13 Nov 2015

Chapter 2.5: Sonic Bodies, Vocal-Objects and the Aural Gaze

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

Over the last three chapters, I’ve discussed Donna Summer’s 1977 hit ‘I Feel Love’ in relation to a particular politico-aesthetic programme that found its most perfect manifestation in the rave culture of the late ’80s/early ’90s. As a disco song that anticipates house and techno, both in sound and in spirit, ‘I Feel Love’ and its vocal protagonist haunt the fault lines between shifting genres, identities, listening cultures and ideologies. Yet even the newest and most violent aesthetic eruptions cool and harden into something familiar. Deterritorialisations remain relative (see Chapter 2.3): each has its complementary reterritorialisation (see Chapter 2.4). The utopian spark of dance culture reterritorialises on specific spaces and institutions (clubs, labels, music festivals, style tribes), and on rave nostalgia, with its lost futures and historical fictions. Sounds reterritorialise on genre, style, voice, language, song, vocal-subject, meaning…

So what then are we left with? Desire passes from ‘intransitive intensity’ to something more straightforwardly sexual. Donna Summer materialises within the songworld as a vocal-subject, along with her own object of desire: ‘Oo I’ll get you’. And the listener/dancer is present as well, in a relationship with her and her desire. One of the obvious dangers that the listener faces when polyvalent desire gives way to unidirectional pleasure is one of an exploitative objectification. Is the vocal-subject then always first and foremost an object of the listener’s pleasure? And would this not turn Drew Hemment’s ‘house without a home’ — the ‘nomadic block of space-time’ that constitutes the heterotopian dancefloor (Hemment 1997: 5) — into a kind of mobile cage for the vocal-subject: the shrieking diva locked inside her diva house attic?

23 Oct 2015

Chapter 2.4: The Problem of the Vocal-Subject (Three Reterritorialisations)

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal Subject

This is the third in a sequence of four posts, which in turn form part of my extended essay series on the ‘vocal-subject’ and the pop song. These four chapters use Donna Summer’s 1977 hit ‘I Feel Love’, along with the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Roland Barthes, to address a number of fundamental philosophical questions concerning the vocal-subject as a concept.

We left Donna Summer, at the end of the last chapter, as a prismatic mediator of reflecting and refracting desiring flows, channelling synthesised affects through her sonic body, inviting us to co-resonate, co-vibrate, and thereby enter into a desiring circuit with her. In Deleuze & Guattari’s terminology, this is the point of maximal ‘deterritorialisation’. Desire is cut free from its object, the groove is cut free from its tonal root, the voice is cut free from language and meaning, sound is cut free from its relationship to production and from its identity as subject or object, and the listeners are cut free from the illusory closedness of their individual, gendered bodies and the dimensions of (visual/tactile) space that enclose them. The transformation of sound into musical space must necessarily be accompanied by the (partial) entry of the listener into that space, which is perfectly ‘real’, to the extent that any experience of space is real. The listeners are collectively (partially) deterritorialised, leaving behind the ‘everyday’ space of the visual-tactile dancefloor (or bedroom, kitchen, etc.) and entering a space that is part sonic: whose physical architecture is overlaid by a sonic/musical architecture, or a pulsing, shifting blueprint of topographical possibility.

This is a familiar musical space; it has been drawn in lines and planes and shifting masses in the air above the heads of many a seated audience in a (Western) concert hall. The particular allure of Deleuze and Guattari as theorists of choice for the rave generation is testament to the way in which the new dance spaces of warehouses and fields and clubs, with their continuous mixes (temporal coherence) and immersive sonic architectures (spatial coherence), attempted to install the fugitive territory of musical space in a manner that allowed it to be occupied with one’s whole body and lived in, if only for a night or a weekend.

30 Sep 2015

Words Fail Carly Rae Jepsen

I don’t read conventional music journalism/album reviews so much any more, because they increasingly drive me to despair. More and more, I perceive the insufficiency of writing when it comes to dealing with pop music. Music writing is its own genre, of course, and it can be very powerful, but it is also guilty of producing a whole load of bizarre value categories and interpretative frameworks in its desperate attempt to differentiate, define and assess musical phenomena. Most of all, I really believe that most of the dominant music review ‘narratives’ — i.e., the ways in which a review is given its own ‘literary’ structure — have very little if anything to do with how people actually listen to music.

Two recent and extensively discussed albums — Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION and Ryan Adams’s 1989 — provide perfect examples of this. I have to thank my friend Georgia (@gmllgn) for alerting me to the controversies surrounding both of them; her arguments were the motivation for this post. While both album releases were their own events, reading the resulting critical reactions alongside each other proves fascinating. The Ryan Adams album is a song-for-song cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989, with each song reworked/reinterpreted in Adams’s own style. This provided some (but thankfully not all) reviewers with the opportunity to rehearse their most unreconstructed rockist arguments, about Adams finding the depth and the complexity in Swift’s superficial music, etc. etc. This is a line of argument that is quite unambiguously sexist, in 1) its arbitrary attribution of certain values (depth, complexity) to some sonic characteristics and not others, and 2) its privileging of these (usually ‘masculine’/rock) values over others (usually ‘feminine’/pop). For a round-up of such critical reactions and analysis of their problematic aspects, Anna Leszkiewicz’s article ‘Ryan Adams’s 1989 and the mansplaining of Taylor Swift’, in The New Statesman, says it all.

