04 December 2012

Ludacris's "Rest of My Life" and Neoliberalism

On 11/11/12, Ludacris (feat. Usher & David Guetta) posted a video for his single “Rest of My life” to YouTube. Interestingly, and awesomely, this video all but explicitly posits the main claim of my article on EDM and neoliberalism in October 2012’s The New Inquiry. (Full disclosure: I first heard the track and watched the video on 12/2/12.) Because this song/video is such a clear example of the argument, I thought I would take a moment to break it down here.

My TNI article is about, in part, why EDM-pop works the way it does, and why people like it. EDM-pop takes neoliberal models of privilege and makes them available, if only momentarily so, to a mass-market audience. I argue:

Riding the crest of burnout is associated with privilege. Hegemony reproduces itself by distributing resources to privileged groups; thus, privileged people get to lead the most intense lives, lives of maximized (individual and social) investment and maximized return. Experientially, privilege means being so busy, overcommitted, and invested in your life that you’re always at risk of hitting the point of diminishing returns. EDM-pop songs make that affective experience of privilege a mass-market consumer product. This is why people like it: It mimics the feeling of winning.

So how, exactly, does EDM-pop create in sound the edge-of-burnout effect?...Conventional pop is organized harmonically: increasingly stronger dissonances develop to a point of crisis; attenuated dissonance then assimilates back to consonance. (This conforms to the “eating the other” model mentioned above). EDM-pop, by contrast, intensifies repetition to the limit of aural perception; the climax or musical “money shot” comes when this limit is reached or crossed.

For example, the repetitions of a musical event—a word, a drumbeat—will be exponentially increased (eight notes, to sixteenths, to thirty-seconds). This is an intensification of frequency. Amplitude can also be intensified by using effects and synth patches. For example, in gabber, a genre of hardcore techno, the bass is modified so that it’s a square wave on the attack, instead of a regular, curved sine wave. Most EDM-pop songs will combine both: There will be an increasingly dense rhythmic texture, accompanied by pitches and timbres that, in Dan Barrow’s words, “soar.”

“Rest of My Life” exemplifies both the account of privilege I give here, and the musical “logic of intensity” I attribute to EDM-pop.

There are tons of lyrics that express the idea that “riding the crest of burnout” is somehow a desirable experience.

·      First, at 0:25, as the video literally shows us a cresting wave, Luda raps “they say what kill me, will only make me stronger.”
·      “Why tiptoe through life to arrive safely at death”
·      “I was born for the fast life”
·      “I go for broke, a lesson I can’t afford/but FWIW I’m ready to pay”
·      “If I got one life to live, I’m gonna party till I’m dead/What the hell is a life worth living, if it’s not on the edge
·      “Tryin to keep my balance, I’m twisted, so just in case I fall/written on my tombstone should be ‘women, weed, and alcohol’”
o   Importantly, these three exemplary transgressions (women, weed, and alcohol) are not just relatively tame, normal vices, they’re actually “vices” that the neoliberal state profits from (sometimes in the form of sin taxes on booze or newly-legal weed, other times, in the form of homonationalist ‘soft power’. So, for example, combine Luda’s handling of the American flag at several moments in the video with his professions of heterosexual desire: there’s this (bad faith) sense that “Look, the American nation no longer views black heterosexuality as inherently pathological; mainstream corporate media combines nationalist images with professions of hetero black male sexuality.” There are also images of women of color as athletes, and a white woman as a jet setter. So the US gets presented as this nation of post-racial and post-feminist inclusion. This image can then be mobilized to portray “other” nations or cultures as somehow more primitive because they are supposedly more racist or more sexist.
o   In this way, “transgressions” are domesticated; the tension they create actually feeds and fuels hegemony rather than destabilizing it.
o   My forthcoming essay in the new Australian journal Creature will explain (via a reading of Taio Cruz) how neoliberalism uses transnationalized black heteromasculinity to mark the boundary between “normal” neoliberal multicultural homonationalist identities (like jet-setting US/UK black male music stars like Cruz and Flo Rida) and “unruly” queerly racialized ones (like the feminized, geeky, queered Asian-American male character in the “Hangover” video).
·      So, even though Luda says he likes to take chances, these chances aren’t real risks; he’s not going to loose much if he transgresses, because society is structured in ways that both support and are supported by his so-called transgressions (“women, weed, alcohol”)
o   “and you can call me crazy, but I like to roll the dice/so I’m winning the bet that Imma be crazy for the rest of my life
·      “I’m stuck in this moment, freeze the hands of time/cause I feel inner peace, when I’m outta my mind” This lyric reinforces my analysis of Usher’s “Numb,” available here.
o   This line also makes me think about the relationship between metaphors of temporal stasis, bliss-out aesthetics, neoliberalism, and electronic dance music in, say, The KLF’s “3AM Eternal”.

The musical logic of intensity is evident in the song’s main “soar,” which starts around 1:20 and 2:35 in the video. This is also when we first see Guetta. Obviously this is probably the result of un-synchronizable schedules, but it is odd that we see Luda & Usher together, but Guetta is never in the same frame as them. It produces this black-guys-from-ATL vs. white French guy effect.

Added 1/15/13: I've been thinking more about this song/video recently, and I realized that Guetta is only visible during the peaks of the song's soars. These peaks are rehearse or perform (because they don't represent or express, they produce) musical and affective optimization: this is the crest of the wave, its apex, the "edge" on which we're supposed to be living. So we see the only white guy in the video at the moments that represent living life to its fullest. Does this mean that Guetta's whiteness/white privilege is a (necessary?) component of a fully-optimized life?

I want to suggest (i.e., it's my educated guess) that it is. It is because neoliberalism circulates whiteness, or makes it available, in new ways. Several theorists have argued that race works differently in neoliberalism. Jasbir Puar, for example, understands race to always work in concert with other systems of social organization: queerness can intensify racial abnormality, racial normality can de-intensify queerness/intensify homonormativity, and homonormativity can intensify racial normality. Falguni Sheth argues that race works as a how, not just a what, a technology and not just an identity. So if race is a technology that is amplified or diminished by its interactions with other technologies, then even non-whites can have access to some aspects of "technological" whiteness. Let me be clear: this access is always conditional and always incomplete. However, it is now in the interests of white supremacy to conditionally and incompletely give specific types of non-white people access to some of the privileges usually reserved for racially white people (e.g., Sheth's analysis of blacks as border population). George Zimmerman's (i.e., Tayvon Martin's murderer) participation in the neighborhood watch could possibly be read in this way: his role in this institution structurally whitened him, even if it did not phenotypically or ethnically whiten him. It put him in the position of the gun-toting, law-enforcing, panoptically surveilling white patriarch (sort of like the un-queer, reactionary version of VC Davis's "Terrorist Drag").

Think also about the literally entrepreneurial subjectivity common in mainstream hip hop for the past 5+ years. Or, think of Stringer Bell (businessman) as contrasted to Avon Barksdale (thug). White hegemony has figured out that it in fact benefits from conditionally and incompletely extending some of the privileges of white heteropatriarchy to specific types of black men. It seems to strike a bargain: if you perform whiteness well enough, we'll let you actually reap some of its rewards.

All this is to say that I think Guetta's whiteness--his slightly foreign (French) white masculinity--is part of what Luda and Usher, as members of an elite transnational, entreprenurial class of African-Americans, experience when their lives are fully optimized, lived on the edge, etc.

Anyway, I was delighted when I found this song/video because it so neatly expresses the ideas I talked about in the TNI piece. Sometimes it’s nice to get some confirmation you’re on the right track.

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