Episodes

Ep. 25: For Some Odd Reason (Kate Carr)

Today’s guest, Kate Carr, is an accomplished sound artist and field recordist whose recent work grapples with issues of communication and longing—themes we can all relate to in the Covid era. 

In part one of the show, we mark Phantom Power’s three-year anniversary and 25th episode. Mack does a little thinking out loud about the different kinds of audio work that we’ve featured over the past three years. The terminology and practices for audio work always seem to be in flux—and people can have completely different terms for similar kinds of work. Mack imagines a spectrum of sound work, from more materialist genres like musique concrete to more conceptual or idealist genres like the audiobook, which emphasize meaning over form. In the end, the spectrum eats its own tail—the material is always conceptual and the conceptual is always material. Sound is always both resonance and meaning and the two can never be completely teased apart. Signal and noise are one. 

Episodes discussed:

Ep. 20: What is Radio Art (Colin Black)

Ep. 12: A Book Unbound (Jacob Smith)

Ep. 15: Goth Diss (Anna M. Williams)

In part two, we meet Kate Carr, an artist the critic Matthew Blackwell describes as a “sound essayist.” Since she began it in 2010, Kate Carr’s work as a musician and field recordist has taken her around the world, from her native Australia to a doctoral program at University of the Arts London. She’s been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wire, and Pitchfork. She also runs the field recording label Flaming Pines

Since slightly before the pandemic, the theme of communication at a distance—always implicit in field recording—has taken center stage in her work. We examine three such pieces by Kate Carr. Each one explores how sound helps us communicate at a distance and how it comforts us in moments of loneliness:

Contact”—a meditation on sonic connection through radio, morse code, and digital technology.

Where to Begin”—a study of love letter writing, which Carr says has profound similarities with field recording.

For Some Odd Reason”—an exploration of the kinds of noise we came to miss during social distancing and the mediated ways we’ve tried to add it back. 

Together, these three pieces—one from before the pandemic, one from its beginning, and one from its interminable middle—explore how earnestly we try to connect across distance—and how heightened these attempts have become over the past year.

Huge thanks to our co-producer on this episode, Matthew Blackwell. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Iowa and a freelance music writer. He writes and edits Tusk Is Better Than Rumours, a newsletter that covers the discographies of experimental musicians.  He is also a contributor to Tone Glow, a newsletter featuring interviews with experimental musicians. 

Ep. 24: Voice of Yoko (Amy Skjerseth on Yoko Ono)

Phantom Power‘s Amy Skjerseth brings us the story of perhaps the most famous vocal performance artist and avant-garde musician whose actual work doesn’t get the attention it deserves: Yoko Ono. Collaborator with the Fluxus group in the early 60s, creator of performances such as Cut Piece and her Bed In with John Lennon in the late 1960s, director of experimental films such as 1970’s Fly, and recording artist of experimental pop albums such as that Fly’s soundtrack… Despite this large body of work, her most famous role was that of wife to that guy in that band—a performance that made her the target of misogynous and racist criticism that persists to this day.

As Amy points out, much of this criticism centered on the sound of Yoko Ono’s voice. Of course, as we’ve explored on this show before, listening to the other with a racist or sexist ear is nothing new. But in Ono’s case, this prejudicial listening is compounded by the fact that, years before the emergence of punk rock, she was pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable vocal expression for anyone, let alone a woman—moaning, wailing, chortling, and screaming.

The vast majority of listeners immediately dismissed these sounds as a punchline. On today’s show, we’re going to actually listen. What is the purpose and meaning and effect of Ono’s vocal artistry? We’re exploring it in her recorded work, in her feminist and pacifist political agenda, and most of all, in her film Fly, in which she uses her voice to destroy boundaries between sound and touch, human and animal, self and other.

This episode includes elements from an audio essay Amy published at [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies.

Music by Yoko Ono, John Lennon, John Cage, Tanya Tagaq, and Graeme Gibson, as well as “Crickets, Birds, Summer Ambient” by Nikodemus Christian.

You can hear most of the music again on this Phantom Power Spotify Playlist.

Yoko Ono’s film Fly is available on MUBI. The soundtrack has been reissued by Secretly Canadian.

You can hear Yoko Ono’s Twitter response to Trump (November 11, 2016) here.  

Ep. 23: Forest Listening Rooms (Brian Harnetty)

What would happen if you took red state rural voters on a walk into the woods with left-wing environmental activists and experimental music fans? Our guest this episode knows the answer.

BRIAN HARNETTY is a composer and an interdisciplinary artist using sound and listening to foster social change. 

While Brian studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London, one of his teachers, Michael Finnissy, suggested he look for musical inspiration in his home state of Ohio. Brian took that advice and the result has been eight internationally acclaimed albums. Brian’s music combines archival recordings of interviews and singing—often from the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives—with his original compositions. 

For the past decade, Brian has focused on the myth, history, ecology, and economy of Shawnee, a small Appalachian town in Ohio. His 2019 album Shawnee, Ohio was praised by the BBC, the Wire, and named 2019 Underground Album of the Year by MOJO. The album engages with the social and environmental impacts felt by the town and nearby Wayne National Forest in their long history with extractive industries from timber to coal mining to fracking. 

But Brian doesn’t just document Shawnee’s narrative—he intervenes in it. He’s an environmental activist of a gentle kind, one who gets area residents of different political stripes to walk in the woods together to listen—to one another and to the forest. All in service of protecting and healing the land. In this episode, we are  thrilled to present an audio documentary that Brian Harnetty has produced for Phantom Power about this quietly radical experiment, called Forest Listening Rooms. And afterwards I’ll speak to Brian about his project. 

Learn more:

Visit Brian Harnetty’s studio in Ohio.

Check out his Bandcamp page.

Visit his website.

Ep. 22: HEY, ROBOT! (Frank Lantz)

Hey Robot board game
The Hey Robot board game

Today, we’re playing with voice assistants and thinking about the role of voices in gaming with our guest, game designer and NYU professor Frank Lantz

Over the past nightmare year of the coronavirus, many of us have been hunkered down, trying to figure out how to pass the time with our families. Board game sales on Amazon were up 4,000% percent in March, when Americans began sheltering in place. And, of course, we’ve also spent way more time interacting with digital technology. These two things have come together in a weird and delightful way in Lantz’s game Hey Robot. 

Created by Lantz’s family-owned company Everybody House Games, Hey Robot is a guessing game you play with a group of friends—including your voice assistant or smart speaker. The premise is simple: Make Google Home or Alexa utter the words written in a deck of cards. The questions it raises are complex: What are these digital entities that many of us interact with daily? How have web searches and voice-based computing changed the way we talk? And what does this reveal about language itself? 

Hey Robot is available in a free online Quarantine Edition that you can play remotely with your friends. The board game edition is available on Amazon.

Today’s show was written and edited by Mack Hagood. 

Fake Cumbia music by Mack Hagood. 

Ambient music clip taken from Hiroshi Yoshimura’s album Green.

Ep. 21: A Life Based on an Experiment (Siavash Amini)

Episode 21 presents a portrait of Iranian experimental composer Siavash Amini. His music, which moves seamlessly between contemplative ambience, menacing dissonance, and spacious melodicism, has been released on experimental imprints such as Umor Rex and Room40. His latest, A Mimesis of Nothingness, just came out on the Swiss label Hallow Ground.  

Siavash tells host Mack Hagood that his entire life is based on an experiment and he doesn’t yet know what its outcome will be. This episode traces the contours of that story, from his boyhood as a metalhead in a small Iranian port town to his role in the development of Tehran’s lauded experimental music scene. Along the way, we drill down on the international and internal politics that add danger and difficulty to the life of this outspoken leftest composer. 

Amini is forced to navigate not only the authoritarianism of Iranian government censorship, but also the authoritarianism of western tastemakers, who sometimes want him to make the “Middle Eastern music” they hear in their own heads. Steadfast in his individuality, Siavash makes sounds that resist these authorities–the defiant anthems of an imaginary land, population: one.

Most of the music in this episode is by Siavash Amini–listen to it again in this Spotify playlist and check out this great introduction to his music on Bandcamp.

This episode was edited by Mack Hagood.  

Ep. 20: What is Radio Art (Colin Black)

What is radio art? It’s a rather unfamiliar term in the United States, but in other countries, it’s a something of an artistic tradition. Today’s guest, Dr. Colin Black  is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning radio artist and composer. He speaks to us about his practice as a radio artist and the influence the Australian radio program The Listening Room had on Australia’s sonic avant garde. We then listen to his piece Out Of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1, which both explores and exemplifies the possibilities of radio art. It’s both informative and a total treat for the ears!

The piece was originally commissioned by the Dreamlands commissions for Radio Arts, funded by the Arts Council England and Kent County Council.

Out Of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1 is a meta-referencing poetic reflection and meditation on radio art underpinned by an artistic treatment of dislocation, transmission, reception and place as a thematic underscore. The work is in the form of an abstract song cycle that chiefly oscillates between “songs” originating from High Frequency (HR) radio static/broadcasts between 3 and 30 MHz and those from interviewees replying to questions relating to radio art. Location recordings, sound effect and musical composition weave this originating material together to form a sonic confluence and juxtaposition of elements to stimulate the listener’s imagination while offering an insight into the work’s subject matter.

Interviewees (in order of appearance): Armeno Alberts, Tom Roe, Jean-Philippe Renoult, Gregory Whitehead, Götz Naleppa, Andrew McLennan, Elisabeth Zimmermann, Heidi Grundmann, Andreas Hagelüken, Teri Rueb and Kaye Mortley

Producer and Composer: Colin Black
High Frequency (HR) radio receiver operator: Dimitri Papagianakis

Duration: 00:25:10

Music for this episode is by Blue the Fifth. 
 
We also hear a brief excerpt of Things Change,Things Stay the Same by Rik Rue. 

Ep. 19: Under Construction

It’s been a minute, so in this short episode, we update you on what’s happening with Phantom Power and what’s coming in 2020.

The big (and sad) news is that co-host cris cheek is departing. After two years of lending his unique voice, ideas, and turns of phrase to the show–not to mention producing fantastic episodes like his interview with This Heat’s Charles Hayward–cris has decided to refocus on his many other creative endeavors. 

We will miss cris, but the show will go on. And he’s been kind enough to let us continue using his golden intro! Check out the pod to hear about some of our upcoming 2020 episodes, with guests including Colin Black, Harriet Ottenheimer, Jonathan Sterne, and Siavash Amini.   

[low humming and static playing]

This

is

Phantom Power.

[cars driving with birds chirping in background]

[soft organ plays from lowest key to highest key]

[Mack Hagood]

Strange tones echoing through my Cincinnati neighborhood

[birds chirping with soft tones in background]

bubbling up from underground.

[tones go from low to high]

[WATER SERVICE WORKER]

Alright..

[MACK, laughs]

That is crazy.

[background talking of construction workers with tones playing and birds chirping]

Wow.

Standing in front of my house is this guy from the Cincinnati water department. He’s in front of an open manhole cover. And he’s got a microphone lowered down into the manhole.

[tones and birds chirping playing in background]

And about a block down the street. There’s another open manhole cover. And the tone generator is making the sounds that we hear this upward sweep of tones. It’s called acoustic emission testing, I think. And it’s a sonic way of figuring out if the the water pipes are in good repair. I rather enjoyed the acoustic testing. But unfortunately, it was a harbinger of [laughs] less pleasant sounds that were soon to come.

