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.

Drew Hemment expresses all this most beautifully in his essay ‘e is for Ekstasis’. Hemment talks about ‘house music’ (which he uses as an umbrella term for electronic dance musics) as ‘an environment, a house in which to dwell’ (Hemment 1997: 4):
It draws a zone of consistency, a territory, but only in the ambiguity of a territory unsure of itself, perpetually in motion. It is a nomadic block of space-time, a house without a home (HWH). (5)
This nomadic ‘HWH’ could then be carried around and refitted into any space: a possibility that quickly became a necessity, as the genre was criminalised and driven underground:
In HWH the dancefloor is not in space but of space. The refrain is a way of thinking the occupation of space: it fills it as it goes; smooth space is simultaneously filled and composed. (8)
For Hemment, this ‘house’ was turned into a ‘home’ through the activity of dancing, ‘an articulation of belonging in the sense of an existential projection’ (4). Dance was a way in which the listening body could inhabit both physical and sonic space. He quotes Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life: ‘“This mutation [of secondary production — the dance] makes the text [the music] habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient”’ (Hemment’s parentheses). Hemment goes on:
In moving with the music the dancer becomes a transient, a nomad. Just as Australian aborigines sing up the ancestral territory as they travel the songlines, so ecstatic bodies create their own world through the dance. (4)
But what happens when a sonic ‘house’ is already occupied by its own native spirit: a sonic body more perfectly at home within the musical environment, sharing its fundamental elements, noisily staking its own claims over the ownership and distribution of meaning? The vocal-subject confronts the nomad dancers with language and feelings and sex and celebrity. She fills the plateaus and chambers and corridors of the musical architecture with her own junk, her photographs and souvenirs, her sentimentality, her human peculiarity. The vocal-subject interrupts the kind of deterritorialisation that Hemment describes, just as the Song form interrupts the Track. In this chapter, I will suggest how and why this happens, as well as asking whether the vocal-subject completely precludes the particular brand of radical, emancipatory political aesthetics that continues to be found in many forms of non-vocal, electronic dance music.

For Every Deterritorialisation, A Reterritorialisation

In the previous chapter, I described three ‘deterritorialisations’ — of the refrain, of the voice, and of desire itself — that go some way to articulating the ‘becoming-music’ of ‘I Feel Love’, and of its enraptured dancing listeners. However, in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari are very clear that deterritorialisation is ‘always relative, and has reterritorialisation as its flipside or complement’ (D&G 2013: 54):
How could movements of deterritorialization and processes of reterritorialization not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another? The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid's reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. (10)
Here then is their famous example of the wasp and the orchid, which, in becoming a component in the flow of each other’s desires, together become something other than themselves: a wasp-orchid assemblage, or ‘rhizome’. They enable each other to become more than (or ‘other than’) mere wasp/mere orchid (deterritorialisation), and yet this hardly brings with it an explosion into unbounded possibility, in which both lose all trace of their identity. Instead, they reterritorialise on each other. The limits of the wasp-orchid assemblage are the limits of the new territory.

Deleuze & Guattari follow this with perhaps a more pertinent example:
The same applies to the book and the world: contrary to a deeply rooted belief, the book is not an image of the world. It forms a rhizome with the world, there is an aparallel evolution of the book and the world; the book assures the deterritorialization of the world, but the world effects a reterritorialization of the book, which in turn deterritorializes itself in the world (if it is capable, if it can). (11)
In a similar way, Hemment’s article describes house music deterritorialising the space in which it is played — through its imposition of new sonic terrains, dynamics, architecture that affect the listener intensely and physically — but the space at the same time reterritorialises the music; this is the difference perhaps between listening to it with eyes closed, in the dark, and stepping into it as it pours from a huge PA and bounces off the walls. Equally, he describes a deterritorialisation of the listener and their reterritorialisation as dancer within a body-music assemblage:
In entering the dance bodies are lifted out of themselves and onto a plateau at which they confront the externality of the potentials and directionalities of the music. In this collective moment bodies become one with the music, each distinct gesture the fractal-expression of the singular sonic algorithm. This convergence is not-yet an identity; it is rather that music and body enter into a zone of proximity with each other, such that each term becomes indiscernible from the other. This is a reciprocal relation wherein the musical flow is actualised as body-music: music becoming embodied in dance, dancers becoming disembodied as music. These are the two sides of a singular symbiotic relation or block of becoming: ‘block is formed, essentially mobile, never in equilibrium’ [D&G 2013: 305]. (Hemment 1997: 5)
For Hemment, these are some of the radically transformative aspects of dance music practice, which allow limiting identities to be shed, familiar spaces to be remade with all sorts of new social possibilities, and the miserable alienation of the subject to be suspended in an immersive dancing multiplicity. At the same time though, these reterritorialisations are also limited and have certainly become a lot more sedimented since the article was written in 1997. The club has become a familiar, standardised space with its own established set of rules, the musical conventions have become familiar enough for even the micro-variations of the rhythmic refrain to become predictable, the liberation of the night out has been recuperated as part of a prescribed regime of leisure: an occasional, sanctioned release and refreshment from the suffocating demands of work and family life. This is not to say that the radical possibilities have disappeared, but only to emphasise that every deterritorialisation has a relative reterritorialisation, and that the key is to keep finding ways to take it further, to confound and escape the sedimentation of rules and systems and conventions.

In the same way, this chapter presents three complementary reterritorialisations as a counterpart to the previous chapter, describing how the refrain is reterritorialised on the Song, how the voice is reterritorialised on the vocal-subject, and how desire is reterritorialised on the ‘sonic body’ of the vocal-subject. In order to achieve this, I will shift progressively from a larger to a smaller scale, beginning with a narrative interpretation of the entire song, drawing on my own power analysis, and then moving to a consideration of language — both the content of the lyrics and the effect of the language itself — before finally considering the materiality of the voice itself (its ‘grain’, after Roland Barthes), and the mechanism by which sounds are subjectified. To achieve the latter, I will return one more time to Deleuze & Guattari, in an attempt to adapt their notion of ‘faciality’ to the voice. This ‘face of the voice’ is just one aspect of the messy, multidimensional phenomenology of the vocal-subject, which also involves a ‘body of the voice’ (or ‘sonic body’), both of which can be emphasised and utilised through different performance styles and genres, or blurred/effaced/deterritorialised through particular techniques and technologies. The resulting analysis of ‘I Feel Love’ positions its vocal-subject at the limits of the song form, yearning to lose herself in pure desire but cognizant of the power and autonomy at stake in such an abandonment.

