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).

There is one ‘musical action’ in particular that is vital to this hearing of ‘I Feel Love’. Summer asserts her power over the song the moment she sings:

{{{{{{{{{ “OO HEAVEN KNOWS” }}}}}

This is the second line she sings – her second tangible mark on the song’s terrain, at [0:58].2 Before this moment (i.e. for the first minute of the song), we’ve heard the synth line establish itself with unrelenting vehemence, driving forward its self-perpetuating half-bar loop, the bass punctuation on each bar, the sturdy C root that is only further reinforced by the shift from C minor to C major [0:27]. In other words, the objective musical forces have had a huge amount of time to establish themselves, carefully and convincingly, and determine the nature of the songworld before the voice arrives.

The vocal-subject’s first phrase alights artfully on the framework of this backing groove: ‘Oo it’s so good’ [0:43]. She arrives into the songworld and tailors her first line to fit within it unproblematically.3 However, with her second line, she initiates a monumental shift in this songworld. The accompanying harmony moves (in a ‘tertiary’ motion) from C to E-flat, the first properly ‘new’ chord in the entire song.

But why ‘initiates’, though? I could just say that her second entry coincides with a harmonic transformation of the synth texture. My suggestion is that, the way we experience it as initiated listeners, the vocal-subject changes the harmony; she takes the groove given to her and uses it to articulate her new line. And she does it with a facility that is all the more significant.

Integral to this argument are the notions that: a) vocal utterances in pop songs can be understood as ‘actions’, and b) there is an ‘intention’ not only behind each vocal ‘action’, but behind each vocal-subject – their own private logic which makes their appearance across the whole of a single song cohere (a kind of raison d’être, or existential consistency, which can be affirmed (convincingly or not) in such a small, self-contained unit as a six-minute song, even if such a consistency (or ‘identity’) is impossible in real life). This ‘intention’ behind what you might call a discrete vocal ‘performance’ – since the unity of the pop song must account for the entirety of its vocal contents, just as it cannot extend beyond the song’s boundaries (enforced by title, by timecode, by physical containment on this or that format, by silence/applause) – is an important factor in the ideology of the pop song as cultural form.

‘Oo heaven knows’ is a vocal action that both supports and produces an idea of intention (i.e. what is the vocal-subject singing?, and why?). But, unlike other vocal actions, its power extends beyond itself, to affect the non-vocal elements of the track, and subordinate them to this same intention. Moments like this, as well as the following line (‘Oo I feel love’), are what I will come to call ‘high-power gestures’.

The Logic of Musical Actions

The interpretative leap between the statement ‘the vocal-subject’s entry coincides with a chord change’ and ‘the vocal-subject initiates the chord change’ deserves a bit of justification, especially since the previous chapter – my ‘introduction to musical power analysis’ – made use of the same conflation, without much explanation. It’s worth taking a moment to work through it, because the concepts of ‘initiating changes’, and ‘high-power gestures’ are at the heart of the next few sections of this blogbook.

a) Pop songs unfurl spontaneously in time

To reiterate a thesis from an earlier chapter, it is not – I believe – in keeping with the way pop songs are actually experienced (as ‘expressive’ or ‘performative’) to think of them as ‘finished’ forms, structures that exist before they are heard, or even formulae whose boxes we can hear being ticked with every successive section. Despite our cultural familiarity with the parameters of the form, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when we start listening to a song. Even if we know there’ll probably be a chorus after a verse, we don’t know what that chorus will sound like, how it will relate to the verse musically, what the lyrics will be, how long it will last, whether there will be a bridge, how many times we will hear it, etc. From the moment the first sounds of the introduction are heard, all of this is ‘up for grabs’. The song remains in potentia, and the vocal-subject is able to influence how it is actualised.

b) Convention/pattern/repetition isn’t self-explanatory, self-excusing or transparent, and doesn’t exist at all in the vocal-subject’s world

Very rarely is the vocal-subject ‘singing the whole, real song’, as it were. By this I mean, the vocal-subject as they appear in the song (as opposed to the ‘vocalist’, and indeed the ‘vocals’) are only very rarely conscious of how we as listeners conceive of them/experience their presence, within the whole context of the recorded song.4 One clear example is that of the love song; often singers are supposedly addressing their song to a single person: a lover. Even if they are ‘singing’ in their diegesis (e.g. self-consciously singing a love song (see Elton John’s ‘Your Song’)), the song that we hear exceeds the song that they hear (if just from the very fact that we aren’t intended to be hearing it at all). The vocal-subject of the most stripped-down acoustic ballad, in full control of their own guitar, nevertheless acts oblivious to the idea that millions of strangers around the world are apprehending what they’re expressing. And even in those instances in which a vocal-subject seems to be fully aware of their whole context, we cannot take the successful completion of the song, as totally representative of their expressive intentions, for granted. There is always the possibility of partiality, unreliability, failure. This is vitally important. In such songs, every re-performance is always ‘as if for the first time’, even if we’ve heard the song a million times before. What is important here is the vocal-subject and their place in the songworld.

