analysis based on ‘verbal space’ and one based on rhyme – internal to the content of the words before they are arranged within musical lines – Griffiths goes on to designate a technique of 'anti-lyric', for which he gives the illustration of R.E.M.’s song ‘Nightswimming’.
In this song, not only is there no regular rhyme scheme, but more importantly, the voice’s lines spill over the ends of the phrases, straddling musical lines (the ‘enjambment’ that we all recognise from GCSE poetry modules). The accompaniment of the song is formed from a repetitive, six-bar piano motif, which loops round and round as it’s gradually embellished by orchestral instruments. Griffiths designates this as ‘a procedure familiar in ground-bass technique’:
In relation to a repeating, six-bar chord sequence, the vocal line gradually develops melodic and rhythmic asymmetries. In terms above, the words shift position along the verbal space, with the vocal line carrying over the pillars, easily and languidly. (56)The resulting relationship between vocal-subject and instrumental forces, that of anti-lyric (specifically, what Griffiths calls ‘the lyricism of anti-lyric’), has potential as a technique of resistance on the part of the vocal-subject, since it allows the voice to relatively express freely and autonomously despite the continued inflexibility of the backing. The vocal-subject escapes its regulation, evades the magnetic pull of metre (though not, in this case, of key), and is free to move against the flow of the instrumental forces, from a privileged position well placed for commentary and critique.
The idea of anti-lyric can encompass a whole host of different ways in which the relation between vocal-subject and objective forces can be problematised. R.E.M.’s ‘lyricism of anti-lyric’ is just one (hardly radical) point on a spectrum: it uses a relatively free vocal-subject to reflect variously upon a single mental image or memory, the ‘photograph on the dashboard’, as it feeds a flow of associated feelings and impressions, still connected intrinsically to this one memory, fixated with the looping piano as it runs around the vocal-subject’s head. Griffiths’s other key example, the music of Underworld, uses ‘anti-lyric’ in a very different way, although – in a song like ‘Born Slippy’ – the vocal line is still locked into and determined by the pounding beat, which seems to force out a less contemplative and more automatic stream of consciousness.
Anti-lyric, as any kind of lyrical strategy which problematises the vocal-subject’s default positioning within the regular spaces of regular lines, could just as well characterise songs that involve free speech rhythms, performance poetry tropes and monologues, the ‘awkward’ flow of rappers like the Streets, as well as the ‘aesthetics of failure’ made use of in certain noise rock, college rock and anti-folk styles. But it was post-punk that catalysed some of the most interesting experiments in anti-lyric, in terms of the relation of control between vocal-subject and instrumental forces which would often achieve a kind of driven automation. It can be heard most poignantly in the differences between John Lydon’s vocal presence on Never Mind the Bollocks, and his presence on PiL’s Metal Box, two years later. It was part of the movement’s deconstruction of the integrity of the song form, casting doubt on whether the vocal-subject could really summon up all these instrumental layers to frankly express freedom or authenticity or rebellion or love or identity.
> > > > > > > > > The Fall – Glam Racket
Mark E. Smith is the apotheosis of anti-lyric vocalists. His position within the musical tracks of the Fall, both on record and enacted in live performance, is more often than not one of snide, arch or scathing detachment. His vocal integration into any track is always partial, often condescending or ironic. This is wholly mirrored in his own, well-known role within the Fall as an artistic process: a succession of (what are effectively) session musicians, collected temporarily under the band’s banner, offer up a disparate array of spiky or fragmentary grooves and riffs ('in the style of the Fall'), while Smith remains the arbiter, processing these grooves, interpreting them, unpicking them and discarding them. As a vocal-subject as well as a vocalist and artist, he is free to move over the surface of each Fall track, to disappear and reappear at will. He shouts in the face of the musical substance, like an irate and drunken tramp undermining a church service, denies it, obscenely desecrating it, able to say whatever he wants about it and over it, but never really affecting it. While we may know that Smith is the puppet-master of the Fall, his appearance as vocal-subject on recorded tracks, and live amongst his squad of faceless, serious instrumentalists, gives the impression of howling into the void, of a strange place between power and total impotence, which returns us again to that cliché of Smith as the cantankerous tramp, spitting truths in the middle of the street and being roundly ignored by all.