Reterritorialisation 1: The Refrain

In Chapter 2.2, I presented an analysis of the introduction and first verse of ‘I Feel Love’, up until the chorus (‘I feel lo-o-o-ove’).1 Using the framework of power analysis, by which each musical event is initiated by either the vocal-subject or the objective instrumental forces, I argue that this verse is a display of power on behalf of the vocal-subject, who manipulates and moulds the groove in order to express and reproduce her desire. I also argue that the vocal-subject’s key utterance, ‘I feel love’, is an encapsulation of pure, self-perpetuating, objectless desire, of the kind that Simon Reynolds mentions in his discussion of ’ardkore music:
No narrative, no destination: ’ardkore is an intransitive acceleration, an intensity without object…. Does this disappearance of the object of desire, this intransitive intensity, make ’ardkore a culture of autistic bliss? Certainly, sex as the central metaphor of dancing seems remoter than ever. (cited in Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 66)
But what of the rest of ‘I Feel Love’, after the first verse? If we hear the unfurling of the first verse in terms of purely spontaneous events, albeit with the downbeat of each four-bar phrase super-charged with transformational potential, is it possible to hear the second verse in the same way, given that the sequence of its events is almost identical? During the course of the first verse, the vocal-subject has created a refrain — a set pattern of power dynamics — which is affirmed as it cycles back round in the second verse (see previous chapter for Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the refrain). Clearly, a problem emerges here. If, as previously stated, the vocal-subject (unlike the artist/vocalist) knows no compositional conventions, no song forms, no genre or style requirements, but only the moment-to-moment dynamics of repetition or transformation, how then can we account for ‘strophic’ forms. These are musical forms in which the same musical characteristics recur with different lyrics: songs that constitute a number of different ‘verses’. ‘I Feel Love’ is almost strophic, in that it features three verses with almost identical musical parameters, with the second and third verses separated by a breakdown.

In D&G’s terms, we can say that, just as the deterritorialisation of the groove-as-refrain — the rooted, monoharmonic, rhythmic motive — is reterritorialised on a harmonic progression (e.g., the four-chord progression in the chorus), so the deterritorialisation of the track onto a song (the tracing of a vocalist-synth, or melody-rhythm, assemblage), is complemented by a reterritorialisation onto a larger-scale refrain: the 32-bar verse itself. But how does this translate in power analytical terms, and how can it inform a narrative interpretation of the song?

At this point, we need to remember two things. First, there is already a political dimension to the sedimentation of a refrain; once a refrain has been established, it is predisposed to continually repeat. It becomes a ‘stable’ state and takes on a sense of normality, obviousness, unmarkedness, or what Deleuze & Guattari call a sense of ‘home’ (D&G 2013: 312). In some ways, therefore, the power is hereby further consolidated with whomsoever had the strongest effect on the initial verse’s construction (i.e., in this case, the vocal-subject). This can be heard as the making of hegemony, as a series of contingent events and real struggles becoming ‘reified’ into a solid, set ‘thing’: the refrain. ‘That’s just the way it goes’. From this situation, it becomes all the more difficult for an event to break through, for the objective musical forces to wrest the song in another direction. At the same time though, the course of the refrain still isn’t completely determined. Anything could happen at any time. The second verse is still being written through power struggles between vocal-subject and objective forces; it’s just that the new sense of ‘normality’ greatly decreases the less powerful agents’ mandate for change.

Second, it’s worth zooming out to hear what actually has changed with the entry of the new verse. Just as the song begins with formative struggles being played out on a beat-to-beat level, then on a chord-to-chord and phrase-to-phrase level, as it proceeds we need to widen our perspective to hear the structure on a section-to-section level. Even as refrains have been established (verse, chorus, etc.), these entire refrains can be co-opted and played against each other, in the service of either vocal-subject or instrumental forces. As D&G write, ‘[A] territory has two notable effects: a reorganization of functions and a regrouping of forces’ (D&G 2013: 320; emphasis in the original). If a chorus is perennially followed by a return to a verse, yet at a certain point it is instead followed by another chorus, this signals a meaningful disruption of the refrain, the initiation of which should be interrogated.


Verse 2 (1:58–3:14)

Verse 2 is initiated after an eight-bar condensation of the intro [1:43]. The sustained synths — which exploded back in, along with the backing vocals, in the chorus of Verse 1 — continue to hover over the synth groove, on a bare fifth and then a shifting minor-to-major third [1:50], and when the vocal-subject re-enters, in the same manner as before, she is still accompanied by backing vocals, bolstering her melodic line with harmonies on the upper third [1:58]. The other main change is (of course) the new lyrics, which I will discuss in the next section. Apart from the addition of the backing vocals, the verse proceeds as before, with the same explosion of sustained synths on the chorus [2:44].

The next major event occurs immediately after the Verse 2 chorus [3:06]. Rather than coming off after eight bars (i.e., 2x ‘I feel lo-o-o-ove’) as before, the vocal-subject repeats the refrain again (the high-power anacrusis on ‘I feel…” shows that she initiates this). At the same time, however, all the elements in the track besides the main bass synth begin to fade out, and over the course of the eight-bar repeat, they recede into silence, leaving only a stripped-down version of the main groove [3:14]. The effect is one of a kind of false ending: a conventional ‘fade out’ in which the bass synth refuses to join. In a clear high-power gesture, the bass synth is left as the only presence in the track; it cycles around the four-chord progression for another four bars, but then it reverts on the original tonic groove [3:21].

Breakdown (3:21–4:06)

What we get in the succeeding ‘breakdown’ section, then, is a regrouping of the initial, deeply rooted rhythmic groove. Other percussion elements re-enter rather erratically (at first after three-bar intervals, and then after more predictable four-bar intervals), as eventually do the tonic downbeat stabs [4:05]. Four bars after this, the treble synths re-enter, but with a greater abruptness than in the intro (in which they faded in before the groove began) [4:03]. The effect of this abruptness is upheld and intensified by the vocal-subject’s entry, initiating Verse 3 [4:06]. Rather than waiting another four bars, or even a regular two bars, she initiates the third verse six beats (one-and-a-half bars) later. This comes across as a very aggressive gesture in that it forces the groove to reset itself, shifting the downbeat to the centre of the bar and momentarily confounding the downbeat stabs that mark each bar of the groove.

Verse 3 (4:06–5:28)

For the third verse, another backing vocal is added to the melodic line, completing the triad by adding an even higher fifth on top of the upper third. What’s more, the high synths are maintained throughout the verse, rather than fading out at the start as they do in previous verses. Again, the lyrics have changed, but the structure of the verse otherwise remains the same (albeit with the ‘explosion’ of synths and backing vocals on the chorus [4:52] slightly less marked, since these are already present in the track).

