13 Nov 2015

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

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

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

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