[loud jackhammers, machines stoping and going]

All the water lines in my early 1900s neighborhood are being torn out and replaced, which, of course, means that all of the streets are being torn out and replaced. And it’s a it’s been a loud experience. Jackhammers. Yeah, this is what it sounds like inside the house.

[machine sounds.]

Idling trucks.

[idling truck noise]

Those are probably the worst, the constant idling machines everywhere. And so hey, it seemed like a perfect time to go ahead and get the roof replaced.

[laughing]

Just throw that into the ongoing cacophony.

[Hammering and footsteps coming through the ceiling]

This is the sound of my roof being torn off, right above my head as I sit in my office where I record this podcast.

[Hammering and tearing]

So yeah, it’s been a little louder around here, a little bit difficult to produce a podcast under these circumstances.

[truck idling]

And it’s fitting because Phantom Power is a little bit under construction, you might say, we’re going through some changes. And so I just want to fill you in on them. The big thing is that cris cheek, my good friend, and partner in this podcast for the past couple of years, is leaving. When we originally set out to make this podcast, we planned on it lasting a year, maybe two years. And it’s become an ongoing concern. And it’s been a lot of fun to do. It’s also very challenging to do. It’s quite time consuming, putting together the show the way we want to put it together. And cris just really felt that this was taking away time from his his poetry and his performance and his visual art and all the amazing things that cris does. So, it’s just gonna be me solo now. And I’m gonna miss having cris, his unique voice, his unique turns of phrase, his oblique angles of analysis. You know, he’s what he’s a one of a kind. And so the show goes on.

[Music playing]

And we’ve got some fascinating episodes coming your way in the next few months, we’re going to drop the episodes as we get them done. In the next week or two, I’m going to have a show on radio art that features the Australian sound artist Colin Black, who does really fantastic work.

[background talking] [machine beeping]

That’s gonna be great. I’m gonna have a series of podcasts,

[soft tapping]

at least two on voice. And that’s going to feature the linguist Harriet Oppenheimer,

[opening desktop sound]

and I’ve already done an interview for this series

[opening desktop sound]

with the sound studies scholar, Jonathan Sterne.

[recording of Jonathan Stern] 

My voice, and the voice, whatever that is can never be one thing.

Not to a subject, not to an auditor,not to a system of meaning.

[upbeat ending music]

[Mack Hagood]

I also have an interview coming up with the Iranian sound artist and musician, Siavash Amini–something I’ve been really wanting to do for quite some time.

[music playing]

So there’s a lot of good stuff coming up. And I just wanted to sort of drop a really mini episode here into your feed, let you know what was going on. And let you know that there’s more to come. And it was very nice of cris. He’s letting us keep the intro. So you’ll still get to hear cris’s golden pipes at the start of every episode. All right, take care. Talk to you soon.

[music ends]

Ep. 18: Screwed and Chopped (Re-cast)

Houston slab with neon in trunk

Slab trunks feature sound systems and visual displays.

Today we re-cast one of our favorite episodes, an interview with folklorist and Houston native Langston Collin Wilkins, who studies “slab” culture and the “screwed and chopped” hip hop that rattles the slabs and serves as the culture’s soundtrack.

Since the 1990s, many of Houston’s African American residents have customized cars and customized the sound of hip hop. Cars called “slabs” swerve a slow path through the city streets, banging out a distinctive local music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods.

Wilkins shows us how sonic creativity turns a space—a collection of buildings and streets—into a place that is known, respected, and loved.

In this show we hear the slow, muddy, psychedelic sounds of DJ Screw and The Screwed Up Click, including rappers such as Lil Keke, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, and UGK–as well as songs by Geto Boys, Willie Dee, SwishahousePoint Blank, Biggie Smalls, and MC T Tucker & DJ Irv.

Photos by Langston Collin Wilkins.

[low humming and static playing]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[Tamborine beat blends in]

 

Episode 7: Screwed and Chopped.

 

[Hip hop music with vocals cuts in]

 

Parental discretion is advised. Welcome to Phantom Power. I’m cris cheek. Today on the seventh and final episode of our first season, my co-host Mack Hagood converses with Langston Collin Wilkins. Langston is a folklorist an ethnomusicologist active in both academia and the public sector. Working as a traditional art specialist at the Tennessee Arts Commission. Mack spoke with Langston recently about his research into Houston’s unique slab, car culture. The city’s relationship to hip hop and hip hop’s to community. Enjoy.

 

[Different hip hop music plays]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

So before we get into the research of Langston Collin Wilkins, maybe we should get one question out of the way. Why would a folklorist be studying hip hop? Don’t they study things like folk tales or traditional music or quilting? Well, in fact the folklorist I know study things like bodybuilding and fashion and internet memes. Folklorists study everyday creativity. One contemporary definition of folklore is “artistic communication in small groups.” As Langston shows, it’s the way a town like Houston gets a look and a sound all its own, but folklore didn’t lead Langston to hip hop. In fact, it was quite the other way around.

 

[Hip hop music cuts out]

 

[LANGSTON COLLINS WILKINS]

Back when I was a kid, around 12 years old, I received my first hip hop record, which was the “Ghetto Boys Resurrection Album”  in 1996.

 

[A song from the album plays]

 

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, the south side, where Scarface is from that same area. The Ghetto Boys in my hometown heroes as they are for everyone growing up in Houston in those communities. I just became obsessed with hip hop, and not just the music, but just the larger culture and community surrounding it. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about hip hop, I was watching everything, just studying the culture and that kind of continued through college. When I got the grad school, I went hoping to study hip hop in some form or fashion. It was through hip hop that I learned about folklore and became interested in it. I spent a year doing ethnographic research in Houston amongst the hip hop community there. I focus mostly on I guess the more street oriented or gangsta rappers, and we’re studying the artists and producers connection to place. I was looking at how and why these artists was so deeply connected to the city itself, apartment buildings, streets, neighborhoods,  and how these attachments and connection to place have been reproduced in their musical output.

 

[Different hip hop song plays]

 

Why do Houston Raptors always shout out, call out, give dedications to places that they are familiar and intimately connected with?

 

[Several places are listed through hip hop songs]

Washington, Armstrong, Mainwelles and St. Williams. Robinson, Thomas Hopes, we all be chillin but when a sucka starts illin’, the chillin gets rough, and like (inaudible) we tie an ass up.

 

[song continues, then ends]

 

[LANGSTON]

That’s what I studied and as I was doing that research I realized that this car culture slab, which originated in Houston Texas, was a part of this place identity that these artists were projecting.

 

[Street sounds with cars, motors running, and people talking]

 

It originated amongst working class African Americans in the early 1980s. It’s hard to offer a concrete definition of slabs, but mostly they’re older modeled cars, older model American luxury cars. So we’re talking Cadillacs, Lincolns,old mobiles, if you can find those, and they’re modified in various ways. Some of the core components include the rims or wheels which are in the community call swingers or elbows depending on who you talk to. These are 30 spoked home like wheels made of chrome. That’s a core fundamental aspect to slap culture. Then you have the paint, which is typically called candy paint, really shiny, glossy, paint with bold colors, and beyond that you have the stereo systems which are also important components of the culture. These stereo systems feature multiple speakers, subwoofers that feature incredible bass sounds. They’re typically powered by multiple batteries. Essentially, slab is a modified, customized car and the components are unique to Houston because there are various car cultures, modified car cultures around the country, but I think the combination of the candy paint, the swingers, the elbows, and the stereo systems make slab unique to Houston.

[Street sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

Was there anything from your training in folklore that made you see this phenomenon and maybe even hear it in a different way?

 

[Hip hop music plays in the background]

 

[LANGSTON]

I had seen these cars going up, but I’d never really appreciated them. They were just how people got from A to B. That’s how they traveled. My uncle who I’m close to, he had not a slab, but he had a modified car, but that was just his car. Going through the program and learning about how cars and other forms of material culture are results of both individual and communal creativity, I began to look at the cars more deeply.

 

[MACK]

It’s interesting what you’re saying there, that these material objects we come up with, almost as these reasons we create spaces to come together and generate a sense of community, but also promote this arena for individuals to show off their distinct abilities at the same time. It’s funny, because the automobile has formed that space for a lot of different subcultures. Those old codgers who have their vintage car things like in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel, or whatever.

 

[LANGSTON]

Right, absolutely.

 

[MACK]

Maybe not that different in some ways.

 

[LANGSTON]

I don’t think it is. Beyond that, as I was taking the music, the cars were constantly referred to in these rappers’ verbal output. So, that’s what turned my attention for staying in the cars because I figured out that they were both an interesting form of creative culture in themselves, but also a fundamental part of Houston rappers, creative output.

 

[Another rap song fades in, then fades out]

 

People who own slabs aren’t going to your local car audio store to get their systems put together, they go to the audio guy in their neighborhood, who knows the culture, knows the community, and knows the aesthetic to put these sounds together. We were just talking about multiple speakers, heavy bass, and the base, you have to be able to feel the bass that’s part of the aesthetic. Actually, you’re able to see the music. That’s another part of this, that your slab is supposed to rattle, and the truck is supposed to rattle and kind of bump when you’re listening to your music which is typically local hip hop.

 

[Hip hop plays from what sounds like a car stereo. You can hear the base.]

 

At least in slab culture, in the music it’s meant to be felt and heard and seen. I think that’s why you get these terms like bang or bump, to refer to the sound systems.

 

[The bass has completely taken over. Hip hop music slowly fades back in to show how the bass fits. Both sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

You mentioned that it’s local music. Can you talk about the kind of music that’s associated with this culture?

 

[LANGSTON]

There was a major economic downturn recession in Houston in the early 1980s that resulted in a lot of people being out of work, a lot of black people being out of work, I’ll say.  At the same time in the early 1980s, you saw the rise of crack cocaine and that offered a kind of an economic pathway for many of those guys in those communities. So that’s kind of the context. There’s this community of dope dealers in the south side who wanted to flaunt their wealth and wanted their names, and their presence to be as big as possible in the cars and the music, the local hip hop sound. Scared, Screwed and Chopped, kind of allowed them to do that.

 

[Another hip hop song plays]

 

Essentially, screwed means to slow a record down. Screwed records typically are between 60 and 70 beats per minute. It kind of creates a muddy, slow and somewhat psychedelic sound for hip hop. The pioneer of the sound is DJ Screw who passed away in 2000. He was from the south side of Houston, Texas, again, from these working class communities.

 

[A song from DJ Screw plays. It sounds like a hip hop sound that has been slowed down.]

 

[MACK]

Anybody who’s familiar with dance music or hip hop production will know that 60 to 70 beats per minute is really slow.

 

[LANGSTON]

I think the slowness of the music is heavily influenced by the car culture, because these cars kind of originated out of the street culture in the mid 1980s. Pioneered by local drug dealers who kind of used modified cars to flaunt their wealth. They would put together these cars and they would drive them slowly, to  parade them to the streets of Houston. Very slowly so people could pay attention to him and focus on him.

 

[Hip hop song continues]

 

DJ Screws first mixtapes were being purchased by these local drug dealers. They would play them in their cars as they were traversing the streets. You had this slow experience, these slow parades going on through the streets of Houston. You also have the drug culture the lean, the Serb culture, which just makes you move extra slow, and that was certainly a part of the screwed and chopped culture and certainly a part of the slap culture as well.

 

[Different hip hop song plays, this one with with a faster tempo]

 

Lean, also called syrup. There’s other names for depending on who you talk to. It’s essentially prescription strength, cough syrup, mix with some sort of sweetener. I could be soda, or people put candy in the cough syrup. When you drink it, it slows your faculties down. You move slower, you you lose your sense of balance, which is why it’s sometimes called lean because people on the drug kind of lean over so, and again, kind of like slab, it became a marker of local hip hop identity.