Outro (5:29–5:53)

The third verse ends in the same manner as the second verse, with the vocal-subject going for an additional repeat of the refrain, and this coinciding with a fade out of all elements except the bass synth. The fade out takes slightly longer (12 bars in all) but, as before, after 12 bars, the bass synth stops cycling through the four-chord progression and reverts to the tonic groove. Eventually, this fades out too, although it remains the sole presence on the track for at least 12 bars.


So, while each verse involves the vocal-subject systematically transforming the tonic groove into the four-chord refrain, the passages between the verses feature a push back in the other direction, on the part of the instrumental forces (and in particular, the bass synth). The result is a succession of pushes and pulls, intensifying with each new structural event, which can best be perceived in terms of the ‘elastic’ quality of the groove: however forcefully the vocal-subject attempts to mould it, it keeps returning to its original state. Between Verses 1 and 2, the groove returns immediately to the tonic after the refrain — it doesn’t ‘hold’ its new four-chord shape at all. However, the vocal-subject is still close by, and she quickly re-enters to repeat the transformation process (with ‘reinforcements’ in the form of the backing vocals). Her repetition of the refrain further imprints the new progression onto the bass synth, with the result that — after the vocal-subject has recedes with the majority of the track (or, to hear it another way, after the bass synth has escaped her to move elsewhere, or expunged her along with every other element of the songworld) — it appears to hold its new shape for a few cycles.

However, this too is not a permanent transformation. Not only does the bass synth revert to its previous form, but it then proceeds to bolster itself with reinforcements — all the rhythmic and harmonic elements of the original groove — which further cement the return to a rigid tonic. It appears then that the vocal-subject’s power over the groove was ephemeral, sustained only by her presence. The song reverts to a track. However, the vocal-subject is not completely defeated, and rather than oozing back into the track along with the high synths, as she does in the first verse, she instead launches back in, imposing the start of a new verse on the groove halfway through a bar. This time, she has even greater reinforcements in tow: the triadic vocals and high synths, forces which belong to the chorus, but have broken free in a bid to invest the whole verse with the vocal-subject’s own patterns of desire.2 Again, the vocal-subject sculpts the four-chord chorus through the course of the verse, but again, after it fades out and the bass synth is left alone, the groove reverts to its former shape.

We might imagine the events of the breakdown repeating, and a fourth or fifth verse following, with greater and greater exertion on the part of the vocal-subject.3 But the synth fades and the track ends before any further attempt is made. The sturdy harmonic and metrical rootedness of the groove at the end of the track is just the same as in the beginning. There is a Sisyphean quality to the track as a whole: the vocal-subject makes repeated attempts to impose her will on the instrumental forces, and remake the groove in the particular shape of her desires, her ‘feeling-love’. Yet no transformation is permanent; she can effect a deterritorialisation of the groove on a phrase-to-phrase basis, but her power is limited by the complementary reterritorialisation on the verse — the repeated cyclical episode of her pushing against the groove and the groove springing back into place.

In order to complete a narrative analysis of the track, we must compare the power analysis given above with the inferred aim of the vocal-subject in the song — the vocal-subject’s raison d’être. To do this, we must consider the lyrics. For one thing, the transformation of the lyrical content from verse to verse can help articulate the shifting value assigned to a refrain as it crystallises with each repetition. However, the fact of the lyrics themselves (or of the vocal-subject’s shift from musical to linguistic development, implied in successive verses with new lyrics) also takes on a particular thematic weight in ‘I Feel Love’, which is particularly instructive for this analysis. At this point, it is necessary to discuss the problem of language for writers like Hemment, and its tendency to disrupt and derail the radical potential of dance music.

Reterritorialisation 2: Language

For Hemment, as for Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson in their book Discographies (1999), dance music can facilitate a fragmentation or dissolution of the listener/dancer’s (gendered) identity. However, this is predicated on an escape from the regime of language; in particular, it requires the absence of any kind of vocal-subject:
On the dancefloor there is a disappearance of language, and a disappearance from language: the subject of enunciation becomes inoperative, and hence so does the force of objectification that it carries. Neither subject nor object exist in music. (Hemment 1997: 6)
As mentioned briefly in the previous chapter, Gilbert and Pearson (following John Gill) draw on Roland Barthes’s formulation of jouissance to describe the particular experience of certain dance musics. This too is predicated on a breaking down of the regime of language, and its function as a discourse that constructs and orders identity:
We might say that jouissance is what is experienced at the moment when the discourses shaping our identity are interrupted and displaced such that [an] identity is challenged, opened up to the possibility of change, to the noise at the borders of its articulation. (Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 105)
Distinct from pleasure (or ‘plaisir’), jouissance might better be translated as ‘ecstasy’, which ‘derives from the Greek “ekstasis”, meaning “standing outside oneself”’. Thus, the authors describe ‘the ecstasy of jouissance’ as ‘precisely such a “standing outside” of the discourses which fix gendered identity’ (Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 104). Hemment describes the experience in the same terms:
In dance the body stands forth and becomes ecstatic. If the self is a sedimentation of a certain stable alignment of forces, the ecstatic body sets those forces loose. To lose the self, then, is not just an abandonment of rational thought, but a positive freeing of the forces that traverse the body. (Hemment 1997: 3)
However, the organising, rationalising regime of language forecloses the possibility of jouissance, instead producing plaisir:
When people use the trappings, sites and slogans of dance cultures in order to make identities for themselves, to define themselves in relation to the world, to carve out subcultural spaces, then they are certainly pursuing something more like plaisir; a way of articulating and reinforcing their identities rather than breaking them down. Almost any time that lyrics serve to organize the ways in which we relate to a piece of music, it is plaisir which is being experienced. (Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 65)
Much of Discographies struggles with the role of the voice in relation to what the authors call ‘metaphysics’: a certain privileged category of values and associated aesthetic markers that have clung to musical discourse since Plato, albeit shifting radically in terms of their particulars. Like any privileged set of values, this aesthetic framework is dangerous because it tends to reinforce rigid hierarchies and identities that obscure, erase or repress difference. Gilbert and Pearson’s main example is that of gender; they discuss how these values reinforce rigid gender identities and privilege a certain arbitrary array of ‘male’ characteristics over an equally arbitrary array of ‘female’ characteristics. This is why, following Barthes, they celebrate jouissance as ‘a regressive experience, related to a moment in the pre-history of the subject before gendered identity is assumed’ (67). In contrast, plaisir (or mere pleasure, including sexual pleasure) is less radical, in that it reinforces the gender binaries that jouissance breaks down.