So the potential arguments that ‘x is conventional’/‘we know x is going to happen because it’s a pop song and x always happens’/‘it’s just a formula, or a ritual, etc.’ cannot be reconciled with the logic of the vocal-subject. Even saying that a verse moves into a chorus for reasons of ‘aesthetic balance’ or ‘harmonic resolution/contrast’ does not cohere at the level of the vocal-subject. Vocal-subjects, unlike vocalists perhaps, have no interest in creating ‘aesthetic balance’; on the level of the song’s imaginary regime, which is where the kind of specific meanings that differentiate one song from another are produced, there is no ‘arrangement’, no ‘master mix’, no ‘whole’. There might be ends and goals, but there is no sense of a single ‘thing’ that is being ‘constructed’ from the first note and ‘completed’ with the final chord, and that corresponds to the totality of the sound events inscribed on a particular vinyl groove or within an mp3.

However, this sort of conception still dominates the way we talk about music; it is particularly common among musicians, given its relevance to the practicalities of writing songs, and it has trickled down into mainstream discourse because of the apparent authority ascribed to the way musicians talk about songs. It is by no means a more objectively ‘true’ or ‘real’ idea of what ‘music’ or a ‘song’ ‘is’. It is just another mental fiction, a construct by which we can force a bundle of sonic phenomena to cohere into a cultural ‘thing’ with a name: music.

c) All vocal gestures are performative utterances

In pop songs, sung gestures are time- and place-specific, relative to the vocal-subject and the ‘space-time’ of the songworld (see Chapter 1.1). Sung gestures are performative, in that they are very specifically meant to take place, to have their effect, at that particular point in the track. Each line, phrase or utterance is a carefully situated response to its environment.

As mentioned before, sung gestures also exceed normal speech, instead constituting speech acts whose effects can be heard on the surrounding musical texture.5 Sung gestures stand out as exemplary of the active, performative potential of speech, in that a song is first and foremost an attempt at doing something with the voice; moreover, by hearing any given song as a unity and a singularity in turn suggests that a single, unified thing is being attempted by the vocal-subject, which may or may not be achieved.6

d) Everything stays the same until it changes 

There are two degrees of stasis in pop songs: the stasis of a single state until it is changed to another state (another chord or section, or the entry of a new instrument), and the repetition of a previously heard succession of states (chords, beats, sections) until that cycle is disrupted, altered or otherwise amended.7 As with everything in the human imaginary, pop songs as imagined worlds tend towards a status quo, a ‘way things are’ that can be taken for granted, as ‘read’, ‘obvious’ or ‘transparent’, which subsists until something else happens that reveals its contingency. To return to Alain Badiou’s philosophy, that I delved into a little in Chapter 1.4, this is what is called the ‘Event’, a momentary eruption within the ‘Situation’ which means that – for those witness, and faithful, to the Event – nothing can be the same again. Our perception from within the songworld has changed: for example, perhaps the Event is our realisation that it isn’t a one-chord song (that other chords are possible), or that there may be a chorus as well as a verse (that other sections are possible), etc.

When we talk about changes within a song structure, we’re basically talking about micro-Events that disrupt the status quo of the song. Sometimes these events seem inevitable: following a four-bar pattern, something usually has to give. The important question then is: what happens next, and who initiates it? Does the pattern repeat itself, as patterns are wont to do, and thereby retain its identity, remaining securely and consistently ‘itself’? Do the musical forces change on their own, prompting the vocal-subject to react to their shift? Or does the vocal-subject seize the opportunity, the end of a four-bar phrase, to carry the song over into a new area of its own devising?

