Here I rework my earlier reading of Taio Cruz’s “Hangover” to show how neoliberalism actively cultivates transgression, producing what I call a “faux-gression” that gets fed back into neoliberal means of production, augmenting privilege, hegemony, etc. I cut this from an article I'm revising.
As many (such as Jeffery Nealon) have argued, neoliberalism follows an asymptotal logic of intensity. There is nothing inherently hegemonic or counter-hegemonic about the asymptotal form or logic of intensity itself; the political effects depend on a number of factors, and are often mixed anyway. The brilliance of neoliberalism is that it turns transgression into a privilege; members of privileged populations can transgress the logic of intensity, can push themselves over their maximum limit (and thus exist for a bit under their minimum limit), and be safe from seriously negative consequences, if not outright rewarded. Transgression is thus plugged back into the logic of intensity—it’s recycled back into institutions of privilege so that it augments already-privileged populations experiences of that privilege.
“Hangover” is the lead single from Cruz’s 2011 album TY.O.[i] At the level of musical organization, this song is a fairly typical example of the logic of intensity I described above.[ii] The tension between the absence of musical transgression and the transgressions recounted in the lyrics illustrates neoliberalism’s economy of faux-gression: privileged subjects profit from superficially transgressive experiences. Below, I argue that the lyrical content and the video clearly demonstrate both (a) how neoliberalism capitalizes on faux-gression, and (b) the role of transnationalized black masculinities in this faux-gression.
(a) Though “Hangover’s” lyrics describe transgressive experiences, the music doesn’t actually transgress the conventional EDM-pop musical structures I’ve discussed this in my article in The New Inquiry.
The song’s lyrical content is about partying too hard and waking up with a hangover. “I’ve got a hangover,” Cruz sings, “I’ve been drinking too much for sure.” Read more closely, the song clarifies that the hangover is the result of an attempt to party as intensely as possible. The song’s narrator attempts to push his upper limits of alcohol tolerance and party stamina. His stated intentions are:
So I can go until I blow up, eh
And I can drink until I throw up, eh
And I don’t ever ever want to grow up, eh
I wanna keep it going, ke-keep-keep it
Here, having a really great time means trying to maintain the upmost intensity of experience (consumption, dancing, socializing) for as long as possible, until you crash, blow up, or throw up. As Flo Rida’s verse in the break clarifies, the point isn’t to tarry with these limits, but to actually cross one’s threshold of tolerance and stamina—that is, to party too intensely. He raps: “Drink up cause a party ain’t a party till you ride on through it/End up on the floor, can’t remember, you’re clueless.” The hangover is not an unfortunate consequence, but an intended one. Drink and party until you pass out.
Cruz’s repeated “goings,” and the musical track that plays under them, follow the same logic of intensification and transgression. They push rhythmic intensity to its highest mathematical and perceptual limit, following this with a silence, and then a hit on the downbeat of the next measure. The musical track “blows up,” but in a way that is fully anticipated and accounted for. Unlike Mozart’s Don Giovanni, who has to exchange his philandering ways for obedience to the Oedipal/social contract and the musical laws of tonality, Cruz’s narrator gets to party on and on, “going” ad nauseum.[iii] While this endless partying was transgressive in Mozart’s political and musicial milieu, it is fully integrated in neoliberal hegemony. For example, though the desire to never, ever grow up could read as queer—Jack Halberstam has argued that both actual queer people, and the critical potential of a more abstract “queerness,” challenge heteronormative and white bourgeois-capitalist notions of developmental “reproductive” and “generational” time.[iv] However, this refusal to grow up is really a rejection of the developmental logic of classical liberalism. It neither queers nor transgresses neoliberal logics, which themselves eschew ideals of developmental progress. The lyrical transgressions aren’t actual transgressions, because they neither disturb nor coincide with disturbances of, the song’s underlying musical/compositional logic. The absence of musical deviation supports my interpretation of the transgressions described in the lyrics as limited and normalized.
So, while a hangover is the effect of transgressing one’s physiological limits, it is not thereby socially or politically transgressive. In neoliberalism, which regulates population-wide averages and distributions, individual transgression is not necessarily enough to skew the algorithm. In fact, neoliberalism encourages members of certain privileged groups to transgress so that it can capitalize on their personal transgressions. (I’ll talk more about this capitalization in section b below.) A hangover is the effect of pushing oneself beyond one’s limits: too much alcohol, too fast, not enough water, etc. It’s evidence that one was too intense in one’s drinking and partying. Being strung out or burnt out might be additional versions of this same general metaphor. You are hungover because you were immoderately intense. Because you are hungover, you cannot be intense enough today—you’re not as productive at work, or even at having fun, as you could be, because you are stuck with a headache, or nausea, or worse. A hangover is where last night’s excessive intensity impedes your ability to maximize the intensity of whatever you do today. In a way, hangover is like sonic feedback, where past sounds return to effect and distort the current process of sound-making. This feedback does introduce some statistical “noise” into neoliberalism’s managerial algorithms—you’re not performing optimally today, so you won’t be contributing as expected. However, this noise does not interrupt neoliberal hegemony, but support it. Hangovers suck. It’s not like this transgression liberates you, makes you feel better, more free, more empowered, or whatever. Actually, it’s a huge pain in the ass (or head, or stomach). This transgression comes at a cost, and this cost is most sustainable for privileged populations. Many salaried professionals have enough flexibility (e.g., sick days, personal days, telecommuting) to work around a hangover; lower-status service industry employees lack these benefits, and can’t insulate themselves against the negative effects of the previous night’s mismanaged alcohol consumption. “Transgression” itself becomes a privilege. Because it has the effect of shoring up already-existent relations of privilege and oppression, the “hangover” is a good metaphor for the standardization of deviance in neoliberalism.