But there are moment of connection, of course, when either the vocal-subject conditions the instrumental forces or is conditioned by them. Within classic ‘anti-lyrical’ tracks on Hex Enduction Hour, the transformative ‘hip hip hip hip’ in ‘Hip Priest’, which brings in the noisy, haranguing guitar figure as if to reply with the conventional ‘hooray’, is an example of the former. The moment Smith starts singing along at the end of ‘The Classical’ – ‘I’ve never felt better in my life’ – is an example of the latter.
A later track, ‘Glam Racket’ from The Infotainment Scan, brings the critical potential of Smith’s anti-lyric style to the fore. The band’s glam riff, which will become the object of critique and ridicule, is birthed from a primordial guitar throb, emerging fully-formed, and is met almost immediately with a ridiculous, deadpan ‘Stop eating all that chocolate/Eat salad instead’ from a vocal-subject who is totally disconnected from either metre or key, speaking blankly rather than intoning or declaiming. This will remain the primary mode of vocal presence in the track. The lyrics are as accusatory as they are gnomic, almost entirely in the second person, addressed to a ‘Glam Rick’, or perhaps a ‘Glam Wreck’, personification of the ‘Glam Racket’. The connection of the instrumental forces with this object of derision, despite the obvious glam rock topic, is confirmed by the shouted refrain by the band, as tightly connected to the stomping pulse as the vocal-subject is disconnected from it. As the riff continues to reel round and round, giving the impression of a fresh return with the reintroduction of each of the two alternating chord progressions over which it proceeds, the vocal-subject layers on a succession of scathing assertions:::
‘You’ve cut my income by one third/You are working on a video project/You hog the bathroom and never put your hand in your pocket’
‘Your Clearasil produces Richthofen rashes/Sideboard-like, on mountains’
‘You post out sixty-page computer printouts/On the end of forests’
It is manifestly critical, although the subject of the critique has been left to speculation. The glam revival of the early ‘90s, associated with the band Suede, was one obvious touchstone (‘You are bequeathed in suede/You are entrenched in suede’), while Smith explained the suede references thus: ‘In Manchester, if you’ve got a job in the media, say in videos, you wear suede shoes and a suede jacket. They all do.’6 I think it’s safe to hear the song as a broad criticism of a certain generation of middle-class (possibly ex-working class), ‘aspirational’ creative/media workers, who’ve ‘socially mobilised’ themselves under Thatcherism and whose hypocritical ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity’, their affected working class cultural roots (‘You read Viz comic’), in conjunction with a tacky consumerist decadence (‘You’re paging Malanga in Spain’ [sic]), will eventually feed into that particularly New Labour/ Britpop idea of ‘British’ individualism. Smith concludes his diatribe: ‘All of the above will come back to you and confirm you as a damn pest’.
The double movement, setting up an object of critique in the instrumental forces and then permitting the vocal-subject to walk all over it, is a fairly common strategy for resistance on the part of the voice, empowered with the specificity of linguistic communication. However, this strategy also effectively isolates the vocalist with respect to the musical track. He is unable to co-opt and redirect the power of the musical flow to his own ends; the resulting ambiguous politics are absolutely typical of the Fall, and Mark E. Smith’s embodied attitude, which seems to be critical of everything, bourgeoisie and working class, conservatisms, liberalisms and socialisms, art and pop, humanity itself. ‘Glam Racket’ retains a moment of connection in the refrain as well, where the vocal-subject is compelled to join with the instrumental forces; each time the riff completes a cycle, and comes round to the shouted refrain, the vocal-subject must stop his critique and join in with the shouting, the triumphal, glam march, even as he undermines it with word play and sarcastic overstatement. In order to be ‘part’ of the song itself, the critical vocal-subject must still compromise on some aspect, much like the critic of society must use the compromised channels of communication, the enemy media, to express their dissent to any kind of substantial audience, and be labelled a hypocrite for this very reason.
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Know Your Enemy: Who Has The Power In The Music Of Rage Against The Machine?