These events create the harmonic progressions, the phrase structure and, over time, the entire song structure. At the same time, much of the potential (‘expressive’ or otherwise) of pop songs, for the vocal-subject and for the objective forces, comes from the distribution of difference and variety over the course of a single song. Events – the results and the sonic traces of musical actions – can delineate, differentiate, divide; by setting up oppositions between motifs, phrases, harmonic areas and sections, not only is the distribution of meaning possible (since, as the structuralists demonstrated, all meaning is derived from difference) but the relationship between vocal-subject and instrumental forces is made political (if, as Carl Schmitt posited, the political begins with the division between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’). Thus, such events are incredible important as sites of concentrated power.

e) Vocal gestures which prepare or coincide with changes in state are experienced as effecting these changes

With this, we return to Donna Summer’s ‘Oo heaven knows’. The C pedal in the synths has been pulsing away for nearly a minute, with only a slide from minor to major mode to vary the harmonic feel. In other words, the initial, root chord is very firmly established, and the more firmly a musical state is established, the more momentous the change of state must eventually be. Summer’s first vocal phrase alights on the framework of the groove, comfortably inhabiting it, but with her second phrase the groove is transformed. In this way, the continuation of her vocal line takes precedence over the continuation of the root chord. It is her second entry which not only begins to mould the accompaniment figure into a harmonic progression but also clearly demarcates the eight-bar phrases.

Since all sung lines are also ‘actions’, whose means, motives and effects are audible in their own sonic content, the fact that ‘Oo heaven knows’ coincides so precisely with the chord change means that we must construe their relationship in terms of cause and effect. In order for the second phrase, in E-flat, to express its content properly,  the harmony needed to shift.8 In some of the tracks mentioned in previous chapters, the vocal-subjects didn’t have the agency to cause such harmonic shifts and were constrained to singing lines within one harmonic zone; in strong contrast, the vocal-subject here demonstrates its ability to range broadly in melodic shape and bend the harmony of the forces in support of a complimentary harmonic context.

High-Power vs. Low-Power Gestures

Vocal lines, because of their status as human actions with their own expressive intent immanent to them, will always take causal priority over changes in the instrumental forces where they coincide exactly. Such moments are high-power gestures for the vocal-subject, but they are not the highest power gestures. We actually have an example of a higher-power gesture a few lines later, just before the chorus, where Summer’s refrain ‘I feel love’ begins before the chord (and texture) change. This is technically called an anacrusis – a melodic phrase that begins before the strong beat of a bar. Anacruses, in the vocal part, have the effect of pushing through changes to the rest of the track. The idea is that the melodic line has already commenced, and is heading off in a particular direction, to which the accompanying forces have to catch up. The strong beats (or downbeats) of the bar are obviously key terrains of power struggle, in that events/changes tend to happen on these strong beats. This is largely what makes them so ‘strong’.

Remembering that, when listening to a song through (and from the point of view of the vocal-subject expressing itself in ‘real time’ as well), we cannot have any absolute certainty of what will happen next, the fact that Summer has already sung ‘I feel…’ before the downbeat gives the impression that she is very consciously and purposefully producing the event of the new refrain on ‘love’ – with its new elements, including backing singers and a faster harmonic rhythm (chords change more frequently) – by gaining control of that downbeat, grabbing hold of it in order to force the whole of the songworld to help her express her ‘feeling of love’ in that new section. This ‘refrain-event’ is experienced as a reaction to a pre-emptive action on the part of the vocal-subject.

The reverse situation is also very common: a low-power gesture for the vocal-subject in which their entry is a reaction to a change in the objective musical forces – a new chord, motif, texture, dynamic or rhythm, etc. Additionally, the objective forces can also deploy their own high-power gestures: transformative, ‘directional’ motives or progressions, new and arresting riffs, cadential phrases (i.e. harmonic/motivic phrases that pre-empt/prepare a particular chord change, a ‘turnaround’ in jazz for example, or a drum fill that leads into a new section), crescendos and infectious countermelodies. I’ve represented all these in a table below, from highest to lowest vocal-subject power:

A. Very high-power vocal-subject Anacrusis – vocal phrase beginning before strong beat (or event)
B. High-power vocal-subject Beginning of vocal phrase coinciding with strong beat (or event)
C. Low-power vocal-subject Vocal phrase beginning after (i.e. reacting to) strong beat (or event)
D. High-power objective forces Directional motives/progressions, new motivic/thematic material and cadential phrases

Analysis of ‘I Feel Love’ – Verse 1

With this codification, we can now attempt a kind of schematic power analysis of ‘I Feel Love’, focusing on the events or moments of transformation. Here’s the intro and first verse laid out, phrase by phrase. Events are marked in brackets, relative to bar lines and lyrics, and assigned a letter from the above table:

Intro [0.00]
Synth chord (C5) intro
Beat enters (16 bar intro): 4 bars: C5 – 4 bars: C w/ minor 3rd (E-flat) – 8 bars: C w/ major 3rd (E natural)

Verse [0:41]
|*                               |                                 |                                 |                                 |A?           |               |               |               |
(major 3rd cuts out)                                                                                                         (pulsing C)
Oooooo...                                            it’s so good it’s so good it’s so good it’s so good it’s SO good

|B                              |                                 |                                 |                                  |A?/D?    |               |               |               |
(to E-flat)                                                                                                                              (to F)
Oooooo...                       heaven knows heaven knows heaven knows heaven knows heaVEN knows

|B                              |                                 |                                 |                                  |                |               |                |       (A>)|
(to G)
Oooooo...                                                        I feel love  I feel love  I feel love  I feel love  I FEEL love                                                            I feel

Chorus [1:28]
|A                     |B                     |B                      |B               (A>)|A                     |B                     |B                     |B                     |
(to C)                (to E-flat)        (to F)                 (to G)                    (to C)                  (to E-flat)          (to F)                 (to G)
Lo - - - - - - - - - - - o - - - - - - - - - - - o - - - - - - - - - - - - ove,               I feel lo - - - - - - - - - - - o - - - - - - - - - - - o - - - - - - - - - - - ove.

Eight bar instrumental (C) [1:43]
4 bars: w/ melodic G – 2 bars: w/ minor 3rd (E-flat) – 2 bars: w/ major 3rd (E natural)

This leads into the second verse, which follows the same pattern as the first verse, with new lyrics and vocal harmonies moving alongside the lead vocal part. As a whole, the first verse and chorus comprise a very regular, conventional structure of 32 bars, with an equally conventional rate of harmonic change (and textural variation between verse and chorus). However, this kind of analysis cannot be applied within this paradigm (the vocal-subject knows no ‘musical’ conventions!). The question is not whether such a structure emerges, but how it emerges (i.e. who initiates each change?), and why it emerges within the logic of the vocal-subject.

On top of the two high-power (B) chord changes on the second and third phrases (‘oo heaven knows’/‘oo I feel love’), and the very high-power (A) entry of the chorus on the fourth line, with its anacrusis (‘I feel lo-o-o-ove’), there are a couple of other events that deserve a mention, and that add up to a display of enormous power from the vocal-subject. These events are labelled ‘A?’ on the chart above, and pertain to the relationship between the vocal-subject and the downbeat of each bar. After hitting the first downbeat of each phrase head on, the vocal-subject’s descending lines proceed to float around and between the beats, dripping sensuously through the gaps in the tight grid of beats that’s established from the outset. Each accented word in each repeated phrase just misses each successive downbeat (‘good’, ‘knows’, ‘love’ etc.), until the nadir of the descending contour, just before the start of the next four-bar phrase, at which point she lingers, seeming to wait for the beat to catch up to her final, irregularly stressed syllable (in capitals above: ‘SO’, ‘VEN’, ‘FEEL’ etc.). These accents effectively act as additional gestures of the ‘A’ type – anacruses leading into an event (the entry of a new, pulsing synth gesture in the first line, the move to a new chord in the second line) – but they are effected with the slightest fluctuation of the vocal line, leaning on those penultimate syllables. This allows the vocal-subject to place the final two syllables of each line in a more purposeful way, while redirecting the accompanying flow even as the voice falls into silence.9

It is this playful manipulation of the downbeat, eventually ‘exposed’ in the strong gestures of the chorus (‘I feel lo-o-o-ove/I feel lo-o-o-ve’), which effectively announces: ‘I was in charge all along’. Summer demonstrates her control more clearly by placing a new note (and a new chord) on each successive downbeat, ‘revealing’ her harmonic scheme for the whole verse (C-E♭-F-G) by repeating it chord-by-chord in accelerated succession, twice through. By stepping up to take easy control of each new bar, in order to carve out a (literally) uplifting chord progression to accoutre the single, central word of the song, she performs her unequivocal control over the flow of beats.10 The fluidity and flexibility demonstrated in her previous vocal lines are shown to be a front for an extraordinary concentration of power, all the more audacious in its nonchalance.