 

[Hip hop song continues]

 

So you have this slow, muddy kind of psychedelic sound, that’s the screwed part. Chopping is a fundamental part of the hip hop DJ aesthetic, but what DJ Screw would do was that he would take two copies of the same record, put them on two different turntables, but he would play one record a little behind the other record. When he would mix back and forth, he would repeat phrases.

 

[An example of DJ Screw’s mixing]

 

That became the chopping part of screwed and chopped. Repeating phrases and sometimes repeating percussive sounds, so that the mix between the slowness and these repeated phrases. That’s essentially screwed and chopped music.

 

[An example of screwed and chopped music plays]

 

I think if you get down into DJ Screw’s mixtapes which they were maybe 250 plus of, if you haven’t been part of the culture, it’s hard to really understand what’s going on there, what he’s doing, and how complex it is.

 

[MACK]

When you say it’s hard to know how complex what he’s doing is, is it because someone who isn’t familiar with the original songs that he’s mixing can’t tell how he’s chopping them?

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah, I think so. I think because he’s mixing at any given time, maybe five or six records together, and he’s manipulating them in real time and then he’s going back and slowing it all down. It’s just these record,s these songs are hard to navigate.

 

[Upbeat, childlike music plays]

 

[CRIS]

People, people, help us out just a little bit here. Go to iTunes, give us a rating. It’ll take under five seconds. If you have more time, a small review helps us bring this to you. Give us some feedback on Facebook. Hit us up on Twitter. You know the score.

 

[Upbeat music fades out and slow hip hop music fades in]

 

[MACK]

So far, Langston has shown us how some of south side Houston’s African American residents customize cars, and customize the sound of hip hop. The slab swerved a slow path through the city streets, banging out music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods. In the process, individuals made names for themselves as makers of money or cars or sound systems or music while at the same time, the community made a name and an image and a sound for itself. This is the everyday artistic communication folklorists look for. It’s also the way of space, a collection of buildings and streets, becomes a place that is known, respected, and loved. All of this is taking place on the consumption side of the music, but as Langston explained to me, a similar social process was taking place on the production side. When DJ Screw and screwed up click rappers like Little Kiki, Fat Pat, ESG, and Big Hawk made tapes at house parties.

 

[Hip hop music winds down and ends]

 

[LANGSTON]

the screwed and chopped mixtapes. Essentially, he would invite rappers over to his house, maybe 3, 4, 5. They would have a big party, and in the midst of this party, he would begin playing music and recording a mixtape. What you’re getting on these mixtapes are a social experience.

 

[A mixtape is played. We hear music with rappers talking and laughing over it.]

 

This whole culture was rooted in the drug game, and so you had a lot of early deaths in these communities in the late 1980s early 1990s. You had a lot of memorial mixtapes, mixtapes that were created in dedication to someone who had just lost their life. You also had mixed tapes that were for someone’s graduation celebration. You had mixtapes to celebrate someone in community who had given birth. All of these tapes has some sort of social function to them.

 

[Mixtape continues. We hear a rapper come up with a wrap.]

 

[MACK]

So in that context then, DJ Screw is basically DJing and a party and then people are free styling.

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah he’s DJing a party, people are drinking, eating, having fun, talking crap to each other, and then he would hit record and he would do his mixes. If you’re a rapper in the space, you can come up and you can freestyle. Then they go back to partying for a couple hours. Then he would start recording again, and some other rappers could come up. If you talk to different members of screwed up click they’ll tell you that some of these quote unquote recording sessions will last all night. You would go over to Screw’s house around 7pm and you’d leave at maybe 9 o’clock the next day, the next morning. These are just kind of social events organically captured on tape. That’s what happening.

 

[MACK]

While it’s happening in real time, the beat is actually faster, it’s the original.

 

[LANGSTON]

Yeah, they’re recording it regular speed.

 

[Mixtape continues, then fades out]

 

The DJ Screw would take the recordings, put them into his four track, and use the piss control knob to slow the speed down.

 

[An example of this slowed down track plays]

 

[MACK]

Wow.

 

[Track continues]

 

[LANGSTON]

In my eyes, makes especially their rap performances much more interesting because most of those freestyles were done completely off the top of the head, and they were completely extemporaneous and performed in real time. These rappers don’t get the credit that they deserve for being incredible freestylers.

 

[MACK]

So maybe we should talk a bit about what that does to the voice.

 

[LANGSTON]

Just a darker, almost otherworldly tone to the voice. I think again, that goes hand in hand with the drugs that were being consumed, to drug market based environment that they’re coming from, and also the slab culture. It just kind of produces an almost ghostly vocal sound.

 

[Mixtape continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

I don’t know if you’ll agree with this, but I almost feel like to me, this music sounds more like west coast hip hop from the 1990s then the sort of, at least the stereotype of Southern hip hop.

 

[Different hip hop track plays, this one with a slightly faster tempo]

 

I was wondering if there’s some kind of connection there between,, like that car culture you’re talking about? Where there’s just something about this, that it sounds like riding music to me.

 

[LANGSTON]

I think there’s a deep connection. I think you’re correct for multiple reasons. One, DJ Screw, the pioneer of this whole culture, his favorite artists were from the west coast. We’re talking, Ice Cube and CBOE from Sacramento, California. Much of the music on those early screw tapes and even towards the end of his life were comprised, most of the music was West Coast based, hip hop, gangster rap.

 

[MACK

Just that endless, ribbon freeway.

 

[LANGSTON]

Right, there you go. I mean, you have to have a car to get anywhere in Houston. Our public transit system wasn’t great. You have to have a car to get around. Therefore, people spend a lot of time in their cars. The culture seems similar. It seems like you have to have some sort wheels to get around in Los Angeles. I think just the sheer geographic sizes of  these two hip hop centers creates a relationship between the two. I think that manifests in the similarities between Houston and west coast based hip hop.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

In the 2000s, both slabs and the chopped and screwed sound spread beyond Houston south side, and eventually beyond Houston itself.

 

[LANGSTON]

Between 2004 and 2007, local hip hop culture for the second time, because the first time was with the ghetto boys in the early 1990s, rose to national and maybe international prominence through music that was created on the northside of Houston, through this label called Swish a House. Rappers like Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug.

 

[One of these artist’s songs plays]

 

It was through them that screwed and chopped music rose to the mainstream, and they did it I think, by using car culture, because the first few songs that came out in that era from local hip hop artists were songs that were dedications to car cultures. Still Tippin was about SAP culture. Come Millionaires, Riding Dirty was about local car culture and the criminalisation of it.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]

 

[MACK]

It’s fascinating to me, because growing up in New Orleans, Houston and New Orleans are pretty close, as close as any place in Texas can be to anywhere, because Texas so big. It’s around that same time DJ Screw was creating his innovations, in New Orleans there was just really fast hip hop that was happening. With producers like Mannie Fresh, Hot Boys, Little Wayne, juvenile in this kind of bounce music sound with the trigger man beat.

 

[Another hip hop song plays, very fast tempoed, then fades out]

 

It just seems kind of interesting that these cities are so close together and yet their music couldn’t be more opposite, at least to my ears.

 

[LANSTON]

It is fascinating, and I will say that bounce and all of  that New Orleans music had a strong presence in Houston as well, and we did also see it end up on DJ Screw’s mixtapes and such. I think the special thing about hip hop when I was growing up, and I hate to sound like old man, at least to me was the fact that  hip hop in New York didn’t sound like hip hop in Houston and hip hop in Houston didn’t sound like hip hop in New Orleans even.

 

[Another hip hop song plays, more moderately tempoed]

 

Each region has its own unique sound. I thought that was a beautiful and incredible thing. The internet kind of has broken down those regional barriers and has made different regional sounds readily accessible to everyone around the country. In some respects, that’s awesome. I’m glad that sounds have changed. I’m glad that hip hop has grown and is continually reorienting itself, but I wish there was some sense of regional or local uniqueness because I just think that’s virtually disappeared in the culture and in the industry.

 

[MACK]

It’s almost like the regions are the different regions of the internet now. Like, you have SoundCloud rap, that’s a neighborhood in internet land.

 

[LANGSTON]

Exactly. I think connection to place is a fundamental aspect of hip hop culture. It exposes an intimate relationship between the person and their place. Place in itself is something very different now.

 

[Hip hop song continues, then fades out. Another hip hop song fades in]

 

[CRIS]

That’s it for this episode, and this season of Phantom Power. Thank you again to Langston Collin Wilkins, and we’ll be back in the fall with season two. We hope to connect with you then. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about a phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts, and we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, give us a shout on twitter @PhantomPod. Today’s show featured music by DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Clique. Our interns are Natalie Cooper and Adam Whitmer. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

[Hip hop song fades out]

Ep. 17: The Sounds of Silents

What did going to the movies sound like back in the “silent film” era? The answer takes us on a strange journey through Vaudeville, roaming Chautauqua lectures, penny arcades, nickelodeons, and grand movie palaces. As our guest In today’s episode, pioneering scholar of film sound, Rick Altman, tells us, the silent era has a lot to teach us about why sound works the way it does at the movies today. And as our other guest, sound and film historian Eric Dienstfrey tells us, “What we think of today as standard practice is far from inevitable.” In fact, some of the practices we’ll hear about are downright wacky. 

Audiences today give little thought to the relationship between sound and images at the movies. When we hear a character’s footsteps or inner thoughts or hear a rousing orchestral score that the character can’t hear, it all seems natural. Yet these are all conventions that had to be developed by filmmakers and accepted by audiences. And as Altman and Dienstfrey show us, the use of sound at the movies could have developed very differently.

Film sound scholar Rick Altman and Mack after their interview at the University of Iowa.

Dr. Rick Altman is Professor Emeritus of Cinema and Comparative Literature in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, University of Iowa. Altman is known for his work on genre theory, the musical, media sound, and video pedagogy. He is the author of Silent Film Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Film/Genre (Bloomsbury, 1999), and A Theory of Narrative (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Dr. Eric Dienstfrey is Postdoctoral Fellow in American Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Eric is a historian of sound, cinema, and media technology. His paper “The Myth of the Speakers: A Critical Reexamination of Dolby History” won the Society of Cinema and Media Studies’ Katherine Singer Kovács Essay Award for best article of the year in 2016.

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 17…

[low horn instruments play]

[CRIS]

The Sounds of Silents

[ERIC DEINSTFRY]

We think of going to movies as going to the movies but for a lot of audiences, they were going to hear a live concert that was accompanied by motion pictures. And there’s this great anecdote that Anna Windisch uncovered in their scholarship in Viennese practices from the turn of the century. And they found a series of films, I believe, where you had the motion picture printed on film, but you also had a visual recording of the conductor, conducting a score that was meant to go along with that film. So I believe it was sort of like a superimposed image. So when you screen the film, you’ll see the conductor on screen conducting. And then the orchestra that was live in the theater playing would take its cues from the conductor that was on screen.

[conductor taps baton, and orchestra plays]

[MACK]

It’s Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood.

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek. So what are we listening to here, Mack?

[MACK]

This is Eric Deinstfry. He’s a historian of sound technology and sound media working at the University of Texas, Austin. And he knows a lot about the history of sound in motion pictures.

[CRIS]

So what’s he talking about?