Even more ambiguous, with respect to the assignation of the musical forces of power and control, is the music of Rage Against The Machine. In an article which replicates and expands upon Walser’s heavy metal ‘dialectic’ described above, Philip Tagg (2006) describes a two-stage process which can be neatly encapsulated in the formula: ‘Rage against The Machine’. I think it’s worth reproducing this passage in relative detail, since it’s still one of the closest things that I’ve so far encountered to my current mode of analysis.
First, we are presented with ‘The Machine’, in perhaps more of a literal sense than Zack de la Rocha et al. intended, in the form of the ‘urban soundscape’ and different hearers’ differing relationships to it:
Imagine first that you play a positively active and audible part in the soundscape – for example, that you enjoy the discrete engine hum of the expensive car you drive to a well-paid and satisfying job or that you switch on the lighting (with its white noise) and ventilation (with its low-fi hum) of your successful shop in an up-market mall. Next, imagine yourself as young and unemployed, without your own wheels, without anywhere to go, out there on foot amid the noise of city traffic or the ventilation rumblings of a shopping mall. These two relationships to urban soundscapes might well result in diametrically opposed affective interpretations of their constituent noises, interpretations linked to each individual’s power over those noises. (46)Tagg equates this soundscape to the ‘ground’ (his term for my ‘objective musical forces’) of heavy metal music, and mentions the political dimension to representing, and thereby ‘harnessing’, the power of this soundscape on the part of the disempowered musicians and their listeners:
Heavy metal accompaniment (backing, ground) is loud, metrically and periodically quite regular, and full of constant broadband sounds in the bass and middle register. In this way it resembles the ambient noise of postwar traffic, electric motors, ventilation, machines in processing industries, etc. Now, the relentless timetabling of events, constant traffic and electric hum, etc. can all be experienced as the sounds of an inexorable societal machine over which we have little or no control. Still, if you are subjected to those noises and rhythms that seem to symbolise real power in your environment, they might be made a little less overpowering if you appropriate them, re-create them and ‘intone’ them in your own image. (46-47)Already we have a strategy of resistance, a political economy of noise as Attali would describe it (1985), whereby the marginalised musical community demonstrates its own capacity to deploy noise-as-technology-of-power, in the way that those in control of the urban soundscape are empowered to do. But there is a second stage of this process, which is the ‘Rage Against…’ of the formula:
On top of (‘above’) or in front of all this heavy metal backing comes the melodic line, usually delivered by lead vocalists or guitarists. Their melodic statements (phrases) contain divergences from the clock time already reappropriated and subverted by backing instruments. At the same time, since the musical ‘environment’ (accompaniment, backing) is so heavily loaded with loud bass and middle-range sounds, soloists must raise the volume, pitch and sharpness/roughness of their voice or instrument to be heard. (48)In the article, Tagg uses the figure of the motorcycle, weaving in and out of traffic, to capture this sense of the lead guitar (or vocal-subject) ‘transcending the (already subverted and stylised) restrictions laid down by the backing’. The resulting staging of power dynamics is supposed ‘to enact a drama symbolising in sound the taming and defeat of an inimical system over which they in "real" life felt they had little or no control and in which they had to survive’.
Through re-creating a musical version of that struggle for survival and controlling the struggle in that form, another solution, though unattainable in real social or political terms, was nevertheless imaginable because heavy metal demands by definition that you make yourself heard as well as seen.In Tagg’s sociological formulation, this marginalised musical community fight guitars with guitars, noise with noise, distortion with distortion. They create a kind of straw-machine, noisy and heavy, and then they exceed this straw-machine with heroic displays of power that are not only more active and virtuosic, but are also more noisy and more heavy. So in this way, we have a combination (and possible conflation) of both the strategies of resistance described above: in recreating an oppressive and powerful noise, the band harness the dominating potential of a noise technology which is inaccessible in the ‘real’ world, and yet they also exceed and critique this noise, from the position of a heroic, free and transcendent (guitar- or vocal-)subject.
The problem of Rage Against The Machine, and any band that adopts this strategy wholesale in order to ‘fight the power’ (or enjoin their listeners to do so), is therefore the ‘Against’. How do we differentiate between the ‘Rage’ and the ‘Machine’, if both are being represented through similar technologies of musical power, and how do we express a relationship of opposition between the two, which doesn’t dissolve into a kind of generalised pleasure-in-dread, or identification with power-in-general?