Smooth Disco Bodies in Striated Disco Space

This kind of relationship between vocal-subject and musical forces seems to completely subvert what was previously discussed as the seductive/coercive control of repetitive grooves and beats in previous chapters: the power of such accompaniment textures to control all the vocal-subject’s movements. In ‘I Feel Love’, the relentless predictability of the groove becomes a kind of handicap when faced with the casual flexibility of the vocal line. While Summer can move over and around the beat at will, the beat must go through its entire four-phrase cycle before reaching a new accented beat, wherein lies the possibility of change. And by the time it has cycled back around, she’s already there, starting a new phrase, directing it towards a new key area or section. The beat is straitjacketed by its own regularity.

As a political dynamic, this can be illuminated with reference to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, by considering their discussion of ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space in A Thousand Plateaus. In accordance with their holistic philosophy of the world as reducible to flows of different speeds, the theorists present an opposition between these two types of ‘space’ as applicable to every aspect of life, from mathematics to evolution, music to tectonic flows, architecture to the structure of human thought itself. However, these terms actually have their origins in music; Deleuze & Guattari borrow them from the composer and theorist Pierre Boulez:
In the simplest terms, Boulez says that in a smooth space-time one occupies without counting, whereas in a striated space-time one counts in order to occupy. He makes palpable or perceptible the difference between nonmetric and metric multiplicities, directional and dimensional spaces. He renders them sonorous or musical. (Deleuze & Guattari 2013 (henceforth ATP): 477)
Elsewhere, the authors make a similar distinction in terms of the role of numbers/numbering in each type of space. Striated space involves ‘dividing up space and distributing space itself’, whereas smooth space involves the distribution of something in space, wherein ‘the number becomes a subject’: ‘The independence of the number in relation to space is a result not of abstraction but of the concrete nature of smooth space, which is occupied without itself being counted’ (ATP 389). The authors continue their exposition of Boulez’s musical model thus:
At a second level, it can be said that space is susceptible to two kinds of breaks: one is defined by a standard, whereas the other is irregular and undetermined, and can be made wherever one wishes to place it. At yet another level, it can be said that frequencies can be distributed either in the intervals between breaks, or statistically without breaks. (ATP 477)
One way that Deleuze & Guattari choose to illustrate this is by distinguishing between ‘rhythm’ and ‘metre’ (or ‘measure’, as they call it). The notion of rhythm is deeply implicated within all their work, as paradigmatic to an understanding of the world that is predicated on the juxtaposition/interaction of multiple flows of different speeds:
Rhythm is never the same as measure. […] There is indeed such a thing as measured, cadenced rhythm, relating to the coursing of a river between its banks or to the form of a striated space; but there is also a rhythm without measure, which relates to the upswell of a flow, in other words, to the manner in which a fluid occupies a smooth space. (ATP 363-364)
To striate a space, metrically, is therefore to divide it, quantify it, measure it, impose a grid on it, rendering it ‘homogeneous’ (e.g. the space of the songworld, or of the DJ-set-world, is already established as a 120-BPM-space). For Deleuze & Guattari, striated space is ‘the space of pillars’:
These parallel verticals have formed an independent dimension capable of spreading everywhere, of formalizing all the other dimensions, of striating all of space in all of its directions, so as to render it homogeneous. […] [I]t seems that the force of gravity lies at the basis of a laminar, striated, homogeneous, and centered space. (ATP 370)
These are the same ‘pillars’, points, posts, centres and poles that I talked about in Chapter 1.3, in terms of the organising regularity of the four-bar phrase, the polarity of the tonal system, the regularity of 4/4 time, the symmetry of a rhyme scheme, etc. Deleuze & Guattari contrast striated space with smooth space in terms of an inverse hierarchy of the ‘point’ and the ‘line’:
In striated space, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to points: one goes from one point to another. In the smooth, it is the opposite: the points are subordinated to the trajectory. […] In smooth space, the line is therefore a vector, a direction and not a dimension or metric determination. It is a space constructed by local operations involving changes in direction. (ATP 478)
Rhythm, in smooth space, is the composition of infinitesimally distinct relations between sonic points; this includes the rhythms implicated within frequencies, between harmonic overtones and vibrations of different magnitudes, rather than the a priori division of space-time into temporal units (BPM) and the relation of all sonic events to this framework. For Deleuze & Guattari, ‘smooth space is precisely the space of the smallest deviation. […] It is a space of contact, of small tactile or manual actions of contact, rather than a visual space like Euclid's striated space’ (ATP 371). This ‘contact’ might be between two ‘different’ rhythmic values or between two ‘different’ pitches; however, in each case, smooth space is the space of ‘continuous variation, continuous development of form’ (ATP 478). This is because there is no real distinction between rhythm, pitch, amplitude, timbre, etc., when sound-as-space-time is envisaged within a smooth continuum of vibrations. Which is to say that, at the most microscopic levels, everything is always already heterogeneous.

