16 November 2012

A Few Unfinished Thoughts On Usher's "Numb"


I was originally going to include this as part of an article I’m working for the premier issue of a really awesome Australian journal called Creature. And by really awesome, I mean it’s going to include stuff by Nina Power & Lauren Berlant. Anyway, I’ll post more info on that when it comes out. But, since I decided on leaving this out of that project, I thought I would post it here.


This is, of course, totally unfinished and very much in need of more careful consideration and revision. So, your thoughts are, as always, welcome.


I’m thinking of Usher’s single “Numb” (from the current Looking 4 Myself album) as a potential example of black artists subverting neoliberal logics of intensity. If you’re numb, you can be fully integrated in economies of affective intensities, but in such a way that changes in intensities don’t register, or, if they register, they don’t matter. Basically, if the entrepreneurial subject is the subject of interest (in all senses of the term), the numb subject doesn’t give a fuck…which is different than being “disinterested” (in the Kantian sense of unbiased and “objective”). The disinterested subject still believes in “interest”—that’s why it’s important to distance oneself from it. The numb subject neither invests in interest, nor rejects it. I can’t decide—because this ultimately be undecidable, except in a case-by-case basis—if numbness is subversive, or if it’s an always-already-normalized transgression that just reaffirms the privilege of already privileged subjects.


For already-privileged subjects, one potential way of subverting the logic of intensity is to just go numb—to not be affected by either high or low intensity, to render oneself unable to perceive it, immune to affect. Usher’s song “Numb” does just this—the lyrics place “numbness” at the musical climaxes; the most intense musical moments are paired with lyrics that talk about insensitivity. This song suggests several ways privileged people (and maybe groups?) might subvert various aspects of neoliberalism, in particular its “just-in-time” demand for flexibility, and its imperative to always intensify one’s life.


First, as Steven Shaviro argues, neoliberalism demands absolute flexibility from its participants: you have to be ready at any time, for any thing. Instead of long-term teleology, it wants presentist responsiveness. It discourages us from future-orientation and demands we focus on now. Though “Numb” does not explicitly discuss neoliberalism, the musical settings of its lyrics clarify that numbness is a response to the presentist responsiveness to which neoliberalism compels its various elites. It is clear that time and duration are central concerns in the song, because the word “time” is featured at important musical moments: “time” is uttered on the crest of the first soar or “hit” in B (and later again in B1). In fact, the song builds up to these crests by repeating the word “long” 8 times in a row; it’s worth noting that “long” is actually the shortest phrase in the song—I’ll say more about this paradox later. So, two of the more important structural features of the song are about time and duration. Neoliberalism collapses all duration into “now.” Numbness is a response to neoliberalism’s now-imperative, its just-in-time-ness. The song repeatedly uses the word “now” at important structural moments. In D, “now” is an intermediary valley between two C peaks, thus facilitating the prolongation of the plateau of intensity throughout the C section. More importantly, at A -1.1, “now” is the nadir of which “numb,” in C, is the apex. So “now,” which neoliberalism frames as the moment of greatest intensity, is, in the song, the moment of least intensity. Neoliberal presentism is the opposite of numbness. Numbness, ironically, is the peak of pleasure.[i]

      How can insensitivity be the peak of pleasure? This also has to do with neoliberalism’s demand for just-in-time flexibility. In the A and B sections, there is a tension between the poetic meter in the lyrics and the musical meter in the instrumentals. The words at the end of lyrical phrases hit on downbeats (so the end of a line of lyrics happens at the beginning of a musical phrase). The lyrical and musical phrases are out of synch (this is why the song starts on a pickup). The asynchronization between lyrics and music keeps listeners on their toes, and thus evokes flexible subjectivity and just-in-time temporality. In contrast, the word “numb” appears in sections where the music and lyrics are more obviously quantized/synchronized. The regularity—that is, the predictability—allows listeners (and performers) to relax, to run on autopilot, so to speak. Because we can anticipate what comes next, we can rely on expertise and habit, and do not have to give our full attention solely to the matter of staying in time. We can focus on other things, like ornamentation (and there is melisma in these sections). Regularity is a reprieve from just-in-timeness, so it feels like relative numbness.
           

Color Key to chart:
[less intense] Light BlueàDark BlueàLight PurpleàDark Purple [more intense]

4-Bar Section
Description
A

A

A1
A with quarter note bass and some tambourine
A1
Rhythmic soar—“long, long, long…” builds to hit on B downbeat
B
Crest of A soar on “Time”
B

B1
Timbral soar with wooshing/wind sound in synth
B1

C
Crest of B soar on “Numb”
C

A -1
Less intense version of A, sans lyrics
A 1.1
vocal is reprise of A, but instrumental is intensification of A1 w kicks on 2&4
A 1.1

A1.2

A1.2

B1
Crest of A1 soar on “Time”
B1

C
Crest of B soar on “Numb;” also, peak of entire song;
is really A but louder, a more intense A (the wobbly treble synth is louder and fuller, as is the percussion track, which is a louder, fuller version of A1)
C
Stays at top of peak…
C
[Vocal ambiguity/homophony btw “now” and “numb”]
C1
…until last bar, which deintensifies to…
D
Intermediary valley on “now” on downbeat
D

A -1.1
Absolute nadir on “now” on downbeat” (now is nadir of numb’s apex)
C

C

C

C

A -1.2





[i] Irony is key to this song: the word “strong” in A1 falls on a weak beat (the fourth beat of the measure), just as the repeated “long”s are the shortest phrase in the song.

4 comments:

  1. more thoughts on this later, but you have to promise me that if you publish this, you'll include a footnote to the infamous "honey badger" video... since the honey badger, likewise, doesn't give a fuck either.

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  2. also, how does numb read against climax? is climax the diagnosis of the neoliberal condition and numb the resistance? "we're going nowhere fast, we've reached the climax"

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  3. AD, that's a great point about "Climax" (and the honey badger, lulz). I'm also thinking that numbness is an individualized response (a response by/for indiv subjects), not a systematic response that addresses institutions...unless one individual not responding appropriately to affective cues would/could then introduce some negative feedback into the system/institution...

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  4. I really need to read protevi's last book, don't I. I totally don't understand affective politics yet.

    ReplyDelete