Rage Against The Machine allow us to consider this problem head-on, because of the topical separation between the vocal-subject – as rapper – and the objective instrumental forces – which are those typical of hard rock. The unfamiliar intervention of the rapping vocalist into a heavy rock world, as much as it alludes to Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, allows the vocal-subject to stand outside of melody – a key point of integration in rock music between voice and backing – and to access a greater rhythmic flexibility within the context of the metre and the phrase structure: the possibility of a more anti-lyrical relationship. This separation, as well as the explicit political critique loaded into some of the lyrics, might suggest quite a straightforward opposition between the ‘Rage’ of the vocal-subject and the ‘Machine’ of the rock forces: emancipatory power on the one hand, oppressive power on the other. There are certain songs in which this oppositional relationship is clearly played out; ‘Guerrilla Radio’, ‘Testify’ and ‘Killing In The Name’ all involve the calling out of injustice and violence, with the former two examples pivoting on a theme of ‘speaking truth to power’, ‘testifying’ via the noise of the ‘highjacked frequencies’, howling in rage against the onslaught.
‘Killing In The Name’ can be heard as prototypical here, beginning with the stabbing minor-ninth riff moving from sinister to excessively insistent. This is enemy music, not rebel music, penetrated by the voice’s initial ‘Killing in the name of’, and flushing out the minor key riff which is subsequently charged with the vocal condemnation: ‘Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses’. The voice repeats each of its lines, initially as whispered truths, louder and louder until they reveal themselves in the evil riff, ‘killing in the name of…’. The equation of the heavy guitar music with the violent, racist ‘forces’ is driven home with the punching motif before each repetition of ‘And now you do what they told ya’ (with its answering phrase ‘Now you’re under control’). We could return to Walser here and ascribe the squealing guitar solo as the transformative moment at which something breaks in the instrumental forces, something escapes and turns back on them, allowing the voice to collect up its own subjective position and declaim: ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ – first over a squall of ambiguous noise, the riff subdued for a stanza, and then in the full face of the riff itself. Raging against the machine.
The clarity of this power play in ‘Killing In The Name’ is perhaps a testament to its enduring popularity among the band’s singles. The ascription of power thus – voice as rebel, band as evil hegemonic machine – is rarely ever as clear-cut. On ‘Guerrilla Radio’, for instance, as much as the voice is clearly positioned against the thunderous noise that seems to find an identity in the ‘truth devoured’, ‘vultures who thirst for blood and oil’, ‘the bullets and bombs/who stuff the banks’, it is the noise of the band more than that of the voice that is ‘unleashed’ on the ‘guerrilla radio’, with the injunction: ‘Turn that shit up’.
Other songs bring further ambiguities. ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ is sung entirely from the position of the enemy – from ‘the Machine’, or global capital, or Empire – with the vocal-subject combining its power with that of the band’s noise, articulating the ‘Real’ intentions of these demonic, hegemonic forces and joining with the heavy guitar and gushing cymbals in a united expression of violence which is entirely against the ‘actual’ political position of the band. The more measured declamation of the lyrics in the first part of each verse adds to this greater sense of cohesion. So here too the ‘heavy, powerful’ soundscape of guitars and drums is something oppressive, even if the vocal doesn’t take up an antagonistic position against it but rather over-identifies with it in order to implicate it. But in the majority of RATM’s music, the opposite is the case, in that both vocal-subject and instrumental forces join together as ‘rebel forces’, in a generalised expression of power (this is more in keeping with the subject position of Public Enemy who they clearly reference; examples might include ‘Bombtrack’, ‘Calm Like A Bomb’ and ‘Fistful Of Steel’).
