popular music

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]