For Deleuze & Guattari, there are political aspects to the relationship between smooth and striated space. For starters, space is always being contested: ‘The two spaces in fact exist only in mixture: smooth space is constantly being translated, transversed into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space’ (ATP 474). The key agents for this conversion back and forth are what Deleuze & Guattari call ‘the State’ (which tends to striate space) and ‘the War Machine’ (which tends to smoothen space). We already encountered arguments (in Chapter 1.3) about the violent, coercive nature of powers – often attributed to the State – which seek to regulate and control musical time and the agency of the vocal-subject (as well as the affective and physical responses of the listener-dancer). The State establishes ‘fixed paths in well-defined directions, which restrict speed, regulate circulation, relativise movement, and measure in detail the relative movements of subjects and objects’ (ATP 386). Clearly, this can be achieved musically through the imposition of metres, modes, scales, keys, regular harmonic and phrasal rhythms, rhyme schemes and conventional structures.

While my description of these ‘coercive’ tracks in Chapter 1.3 was informed by the Frankfurt School and by Foucault, who emphasised the structuring nature of power, containing and foreclosing our agency, and recuperating our resistance, Deleuze & Guattari affirm the possibility of the opposite movement: of moments of radically free action escaping and thereby transforming structures of State control.

Take the example of pitch, which Deleuze & Guattari borrow from Boulez. Pitch can be distributed according to the ‘logos’ of the octave, and the tonal system itself constitutes a striated space which governs the movement of pitch according to the circle of fifths, proper voice leading, etc. However, Deleuze & Guattari hold ‘chromaticism’ up as a ‘line of flight’, by which modern music (in particular, what they might call ‘the Schoenberg abstract machine’) escaped the striated space of tonality. This was achieved by following the line running through semitone neighbour notes (a movement of proximity, continuity, contact) to constitute a substance of musical space that could no longer tolerate tonal distribution. In this case, Schoenberg operated as the war machine that effectively destroyed ‘Western art music’ as it once was, i.e. unarguably, necessarily, self-evidently tonal; however, almost immediately, a new form of striation (the dodecaphonic system) was put in its place. Boulez’s advocacy of electronic music, then, was a way of following a new line of flight out of this new space, which was again based on a continuity of pitch, but this time based on the infinitesimally microtonal fluctuations of pitch made possible by electronic instruments.

As with all of Deleuze & Guattari’s theory, it is important to remember that there isn’t only one level at which this kind of opposition is operating, but that it is operating at every level in many different ways, all the time. Their brand of strategy, which they term ‘pragmatics’ or ‘schizoanalysis’, is at once political, ethical and psychoanalytical, and involves identifying dimensions in which this kind of dynamic is present, and experimenting with ways in which to encourage ‘deterritorialisations’, ‘nomad thought’, the smoothing of space, the following of ‘lines of flight’, or whichever term you prefer. We find Donna Summer in a musical space that is striated along many dimensions – in terms of tonality, metre-tempo-rhythm, language, technological knowledge, gendered division of musical labour, etc. However, she not only has the ability to distribute herself (her sonic body) within this space in a way that renders that space ‘smooth’ where elsewhere it remains clearly striated, but she enacts (in a way that is only partly metaphorical) the role of the war machine (or ‘nomad’), causing the striated space to reconstitute itself as a result of her deviation.

As a vocal-subject moving within a musical space that is distributed by automated, synthetic instrumental forces, Summer’s vocal-subject inhabits the song in a manner that contrasts starkly with the other musical forces:

| | | | Striated space (instrumental forces) | | | |
  • Rigid, homogeneous tempo/metre, marked by rigid beat pattern
  • Short, recurring motifs
  • Strongly rooted sense of key
  • Fairly homogeneous range of timbres
  • Each synthetic timbre has an internal homogeneity
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Smooth space (vocal-subject) ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
  • Syncopation
  • Irregular accents
  • Mobile melodic contour
  • Varied phrase lengths
  • Heterogeneous timbre (vowel/consonant sounds/more ‘organic’ timbre of voice)
  • Access to fluid/heterogeneous regimes of expression (i.e. between pure sound/noise, language and musical pitch)