With this in mind, the authors construct a short, slightly erratic genealogy of the singing voice in terms of its relationship to these privileged ‘metaphysical’ categories: Plato, in The Republic, advises that the musical (a realm of dangerous, bodily pleasure) be subordinated to the linguistic (sober, intellectual), by letting the meaning of the text determine a song’s musical dimensions (cited in Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 39). In contrast, by the nineteenth century, philosophers like Schopenhauer were privileging ‘autonomous’ instrumental music over sung music, as the real site of intellectual/spiritual significance. However, in terms of the discourse that the authors themselves are addressing (Western pop and rock music), ‘the singing voice generally (but by no means always) remains the site of meaning and full subjectivity, the point at which metaphysics most powerfully shapes music’ (72):
Why it is that the radio mix of a dance single always gives prominence to the vocal? Indeed, why has the popularization and mass marketing of a dance genre invariably involved a shift in its production values, away from an emphasis on bass and drums towards an emphasis on treble, melody, vocals? The answer, in part, is that these remain the dominant musical values of our culture. (71)4
The voice remains a problem for Gilbert and Pearson, though. Early on in the book, they claim that ‘what…makes house, techno and their variants so specific and unique’ is that ‘they eschew verbal meaning’ (38): ‘Most house and techno tracks have no lyrics. Vocal samples are used as pieces of sound rather than as meaningful phrases.’ Later, in their discussion of Chicago house, they attempt to excuse the frequent use of vocals, describing them as ‘elements of rhythm before anything else’, which ‘do not add up to coherent verses, [but] rather instead become part of the rhythmic syntax of the track’ (74, authors' emphasis). Regarding the use of soul- and gospel-derived song structures in house and New York garage, the authors offer the important disclaimers that a) ‘the rhythm is not subsumed, or de-emphasized by the presence of a vocal or song’, b) these song-style tracks usually function as ‘end-of-the-night anthems’, and c) most ‘“dedicated” dancefloors’ are more likely to play the dub mixes anyway (74).

By framing this music as ‘instrumental music’, and subsuming all the many varieties and examples of vocals in dance musics within this particular interpretive framework, the authors avoid getting bogged down in the ambiguous chasm between song and dance track, unambiguously placing disco on one side of the chasm and house on the other. The problem here is that so much of the most interesting and popular music of the last two decades’ has issued from precisely this chasm. When does a sung line change from ‘the site of meaning and full subjectivity’ to ‘pieces of sound’? Is this alchemical tipping point the same for all listeners, in all listening situations and contexts?

What we’re talking about here is the very moment of deterritorialisation/reterritorialisation that I discuss above — the becoming-music of the voice, the becoming-track of the song — and its reverse — the becoming-subject of the vocal, the becoming-song of the track. There is one point in Discographies at which the authors address this ‘chasm’ directly:
Almost any time that lyrics serve to organize the ways in which we relate to a piece of music, it is plaisir which is being experienced. We might think of those vast numbers of house and disco tracks which have lyrics with no more purpose than to exhort us to dance, to ‘feel the rush’, to chase ecstatic moments, as operating at the very border between plaisir and jouissance, pointing us quite carefully from one realm of experience to the other, generating as such their own very specific types of pleasure. Most pieces of music might be thought of as operating to some extent on both levels at the same time, through their simultaneous combination of geno-song and pheno-song. (66)
Here is ‘I Feel Love’, then: placed on the boundary between plaisir and jouissance, very much ensconced in the former and yet gesturing prophetically towards the latter. Despite the fact that it is very much about the radically deterritorialised jouissance that the authors describe, the ordering, orienting vocal-subject, imposing its structuring expression on the texture of the track, curtails, forecloses and exorcises the track’s own transfiguratory potential. Similarly, as the presence of the vocal-subject may interrupt (at least partially) the listener’s own jouissance, the vocal-subject herself is performing that same experience for us, whereby we can hear her success.

We are now able to complete our narrative analysis of ‘I Feel Love’. As the vocal-subject reappears in each subsequent verse, with backing vocals and synth reinforcements, to remould the beat in accordance with her desires, she articulates the same musical actions via different linguistic actions:

Verse 1: 
 Oo it’s so good
Oo heaven knows
Oo I feel love

Verse 2: 
Oo fallin’ free
Oo you and me
Oo I feel love

Verse 3: 
Oo I’ll get you
Oo what you do
Oo I feel love

We should consider what it means, within the framework of power analysis, for the lyrics of a verse to change while the sonic content stays the same (i.e., ‘strophic’ form). The implications are different depending on the power relation between vocal-subject and instrumental forces at that point in the song. Where the vocal-subject lacks power, the introduction of new lyrics can be heard as an attempt to take control of the semantic aspect of the section, to co-opt or call out the frozen refrain and shift its field of meaning, in a resistant process that I called ‘naming and framing’ in a previous chapter.

Where the vocal-subject has a concentration of power, a second verse can be a kind of victory lap, effectively using the established refrain to declaim: ‘…and this as well!’ Depending on the inferred goal of the vocal-subject (often to express or represent oneself directly and clearly), and considering that the initial exposition of verse material involves the articulation of a ‘state of affairs’ (relations, dynamics, a sequence of actions), successive verses can bolster the musical contour of a section (as the sonic residue of successful ‘authentic’ expression) while explicating or interpreting it: refitting it with further instances and details that might render it more meaningful, truthful, convincing, etc.

In all cases, though, there is a certain impotence inherent to a second or third verse, which must necessarily be ascribed to the vocal-subject. Whereas in the first verse, the vocal-subject had the power to ‘form’ the musical terrain (or at least strike an attitude in relation to it) using all sonic and linguistic parameters, in subsequent verses, this particular power is limited to the linguistic (and the limited impact that language has on other sonic parameters, such as timbre and rhythm). Considering that, at any point, an entirely new section (with new melodies, new harmonies, new relations of the voice to the beat) could in theory be initiated, for the same material return multiple times with only new lyrics (and backing vocals) to showcase the vocal-subject’s freedom, autonomy and power, suggests that her power over the instrumental forces has its limits.

