“Music is and has been a powerful apparatus of capture for values of all kinds, but it’s also a powerful tool in subverting the present and/or carving out a livable future” (72).
As I read Jeffrey T Nealon’sI’m Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music, I rotate through a number of Pandora stations. There’s my classic R&B station based on bands like Sam & Dave and the Temptations with a distinct 60s-70s Motown sound. Another has been loving crafted from entering bands that played at Lincoln’s Folk and Roots Festival the last three years, and it introduces me to more local bands. There’s my trusty Grateful Dead station that I’ve primed to play only the Dead’s live recordings. But my current favorite is built on contemporary R&B, and it’s hitting that sweet spot of heavy Janelle Monae, singing the lyrics of “Django Jane” from her 2018 album Dirty Computer:
“Let the vagina have a monologue
Mansplaining, I fold 'em like origami
What's a wave, baby? This a tsunami
For the culture, I kamikaze
I put my life on a life line”
While I admit I initially looked into I’m Not Like Everybody Else because I saw its second chapter borrows its name from a Grateful Dead lyric, I can’t quite get his work out of my head. It resonates with every snippet of music I hear. And the music, thanks to streaming services like Pandora, goes with me everywhere.
What struck me most about Nealon’s project in I’m not Like Everybody Else is his ambition to advance scholarship on popular music by moving past the same talking points that have saturated popular music scholarship (at least) since the counterculture of the 1960’s. For example, Nealon is done with the “way cool/sold out dialectic” that has become so central to writing about popular music. Nealon would “like to put ‘authenticity’ to bed as a critical or theoretical model in talking about music” (29-30). It’s refreshing not to hear a rehash of that authenticity arguments.
“Authenticity” were arguments that typically revolved around music identity. But the contemporary popular music scene (and Nealon) seem bored with static notions of “identity.” As expressed by CAKE in their song “Rock & Roll Lifestyle”:
Excess ain't rebellion.
You're drinking what they're selling.
Your self-destruction doesn't hurt them.
Your chaos won't convert them.
They're so happy to rebuild it.
You'll never really kill it.
Yeah, excess ain't rebellion.
You're drinking what they're selling.
Perhaps thinking about these lyrics about the affective quality of music is useful in foregrounding the work this project does: It’s no longer just about consumption (“excess ain’t rebellion”) and how that consumption (“drinking what they’re selling”) carves out (or doesn’t) a kind of group identification. Nealon’s analysis of popular music instead focuses on biopower under neoliberalism, focusing on its production of subjectivity, of shaping lives and lifestyles: “music constitutes [. . . ] a template for understanding how biopolitical subjectivity has emerged, how it works in the present, or how it might work in the future: no longer something that primarily provides meaning or identity for any given subject but perhaps as something that provides a soundtrack for movement, a provocation to action” (71).
Framed this way, the “authenticity” of the music (whatever that means) doesn’t matter, and the privileging of an “authentic” self is similarly displaced:
“There is no real you; or, more accurately, the real you is undergoing constant modification: this is neither a liberating nor a constraining realization, but it names the terrain where we live at present. Considering that biopolitical fact, any given subject today doesn’t need an authentic identity to inhabit, but a soundtrack for becoming” (71).
Along with this framework of “becoming” necessarily jettisoning “authenticity” as a primary concern, Nealon also sticks a fork in Adorno’s concept of high art and low art. He posits: what’s better, Justin Beiber or Leonard Cohen? His answer is, ultimately, “for what?” (78). When the point is “affective,” then questions like “Does Lana Del Rey deserve critical attention?” are ultimately interrupted by more useful questions about the affect of Lana Del Rey.
But for Nealon’s argument about Biopower, musical “taste” (a la Bourdieu) becomes overtaken by the curation of music. By this, Nealon means subjects are less likely to have a genre specific loyalty. I’m reminded of the musical “tribes” in that odd KISS film Detroit Rock City that pitted the Rockers against the Stellas-that is Listeners of Hair Bands against Listeners of Disco. They are, instead, more likely to choose music that fits the “mood--like my partner playing her “Spooky” playlist for Halloween in the next room, or I listening to a Femme Punk playlist to get me through the impending monotony of raking leaves.
Nealon taps into, here, something of an economy of attention: both what music do we listen to? Would I have listened to CAKE today had Pandora’s magic algorithms suggested listeners of the Killers will also listen to CAKE? But also what is the affect of a band that plays the Killers and the Fratellis? What sort of affect do these things elicit that might be useful to-say-employers? What music might my students want me to be listening to (and what mood might they want me in) while I’m responding to and grading their writing? In his inquiry into transformation of biopower working on the senses, Nealon’s emphasis is on how biopower manages, orders, and enhances moods (96). The biopolitical pull dictates how music should be consumed, demanding the continuous rebranding remaking of of identity. We want, as my appeals to my various Pandora playlists through this post might suggest, to differentiate ourselves from blending into the masses.
This is a performative aspect of curation: But that isn’t to say that these are determined, calculated choices. Nealon points to a misreading of Butler’s performativity to help address this (and to draw important distinctions between how Bourdieu’s concept of identity functions differently than Butler’s): in saying gender is performative, Butler is not insisting that this performance is (inherently) a process of consciously deciding to appeal to this audience or that through carefully weighed choices. This is a distinction between an economic and cultural understanding of capital: “For Bourdieu, taste is primarily a social game of jockeying for distinction” (103). We want to drink what they’re selling, yes, but we want that drink to be recognized. We want to be seen as savvy curators.
This is, in part, where Nealon envisions distraction-like chaning our own affective responses through curating a playlist-to have some hegemonic work to do, a place where we might, as Monae points out, rebel against dominant culture: “a whole category of resistance, like the sibling category of authenticity, may need to be updated in talking about and responding to present forms of capitalism” (113). Distraction can serve as a cultural practice as a way to rethink “contemplation” (which is really just deep attention) in an economy that seeks to demand and commodify our attention, where “listening is a privileged practice where we meet, resist, and rework neoliberal social power, right on the surface of our everyday lives” (120).