In this sense, the heaviness and power that RATM fans enjoy and identify with is often a kind of generalised antagonism. The enemy is invoked in the necessity for fighting back, for taking on an aggressive and defiant attitude, but the violence of the enemy itself is largely subsumed and overshadowed by the militant aggression of the response. The heaviness of the guitars and drums are packaged up with the critical power and forcefulness of the vocal-subject into a unilateral force: a kind of ‘Rage against…’ (to complement the equally elliptical ‘Killing in the name of…’. For this reason, the relationship of powers within the music can hardly be called a dialectic (as Walser termed it in the case of heavy metal). RATM were successful at deploying a sturdy edifice of power with which their listeners could identify, and refining this with a lithe linguistic precision on the part of the vocal-subject, but this didn’t problematise itself, thereby demanding critical engagement. It could be wielded as a weapon, whose stated target could be discerned with a little lyrical parsing, but by no means required it.
In the face of this problem – which I think can be clearly perceived in the reception of the band who, while extraordinarily popular, hardly radicalised a whole generation of dedicated leftist metal fans – the titular imperative of the song ‘Know Your Enemy’ seems extremely poignant. The song features two key riffs, an expansive, syncopated ‘verse’ riff, underpinning the vocals and adding to its rebel ‘defiance’, giving way to a more propulsive and aggressive ‘chorus’ riff with each cry of: ‘Know your enemy’. It’s possible that this more aggressive chorus riff takes on the figure of ‘the Enemy’, to which the vocal-subject responds with his grandstanding verses, yet something more interesting occurs at the end of the song. After another one of the ‘transformative’ guitar solos, which rips up the instrumental forces and leaves them in a scrambled state, the verse riff is reinitiated with newfound sturdiness and a faster tempo. It is only at this point that the voice is actually empowered to name the Enemies – ‘Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission’ etc. – while the chorus riff never returns, in a strange but very telling quirk of song structure. If the chorus riff represented the unknown threat of the Enemy, which had to be known, then potentially the transformative guitar solo can be heard as the moment of gaining knowledge, by which the rebel position of voice and verse riff is strengthened and the threat of the unknown is exorcised from the song. Importantly, this is also one of the moments in RATM when there is the greatest sense of ‘anti-lyric’, of the vocal-subject really detaching itself from the beat and the riff. As De la Rocha shouts the names of the Enemies one by one, and repeats the all-important punch-line – the crux of the song: ‘All of which are American dreams’ – his words lift off from the militant repetitiveness of the heavy riff with its 4/4 metre, and continue to spin on into silence. It is one of the most subversive things that happens in any of these songs, properly problematising the relationship between the chilling truths spoken by the vocalist and the enjoyment of the power of the band’s swaggering riffs with which these truths are supposed to be intrinsically linked.
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3. Resistance Through Irony/Immanent Critique
By mobilising particular discourses, themes and ideas in the lyrics, the vocal-subject is also able to use the musical forms to deconstruct themselves. This is what Guy Debord and the Situationists called détournement: to ‘turn expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself’. Clearly this has its roots in the artistic practices of parody and satire, and the Situationists privileged a Dada-derived montage aesthetic, which would use mechanical reproducibility to force actual capitalist media, rather than stylistic pastiche, to deconstruct itself. The band Negativland would come to exemplify this tactic through music, helping to bring about the resurgence of the practice as ‘culture jamming’, which was important in the late twentieth century anti-globalisation and anti-corporate movement, and took an enduring form in the magazine Adbusters.
Détourning a particular cultural form involves not only revealing its own culpability, contradiction and lies, but also using it to articulate a critique that extends further than itself. It can be more than a T-shirt featuring the word ‘McShit’ superimposed on the ‘golden arches’ logo; it can go beyond comedic disavowal and nihilistic rejection in order to say something new. The examples below could be heard as attempts to ‘save’ the forms that they borrow from their own ideological compromise, apathy or emptiness. In this sense, they attempt to charge the musical form with a redemptive power and truth, which finds a sophisticated middle ground between the two strategies described above (i.e. pure criticism of power and pure identification with power).
