This is all rather rough, and because I’m thinking of reworking this to submit here, I really appreciate any constructive feedback you may have.
The Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen,” with its refrain, “no future,” has been central to Jack Halberstam’s critique of Lee Edelman’s 2004 book No Future, and to Halberstam’s own concept of queer failure. (See here for my discussion of LE's response to JH.) I’ve been thinking about this for a while, for a number of reasons. First, I think both Halberstam’s initial critique, and Edelman’s response, is unsatisfactory and incomplete, because neither theorist thinks about the musical aspects of the song (they only discuss lyrics). This oversight means that Halberstam’s own critique fails to overcome one of the primary limitations he finds in Edelman’s text: it takes up an “excessively small archive” (Halberstam TQAOF 109)—in this case, an archive that excludes music (which is particularly troublesome when analyzing a song). Because of this limited archive, Halberstam’s critique cannot be as robust as it could be. If you listen to the music for “God Save the Queen,” and pay attention to the melodies, the chord changes, the instrumentation, the song structure, etc., you’ll notice that it is a very, very conventional rock song. Sure, there’s no guitar solo and it’s relatively stripped down—thus making it a “punk” reaction to glammy excess. BUT, it is not just Edelman’s text that “does not fuck the law, big or little L; he succumbs to the law of grammar, the law of logic, the law of abstraction, the law of apolitical formalism, the law of genres” (Halberstam TQAOF 107)—neither does The Sex Pistols song. As a rock song, “God Save the Queen” doesn’t really fuck musical laws or conventions. That sort of fucking around is reserved for Rotten’s/Lydon’s post-Pistols band, Public Image Limited, or his step-daughter Ari Up’s band The Slits.[i] So, this discussion of The Sex Pistol’s “God Save” would benefit from closer attention to the song’s actual music.
One place “God Save the Queen’s” actual music is taken up and put to critical use is in Atari Teenage Riot’s 1993 “Delete Yourself (You Have No Chance To Win)”.[ii] This track samples the main guitar riff from the Pistols’ punk classic and uses it—both a direct sample, and the riff’s chord progression—as the basis of a “cyberpunk” or digital hardcore track. The riff follows a very, very common I-V-IV-V-I progression. However, ATR take the riff/progression and mostly de-functionalize the harmony: they take the “progress” out of “chord progression” by not using this I-V-IV-V-I riff as the medium for creating and resolving “conflict” or “tension.” Unlike a rock song, which is structured mainly by simple tonal progressions like tonic-dominant-subdominant-dominant-tonic (I-V-IV-V-I), “Delete Yourself” is a dance record, and it uses rhythm (in the form of an arpeggiator and in the form of some percussion samples/drum machine licks) to interrupt the functionality of the riff’s harmonic progression (that is, they interrupt its ability to create and resolve tension. I’ll talk more specifically about this “interruption” after the embedded video.)[iii] While the musical structure of “God Save” hinges on this narrative-like harmonic progression from consonance, through dissonance, and back to consonance, “Delete Yourself” doesn’t really “progress”—it’s more static, and the alternation among verses, choruses, and the break is more determinative of the song’s structure than harmony is. In fact, the major source of tension and release in the track comes from the alternation between verses and choruses. (I talk more about this contrast between “harmony” and “frequency” as systems of musical organization here.) Put simply, “Delete Yourself” takes the narrative/harmonic element of “God Save” and interrupts it, undoing its ability to structure the song as a progressive development through dissonance. Let’s listen to see how this happens:
The riff sample is looped to form the basis for the instrumental melody in the chorus. You hear this first at 0:39 in this version:
The riff’s chord progression is also the basis of the verses, though this time it is programmed into a mid-pitched arpeggiated synth. The first place this appears is 1:05-1:09 (that’s one iteration of the whole progression, which then gets repeated 7 more times in that verse, for a total of 8 repetitions in each verse.) In both the direct samples and the mid-voiced arpeggiated synth motive, the original guitar riff is broken up and interrupted. In the choruses, the sample is overshadowed by percussion (which sounds like an era-appropriate jungl-y reworking of the Amen Break); the percussion track here is just as much a part of the musical foreground as the guitar riff. So, here, the Pistols’ sample is interrupted by “digital hardcore” style percussion. In the verses, the melodic/harmonic progression is literally arpeggiated. In both instances, the “smooth flow” of the riff is broken up, interrupted, contorted. Another thing that is broken up and interrupted is Rotten’s vocal monologue: the ATR version features a sampled or processed voice (“Delete Yourself”), Alec Empire’s primary vocals, and Hanin Elias’s vocals in the chorus (so, notably, there’s a woman on this track). “Delete Yourself” takes the main instrumental hook/chord progression from “God Save” and puts it to a vastly different use. In “God Save,” the riff/progression organizes the song as a narrative: we start out with consonance, this is challenged by various dissonances, but ultimately we return to consonance. In “Delete Yourself,” this concern with narrative development and closure is minimized. While “Delete Yourself” is obviously based around the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” it is altering it in some significant musical ways.