We might conceive of this sedimentation of verse structure as the solidifying of a new discourse, discipline, organisation or identity category. It wrenches itself into existence as a novelty — an irruption into the way things are — establishing its own particular coordinates, which may or may not force a reorganisation of the rest of the social/cultural/musical situation. However, for it to persist, one must continue to speak or live (or sing) within its coordinates, making use of its particular processes, instruments and language, however limiting these might become. So, just as the repetition of a verse through the deployment of new lyrics can be empowering — orienting and validating a position within the world — so it can also be disempowering, particularly if the instrumental forces turn out to be more flexible and more powerful, shifting and mutating while the vocal verse is doomed to repeat itself.

All this depends on the vocal-subject’s intention for the song. As ever, we must ask ‘why sing?’ The vocal-subject of ‘I Feel Love’ is, I’d argue, attempting to articulate a particular affect (or sensation or emotion). At first, as argued in the previous chapter, it seems to be a similar affect to the experience of jouissance coveted by the dance theorists. However, with each new verse, this affect diverges progressively from the radical ‘intransitive intensity’ of jouissance, instead territorialising on a specific love object. Thus, we can hear a successive shift, from verse to verse, from a focus on the affect itself to a focus on the lover/addressee. While the lyrics return to the vocal-subject and her sensations/emotions, her actual sung lines extend further and further outwards to pull her lover into the orbit of these sensations. The result is a zooming in on the ‘you’, the love object of the song, who is not quite the listener and not quite a hypothetical, third-party addressee.

The narrative of the song is therefore the narrative of the territorialisation of the vocal-subject’s desire, onto the body of the love object as referred to in the lyrics. This progressive ‘capturing’ of her ‘feeling-love’ is reflected in the reification of her manipulation of the groove into a repeated verse, and the failure of this verse to transform the desiring flow of the synth groove. It is therefore also a dramatisation of the vocal-subject’s necessary failure to deterritorialise absolutely, despite her desire to do so. As such, it presses up against the limits of song form, which are also the limits of the human subject, of meaning, of gender, sexuality and identity. From the perspective of the dance music chasm — the disco-house divide — this is a negative reading, articulating the frustration of the desiring subject, never fully satisfied, always falling back into the well-established grooves of sexuality. It is a frustration of the dancer’s desire as well, since every time an instrumental groove attempts to flow freely, it is captured and bound to the vocal-subject: the ghost of future techno is exorcised by the disco machine.5 However, given that such ultimate frustration is a prerequisite of remaining a human subject with any kind of self-knowledge, and any deterritorialisation must ultimately be ephemeral and relative, the song can still be heard positively. Bearing in mind Deleuze & Guattari’s conception of love-as-affect — whereby ‘feelings become uprooted from the interiority of a “subject”, to be projected violently outward into a milieu of pure exteriority’ (D&G 2013: 356) — each refrain can be heard as a single ‘plateau’, wherein the vocal-subject ‘makes love’ with the bass synth, forming a melody-rhythm assemblage that eventually falls back into a closed circuit of pleasure, half-woman, half-machine.

Reterritorialisation 3: The Faciality of the Voice

There is, however, another reterritorialisation which precedes the reterritorialisation on language. This is the reterritorialisation on the vocal-subject itself, i.e., onto the vocals as subject of the song. I introduced the concept of the vocal-subject at length in an earlier chapter, but here I want to address how such a subject comes to be: the ‘vocal-subjectification’ of the voice. My contention here, as before, is that there is a chasm between music with and without vocals that is far wider than the chasm between the song and the track (i.e., between disco and house). There is a qualitative difference between the way in which the listener experiences vocal sounds and the way in which they experience non-vocal sounds. As soon as this recognition occurs — this subjectification of a sound in the ear of the listener — the whole musical world is re-oriented around them. This is the case even when their power over the musical terrain is limited (i.e., in ‘tracks’); it is the case even when the vocals are chopped up, sampled or otherwise used as ‘elements of rhythm’. Vocal sounds are fundamentally different to all other sounds.

We might turn to Adorno, to talk about this constitutive schism between the voice and the rest of the track in terms of the vocal-subject’s alienation from the songworld.6 This notion of alienation, a central concern of Marx’s early work, is considered a symptom of modernity, and particularly of labour under capitalism. As the individual subject is increasingly alienated from the natural and social world, and from the products of its labour, so the vocal-subject is alienated from the musical world, standing within it but separate from it. This kind of relationship was already a central aspect of Romantic Lieder (see Chapter 1.2), reflecting the Romantic reaction to modernity which lamented the fate of a bourgeois subject moving through the natural world but remaining separate from it. However, I have also discussed this schism as the foundation of the political: the splitting of a songworld into distinct and opposing factions (voice and accompaniment) which constitute an ‘us and them’ or ‘friend and enemy’ divide.7 This primary antagonism is also present in Marx, as a symptom of modernity, in the form of the bourgeois and proletarian classes whose constitution was the precondition of capitalism. Thus, the moment at which the vocal-subject is constituted as such (as separate from the rest of the songworld) is also the mechanism through which a song is able to articulate, on the one hand, the condition of the modern individual, and on the other hand, a political positionality. However, in order to address the particular effect of this schism on the potential for dancefloor jouissance, and its function as a reterritorialisation of desire in general, I have to return to Roland Barthes’s discussion of ‘the grain of the voice’ and its relation to the ‘geno-song’, as a contested category in the dance music discourse that I have described above.

In Chapter 1.1, I describe the vocal-subject in terms of Barthes’s geno- and pheno-song, the pheno-song being ‘all the features which belong to the structure of the language being sung… everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression’, while the geno-song is ‘the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate “from within language and in its very materiality”’ (Barthes 1977: 182). It would be tempting to use this division to separate the vocal-subject from ‘the singer themselves’: the geno-song as the material voice of the ‘real’ vocalist and their body, and the pheno-song as the performed persona, constituted by its expressive gestures. This is implied in Barthes’s essay; he describes the pheno-song as ‘[taking] its bearing directly on the ideological alibis of a period (“subjectivity”, “expressivity”, “dramaticism”, “personality” of the artist)’ (Barthes 1977: 182). In contrast, he states that his own active aim is to ‘cultivate a new scheme of evaluation’: ‘I am determined to listen to my relation to the body of the man or woman singing or playing’ (Barthes 1977: 188). This is quite distinct from the listening practice that focuses on the vocal-subject (understandably, since the musical repertoire being addressed is also quite different). However, his categories are still useful; the key difference is that both pheno- and geno-songs are integral elements of the vocal-subject, and it is not possible to separate them. Certainly, the pheno-song — by which we might describe the expressive actions and intentions of the vocal-subject — operates partly through language, but by no means entirely. A case in point is Donna Summer’s repeated ‘oo’ gesture, which is laden with expressive intention and power, despite not signifying linguistically. At the same time, the geno-song — by which we might describe the vocal-subject’s ‘sonic body’, or the entirety of their ‘material’ existence in the song — is a precondition of all expressive action and language. As Gilbert and Pearson affirm, ‘No sound can refuse completely the demand for ordered coherence, for some kind of meaning, however slight… All musical texts have both geno-texts and pheno-texts’ (Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 73; authors' emphasis).