> > > > > > > > > Stereolab – Ping Pong
Formed partially from the remnants of McCarthy, who exemplified a particular political strategy by poisoning their gorgeous jangly pop compositions with deeply ironic lyrics, almost always satirically positioned from the point of view of some straw reactionary, right-winger or hypocritical liberal, Stereolab largely eschewed such an overt position. Stereolab are praised primarily for their recherché grooves, synthesised delicately from a mix of lounge music, Krautrock and early experimental electronic music, which can easily be heard in terms of the ‘hauntological’ retro project that Simon Reynolds (2011) traces, of bands aiming to resurrect the spectres of a certain 1970s utopianism. It is this aesthetic which combines with Laetitia Sadier’s leftist lyrics to make Stereolab a more complicated ‘political’ band than McCarthy (whose British-invasion-via-Johnny-Marr guitars expressed the immediate inheritance of fellow Thatcher-haters the Smiths).
The reason why I include Stereolab here, rather than McCarthy, is the prevalence in their music of repetitive grooves which fulfil the category of technology of control, relatively impermeable by the vocal-subject, far more than the conventional song structures employed by the earlier band. If we concede that the groove of a song like ‘French Disko’ is an expression of concentrated power, we can hear it in the same terms of the Fela Kuti songs described above, in which the vocal-subject rides the groove as flag-bearer, claiming it as an emancipatory force with the refrain: ‘La Resistance!’. In a way, on songs like these, the retro space-age utopias referenced in the analogue synth sounds and on the song/album titles and cover art (as well as in the band’s name) are quite straightforwardly aligned with a Marxist politics, which was much more prevalent around the time (especially with the recent memory of ’68 and the Autonomism of the ‘70s) but not explicitly linked with that music. Like many of these ‘hauntologists’, Stereolab return the utopian impetus to the text in a far more explicit way (arguably as a kind of ‘mourning’, now the ‘threat’ is passed – see Derrida 1994).
‘Ping Pong’ is different; rather than match an emancipatory lyric to the retro groove, Sadier introduces a critical lyric, from the ironic point of view of a ‘realist’ bourgeois economist, describing the ‘inevitable’ economic cycle of boom and bust:::
It’s alright ‘cause the historical pattern has shownHow the economical cycle tends to resolveIn a round of decades three stages stand out in a loopA slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more
It is not just the upbeat, facile bounce of the music that is being ironised, in the repeated: ‘It’s alright’, and ‘There’s nothing to worry’. And it is not just the medium of pop music itself, its infectious pleasure as part of the pacifying ‘mass culture industry’, that is being called out in the injunction to: ‘Don’t worry, shut up, sit down, go with it and be happy.’ This would be the conventional model of culture jamming, or pop satire, to sing the ‘Real’ message of the pop text out loud: ‘Forget about all your troubles, escape from the real world, enjoy this tune and stop complaining, the good life is consumerist pleasure, etc. etc.’ But there is another level to all this that involves the music itself; the words ‘pattern’, ‘cycle’, ‘resolve’ ‘a loop’ all describe the process of the music itself, cycling blithely through verse-chorus-verse-chorus, a clear formal homology for the willful naivety of capitalist economics.
Tellingly, while the groove trundles along without paying much attention to the vocal commentary, whose placid, sultry timbre remains ambivalently insinuating rather than sarcastically bare-faced, the only real effect that the voice has on the music is in the chorus - ‘Bigger slump and bigger wars and a smaller recovery’ – where it initiates the little 'question mark' cadences which coincide with the final word: ‘Recovery’. These are the only interruptions in the flow of the groove and they function to cast momentary doubt on the upbeat economic forecast symbolised in the music; for a second, we’re not quite sure whether the cycle will begin again. What results is a kind of ‘immanent critique’ in which the vocalist undermines the musical setting while apparently taking part in it. The musical form itself is held up as a problematic model for a delusional and irresponsible economic ideology. This critical position is emphasised at the end, when the vocal-subject, as if to suggest an uncertain future, replaces words with deadpan ‘dum dum dum duhs’. Rather than continuing to cycle on blithely forever, the track ends on one of those ‘question mark’ cadences, refusing to resolve and effectively undermining the promise of ‘recovery’.
> > > > > > > > > Manic Street Preachers – Motorcycle Emptiness
At their most bombastic, the Manics tread a complicated path between irony and sincerity. Much of their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, laid the foundations for the deadly serious punk rock and industrial riffs of The Holy Bible, but ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ – the album’s biggest single – opened up a more ambivalent course which would come to dominate the band’s output after Richey Edwards’s disappearance.