These musical differences indicate ATR’s deeper ideological and philosophical departures from the Pistols. “Delete Yourself” critiques “God Save’s” lyrical, affective, and political content in some significant ways. “God Save,” both in itself as a year-zero punk song, and in its uses in postmillennial queer theory, remains within the confines of classical liberalism. “Futurity” is a concern for classical liberalism: “futurity” (or the lack thereof) is relevant to Modern/Enlightenment subjects who develop and progress, i.e., subjects formed through “narrative” or Bildung. This classically liberal enlightenment subject is not the subject of biopolitical neoliberalism. For this subject, life itself, not progress or development, is the primary point of identification and organizing structure.[iv] Or: the classically liberal subject is concerned with maintaining its integrity as it progresses through the future, whereas the neoliberal subject is concerned with optimizing its life. The Classically liberal subject is concerned with authenticity of experience (all leads back to me, to my true (inner) Self) whereas the neoliberal subject is concerned with optimized intensity of experience, wherever that may lead. Roy, the replicant played by Rutgher Hauer in Blade Runner, sums up the neoliberal subject best in his demand “I want more life, fucker.”
All this is to suggest that “No Future!” is a critique of the classically liberal subject, and the classically liberal state (e.g., the sovereign figurehead herself). “Delete Yourself,” on the other hand, is a critique of the neoliberal subject and the neoliberal state. “No Future!” and “Delete Yourself!” are two very different claims. The Pistols are charging that the promise of a future is bankrupt, i.e., that the liberal bourgeois British state, and all its trappings, have no future. So the Pistols use their “No Future” chant to target the classically liberal state. ATR uses the idea of “death” to critique the biopolitical/neoliberal administration of life. As they say in their 1995 track “Into the Death,” “life is a video game you have no chance to win.” “Delete Yourself” fleshes out this claim. The song begins with a spoken exposition, which establishes that:
This is not just another video game…
One day will come you enter the cyberspace
And you never want to get out
Cause reality is shit and cyberspace is gone
“Cyberspace” here is not the 90s virtual reality world of goggles and immersive images. “Cyberspace” can be read as a metaphor for the data-fication of “meatspace.” Meatspace, or embodied “real-life” existence, is increasingly expressed and understood in terms of data (birthrate, death rate, obesity rate, credit rate, unemployment rate, facebook profile, etc.). In neoliberalism, “meatspace” life is a biopolitically administered phenomenon; life is data, data is life. In “Delete Yourself,” “cyberspace” is the reduction of meatspace/life to data. The last line of the exposition collapses meatspace and cyberspace into one another because this is what biopolitical administration already does. So, ATR’s point is that we already exist in “cyberspace.”
The possibility or impossibility of the future is not particularly relevant to “cyberspace,” if only for the fact that it already is “futuristic.” So “cyberspace”—as a metaphor for the boipolitical administration of data-life—shows how “futurity” (i.e., the future-oriented narrative progress through conflict toward resolution) is a null and void question for neoliberalism. The introduction to “Delete Yourself” demonstrates this by inverting then-conventional video-game temporal progression. In the 1990s, video games (like the iconic “Mortal Kombat”) often included a starting sequence that asked “Are you ready?” and then, after a player pressed the appropriate button to indicate readiness, initiated game play with visual and verbal exhortation to “GO!” (or “Fight!” in the case of Mortal Kombat.) Game play then happened, and eventually the player would exhaust his or her “lives” and have to start the game over. So, if conventional video-game logic is ready-go-delete, ATR reverses this logic. The introductory chorus (0:39) begins with “Delete yourself,” then Empire or Carl Crack screams “GO!,” and he follows this with the line “Are you ready?”. From the perspective of video game conventions, “Delete Yourself” reverses temporal progress toward the future. It does not move forward, but backwards. Or, moving forward does not bring us to the future. However it works, “Delete Yourself” scrambles conventional logics of futurity and narrative progress. Here, death—or deletion—happens before one can even start, before one gets to try to use up one’s “lives.” The addressee here is one who has already been relegated to death, who lacks the requisite “human capital” necessary for a chance at “winning.” “Delete Yourself” thus describes the situation of neoliberalism’s “others,” those who are “left to die” so that privileged subjects have the chance at a “successful” life.[v] Some might call this group relegated to death “bare life.”