At the same time, Gilbert and Pearson spend much of the book arguing the value of dance music’s privileging of the ‘geno-text’, and of what Barthes called the ‘grain of the voice’. For the authors, and Barthes, this is ‘the body in the voice as it sings’, which ‘forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication’, opening up the Kristevan category of the semiotic: ‘the order of pre-linguistic affect, of the unconscious drives as they organize and disrupt the subject and its experience of the body’ (G&P 62).8 One of the Discographies authors’ key arguments is that the development of dance music, which emphasises timbre, texture and bass materiality (as opposed to melody, tonality and linguistic meaning), marks an explicit exploration of Barthes’s ‘grain’. Moreover, this emphasis on musical ‘grain’ gives dance music access to jouissance, which is produced ‘at moments when the materiality of the means of signification interrupts meaning’, i.e., when the geno-song is privileged over the pheno-song, and the flow of ‘musical expression’ is deconstructed.

However, when the authors talk about ‘grainy’ sounds, they are mainly talking about bass, drums and synthesisers (in particular, the Roland 303, on which the signature sounds of acid house were produced). ‘The grain of the voice’ becomes ‘the grain of the music’, and the bodily materiality it originally invoked is transferred to the bodies of the listeners/dancers, begging the question of the voice itself.9 Considering the reservations that the authors express regarding the role of vocals in dance music, and the tendency of vocals to interrupt and foreclose radical jouissance, could the foregrounding of vocal ‘grain’ not redeem them? The authors remain sceptical. In a section that demonstrates the changeability of the ‘dominant music discourse’, as well as the authors’ own inconsistencies concerning what is ‘dominant’ (i.e., is it a case of academic elitism, commercial popularity, or cultural capitalism?), they describe the sharply contrasting evaluation of vocal ‘grain’ in classical and ‘rockist’ ideologies. The classical tradition (which Barthes’s essay focuses on) wants the voice to ‘present itself as [a] means of unmediated communication, […] a particular ideal notion of the voice as pure breath, untrammelled by the body’ (Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 68; authors' emphasis). However,
within contemporary rock discourse, the ‘dirty’, untrained sounding voice has come to signify sincerity, authenticity, truthful meaning of a kind which a trained singer (supposedly) might not be able to produce. […] The rock vocalist almost invariably uses the grain of his voice to signify the corporeality of his music, not in opposition to an ideal of immaterial, ‘pure’ meaning but in opposition to the perceived contrivance and technologically-mediated inauthenticity of ‘pop’. (68)
The dominant music discourse and its predilections and values continue to shift, and I’d argue that this era of the hegemonic ‘authentic’ white rock voice is rapidly waning, in certain listening cultures at least (and quite markedly in cosmopolitan Anglophone milieux). Moreover, the influence of poststructuralism (and Barthes’s work in particular) has made the exploration of timbre, sonic materiality and the semiotic absolutely central to new ‘classical’ composition, whereby the expressive potential of melody and tonality is now viewed with some suspicion. However, Gilbert and Pearson’s explanation still carries a lot of weight. Indeed, this suspicion of vocal ‘grain’ as interruptive of jouissance, even as a broader conception of musical ‘grain’ is celebrated as its prerequisite, can be explained in terms of the vocal-subject.

The grain of the voice is the condition for the vocal-subject’s subjectification. It constitutes the ‘sonic body’ of the vocal-subject; in place of Barthes’s ‘body in the voice as it sings’, we could call it ‘the body of the voice as it is sung’.10 The materiality of the voice is real, yet it is not a materiality coterminous with the lungs, throat and mouth of the ‘actual’ singer (and the acoustic machinery of the recording apparatus) but a materiality in possession of its own autonomy. With the voice’s first sound, whereby it commits its first act or strikes its first attitude within the songworld, it simultaneously comes into being, taking on a consistency that is maintained throughout the song. This consistency and materiality isn’t necessarily a preserve of vocal presences. Other instruments or sound sets can take on their own sonic bodies and maintain a distinct, tangible presence throughout the duration of a songworld. The difference with vocal sounds is that, as well as the voice having a body, it also has a face: the ‘face of the voice’.

The idea of the face is integral to Deleuze & Guattari’s theory of subjectification, which for them is tied up with signifiance. The face is a ‘very special mechanism’ situated at the intersection between these two semiotic systems, or ‘strata’. It is composed of a white wall (cheeks/brow) on which signifiance occurs, and a black hole (eyes) in which subjectification occurs: it is a ‘white wall/black hole system’. The process of ‘facialisation’ of the body is the transformation of the body as organism into that of a signifying subject:
The head, even the human head, is not necessarily a face. The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body, when it ceases to be coded by the body, […] when the body, head included, has been decoded and has to be overcoded by something we shall call the Face. This amounts to saying that the head, all the volume-cavity elements of the head, have to be facialized. What accomplishes this is the screen with holes, the white wall/black hole, the abstract machine producing faciality. But the operation does not end there: if the head and its elements are facialized, the entire body also can be facialized, comes to be facialized as part of an inevitable process. (Deleuze & Guattari 2013: 170)
The face is that surplus element or organising principle which is added to the body/head, in order for signifiance and subjectification to be possible, through which a recognisable ‘human subject’ may appear: ‘[There cannot] be any appeal to a preexisting subject, or one brought into existence, except by this machine specific to faciality’ (171).
[T]he form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form loci of resonance that select the sensed or mental reality and make it conform in advance to a dominant reality. (168)
Without going into this too deeply, I want to suggest that there is a similar ‘faciality’ of the voice in play in the ideology of the vocal-subject. This is the mechanism by which the sonic materiality of the vocal sounds — their sonic body — is constituted as a surface for signification (the inflections of timbre and pitch notching, gnarling and gouging the sound waves into the form of audible passions and emotions), behind which we discern the deep void of another human subject (in this case, the mouth and throat take the place of the eyes as ‘window to the soul’). For Deleuze & Guattari, faciality is a precondition for language, operating somewhere between the geno-text and pheno-text:
It is absurd to believe that language as such can convey a message. A language is always embedded in the faces that announce its statements and ballast them in relation to the signifiers in progress and subjects concerned. Choices are guided by faces, elements are organized around faces: a common grammar is never separable from a facial education. The face is a veritable megaphone. (179)
In this sense, there must be a faciality of the voice that is independent from the ‘visage’: the visible particulars of the human mouth, eyes, brow, cheeks, etc. Indeed, earlier in A Thousand Plateaus, the authors call faciality ‘a whole body unto itself’, from which ‘the voice…emanates’ (115). It is this ‘face’ that reterritorialises the voice, the moment it is perceived by the listener. We may not hear it in terms of a ‘white wall/black hole system’; perhaps instead we should think of the ‘white wall’ as a zone of discernible humanity. This is an extension, from an average pitch/timbre, outwards to the limits of the recognisable human voice: a range of pitches, distribution of timbres and rates of change. The ruffling of this human-shaped zone, or perhaps its deviation from a ‘neutral’ midpoint (the ‘average’ white face as a kind of ‘sine wave’ of voice synthesis), thereby produces vocal signifiance, expression, personality. And behind this, if there must be a ‘black hole’, it could be conceived of as the single ‘point of production’, the localisable point in the three-dimensional space of the ‘sound stage’, as it bounces through the fourth dimension of the songworld: its extension through time. This might well be imagined as a mouth/throat/lungs assemblage, sinking down into the depths of a body;11 yet this is not the body of Barthes’s Russian cantor — ‘the cavities, the muscles, the membrane, the cartilages’ — which resonates in the grain of his voice, but something infinite and dimensionless — the ‘whole body’ of the face, the ‘gazeless eyes’ and unknowable depths of the subject (Barthes 1977: 181, Deleuze & Guattari 2013: 171). This single point of production is heard as a kind of wormhole, through which the vocal-subject turns themselves out into sound.