[MACK]

It’s this crazy story told me about the silent film era in Vienna. You know, back in the early days of film, people had to figure out how to combine music and film. And as you can imagine in Vienna they had this illustrious classical music today. With fame conductors, and it seemed like a good idea to just  put the conductor in the film and let the local orchestras where the film was being shown just sort of follow his conducting.

[CRIS]

Yeah, but I’m imagining this didn’t go so well.

[MACK]

No, it didn’t.

[orchestra music continues]

[ERIC]

And, like a lot of these practices, they’re fine. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t always work. like nothing ever really works the way that it’s supposed to. In this case, it definitely didn’t work. Because as films were distributed over time, with real changes and as pieces of the film are cut out, you lose seconds, or fractions of a second of the conductor moving his baton, which means you might actually you may lose the downbeat, you may lose various other cues or whatnot. So becomes very different to play as a symphony. When watching a conductor that’s missing frames.

[orchestra continues with occasional stops, as if parts have been cut out]

[CRIS]

So this is that sense that we all experience sometimes of the sound and the image being out of sync, right?

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. Like if this film is kind of beat up and it’s missing some frames, then Suddenly the whole orchestra is off of the beat.

[CRIS]

Which is comedic.

[MACK]

It must have been hilarious. And that’s really what our show is about today. Where does the relationship between sound and images at the movies come from? I mean, it might sound like a weird question because it seems completely natural to us, right? You take a film class at college, you learn about diabetic sound.

[CRIS]

That’s the sound,am I right, that comes from the world being represented in the images like a horn blowing in the street, or a clinking teacup in a Victorian palace?

[MACK]

Yeah, you the characters hear it, and the audience hears it. It comes from the world of the film. And then there’s what they call non diabetic sound.

[CRIS]

the sound that the characters don’t hear, like the orchestral score or pop soundtrack or the narrator the film talking to the audience.

[MACK]

Exactly. And this seems entirely natural to us that there’s music playing that the characters can’t hear. Right. But all of this is just a set of conventions. And these conventions are habitual to us. But someone had to invent them, right? Someone had to figure all of this stuff out and kind of the audience’s needed to buy into it.

[CRIS]

It’s a lot of trial and error. 

[MACK]

Yeah, exactly.

[ERIC]

What we think of today is just sort of standard practices is far from inevitable. And there were a lot of experiments going on ways to try and think of the merge of motion pictures and music as much more of a multimedia experience and So we’re we arrived at if anything is far more conservative in conventional than what was actually being practiced in that early era. And I think that’s why this early era attracts so many people, because you just see of just this. So many creative practices that, you know, have since been lost but that you know, there are records out for when you uncover them. It’s just really funny to see like, this is what cinema could have been maybe in an alternative universe.

[slow menacing music plays]

[CRIS]

I really liked that idea. And I hear it in many different kinds of disciplines. The sense that we’ve lost potential things that could have been really great to pursue have been put in put into the disciplined track.

[MACK]

Yeah. And so if you really want to understand the film soundtrack as we know it today, you need to go back to its prehistory in the so called silent era. Luckily, I got to talk with one of the OG scholars of the silent film era.

[CRIS]

I ask you what’s an OG scholar? It feels like it’s missing the M.

[MACK]

Original gangster. He’s an original gangster of silent film sound scholarship.

[RICK ALTMAN]

Hi, my name is Rick Altman, I used to teach at the University of Iowa. Now I am an emeritus faculty member, still teaching a graduate seminar on film sound.

[MACK]

Rick is the author of a lot of things. But most importantly for our purposes, he wrote this book Silent Film Sound that came out in 2004 and Columbia University Press. It’s this multiple award winning book full of archival finds and insights and really great pictures. It’s kind of a large format book. And in one poll, it was voted one of the top five books on film of its decade.

[CRIS]

He doesn’t sound like a gangster at all.

[MACK]

No, he doesn’t. Sounds like a nice man who lives in Iowa. But when Rick got started in his research, silent film sound was not exactly a hot topic. 

[RICK]

People seemed to think that everything that needed to be said about silent film, and silent film sound in particular, had already been said. I came along and thought to myself, this is going to make it very easy for me to write the first chapter of my general history of film sound.

[MACK]

So, you know, Rick thought that he was just going to be able to, like summarize all of this work that had already been done on silent film and silent film sound. And that was just going to be a chapter in this longer Opus about the history of sound and film. There was just one problem.

[RICK]

Unfortunately, when I went to the library, I found that the whole area was un-interegated.

[MACK]

Basically, Rick was gonna have to do this research himself. So he starts digging into historical materials, newspapers, trade magazines, technical documents ephemera from the silent film era. But as he did it, 

[RICK]

I kept running into confusion about what I was dealing with what I was reading about, I would be reading about sound effects. And they would be called, somehow music. Well, I didn’t understand how that was possible. But every time I would find this confusion of terminology, it sent me to a new domain and made me realize I was dealing with a much more complex situation than had been presented in my professional press.

[MACK]

So what Rick altman discovered is that the story of silent film sound was multiple. It was really the story of a whole bunch of other forms of 19th century entertainment.

[vaudeville music plays]

[RICK]

I worked a lot on vaudeville. I worked a lot on the history of magic lanterns. I dealt with the architecture of concert halls, I found that photography was absolutely central to the work that I wanted to do.

[CRIS]

So, some of this history goes way back. Right? I mean, the magic lanterns develop out of the camera obscura in the middle of the 17th century. The camera obscura goes right back to Leonardo. Those kinds of people were playing around a lot of painters were playing around with the camera obscura. 

[MACK]

So the camera obscura was like the pinhole camera that went,

[CRIS]

You could see what was going on outside projected into the wall. And the Magic Lantern introduces gradually a lens by which you can focus that image. So you know, you can write on glass, you can paint on glass, you can see those kinds of shadows moving around inside your house. I love to do that. I spend my days doing that kind of thing. And in the kind of late 17th, early 18th century, they began to adapt this technology for all sorts of purposes. Some of it was for storytelling, but also people began to use the magic lantern for lecture circuits, they began to use it scientific teaching and so forth.

[MACK]

And do you know what they use to create the light to illuminate the the slide and projected onto the wall?

[CRIS]

It became Limelight, right? Before then it was candle lights.

[MACK]

A burning piece of line. Which is where we get the term limelight from.

[CRIS]

Right, right. That’s right. That’s a really good connection to make. And, we actually don’t know the full history of the development of the magic lantern. Some of them are coming out of China size of complex history of the development of a technology. And I really like that, too, that it’s being used in various different contexts by various different people to diverse purposes.

[MACK]

Yeah, and I mean, I think what this shows us is that motion pictures weren’t born in a vacuum, right? There were already these technologies and different kinds of traveling shows and entertainment. And they all use sound in different ways. So people had already been projecting still images and telling stories. And of course, the song and dance and light poetry of vaudeville was a really dominant entertainment at the time, right. So when the motion pictures arrived, all of these different players see film as an extension of what they were already doing. They all have different conceptions of what this technology is and what it’s for, and what it’s even called. So Altman is looking at all of this and he realizes that he has to avoid This pitfall of thinking about the past that we so often fall into, it’s the way that we think that the present arrangement of things, the way we use sound in films today is the foregone conclusion. And he says, no, this really could have gone a different way. This was this crisis moment in the history of film. And so he says, what he has to do is something he calls crisis historiography.

[CRIS]

And that’s great.

[different vaudeville music plays]

[RICK]

Crisis historiography is something that I came up with, in order to explain to myself what I was doing. Most historical accounts are really aiming to explain a single phenomenon. I found constantly that I couldn’t deal with my materials as a single phenomena. There were Many different phenomena. When film is called advanced vaudeville. You realize, wait a minute, we’re not even sure what the topic is that we’re studying. So that it’s not film as we see it today, as we understand it today and trying to understand how film as we see it is existent today. Instead, it was a competition among various approaches to sound. So, we’re dealing with Wurlitzer organs. 

[organ music plays]

We’re giving a song sides, we’re dealing with lecturers and lecturers. We’re dealing with projectors, we’re dealing with ballyhoo outside the Nickelodeon. Come on, ladies, come down and check out our show. We’ve got a show that is really more important than anybody else’s. Only a nickel lady. Come on, come right in, come right in if you put your nickel right there. 

[sound of a coin going into a slot]

Think about this. Where were the first accompaniments to film? Well, they weren’t in the theater. They were outside the theater because the film was being accompanied by the ballyhoo sound. This is a technique borrowed from the carnival, you want to let everybody know on the Midway, that you’ve got a show that they want to see. And so it was only after having ballyhoo for your music, that you begin to realize, Oh, I guess we could use this same sound inside in the theater. So film sound, you gotta deal with the whole business.

[music ends]

[MACK]

So it sounds like a moment not that dissimilar from our own where we have all of these different digital fans that crop up, or certain apps that become a craze and then maybe disappear not long after, or, you know, one sort of social media website dies off and another takes over and seems to establish itself. And that, just like we’re still coming to terms with how to conceptualize all of these new digital media that we’ve had over the past decade or so, at that moment, there was this same similar kind of crisis or excitement, but also people not sure what to make of it, how to monetize it, and so on.

[RICK]

Let me tell you just how similar it is these crises. They, they don’t last forever, but they always get replaced by another crisis. Eventually, for example, what’s a computer? Well, computer something that computes, isn’t it? When’s the last time you use your computer to compute anything? No, no, we don’t do that. Because we are borrowing the identity from a previously existing system. But yes, we used to have computers that actually computed now we have computers that do different things. And we have iPods, we have iPads, we have iPhones, we have all kinds of things that are constantly in confrontation, one to the other.

[digital music plays then fades out]

[MACK]

So in his book, Silent Film Sound, Rick altman tells us that new media technologies aren’t simply born and given a name. They begin nameless in a crisis of identity. And there are three components to this identity crisis.

[RICK]

One is multiple identity.

[MACK]

The second one is jurisdictional conflict.

[RICK]

Constant competition among the various approaches to sound And then eventually,

[MACK]

An overdetermined solution arises.

[RICK]

There is an agreement among these systems that makes it possible for everybody to come out doing well.

[MACK]

So let’s talk about this multiple identity concept. 

[older upbeat music plays]

The movies are said to have been invented in 1895. In 1896, no less than six different film projection technologies all made their debut in the market at once, each one at a different name.

[different names are listed off in an over the top manner]

It wasn’t just these technologies that were competing. with each other, this is where this concept of jurisdictional conflict comes in. 

[CRIS]

This is like Betamax and VHS.

[MACK]

Yeah. And but they were also like, totally different visions of what the technologies were even for. Like, is this a visual aid that you’re going to use on those lecture circuits you were talking about? Is that a prop for vaudevillians to us? Is it a replacement for vaudeville itself? Some people call it views. Some people call it advanced vaudeville. In the first couple of decades of their existence, no one was even calling these things motion pictures.

[CRIS]

And I bet as things getting mixed and remixed and scrambled and confused. You get some really peculiar arrangements and practices in those situations.

[MACK]

Yeah, definitely. And the Chautauqua is a perfect example of that.

[RICK]

Chautauquas were organizations usually rural. They started out in upstate New York that were dedicated to the lecture circuit.

[My Country Tis of Thee played by a band plays]

And the lecture circuit started in the mid 19th century in Boston, but before too long it took over the entire country. Sometimes these lectures were illustrated, they were often illustrated by magic lanterns. But then the makers of these magic lantern slides decided that during the summer, they would travel to Europe, to Fiji Islands, to the new national parks in the United States. This would give them every year product differentiation, they would have stuff that nobody else had because they had spent the summer taking pictures. It may seem strange to think, well wait a minute. You’re studying lectures. Why are you studying lectures if you’re talking about film? Well, because lectures and film were part of the same routine, they can’t be thought of as entirely separate as we would normally think of them today.