In this light, then, the command to “delete oneself” is ATR’s prescription for opposition to or subversion of life-as-data. This parallels Foucault’s claim in the last chapter of The History of Sexuality v1 that “death is power’s limit.” The alternative to biopolitically administered “life” is death; if life is data, the equivalent to “death” would be deletion. “Delete Yourself” is a response to neoliberalism: it offers death as the alternative to a biopolitically administered “life.” “No Future” is a response to classical liberalism: it offers anti-futurity as the alternative to the sovereign and disciplinary state.
Ultimately, then, “Delete Yourself” demonstrates that the most significant problem with the discussions of “God Save the Queen” is that the limited archive (classic punk) limits the scope of their analysis and critique to classical liberalism. Unlike Trainspotting, which mocks the exhortation to “Choose Life,” “Delete Yourself” argues that in neoliberalism, death is always-already chosen for some; some doen’t even get to “choose life.” The song suggests that it is not only Edelman’s archive that is too narrow, but also his understanding of which populations are cathected to “death,” and how that happens. It is not just queers that are left to die, who are always-already deleted, but also racially subaltern groups (like the Roma, or Turkish Gastarbeiters, or Afro-Germans), and some segments of the post-communist Eastern European economy—just to list some examples from ATR’s own historical context. In biopolitical neoliberalism, “death” is not just targeted to queers; it functions more generally. Moreover, the “death” at issue here is not just any death, but the death of the biopolitical/neoliberal subject, the death of data-life. “Delete Yourself,” with its emphasis on “death,” is actually more resonant with Halberstam’s concepts of shadow feminism and queer failure. It can contribute to Halberstam’s theorization of failure by framing “death” more narrowly and specifically as a response to neoliberalism.
If life is a video game you have no chance to win, resistance doesn’t come in the form of “more life” (like Roy wants), nor in the form of gutter-life, the life of the looser (like Rotten advocates, the life of the “flowers in the dustbin). “Life is what they control,” as Hanin Elias reminds us in “Into the Death.” Losers might have shitty profiles full of losses and deficient in wins, but they still have a profile. ATR command us to delete the profile itself. ATR thus also help clarify how “failure,” as the life of the loser, might be insufficient as a critique or subversion of neoliberalism. So, Halberstam’s examples of self-effacement (e.g., in the “Shadow Feminisms” chapter) might be more productive for thinking about and strategizing against neoliberal/biopolitical/”cyber” regimes.
Ultimately, one thing I want to show here is the importance of music for feminist and queer theory. Opening our analyses not just to music, but also to technical discussions of how songs work as music can really help our theorizing about other things, like death, futurity, and political structures.
[i] The Sex Pistols’ “Johnny B. Goode/Roadrunner” track is an (the?) exception; shit does break down and get fucked up here. It is also worth considering The Slits’ “So Tough” more carefully in this light. This track was supposedly written about Sid Vicious, a mocking jab at his “radical” macho posturing. “So Tough” might be an insightful feminist critique of negativity-as-macho-posturing, and may reinforce Halberstam’s critique of both Edelman and Trainspotting better than the “God Save the Queen” example.
[ii] The track was officially released in 1995, on an album titled 1995, but it was recorded in 1993; the version on 1995 was recorded at a Glasgow concert in 1993.
[iii] To be a bit more technical, the bass in “Delete Yourself” has more of a rhythmic than a harmonic function, so here the riff is not a background harmonic element, but a mid- or foreground melodic motive.
[iv] This distinction could also be expressed in terms of humanism: the classically liberal subject is a humanist one—wholeness, authenticity, and self-presence are fundamental assumptions. Neoliberal structures of subjectivity do not require wholeness, authenticity, and self-presence—they may accommodate, even require, opposite assumptions. (The “entrepreneurial subject” easily accommodates posthuman forms of corporeal and cognitive enhancement, for example.)
[v] I think it’s important to consider the historical and geographic location in which the lyrics were written. Early 1990s Berlin was a place where one could easily see the ways in which the neoliberal “New World Order” did not include everyone. Some East Berliners/East Germans were certainly welcomed into the fold of globalized liberal democratic capitalism, but many were simply left out.