Of course, it is in this moment of facialisation that the vocal-subject is produced as a gendered and racialised subject, and perhaps also assigned an age or a sexual orientation. This is why I mentioned an ‘average’ pitch, or ‘neutral’ distribution of timbres, from which the voice deviates and signifies through difference. This is also why Deleuze & Guattari specify a white wall:
The face is not a universal. It is not even that of the white man; it is White Man himself, with his broad white cheeks and the black hole of his eyes. The face is Christ. (D&G 176)
They describe the process of facialisation as a racist process, which ‘operates by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face’ (D&G 178). It involves ‘Christianising’ all faces, including them within the regime of facialisation, and then categorising them according to their deviance. Its goal is to ‘recognise’ every face and fix it with a certain degree of difference:
A ha! It's not a man and it's not a woman, so it must be a transvestite: The binary relation is between the "no" of the first category and the "yes" of the following category, which under certain conditions may just as easily mark a tolerance as indicate an enemy to be mowed down at all costs. At any rate, you've been recognized, the abstract machine has you inscribed in its overall grid. (D&G 177)
This is one of the key ways in which the interruption of jouissance by the reterritorialisation on the vocal-subject orients the listener in relation to the recognisable subject at the centre of the songworld. The vocal-subject is black. She is a woman. Or perhaps, like Sylvester, she is not a woman, in which case he is a transvestite. He is gay. This is a process that functions through ‘binary relations’; it cannot countenance queerness or gender fluidity. There are doubtless other modes of categorisation that are particular to the voice, to do with language, accent, genre tropes, and other expressive tropes; in each case, the vocal-subject is recognised and fixed according to their degrees of deviance from an ‘average’ waveform, which may change with time, place and genre, in keeping with the ‘dominant musical discourse’ of the situation.

How to Make Yourself a Voice without a Face

Having said all this, there are still particular ambiguities and escape routes (or ‘lines of flight’, in Deleuze & Guattari’s terminology) open to the vocal-subject, and its ‘face of the voice’, that are not so accessible to other modalities of subject.12 There are strategies to defer or evade subjectification, to blur the face, to bend or stretch the ‘white wall’ beyond human dimensions, or accelerate or multiply the black holes to render a coherent, ‘authentic’ subject indiscernible. In stark contrast to the ‘grainy’ authentic rock vocal — the white male voice in all its quintessential, undeniable subjecthood — other genres have cultivated ways to ‘machine’ their vocals so as to cast off the ‘face’ which would subjectify them, recognise them and categorise them. Pitch shifting, vocoders, autotune, vocal science, chopping and screwing, the use of synthetic vocals, as well as more ‘organic’ means of machining the voice (vibrato, falsetto, screamed metal/hardcore vocals), were all ways of pushing the voice towards (and in some cases, into) the chasm separating subject from non-subject.13 Significantly, these lines of flight were pioneered mostly by artists who might wish to disrupt and escape the tyranny of the white face, and the ‘authentic’ bourgeois subject behind it: black artists, queer artists, non-Western artists, proletarian and subaltern artists, artists working in less traditionally ‘masculine’ genres (like pop and dance). Hence, to return to Gilbert and Pearson, the prolific use of pitched-up, ‘chipmunk’ vocals in dance styles like hardcore (and the recent resurgence of this trend on the PC Music label).

At this point, we can stage a satisfying showdown between the two strands of theory that have run through this essay, but never quite confronted one another: the Deleuze & Guattari invoked by Hemment, and the Barthes and Kristeva deployed by Gilbert and Pearson. Since the grain of the voice is fundamental to its facialisation, an escape from the face would require not merely an escape from language but an escape from the grain. In stark contrast with Barthes’s ‘tongue…glottis…teeth…mucous membranes…nose’, we might follow Deleuze & Guattari to advocate a (sonic) ‘body without organs’. As briefly discussed in the previous essay (with reference to Goldfrapp’s ‘Strict Machine’), ‘the [Body without Organs (BwO)] is what remains when you take everything away. What you take away is precisely…signifiances and subjectifications as a whole’ (Deleuze & Guattari 2013: 151). It is ‘opposed less to organs as such than to the organization of the organs insofar as it composes an organism’ (30). It is the body’s becoming something other than an organism: a self-contained arrangement of organs. By ‘sloughing off’, ‘losing’ or ‘dismantling’ organs, one can enter into ‘rhizomes’ and ‘blocks of becoming’; in the case of the sonic body without organs, this would mean approaching the plane of pure music, escaping that qualitative distinction that all vocal sounds have (the alienation of the voice from the rest of the track), and ‘becoming-imperceptible’ (Deleuze & Guattari 2013: 150, 187):
Whenever someone makes love, really makes love, that person constitutes a body without organs, alone and with the other person or people. (30)
The faciality machine is adept at drawing anomalies and aberrations back into its schema and ascribing them with this or that subjective identity; hence, strange vocal apparitions can get folded back into some version of vocal-subjecthood (a good way of achieving this being the appropriation of dance or hip hop vocals into the typical (bourgeois) musical narratives of rock or pop songs).14 Once a genre becomes solidified, and its conventions processed and contextualised, new ways to categorise and contain these vocal anomalies emerge: perhaps these sounds signify a vocal-subject on drugs, perhaps these sounds constitute a young girl, or an angry troll, or a sad cyborg. The deterritorialisation of the voice allows this repertoire of faces, and the possibilities of difference within subjecthood, to broaden, even if at every stage it requires a reterritorialisation onto the vocal-subject. The vocal assemblages that become possible when the human voice is combined with electronic processors have done a lot to expand these categories, and to allow subjects to emerge that remain functionally inassimilable to the ‘authentic’ white rock face (or the multi-racial, ‘resilient’ pop face, which I’d argue is a new centre-point of authenticity in terms of vocal-subjectification (see the next chapter)).