[MACK]

So in this sort of practice, then there would be documentary film being shown. And someone would literally be narrating the film lecturing over it about the locations that we’re looking at.

[older narration is heard]

[RICK]

Absolutely, and they were really good at that. And they had been well practiced in it.

[MACK]

But the way the film was used in Chautauqua was completely different from the way it was used in say the Nickelodeon.

[CRIS]

So, as we move into the early 20th century, kind of somewhere around 1905 ish, we get post the peep show and into the Nickelodeon era.

[MACK]

Well, I think maybe we should explain peep shows because you might have just scandalized people.

[CRIS]

There were kind of they were Penny Arcade peep shows.

[MACK]

I thought those were those the kinetic scopes. Are the ones that can fit inside the machine to see the film. 

[CRIS]

You’re right. It wasn’t a whole bunch of people. And what made the kinetic scope specific is that it was one person.

[MACK]

One at a time. And so yeah, the motion picture or what would come to become the motion picture was,

[CRIS]

The Nickelodeon’s was a whole bunch of people at a time, often in a kind of storefront or a converted storefront. With hard seats, a varying repertoire of material in predominantly working class or kind of emergent middle class locations and neighborhoods. You paid a nickel right? You paid a nickel to go into the Nickelodeon. And the odean bit is from the Greek meaning that it’s a kind of a roof in theater.

[MACK]

Yeah. And the Nickelodeon was the site for one of these kind of strange technological arrangements that didn’t really survive to our day.

[RICK]

Almost every Nickelodeon had a magic lantern as part of its system. But starting around 1898 something new happened and it was very important that they figured out a way to add what was called a motion head in front of the magic lantern. The motion head had the system for introducing a film. And the same sound source could be used for both the Magic Lantern and the motion head. So in the same theater, you would actually have slides showing alternately with films, the films would go through the motion head, the slides would be in the slide transport for the magic lantern. And there you see the beginning of a way in which these two very different systems, film and slides, were able to share the same space. And that’s the kind of thing that happens in a crisis is two things that are entirely competitive, will eventually find a way to live together, maybe not the way they had originally expected. But eventually in a way that satisfies both sides.

[more older music plays]

[MACK]

So in these spaces like vaudeville houses and the Nickelodeon, we have practices that would seem pretty unrecognizable to us today as going to the movies, those Magic Lantern slides that you were talking about. They were often used for something called illustrated songs. So you’d have a good singer belting out the latest pop tunes, while different painted images inspired by the songs were projected behind them.

[music fades out]

[RICK]

These illustrated song slides were glass slides, which were based on photographs, which slides were then colored by teams of women. In vaudeville, there were hand colored slides, and sheet music that served the purpose of illustrated songs. But they were props that were used by individual vaudeville performers. So there was only one copy of them just as well. Let’s say if you had a dog show in vaudeville, you’d have to bring in the dogs, you’d have to bring in the hoops you’d have to bring in the stands. Well, this was a little bit different. You had to have the magic lantern. And in the Magic Lantern, you put these hand covered slides. They weren’t mass produced at that point. They were simply a vaudeville prop.

[CRIS]

So I’m interested in this whole thing of the hand colored slides and the teams of people doing the hand coloring because it begins to sound like an animation studio.

[MACK]

Yeah, but what you’re saying about like, these slides being like part of something like a big animation house today actually comes into fruition after the advent of the Nickelodeon, because then the role of the slides and the illustrated songs really changes.

[different older music plays]

[RICK]

Starting after the turn of the century, and particularly after 1905. There were companies who decided there was money to be made by making their slides because they knew that if the slide was made to accompany a recent song, then Tin Pan Alley would be happy to pay them for the slides because it became a good way to advertise their sheet music and sheet music was a big deal in those days. Virtually everybody had a panel and the sheet music sold not just thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands and even in one case or to multiple millions. So we’re talking big money. The slides were eventually distributed through exchanges, as were the films. So what we have here is a situation where you have Laville performers. You have slide makers, you have the distributors, you have the exhibitors who use these illustrated song slides to attract an audience.

[MACK]

Yeah, I just love this story because it reminds me of like, radio or MTV and what that used to do for record sales.

[CRIS]

Absolutely. Yeah. And I’m thinking about the explosion of video, pop integrations.

[MACK]

Yeah, this kind of synergy or, you know, cross platform synergy was a thing even back in the early 1900s.

[CRIS]

I mean, it’s part of the generation of effect, right in terms of bringing people towards the music and making them feel excited about it is that they associate that listening experience with seeing that sequence of images.

[MACK]

Yeah, and you’ve got like, all of these little, like you said, these little middle class, Nickelodeon’s that are hungry for content. The motion picture industry really hadn’t been quite created as we know it yet. You know, it was just on the cusp of being there. And so these Nickelodeon’s were just hungry for content and the illustrated songs really filled that gap.

[RICK]

At the beginning, Nickelodeon’s didn’t have enough product there might be four Nickelodeons on the block, or relatively smaller, like mom and pop shops. But the problem was that all four of these Nickelodeons were playing the same films, because there was not enough production. So the theaters really went for the illustrated songs, because that made up for the time that they might have been showing the films.

[CRIS]

I’m thinking the proliferation of the video store in the 1980s.

[MACK]

I could see the parallel today. So you would plunk down your nickel at the Nickelodeon. And you might hear an illustrated song, and then they would play a silent film. And then while they were getting the next film ready to go, you could hear another illustrated song. And I think, when we picture this in our minds were picturing like, an old timey piano blinking along. But Rick said it wasn’t always like that. In fact, sometimes there was

[RICK]

No sound at all.

[crickets chirping]

Now come on, that can’t be. Where did you get that idea? Well, I got that idea by reading a whole lot of biographies and reading a whole lot of reviews that made it clear that there was a period when films were shown without any sound whatsoever. So what was the piano doing there? Well, the piano was doing what it had to do to solve the needs of the theater. The theater had illustrated song slides. So when the slides were being projected, it was absolutely necessary for the pianist to be playing. But when the pianist had finished playing for the illustrated song, the pianist was told that this is the time when he can go and spend a little time to have a cigarette and he’ll be called back later for the next illustrated song slot. So what we find out is that the fact that these were Multi Purpose theaters that they had films as well as illustrated songs, suggests that we’re dealing with a situation where constantly the theater changes from one face to another. It’s a film theater, or its illustrated song theater.

[CRIS]

Yeah, I’m people would be making sound they would be talking. They would be expressing in relation to what they were seeing.

[MACK]

Laughing shouting at the screen.

[CRIS]

Absolutely, yeah, exactly.

[MACK]

So at this time, you know, it probably felt like the crisis was resolved, right. Like, you knew what, what these films were. They were they were something that you went and saw at the Nickelodeon and, you knew what to expect for your nickel. 

[CRIS]

It was cheap. You got a half hour, you had fun.

[Mack]

Yeah, half hour of some illustrated songs and some silent films.

[CRIS]

And maybe it kind of collect a strange, collective, responsive interactive environment.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, a little, you know, lowbrow fun.

[RICK]

But little by little, the makers films started providing more product. And when they started providing more product, well guess what the filmmakers were wanting more and more to take over the portion of the program that was being run by the illustrated song slides. So we get rid of the illustrated song slides in 1913. Literally, they just dropped off the map entirely in 1913 because the film producers wanted to take back a portion of the program and they were able to do that, in part because they now had enough product from an increasingly large park of film producers, so there’s a situation where the illustrated song it lives about two decades. It serves the vaudeville purpose to begin with. It serves the Magic Lantern purpose. After that, it eventually has to be pushed out in order to serve the purpose of the film producers. And it really isn’t until that point that film starts being called moving picture and having a very clear existence, no longer called us no longer called Advanced vaudeville.

[CRIS]

So the entertainment industry applause a vacuum. I mean,I could have said capitalism, but that’s a little too strong. When are we going to be able to say with some certainty, though, that what we’re seeing resembles the movies that we know today.

[MACK]

Well, by this period, when the Nickelodeon starts to wane, and the big movie palaces start to rise, so we’re talking about, by 1915 or so, the movie theaters are getting bigger and the motion pictures are getting longer. And this is when the term feature film is coined. And we get these incredible movie palaces. And in the smaller and mid sized theaters, pianos and tiny orchestras are still common, but in these grander venues, we might find Wurlitzer Oregon’s or 50 piece orchestras. But you know, even at this point, that we’re still practices that might seem quirky from our perspective today. So here’s another story that film scholar Eric Deinstfry told me. [ERIC]

There’s another interesting practice that I read about in William Paul’s book When Movies Were Theater, and there’s a theater in Detroit, he writes about where I believe it was like a duplex, and you had two theaters that shared the same wall and that’s where the screen was. And what that allowed for was allowed for the same Symphony. Orchestra, it wasn’t full Symphony to move back and forth in the same pit space.

[sound of people walking, then an orchestra playing, then walking, then music]

Basically, the orchestra would walk under the wall and play for one movie then move back under the wall and play for another movie was kind of like this weird watching the symphony orchestra move and sort of do their work was also part of the attraction of going to the movies there.

[music continues, then applause]

[CRIS]

I love this sense of an interrupted watching and listening experience where all sorts of other kinds of people who are on the sidelines maybe even the woman selling ice cream, and the person taking the tickets and so forth are all part. They’re all indicated into that experience.

[MACK]

Yeah, you know, it reminds me a little bit of, what I read about opera and the way it functioned early on where it was an entertainment where there would be a lot of stuff going on. Prostitutes plying their trade in the balcony, people drinking, carousing, having a good time. And then after the Romantic period, the way people started to treat classical music, in a period where religion had kind of started to wane, and we get this more humanist version of spirituality, where you go to the classical music concert hall, and sit in silence, and meditated on the music and have this kind of inner rich experience. And I feel like we’re learning that a similar transition happened with film where it used to be this fun, interactive entertainment that wasn’t taken that seriously and then it became high heart.

[CRIS]

That’s right. And maybe now. I don’t know. You go to the movies now and there’s people getting up and going to the bathroom, they’re eating their popcorn in the middle of the kind of the, the most dramatic moment in the narrative, they’re looking at their cell phones as the opening and the closing of the light in the door from the lobby. So it sounds like by the 1920s or so the crisis had been resolved and some kind of not necessarily solutions, but onward developments have been found and settled on.

[MACK]

Silent film, as we think of it today has finally evolved and film kind of enters this golden era until the talkies emerged. It’s a crisis all over again. By the late 1920s, relatively reliable technologies like the Vita phone, which was a sound on Disk System start to appear, and then we get this entirely new crisis.

[RICK]

So you’ve got a silent film theater, and you want to turn it into a sound theater. Okay. Let’s dismiss the musicians. We don’t need them anymore.

[music is suddenly cut off]

We can use the sound on disk.

[music from a disk plays]

Now, wait a minute. What about my projectionist?

[sound of film reeling]

He says he wants to be in charge of everything, including the screen and the sound system and the electrical system but the electricians want to do that. Oh, wait a minute. It’s not just the electricians and the projectionist, it’s the stage hands and the IATSE Union. What we find is that all kinds of conflicts are operating in such a way as to each be counter posed to the others. And it’s only after a strong and interesting period of competition, that we settle into a situation where the various unions, the various specialties, the various companies all get their own way.

[MACK]

I don’t know if they all got their own way to me. 