The song alternates an extraordinarily heroic, yearning lead guitar, with a thoroughly Adornian lyric about the utter impotence of all real rebellion within the machinery of the culture industry:
Culture sucks down wordsItemise loathing and feed yourself smilesOrganise your safe tribal warHurt, maim, kill and enslave the ghetto
In a way, the song enacts Tagg’s equation of guitars-motorcycles-freedom/rebellion in a deeply ironic way. The keening, sighing, revving guitar is juxtaposed with a lyric that asserts an absolute, inescapable unfreedom. Both guitar and voice are poured over an epic, yet strangely toothless, descending bass figure. Unlike Walser’s ‘dialectic’, there is barely anything for the guitar to rail against or smash through, and it slides over the backing as if on ice.
The chorus, which is eventually joined by the lead guitar in a shredding solo in its final cycle, brings the myth of the free biker hero into the logic of modern alienation: ‘Under neon loneliness, motorcycle emptiness.’ The bizarre setting of the words of the chorus, which basically reverses the natural stress of all the syllables, can again be interpreted as an Adornian gesture. The marked, laboured syncopation of almost every word, straining against the beat, renders the meaning of the words themselves fairly incoherent. The artifice of the ‘false freedom’ of syncopation, in Adornian terms, here obliterates the potency of the cultural critique, just as the heroic swell of the guitar belies the crisis in the lyrics.
‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ plays out the paradox of rock music as a commodified counter-culture. The anthemic middle-eight, which repeats the line - ‘All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us’ – sees mass culture condemning itself through its own medium. And the way the track is experienced in general is as a naïve rock song which has been retro-fitted with a critical lyric (which is actually also indicative of the division of labour between music and lyrics among the band members) that doesn’t quite ‘fit’. The lyric upsets the integrity of the track not just through the ‘Real’ encountered in its content, but also in this ill fittingness.7
But the Manics do still clearly believe in the power of properly popular music as a political force. The kind of tension which they stage on ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ could be equally heard on other famous tracks – ‘The Masses Against the Classes’, ‘A Design for Life’ – in (almost) sincere terms. A performance of ironic lone heroism is replaced by a performance of anthemic collectivity as productive of class consciousness (although these days, it often seems like it’s received more as a kind of Welsh nationalism). It is one of the attractive aspects of the Manics’ aesthetic that they believe in the power of populism at its purest: that the pleasure of powerful riffs and choruses and massive crowds can be a positive starting point for a working-class, socialist music, as such pleasurable and accessible aesthetics were in previous popular struggles. This is where the band would end up in their stadium incarnation, after passing through the darkness of The Holy Bible, but for all the admirable populism of these albums, their political efficacy remains deeply fragile.
> > > > > > > > >
1 See Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions per Minute (2010) for a great overview of the socio-political context surrounding most of these artists.↩
2 In exactly the same way, the rock ‘n’ roll vocal-subject never is heard as a victim of desire, a casualty of a pre-existent lack, but as an empowered producer of desire in the listener, through the careful simulation of powerlessness.↩
3 Or, more specifically, what effect does all this have when heard by a Western listener in terms of American soul and vocal funk, rather than highlife and juju?↩
4 See Schmitt 1927 for the concept of the political.↩
5 See Fisher 2009 for 'capitalist realism'.↩
6 Quoted on the Reformation! fan site: https://sites.google.com/site/reformationposttpm/fall-tracks/glam-racket↩
7 The other key track which stages this kind of immanent critique on Generation Terrorists is ‘Little Baby Nothing’, whose glorious power pop rush and innocent piano subject is accompanied by a provocatively unlyrical, dense text about sexual exploitation and structural misogyny, delivered in part by the porn actress Traci Lords, in a squeezed, androgynous, New Wave-style vocal. The sweetness of the vocal line as it is swept through the rhapsodic song structure, without the opportunity to cadence or rhyme, combines with the lyrical content into a kind of masochistic celebration of the ambiguous role of frontwomen within mainstream rock music, culminating in the slogan, deeply redolent of the Frankfurt School: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany/Culture, alienation, boredom and despair.’↩