Such vocal assemblages are also able to point the way out of vocal-subjecthood (and the listening practice which constructs it) altogether. This might engender the kind of interruption of subjectification, and the deconstruction of its identity, that the dance music theorists locate in instrumental dance music. Within a listening culture that continues to construct, perceive and value the vocal-subject, as a correlate of ourselves as listening subjects, such vocal experiments (until they are recuperated by the faciality machine) are often considered superficial, incomprehensible, incoherent or valueless. Still, Deleuze & Guattari specifically advocate a ‘programme’ of deterritorialising the face, as a way of escaping the delimiting, oppressive tyranny of signifiance and subjectification. Rather than departing from instrumental music, this strategy would necessarily begin with the vocal-subject:
Find your black holes and white walls, know them, know your faces; it is the only way you will be able to dismantle them and draw your lines of flight… [They are] the measure of our submissions and subjections; but we are born into them, and it is there we must stand battle… Only in the black hole of subjective consciousness and passion do you discover the transformed, heated, captured particles you must relaunch for a nonsubjective, living love in which each party connects with unknown tracts in the other without entering or conquering them… (Deleuze & Guattari 2013: 188–189)
If the presence of the vocal-subject precludes a certain politico-musical praxis, one which would escape the domination of language and identity through a practical, embodied deconstruction on the dancefloor, could we envision an alternative praxis specific to the song form? In the next chapter, I will conclude my lengthy analysis of ‘I Feel Love’ by focusing on vocal timbre, in relation to the objectification of the singing voice, the ethics of listening, and the ability of a ‘vocal-object’ to resist.

1 I use the term ‘chorus’ here to delineate, e.g., the final eight bars of the first verse (to use the term ‘refrain’ would complicate things in this context). As before, I am using the recorded version of ‘I Feel Love’ that closes Summer’s 1977 album I Remember Yesterday (duration 5:53).

2 A question arises here concerning the relation of backing vocals to the vocal subject. This is a very complicated issue, which I will address in a later post, as it brushes against other phenomena such as duets, choirs, and the collective vocal-subjects of boy bands, etc. In this case, since the backing vocals are all homogeneous in timbre and register, and are united with the lead vocals in melodic and lyrical intention, it is not difficult to hear them as included within the sonic body of the vocal-subject.

3 Indeed, this is exactly what happens on the extended mix featured on Summer’s 1987 Dance Collection compilation (duration 8:13), which merely repeats the whole breakdown/third verse cycle another time before the final fade out. Naturally, the mixing of the song into a dancefloor DJ set, facilitated by these fade outs and breakdowns, would also affect the power dynamic and overall narrative of the song. Such cases should be treated individually, since the narrative would be determined to a considerable extent by the preceding and successive tracks, along with countless other contextual aspects relating to the DJ set, the club environment and the listener in question.

4 Gilbert and Pearson’s rather awkward conflation of different notions of ‘dominant’ musical values, which ends up tracing a continuity between the aesthetic predilections of twentieth-century avant-garde composers, ‘authenticity’-fetishising Bob Dylan fans and commercial pop radio, is all the more problematic considering the contemporary positioning of instrumental dance music as a purist, neo-modernist genre par excellence. However, they do anticipate this turn, when decrying the ‘dancefloor élitism’ of dance music fans ‘eschewing the more popular sounds as “plastic disco”, “handbag house”’, and the legitimation of jungle as ‘a “serious” art form, entirely in terms of its “complexity”…and relative “difficulty”’ (Gilbert & Pearson 1999: 71, 80).

5 This puts a new spin on the aggression incursion of the vocal-subject in the third verse, casting the vocal-subject as ‘despot’ of the songworld — its ‘master signifier’ — overcoding the entire musical terrain as her own ‘full body’: ‘This is all me! All this music is about me! Your desire is my desire!’, etc. See Deleuze & Guattari Anti-Oedipus (1983), ‘Chapter 3: Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men’.

6 See Adorno 2006, and also Chapters 1.2 and 1.5 of this series.

7 See Schmitt 1927 for the concept of the political and the 'friend-enemy distinction'.

8 8 See also Kristeva 1980.

9 This shift was already anticipated by Barthes, who affirms that ‘the “grain” — or the lack of it — persists in instrumental music’ (Barthes 1977: 188).

10 Stephen Connor refers to a 'vocalic body': ‘the idea… of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice’ (Connor 2000: 35).

11 This could be what Richard Middleton calls the 'vocalimentary canal' (Middleton 2006b).

12 Middleton emphasises the inherent ambiguity (or 'indiscernibility') of the 'vocal body' (a phrase he himself uses): 'Recording technology, by apparently evacuating bodies from the scene of subject-production, places previous systems of both gender and race relations into crisis, a crisis which reassertions of familiar binaries will try to nullify' (Middleton 2006b).

13 For the extensive recent literature on vocal manipulation, see for example, McClary 2002; Gilbert 2006;  Bevan 2010; Kretowicz 2012, 2013; Borkowski 2014; Harper 2014b.

14 In a fantastic companion piece to Discographies, Gilbert describes the Bee-Gees' use of falsetto in terms of a Deleuzoguattarian 'becoming-woman', as well as its contradictory function (in combination with the movie Saturday Night Fever) to 'recode the flows of energy and possibility set free by this particular deterritorialising machine [i.e., disco as an egalitarian/liberatory space] in a form appropriate to the emergent needs of post-Fordist capitalism' (Gilbert 2006).