[CRIS]

I think I think quite a lot of people got stuffed. 

[MACK]

Yeah. Not sure about that happy ending.

[CRIS]

You know, the studio’s made a lot of money. And then there were an enormous number of technicians who didn’t get paid so well.

[MACK]

Yeah. And you’re paying one orchestra to play the score one time instead of orchestras FROM the country.

[CRIS]

Yeah, it’s putting a huge number of live musicians out of business.

[MACK]

Well, be that as it may, what I really like about Rick Altman’s work is just This focus on the crisis and this sort of indeterminate nature of these things that they really could be different.

[CRIS]

I like it and to wonder whether we are in another crisis moment, and we don’t even yet know the constituent parts of it.

[MACK]

I think that’s definitely happening right now.

[CRIS]

Well, viewing habits and cinema going habits and what’s going on with the movies and the fact that everyone’s watching series, and what can be played out through a bunch of episodes on TV that’s totally different from how you could structure a film, and how domestic viewing habits and listening habits have changed because of the mobility of technology around the domestic sphere and so forth.

[MACK]

I think for our time period, the question is, will the crises ever be resolved? Or are we just in a period of endless crises I mean, I guess that’s what Rick’s work really tells us is that it has always been us.

[vaudeville music plays]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thank you to Rick Altman and Eric Deinstfry for being on the show. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we talked about at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you would rate and review us on Apple podcasts, pretty please. or tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook or give us a shout out on Twitter at Phantom Pod. Today’s show was edited by Craig Ellie and me, Mack Hagood. Our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is made possible through the generosity of the Miami University Humanities Center, the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney, endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ep. 16: Soar and Chill (Robin James)

Why do certain musical sounds move us while others leave us cold? Are musical trends simply that—or do they contain insights into the culture at large? Our guest is a musicologist who studies pop and electronic dance music. She’s fascinated by the way EDM privileges timbral and rhythmic complexity over the chord changes and harmonic complexities of the blues-based rock and pop music of yore. However, Robin James is also a philosopher and she connects these musical structures to social and economic structures, not to mention structural racism and sexism. 

Robin James

In this episode, cris and Mack have a lengthy, freeform interview and listening session with Robin in which she breaks down the sounds of EDM, pop, hip hop, “chill” playlists, and industrial techno, conceiving them as varied responses to neoliberalism’s intensification of capitalism. Her analysis includes lyrical content, but her main focus is the soars, stutters, breaks, and drops that mimic the socio-economic environment of the 21st century. It’s an environment that demands resilience from all of us—and especially from women and people of color.

 

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[techno music fades in]

[MAC HAGOOD]

Episode 16.

[CRIS]

Soul and chill.

[MACK]

Hey, I’m Mack Hagood, and yes, you are hearing Calvin Harris on Phantom Power, the podcast on the sonic arts and humanities. Why you might ask? Well, our guest today spends a lot of time listening to Calvin Harris and David Guetta. She calls them the Coke and Pepsi of pop, electronic dance music or EDM. As a musicologist, she’s fascinated by how EDM pushes beyond tonality. That is the harmonies and chord progressions that are the focus of blues based rock and pop music. EDM cares more about Tambor, and rhythmic complexity, ear catching sounds and intense Sonic experiences. moments when the vocal stutters for the beat drops moments like this one, where the entire song begins to soar.

[music continues]

But Robin James isn’t just a musicologist. She’s also a philosopher. She really wants to know what these songs can tell us about society. And while many cultural analyses of pop songs focus on song lyrics, with a few vague gestures towards sound, Robin James brings her musical logical experience to bear connecting musical structures to economic structures, not to mention structural racism and sexism. To my mind, the strength of her work is that she makes admirably bold and clear claims about why certain kinds of popular music are popular in a given moment. And whether or not you decide you agree with those claims by the end of the show, you may never hear an EDM sore quite the same way again. In today’s episode, my co host cris cheek and I have a lengthy freeform conversation and listening session with Robin, in which she breaks down EDM pop songs featured in her book “ Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism Neoliberalism.” We also get into a bit of hip hop, as well as songs from her current research into chill music in the streaming era. Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte, and co editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. For the 2019-2020 academic year. She is also visiting Associate Professor of Music at Northeastern University. And by the way, she got her started musicology and philosophy as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio, where cris and I teach.

[music fades out]

[ROBIN JAMES]

So I started college as an oboe major back in the 90s. Yeah.

[CRIS]

You were playing oboe at Miami?

[ROBIN]

Yes. 

[CRIS]

Okay.

[ROBIN]

I played Piccolo in the marching band. I thought I wanted to be a conductor. I was taking philosophy classes. And I realized that sort of the questions that music theorists ask sometimes are similar to the questions that philosophers asked and that the questions that I was interested in about music were like,why do people think this sounds good, right? For it to music to go this way, as opposed to some other way? Why does music sound certain ways in particular socio historical moments? And those are really philosophical questions about music.So then when I was deciding what kind of graduate program do I want to go into? Do I want to go into, like a musicology program, you want to go into a gender studies program? Do I want to go to a philosophy program? I said, Well, in philosophy, I can do all of that stuff.

[CRIS]

So in terms of good,is it that it makes you feel good? Or is it that it’s good in relation to aesthetic standards that one has had brought down to you when you’re thinking about music? 

[ROBIN]

Both. And often, I think the interesting things to think about when those two are in conflict, yes. So Khalifa San is optimism article came out in 2004. And that’s when I was writing my dissertation. I finished it in 2005. And poptimism, is the idea that pop music or music traditionally devalued, because its associated with like, team girls, is just as worthy of critical and intellectual attention as music that’s traditionally received that attention, such as jazz, or rock or music or something like that. So I was writing my dissertation at that time. And part of what I was trying to think about was sort of the conflict between, you know, the elite aesthetic standards and what people like, right? So for example, one of the things I did in the dissertation was show how, in some ways, Nico was the first poptimist. With his arguments, that Italian opera because they make you feel good, and they’re kind of not sensical, and just fun, is better than German.I was kind of thinking about the instances where what makes people feel good is in conflict with what the elite say is good, capital G.

[CRIS]

So kind of, I don’t know, low art versus high art will be another way of putting this. 

[ROBIN]

Yeah. 

[CRIS]

The kind of the things that you feel that you ought to develop an appreciation for. Because they’re held to be culturally iconic as as distinct from the thing that you just like.

[ROBIN]

Right. And for me, as a scholar of gender and race, that’s interesting, because there’s those two factors are often deeply deeply behind The conflict between the sort of critical standards and,

quote, unquote, guilty pleasures, right?

[MACK]

Yeah. It seems like a lot of your work is asking what is it about the social environment that makes certain musical sounds? Like you said, feel good, or feel pertinent, become popular? But then we could also flip that and say, what can the rise of certain musical sounds tell us about our society? Is there a way that musical sounds can tell us what’s actually going on?

[ROBIN]

Yeah, and that’s a great way to sort of describe what I try to do, because I think, in a lot of ways, what I’m interested in is understanding society and relations among people, so we can be better at it. And society is obviously vast and complicated, but pop songs are three minutes long. So they’re much easier to study in their completeness. We understand songs, because they contain structures that make sense to us as a structure. And those structures that we hear in songs also structure things in the world. So gender would be one example. We use gender to organize everything from like, what kind of bag what we call the kind of bag someone carries to bathrooms to all sorts of things, right. But we also use gender to organize relationships among songs, right? And I love Susan McLaren’s famous example about you know, the cadence, or the song that ends on a strong beat is called masculine. And the song that ends on a weak beat is called feminine because we associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness, right? So I try to find these structures in songs as sort of analogs or microscopic versions of the structures or logics or relationships that we experience macroscopically in our relations with each other with the world out in society.

[MACK]

Yeah. Is this a different question from what we might call like a hermeneutics of music?

[ROBIN]

Um, this is maybe where I get all nitpicky philosopher. So I would understand hermeneutics to be something where you’re interpreting a hidden meaning, right? You’re revealing something underneath the surface? And that’s one way of understanding meaning, like a hidden content, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily doing that. I’m not finding the, the expressed or hidden meaning so much as trying to figure out how it works. And why does it work this way? If that makes sense, right. And in that way, I think I’m thinking kind of like a music theorist.

[CRIS]

Can we have a look at some of the ways in which you break these pop songs down to show how they’re working? And what kind of effect they’re producing? 

[ROBIN]

Sure.

[MACK]

Yeah. Yeah, maybe we could start with one musical feature that you have studied, which is the sore?

[ROBIN]

Yeah. So the sore is a device that I identify as sort of coming from early 21st century dubstep.

[dubstep plays]

Then sort of filtering up into the early 2010s, top 40, right? Remember this sort of EDM boom? 

[EDM music plays]

It’s been around for a while, but it kind of rose to the top of the pop charts and became kind of a common language in pop songwriting around 2009 2010. And what it does is, it’s a way to build and release tension in a song, right, to build a climax is what it does. So what the sore does is it uses rhythmic intensification to build the song up to a climax and then release that tensions. You guys have probably heard of Zeno’s paradox, right? That’s the thing where you go half the distance, and then half of that again, and then half of them half again, down to infinity. So that’s what the sore kind of does with rhythmic events, right? Take like a hand clap from like, quarter notes to eighth notes, 16th notes. And oftentimes, it’ll try to approach the sort of limit of human hearing.

[music continues]

Things are going so fast, you can’t hear distinct event. So that’s kind of what the story trying to do. And that’s how it creates tension. It’s acting like it’s trying to break the limit of your hearing.

[music continues]

So this is an example of a sore in an early ish dubstep song. This is Scream’s sort of, most well known breakout single. So if we’re talking kind of the origins of dubstep, this would be recognized as a significant song. Listen to the hand claps. See how it just doubled. Then there’s the drop and the downbeat.

[CRIS]

And, so maybe this will go nowhere as a question. But if you’re on the dance floor, what happens?

[ROBIN]

Usually, that’s the moment where there’s like, everybody sort of takes a breath. And then sort of when I would be dancing, like you emphasize that downbeat. Like it makes the next downbeat. feel like it’s falling harder. Because that’s kind of like the big moment sometimes like at festivals, people will scream, right during the drop.

[CRIS]

Right, right. Right, right, right.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, so this is LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem. This is kind of the quintessence of big, dumb, EDM pop. I love this song. It’s just fun, and loud and off the chain is what I’d say. Okay, it’s gonna start now.

[song continues]

So it’s sort of building up to this climactic moment, and then releasing the tension on the downbeat.

[MACK]

Yeah, totally.

[ROBIN]

So in some senses, what the sore is doing is it’s replacing dissonance, like harmonic dissonance. So like a blues song or a rock song would build that tension with chord changes, but pop chord changes have never been sort of especially central to pop. And this, the source sort of lets them fall entirely, sort of to secondary status, right? Because they’re not the thing driving the building of tension and release. It’s really sort of rhythmic and tangible instead of harmonic.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. I think those two examples really show it quite clearly. And your explanation is super clear. So maybe we can get you to sort of take off your musicologists hat now and put on your philosopher hat. Because, I mean, what you do in your book “Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music Feminism Neoliberalism” is you note how this musical feature of the sore gets deployed in millennial pop music? It seems like it gets paired with certain kinds of lyrical content and certain kinds of identities. And so you sort of unpack that for the reader, and then you have a critique of it. So could you get into that for us?