Many of these attributes might seem intrinsic to dance music which features vocals, or pop music more generally, and certainly when I say that vocals have more power to derail and alter the direction and meaning of a song than other instrumental forces, this is the same as saying that vocals have a greater power of ‘deterritorialisation’, which is a quality of ‘smooth’ space. This kind of relationship is reproduced, then, in most similar music; it is a regular feature of vocal dance music that the voice necessarily occupies the space in a more ‘smooth’ dimension than the other instrumental forces. This is the power of the diva in diva house – blue notes, gritty ‘grainy’ timbres, howls, shrieks and yelps – that a flatter, ‘whiter’ voice couldn’t achieve (to say nothing of a fully synthesised or heavily vocoded voice, whose fluctuations of pitch and timbre have been quantised/homogenised to fit the parameters of the track).

As a specifically musical model, of the type that Deleuze & Guattari borrowed from Boulez, and embedded in a contemporary listening culture, these tensions have arguably lost any ability to carry the listener away on a line that transforms the very nature of musical space. Surely, early electronic dance music such as ‘I Feel Love’ could once have been heard in such a way, mainly through its incremental forms of development (similar to those of minimalist music, and many non-Western musics before that) which eschew a formal scheme of balanced sections in favour of what Deleuze & Guattari call ‘exploring by legwork’ (ATP 371). The graduated modulations of timbre that are possible from synthesisers function in a similar way. But now these aspects have become conventional, at least where ‘genres’, ‘styles’ and other listening institutions have crystallised around them. The opposition of smooth and striated space that I have discussed in ‘I Feel Love’ is more theatrical than purely musical, given that the order of the vocal-subject and objective instrumental forces is a kind of regime of representation. Yet, at the same time, there isn’t a clear distinction between this conception of musical ‘space-time’ and the conception developed by Boulez, and – indeed – other conceptions of space-time, which are equally dependent on phenomenological particularities, constructed discursively and function as representations of each other. Good, effective theory (like that of Deleuze & Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus) is able to cut across these stratified orders of space-time in a smooth manner.

In this way, ‘I Feel Love’ is a performance of the deterritorialising power of the ‘nomad’ vocal-subject as she appears in the track, her smooth voice slipping and sliding diagonally through the striated grid of beats, lifting it up with each new line as it follows her melodic will, until it eventually reterritorialises on the harmonic progression of the chorus. But it is also a performance of other ‘smooth’ strategies of occupying the world – concerning desire and subjecthood – which I will develop more fully over the next two chapters, while drawing on some of Deleuze & Guattari’s other concepts, as well as recent dance music theory.


1 Indeed, Moroder did compose the entire ‘backing track’ (which is entirely synthesised) before any of the vocal line. But this is not important.

2 This analysis, and all the associated timings, are taken from the album version of ‘I Feel Love’ (5:55 length), the final track on I Remember Yesterday (1977).

3 In fact, when the voice enters, it seems to ‘replace’ the sustained synth line, which had been providing the third of the chord. To me, the effect seems to be of Summer being ‘beamed’ into the track, with the shift to the third signalling (in retrospect) her imminent materialisation…

4 Hip hop is the key exception here, among mainstream Western pop forms, in that the relationship between the MC and beat usually reproduces the original live performative relationship between DJ and MC very self-consciously, with the lyrical content and style of delivery all reflecting this. This makes it particularly interesting when hip hop intersects with pop, R'n'B or other sung genres, when you often get vocal-subjects working across two registers, with all the dramatic irony and meta-commentary that such an situation permits. I'll discuss this in greater detail in later chapters.

5 It’s also true that all speech is to some extent performative; my own usage of performativity is therefore very broad. Imagine a song that tells a story; while not ‘doing things’ in the sense of J. L. Austin’s most-cited examples (i.e. marriage vows, judges’ sentences, bets, apologies), such an utterance could perform any number of actions: establish authority, frame or transform the audience’s perspective on a certain issue or set of objects, fulfil a professional or ethical imperative to inform or educate, cultivate an identity predicated on wit or mystique or intelligence or broad-mindedness, etc. I would argue that such performative intentions can be applied to the vocal-subject more productively than to the vocalist or songwriter, whose intentions might be more broad/generic (‘write a good song’, ‘say something original about love’, ‘appear cool’, or whatever.)