Adams’s project, like any white indie guy’s appropriation and ‘authentication’ of a female pop artist’s music to make it palatable for his own earnest white male audience, was quite straightforwardly sexist, even before the critics weighed in. The case of E•MO•TION is far more complicated. It is, of course, an incredible album, with brilliant pop song after brilliant pop song, no filler. It is even better than 1989 (the original). And yet it has proven near impossible for some critics to write about. I am mainly talking here about the review by Alexis Petridis in The Guardian (that Georgia discusses, below) and the eerily similar review by Corban Goble in Pitchfork.

23 Sep 2015

The Singular Brilliance of Glee

It's been a busy few months, I've moved to Germany and not had much time to finish new blogbook chapters. Things are calming down now though, and I hope to write more regularly in the coming weeks.

However, I did recently collaborate with Georgia Mulligan on a listicle about the television series Glee, which you can find over at her blog: The Idiot Box. Through the format of a deeply subjective ranking of all the characters from worst to best, we try to make sense of this hugely influential show, its successes and its many failings.

I was a big fan of Glee when it started, and continued to find the show fascinating as it progressed through its six seasons, mainly because it deals quite uniquely with the way in which people use real pop music in their lives. As the only musical show to make use of extant songs, which fully exist  within the diegesis of the characters, it presents a listener-focused understanding of how music works, what it can do and what it means. The American pop repertoire is presented not only as an instruction manual for life and love, but as a set of tools and costumes through which action can be taken. The artists referenced in the show — not only their media personas but their song-specific vocal personas — are treated as a pantheon of gods and heroes, whose fables are editable and whose identities are open-source.

13 Apr 2015

Chapter 2.3: What is Music? (Three Deterritorialisations)

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

The previous chapter in this series used a single moment from Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ to discuss the concept of musical power as it is exercised by the vocal-subject. ‘oo heaven knows’: this is the moment when the voice takes control of the surrounding instrumental forces and begins to use it for her own devices. In the terminology that I set up earlier in the series, this is also the moment when the ‘track’ becomes a ‘song’ – the becoming-song of the music.

In these next two chapters, I will focus even closer on this moment, in order to test some of the implications of the framework that I have so far constructed – vocal-subject, objective instrumental forces, song, track, music – for ‘I Feel Love’ and for vocal pop music in general. This is particularly important because of the potentially fraught political and ethical implications of following such easy cleavages (between subject and object, voice and instruments, individual and society), when the sort of Adorno-inspired hermeneutics described in earlier chapters have been so extensively challenged in recent decades by more radical, and more optimistic, bodies of theory. To these ends, I will attempt to embed my analysis more deeply within the highly political aesthetics of Deleuze and Guattari, and thence to confront it with the scholarship that arose from the UK rave movement in the ‘90s (Simon Reynolds, Jeremy Gilbert & Ewan Pearson, Drew Hemment), which was so clearly informed by their philosophy from its inception.

4 Apr 2015

Chapter 2.2: Power and Agency in Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love'

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject 

The first part of this essay series was about ‘vocal-subjects’ who could resist but never redirect, overpower, capture or possess the ‘objective instrumental forces’ that, along with the vocal-subject, constitute the power division of each ‘songworld’. These were vocal-subjects caught in the dominating and structuring grid of beats, or the oppressive gravitational pull of a particular groove. Giorgio Moroder’s epochal synth groove, which rolls inexorably through the heart of Donna Summer’s 1977 hit ‘I Feel Love’, might seem to function in a similar manner. A pioneering moment in the shift in beat technology from virtuoso disco/funk ensemble to icy electro automation, ‘I Feel Love’’s groove seemed to remove something of the plasticity of the disco beat, alienating it from the act of its production.1 Like the tracks discussed in Chapter 1.3 (following the distinction that I make between ‘tracks’ and ‘songs’ in that chapter), ‘I Feel Love’ features a deeply coercive, regulatory beat – drilling home an unchanging, driving Moog pattern which would seem to predetermine what is and isn’t possible for the vocal-subject to perform, in terms of melody and rhythm.

However, from the perspective of the vocal-subject (i.e. as the song is experienced, rather than as we ‘know’ it to have been created), I will argue that ‘I Feel Love’ works in a very different way to the tracks previously analysed, even that it qualifies as a ‘song’ rather than a ‘track’. This is predicated upon the agency that Donna Summer’s vocal-subject displays in shaping and producing the ‘terrain’ of the songworld. She performs her control over the beat through a series of ‘high-power musical actions’, which will be the main object of analysis in this essay (already discussed briefly in the previous chapter).