[ROBIN]

Sure. So you remember how I said the sore is like, implying the transgression of the limits of human hearing? So what I do in the book, so the titular word, resilience is a word you hear a lot. So this idea of overcoming limitations or damage or harm, to be, you know, stronger than you were before, or turning a crisis into a resource. So whatever given the book is that the sore is sort of a sonic representation of this logical resilience, right, it sort of creates this tension, and then implies this Sonic transgression or damage, that then becomes the sort of right, it’s not actually harmful. But aesthetically, what it gives you is a sort of an increased or augmented pleasure on the experience of the next downbeat. So that’s the, it’s representing in music, the sort of experience that resilience is supposedly are in theory, supposed to be right, you turn harmed things that damage you into advantages, right. So in the book, what I do is I note that a lot of the discussion of resilience just sort of in general, tends to take women and women’s experiences of the harms of patriarchy as sort of Central examples of resilience. So and you can see this in a lot of what Sarah Bennet wiser calls popular feminist discourse, right, this idea that women are capable of sort of individually overcoming the limits or the harms that patriarchy does them. So, you know, you experience sexual harassment at work, but you overcome it and you become an entrepreneur and now, a successful business person. Or, you know, like, perhaps you are a poor girl of color, but you study really hard and get into Harvard or something. So this narrative of resilience is really pervasive. And it’s often used as a sort of foe solution for the harms of oppression.

[CRIS]

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of there’s nothing you can’t do. Yeah. Weird juxtaposition to. And not quite. But what doesn’t kill you makes you dance.

[ROBIN]

Well, yeah. Or I think in the book, I call it something like Nisha, and Kanye’s, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

[MACK]

Can we listen to some examples of this pairing of the sore of this intensification with, you know, lyrical content about resilience?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Um, do you want to do the ludicrous song? You kind of have to hear the lyrics. Because they’re all about taking risks, right risks, that could be overwhelming. But doing it anyway, and winning, right? So there’s this logic of sort of, I’m going to expose myself to all this potential harm. But that’s necessary in order for me to live my best life.

[Ludicrous plays]

If you live for something, you’re not alone my friend. So fill up your cup and get a lighter, a toast to life.They say what don’t kill me, makes you stronger. 

[ROBIN]

Right, so he’s talking about all these kinds of transgressions. A fast life.

[song continues]

Here comes the sore. There’s this really interesting, sort of like the American flag and David Guetta appear, right at the, at the climax of the source. So there’s this weird sort of gesture towards American nationalism and whiteness, as though those are the two things that allow black men talking about risk taking to succeed rather than succumb to those risks, right? Because we all know that, like, black men are one of the most criminalized populations in the States, and, you know, even doing law abiding things, they get arrested and beaten up and stuff like that, right? So risk taking is even more risky for them, right. But here we have this sort of song about risk taking is good, I’m going to expose myself to all this damage. But the thing that insulates me from the negative consequences of that, oh, the American flag and David Guetta.

[MACK]

Maybe this would be a good time to dive a little more deeply into your critique here of neoliberalism. Because I want to draw out why it would be advantageous to sort of represent people of color and women as taking these chances and overcoming things like that, that I think, you know, people might be surprised to hear that a feminist philosopher is actually rather critical of these kinds of representations that it might seem like that would be something that you would celebrate. So could you talk a little bit about that?

[ROBIN]

Sure. So overcoming the harms of oppression is something that oppressed people have had to do for centuries. But what’s different now and what’s different with with resilience discourse? Is that it like all aspects of neoliberalism it privatizes it right, it makes individuals responsible for fixing systemic issues. But it also sort of takes the fixing or healing that one might need to do in response to the harms of oppression and basically co ops it for those mechanisms of oppression so that the healing process doesn’t actually fix anything, it just feeds the oppression and contributes to it. If that makes sense.

[MACK]

So if old school capitalism was, you know, you work for the same employer your whole lifetime, and you’re a company, man, man intended there, right? Like, it was definitely hierarchical and patriarchal and racist. But it did also have its kind of a certain kind of safety to it. Which, you know, there’s a lot of nostalgia for it now. Among people like Donald Trump, neoliberal capitalism, offers a whole lot more under the guise of freedom, it takes away this social safety net, it says anybody can come in women are invited, minorities are invited. In fact, you’re required to come in and work because the social safety net has been removed. Lifetime employment is gone. Because, you know, life has become liquid, and corporations are allowed to fire you whenever they want. We enter the gig economy. And so you are required to be resilient, no matter who you are, you need to overcome, right, all of these things that this intensification of capitalism, and this deregulation of markets have thrown our way. Is that a fair way to sort of characterize what you’re talking about here?

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah, exactly. And, of course, the sort of lower social status you have, or the lower you are on the privilege hierarchy, the more stuff you have overcome. 

[MACK]

Yes, yes. Yeah. And so maybe one thing that I really like about what you do in your book, you really integrate, because there are a lot of critiques of neoliberalism out there. But not all of them focus on the roles of race and gender the way you do.

[ROBIN]

Neoliberalism is all about efficiency, right? It tries to achieve the goals of old school capitalism and classical liberalism, with less of a cost, right? So you could police the purity of identity categories. And that’s sort of what you know, the one drop rule would be an example of right, you were policing the purity of whiteness. But that takes a lot of resources to do, right, you have to work very hard at that, be vigilant about it. So one of the ways that neoliberalism upgrades, old school forms of sexism and racism, and all the other isms is by basically deregulating those boundaries, right, so we’re not going to police the boundaries of purity, we are going to instead demand mixing, right. But we’re going to do this in a field where the background conditions are rigged. So that even though we’re sort of not policing boundaries, it will be more or less impossible for the individuals that have been traditionally excluded to succeed.

[CRIS]

My God, so I’m reminded of a lyric from the early hip hop days from last night a DJ saved my life, there ain’t a thing that I can’t fix, because I can put it in the mix.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah. And Lester Spence, actually has a couple of books that talk about sort of hip hop cultures, adoption of the rhetoric of neoliberalism. Right. So, you know, he talks about how the, you know, that we’ve got the figure of the hustler is sort of a black version of the Neo liberal entrepreneur. 

[MACK]

And so the sore is kind of an example of how this resistance and resilience get co opted, or this kind of message of resistance, right, like, this would have been a transgressive message at some point in time. And yet, it’s able to get sort of sort of appropriated by the system that it was resisting. And yet, for the individual who’s enjoying this music, it’s still sort of like equipment for living, so to speak, right? Like that experience of listening to that music, dancing to the sore, feeling that intensification. To my mind, and maybe this is my chance to nitpick, but it goes beyond representation, right? It’s not just representing this kind of neoliberal capitalism, but it’s but it’s doing it to the body, right, your body, your nervous system, is, is experiencing this, and then coming out of the other side of it feeling invigorated and feeling stronger. And in that way, it’s like the kind of thing that helps people move through their lives, right. So I feel like there’s something really interesting happening here, where, from the subjective position of the individual, this music is helping people get through their day or get through their week, they can’t wait for the weekend to come and dance to this music. And yet, it can still be supportive of the system that’s making their life such a trivial to begin with.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, and I think that’s just popular music in the 20th and 21st century. You know, commercial music is inherently part of this exploitative system. And I think you could even go all the way back and say things like, well, racism and sexism have been baked into our aesthetic norms, since we’ve had the idea of race or gender. So there’s never going to be this sort of problematic artwork that we can experience. So the fact that there’s this dynamic where, on the one hand, these songs are literally sort of, you could either say they’re kind of training us in the experience of resilience, or they make sense to us. And we like them because we’ve already been so inculcated in this ideology, that, that we want our leisure time activities to also take the same shape that we have to form our lives into in our in sort of work in work. Right. But I think we I mean, I like those songs. I think they’re fun songs. And I think the thing about art, and it’s sort of interpretive, and I think, more importantly, and it’s sort of social context, it can be more than what it is as a commodity, or just as an object. Right. That’s, that’s the awesome thing about art, right, by listening to this music or dancing to it together, or by talking about it, we’re sort of participating in social relations that have the potential to not be as messed up or oppressive as the sorts of logics perhaps encoded in some of the if that makes any sense at all. Right. Like, yeah, it’s the making and sharing and being together that the artworks foster that, I think, is really that’s the work of freedom, right? If you want to put it that way. Right. Like, that’s the cool thing about art that I think lets it work for social justice.

[MACK]

What Victor Turner called communitous.And, there are some examples that you give of types of musical forms that may be provide that sort of being together yet also, maybe throw a little sand into the gears of neoliberal capitalism instead of greasing the wheels? Could you maybe talk about an example of that?

[ROBIN]

Sure. So this will be the sort of other word of the title melancholy. So what got me thinking this was people’s reaction to Rihanna’s response to Chris Brown after he assaulted her, right? So her unapologetic album came out, and she did a duet with him. And people were furious, because that was not the proper sort of, quote, unquote, feminist response. She didn’t disavow him, she didn’t perform the overcoming right? Like, oh, I was, I was assaulted. I reject myself, the person who assaulted me I have overcome the damage. I’m a quote unquote, feminist now. So initially, I saw the sort of rejection of resilience in just in Rihanna’s own behavior. But then I listened to the album. And what you can hear on the album are structures that gesture towards the sore, but don’t do the work that they do. Right. They don’t sort of build this climax. So in the same way that Rianna didn’t sort of perform resilience for the pleasure of her fans. The songs don’t perform sours for aesthetic pleasure, if that makes sense.

[MACK]

Yeah, maybe you can we listen to an example of that?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Did you want to do diamonds?

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. Okay, so let’s listen to diamonds by Rihanna.

[Diamonds begins to play]

[ROBIN]

I think it’s important to note that the lyrics are all about shining like diamonds, right? So this is, on the one hand about sort of celebrating strength, and beauty and things but it doesn’t sound like a celebratory song.

[Diamond continues]

We’re coming up to the where the sore should be…this is where the sore should be. You’ve got the, the repetitions in the lyrics, but it doesn’t go anywhere. So we’re back at another verse.

[CRIS]

In some ways, it was happening in the keyboards and the strings. The keyboards went from being these more statuesque chords that we’re hearing right now, and to doubling. And then we had strings doing staccato intervals built off the doubling of the keyboards.

[ROBIN]

It’s sort of gesture there. There wasn’t the right there was some doubling, but then it didn’t,quadruple. So yeah, that’s what I mean, it’s gesturing towards this, but not completing it.

[CRIS]

But also, we’ve got this, this other thing that you’ve talked about a lot, which is the stuttering or the sampling of the voice to repeat. And I’m thinking about a really old fashioned term, like delayed gratification.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah. So I’m part of pop songwriting. Now, and this is in part due to streaming. Right. So you have to get people to, to listen for more than 30 minutes. But part of it just due to other aesthetic factors, but delayed gratification is something that you don’t just if it’s not important, right, because that structure of the discipline in order that you need in order to sort of wait and delay runs against the kind of risk taking and imperative to transgress that you heard about, for example, from ludicrous. So it’s not like it’s trying to delay gratification. It’s almost more just like, saying something like, I know what you expect me to do enough to sort of gesture out it, but I’m refusing to do the work that you want from me. I’m not gonna give you I’m not going to do the work of performing pleasure for you or generating that energy for you.

[CRIS]

So it’s not just resilience, its resistance.

[ROBIN]

But it reads as failure. It’s refusal, but it reads as failure. And the reason why I called it melancholy was because traditionally, melancholy is the inability to get over something. Right. So Freud distinguishes between morning, which is sort of, you know, getting some resolution after a loss of something. And then melancholy would be the failure of mourning, right? Like you never actually come to terms with a loss. So that’s a melancholy traditionally means then you can sort of think of it as the refusal of resilience, right? It’s the failure to overcome sufficiently.