6 At the same time, there can be a productive distinction, at the level of intention, between the stated aims of the vocal-subject, what we might perceive as the unconscious intentions of the vocal-subject (who may be unreliable, naïve, self-deceiving (i.e. dramatic irony)), and the aims of the vocalist/composer/songwriter (which I am less interested in). In a love song, the aim of the vocalist may be to present some idea about love, or some contribution or observation on the musico-poetic genre of the love song, but the intention of the vocal-subject is to express their love to their love object (or to the cosmos, the ‘Big Other’ (Lacan), the abstract addressee to be projected onto this or that person). The multidimensional aspect of the song, however, in which a musical text can be deployed alongside a poetic text, can reveal an underlying intention that isn’t acknowledged in the lyrics. Why else decide to sing a song rather than merely speak the lyrics? (And from there we could also ask: why decide to speak the lyrics rather than writing them down and sending them?) Chapter 3.1 presents some examples of this, in the love songs of the Magnetic Fields.

7 I discuss this in greater detail in the next chapter, with reference to Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the ‘refrain’.

8 In this case, ‘expressing its content properly’ means maintaining the same relationship with the bass that the previous line established, beginning a descending phrase from the root pitch (E-flat), which requires that root pitch to also change in the bass (to E-flat). This relationship changes with the following two chord shifts: as the accompaniment continues to be wrenched up, the vocal-subject contents itself with occupying other parts of the harmony (specifically the 5th). This ratcheting up of harmony, by a minor third and then by whole tones (when harmonic changes tend to ‘naturally’ prefer a downward sinking, especially by fifths/fourths, in accordance with tonality’s own ‘gravitational’ pull), strengthens the sense that the objective instrumental forces are being pulled against their will, while the vocal-subject casually rearranges itself in a manner that permits it to continue its relaxed descending stepwise contour, doubling up on itself in a kind of spiral.

9 It is possible to hear the second of these ‘A?’ events – the shift from E-flat to F on the final ‘heaven knows’ – in a different way: as a kind of retaliatory event on the part of the instrumental forces (D). This is particularly the case if we prioritise changes of melodic pitch over changes of syllable. The root chord has been wrested from C to E-flat so that the vocal-subject can repeat its initial melodic line in sequence, a minor third higher. It is with the shift up to F before that final ‘-VEN’ that this exact repetition is frustrated, since where the melodic phrase initially concluded by rising a minor third (from E-major to G) to remain consonant with the C chord, in this second iteration, it instead rises by a fourth (from G back to C), and hence to a pitch that is not present in the E-major chord, but is present in F. Crucially, in the first and second verses, the shift up a tone in the instrumental forces precedes this altered inflection, even though the vocal’s glissando up to the note makes this rather ambiguous (is she being dragged up there? or is she lazily fulfilling the promise of an already completed action?). In the third verse, this is resolved though, since instead of lazily swooping up, the equivalent syllable from the vocal-subject is placed before the chord change, confirming (in this case anyway) an ‘A’ gesture. The harmonic progression itself underpins the ambiguity. On the one hand, the ratcheted upwards movement of the harmony works against the physics of tonality, which prefers to relax downwards and by fourths/fifths. But on the other hand, there is a sense of relative relaxation between E-flat and F, since it allows us to hear the E-flat as an incomplete movement from C to F, which is just this sort of fifth movement. What’s more, it forces a change in the relationship between the voice and the bass, in which the voice’s sustained notes are no longer in octaves with the bass, but in fifths. However, the next line, in which the vocal-subject is able to once again reproduce her initial melodic phrase, by once again ratcheting up the pitch, and at a more comfortable vocal register (rather than continuing to ascend upwards to a high G) certainly shows that she comes out on top. Hearing this event as a ‘D’ rather than an ‘A’ event frames the verse more as a kind of struggle, of the kind described in my ‘Not Following’ analysis, which fits my overall hearing of the song, outlined in the next chapter.

10 The profusion of false relations (pitches that occur in close proximity to their flattened or sharpened forms) in these four chords – B-flat and B-natural, but also E-flat and the implied E-natural of C major – increases the sense that shifting between them involves superhuman effort (false relations imply that chords are very harmonically ‘distant’). The sound of false relations, as a sound of a forcing-through of harmonic change, is established very early on, by the floating E-flat/E-natural synth which is replaced by (or transfigured into) the vocal-subject.

No comments:

Post a comment