[CRIS]

or I’m thinking about the JIRA, the classic JIRA image of melancholy, melancholia, that that sense of dwelling in a refusal to overcome.

[ROBIN]

So from the perspective of resilience, dust discourse, that’s what the refusal to overcome looks like now, from the perspective of the person doing that refusal, it might feel fine.. It just appears to be a failure and sort of this, I don’t know what you call a misery or a total downer from the perspective of resilience. 

[CRIS]

So there’s a certain satisfaction, or even arguably a pleasure in dwelling in the resistance to the dwelling in the refusal to overcome.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, and it may actually be a healthy response to trauma. Because what I’m arguing is that resilience discourse masks itself as a sort of helpful response to trauma, but what might actually be helpful for individual people in various social locations might look entirely different. So doing what you actually need to recuperate from the trauma will appear pathological from the perspective of resilience discourse, but at the sort of level of individual subjects. It’ll feel maybe not fine, but at least it will feel something like some kind of healing or resolution or moving on or something.

[CRIS]

That’s great. So that’s kind of like a different version of what Mack was talking about earlier, from a very different direction in terms of equipment for living.

[ROBIN]

And one of the things I also thought was important to, to mention in the book is that oftentimes, people in oppressed groups will perform what could otherwise be considered resilience or overcoming or whatever, but because of their identities, they will be judged as failing at it, right? So in the same way that like criminalisation works, such that, you know, you know, Lisa Cashow and the introduction to her book on criminalization and social deaths contrasts the way victims of Katrina and black victims of Katrina were described when they went out looking for food. One was people were looking for food and the other was looting. Right? So there’s a similar dynamic at work with resilience or melancholy, right? The same behavior is going to be differently evaluated or described, from that perspective, depending upon the identities of who’s doing it, and how we perceive those. Those identities, if that makes sense.

[MACK]

Yeah, that’s fascinating. And I mean iit gives us a way to think about the sort of dark, melancholy sound that has crept into hip hop over the last decade, you know, and, and Kanye Heartbreak was kind of considered like a bit of a failure of an album at the time, but gosh, it was like, it was a real harbinger of what was to come. And also, there seems to be a sort of kind of refusal with sort of so called mumble rappers, to really perform

[Kanye begins to play]

It’s kind of similar refusal that I see and Rihanna’s work where she’s like, this is for me, this isn’t necessarily for you at all.

[ROBIN]

So what’s interesting is that those rappers are almost entirely men. And there might be a way to sort of read this as a sort of refusal of resilience as gendered feminine. That sort of this idea of resilience has become gendered and racialized as a feature of low status groups. So in order to be able to be the most resilient, you have to start at the bottom. So I think, back in 2015, when the book came out, this sort of maximalism was gendered masculine, right, so if you think about what ludicrous was talking about, I think, the next verse that we didn’t listen to, he talks about, basically something like if I lose my balance, in case I fall, just know, it’ll be from women, weed and alcohol, right. So it’s this sort of macho transgression? 

[MACK]

I mean, we could even go further back because I remember when, when I was first teaching university students dubstep was the province of like, nerds, you know, a certain kind of music nerd. Yeah. And then it became like, you know, so called bro step. And it was all the fraternity dudes with a much more hegemonic vision of masculinity dancing through their heads. It was really interesting to see that transformation take place. So it’s interesting for me to hear that this idea that this kind of intensification has become gendered female.

[ROBIN]

In these past four years, right, it’s happened like that. But what you see now, you know, the sad rappers but you also even the EDM inflected top 40 stuff is much less maximalist. We might even call it chill. So there’s been the sort of pivot away from remember YOLO? You only live once?

[MACK]

Sadly, yes.

[ROBIN]

Yeah. Yeah, there’s been a sort of pendulum swing away from that maximalism. And towards a more sort of chill tone down, right. I mean, Taylor Swift even has a song telling people to calm down in the title.

[Taylor Swift plays]

And it’s just happened so rapidly, but I think it definitely has happened to the point that we might even be moving on to something else.

[CRIS]

Yeah, in some senses that’s already that’s that’s what you’re mapping is beginning to imitate a night out with kind of people getting into this kind of sort of, you know, raging ecstatic moments around midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, and then and then chill out the ambien space.

[MACK]

We’re at the after after party. It’s almost time to go to the diner for breakfast. So maybe let’s talk about chill. I’m trying to think about if there’s a musical form an analog to the sore that we could talk about, because I like how concrete the sore is.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, so it’s really present today in just talk tones down sores, sores are still there. But they’re at like, two rather than 11. So the build is much more subtle. So you’ll have that same sort of structure, like, there’s a little bit of a build, and a drop, and then the downbeat. So do you want to talk about Thank You Next?

[Ariana Grande plays]

The sore is so miniscule, it’s like an ariana size sore. And there is was, you just have that little sort of smooth, or cymbal roll. And then there is the downbeat, and it’s over.

[MACK]

Your work lately, you’ve moved from identifying soars into identifying this kind of more chill form that is dominating pop music right now. Do you want to talk about like, any analogous changes that you going on socially, that are making this feel like it makes sense? And sounds good, as you put it?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Yeah. So um, I think Thank you Next is a really good example of it, because it’s about Grande sort of overcoming a breakup and learning to love herself. And that’s literally the narrative of the lyrics. So it’s something we might frame as a kind of resilience. But the way it’s expressed or represented, is totally different than what we got five or 10 years ago, right. It’s all about sort of her expressing her capacity to, I like to put it as sort of maintain productivity amid outrageous circumstances. So Chris Richards, The Washington Post, music critic, talked a few years ago, he had a piece about this guy. Anyway, he had a piece on the sort of the popularity of people talking about Xanax and pop music. So anti anxiety medicine is really common now for probably good reason, right? Like, you know, the world seems to be falling apart around us, both in literal and figurative ways. So this idea of, sort of taking anti anxiety medicine or listening to a chill playlist, or being mindful is a way to sort of maintain your productivity, and keep on going amid all of this stuff, right, so it’s a way to sort of keep people working, and distract them and keep them sort of doing what they otherwise should be doing, when in fact, we should be outraged. Right?

[MARK]

Yeah, this is what, you know, my recent book is all about using sound technologies to be able to concentrate when you need to concentrate and sleep when you need to sleep. So sort of manage your own affect. And, and it’s interesting to look at sort of like the ads for noise cancelling headphones, and the beats, noise cancelling headphones, are really aimed at women and people of color and marketed through experiences of racism and sexism. But the message, as you said earlier about music, it’s really about individualizing seeing these problems and giving someone a technology to tune it out. The way you rise above is to not hear the haters.

[ROBIN]

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. Be resilient, overcome it. Tune it out. Yeah. So the effect of this and you see this in Taylor Swift’s new single, right, is that outrage becomes seen as something belonging to people of either low social status or odious political beliefs? Right, rather than something that like, yeah, we should we should be. We should be outraged at the destruction of the environment. We should be outraged at concentration camps full of children. 

[MARK]

And so this move to chill. I mean, we see this in the very technology of the streaming platforms, right, where the streaming platforms are built more around desired moods, affects, type of activity that you’re going to do to the music, productivity, working out, then they are organized around genres, the way that music stores, were, you know, still are those that exist.

Could you maybe talk about that a little bit?

[ROBIN]

Sure. Um, lyst Peli gave a really good talk about this at pop con last year. And I think it was published in the Baffler a few months ago. But she did, she took a deep dive into Spotify as she did that, That’s her thing. And she tried listening to sad playlist, right playlist about grief playlist about feeling bad. And she noticed that she was almost immediately redirected to feel good stuff. And so she looked into the way that Spotify represented itself to advertisers, you know, sort of how it talked about itself to advertisers. And she argues that Spotify wants people to feel good when it’s listening to Spotify, because advertisers want listeners to feel good about the brands advertised on Spotify.

[CRIS]

I love this.

[ROBIN]

Yeah. So Spotify doesn’t want you to feel bad, because its advertisers don’t want you to associate negative emotions with their brand. Right? So Spotify has this own sort of business interest in mood management, user management.

[MACK]

So if you buy Spotify Premium, are you allowed to listen to sad music?

[ROBIN]

Who knows? 

[MACK]

It’s ad free.

Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know.

[CRIS]

Maybe that’s why YouTube keeps trying to get me to take out one of their ad free subscriptions because I never listened to anything uplifting.

[MACK]

You just listen. Yeah, dense walls of noise cris.

[CRIS]

I’m interested in listening to steam trains and things like that, cars on the freeway.

[ROBIN]Well, that’s interesting, because I think one of the sorts of places in the pop music world that is definitely until these days and it is tied to a progressive politics is industrial techno.

[CRIS]

Absolutely.

[industrial techno music plays]

[ROBIN]

Not all the artists are totally sort of politically engaged. But people like Paula Temple in particular and Perk also, they’re both queer artists, who have released explicitly political music from a progressive perspective. And that I think does express. Some people like to call it hard or angry music. But interestingly, both of them have said in various ways, I don’t think my music is angry. I think it’s joyous. But again, I think that’s an example of just strong emotion. Which chill like I said earlier codes as either pathological or politically regressive. So I think it’s interesting to look for places where sort of Sonic maximalism in a strong emotion it implies are explicitly associated with that. And I think that’s one place, I think you can find it and I’ve been calling it at one point I called it angry melancholy but then I found the interviews where the artists were like, it’s not angry. So I’m, I’m trying to find an adjective to describe what kind of melancholy it is, because it’s not this sort of melancholy that I talked about in the book, but it’s it’s melancholy and that it’s a similar for their failure to perform the required an effective attunement, right which in this case would be something like chill.

[MACK]

Cameron on a guillotine was that Yeah, was that inspired by the Black Mirror episode with the pig? 

[ROBIN]

Yeah. So it’s definitely about Brexit. I actually first heard the song on a rinse FM show the day after the Brexit vote. So it’s sort of circulating as an anti Brexit song.

[music plays]

[MACK]

Sounds so retro to me. It makes me nostalgic.

[ROBIN]

But it’s kind of itchy and frenetic? Yeah, so to me that sort of represents like, when I’m tapping my toe, and I just know, I’m full of energy, and I can’t calm down and I’m nervous. It’s definitely not chill.

[MACK]

All right. This has been great. Do we have anything else that we should discuss? Like any things that we haven’t covered?

[CRIS]

So what’s the next book about?

[ROBIN]

It’s called the Sonic Esteem. And it’s about how theorists pop science writers use concepts of sound to create qualitative versions of the relationships that neoliberalism creates quantitatively. So like, one of the things I talk about is how pop science writers use the idea of resonance to translate the probabilistic math behind either some kinds of data science or some kinds of string theory into terms that people can understand.

[CRIS]

That sounds great, that sounds great.

[ROBIN]

So that’s out in December.

[CRIS]

Is that something that you wanted to talk about that we haven’t done? 

[ROBIN]

No, I think we covered it, thank you all so much. It’s been a pleasure to chat.

[MACK]

Oh, it’s been so much fun. Thank you for for talking with us. This one will be it’ll be really interesting to edit.

[CRIS]

Mack’s gonna be spending the next four months making it into a two minute piece. Thank you so much. 

[ROBIN]

Thank you guys. Bye.

[calm music fades in]

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Robin James for being on the show. You can learn more about Phantom Power, find transcripts and links to the things we talked about, and previous episodes of the show, all at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today’s show was edited by Mack Hagood. Our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[calm music fades out]