(b)Both in its lyrical content, and its tension between lyrical and musical expression, Cruz’s “Hangover” illustrate the paradoxically non-transgressive function of transgression in neoliberalism. But the plot of the video also indicates how some deviances and transgressions can actually intensify the privilege of already-privileged groups. More specifically, it shows how globalized Anglo-American black masculinities have become a standardized “deviation” within neoliberal white heteropatriarchy. These masculinities function as profitable transgressions that not only generate commodity capital, but also reinforce the abnormality and unacceptability of other groups’ racialized and sexualized deviance.
In the video, Cruz suffers compounded hangovers: after waking up with one hangover, he goes out and parties till he passes out a second night in a row. The video shows that Cruz’s character experiences the consequences of his exceptionally intense transgressions in ways that ultimately intensify his homonational privilege, while other men of color are not so lucky, and suffer the consequences in ways that intensify their perceived queerness and racial otherness. Cruz and Flo-Rida are portrayed as members of an elite Black Atlantic neoliberal “entrepreneurial” class. To emphasize Cruz’s Britishness and Flo-Rida’s Americanness, there is a Union Jack and an American flag right at the beginning of the video. In the same way that neoliberalism appropriates traditional Afro-diasporic critical musical practices, biopolitical racism also co-opts some portions of global black populations. Like pinkwashing, where Western nations use their supposed inclusion of LGBT populations as evidence for their superiority over, and rights to admonish, so-called Third-World people and institutions, this video is a sort of “blackwashing,” in which Black Atlantic entrepreneurial masculinity is a wedge or border disarticulating the racially-sexually normal from the racially-sexually abnormal.
In the video, Cruz’s character is an icon of globalized heteronormative multiculturalism. While in past eras blacks served as images of queerly racialized deviance (think, for example, of Sara Baartmann), in this video, such deviance is attributed to the Asian-American male character played by Bobby Lee. Lee’s character is presented as the personal assistant to Cruz’s character; in the video, the assistant’s comedic, feminized, stunted sexuality serves to reinforce the absolute normality of his boss’s subject position and desires. The Black Atlantic tag-team of Cruz and Flo Rida, with their private jets, yachts, mansions, and the appropriately multiracial, multicultural crew of female groupies dressed the attire of international travel (sexified flight attendant uniforms and sailor garb), are icons of neoliberal privilege. The video offers Cruz’s and Flo Rida’s globalized heteromasculinity as evidence that they are the properly “entrepreneurial” subjects whose transgressions ultimately fuel both their own privilege, and global relations of white/Western, homonationalist and heteropatriarchial privilege.
Queer cross-racial intimacy is presented as one consequence of improperly managed transgressions. In the beginning of the video, Cruz’s character wakes up to find himself lying under a panda bear costume similar to the Lee’s character wore during the previous night’s blowout.[v] The implication is that Cruz narrowly avoided (perhaps only at the level of consciousness and memory) a cross-racial homosexual encounter: maybe he did party too hard after all. This does not deter him from going out again and getting even more trashed. The second morning, when Cruz wakes up a double hangover, Lee’s character’s presence, his queerly racialized masculinity, is intensified from virtual to actual. Cruz awakes amid the wreckage of his party boat to find his dorky Asian-American assistant pantsless in his bedroom, apparently wearing one of Cruz’s black blazers. Now, if Lee’s character were merely a butler or personal assistant, his presence, and the queerly cross-racial intimacy it suggests, could easily be explained away. However, he proves to be totally superfluous in his role as personal assistant. When he asks “So, uh, what outfit do you want to wear today?” Cruz replies, “The black one.” But, the joke is all Cruz’s outfits are black. So why does Cruz need this guy around? Apparently recognizing both his superfluousness and his two nights full of dismissal-worthy party fouls, Lee then begins begging for his continued employment: “Don’t fire me. I love you like a brother. Do you want me to dance for you? Don’t fire me.” The tension between the profession of “brotherly” love and the offer to sexually objectify his body clarifies that two types of consequences follow from abnormally intense transgressions (such as double hangovers): multiracial, multicultural fraternity, or queer cross-racial intimacy. The negative consequences of the double hangover fall to Lee’s queerly racialized character: he might lose his job. For Cruz’s character, the most awkward, painful consequence of his transgression is mere irritation and annoyance, represented as the presence of a queer, feminized Asian-American man interrupting a world of transnationalized black masculinities. Just as the queerly racialized deviance of their intimacy is attributed to Lee’s body, not Cruz’s, the negative consequences of Cruz’s transgressions fall to this queered Asian character.
Through my reading of Cruz’s “Hangover,” I have shown how neoliberalism co-opts musical, subjective, and racial-sexual transgression. As many theorists have argued, neoliberal hegemony conditionally invests in certain segments of the black population, because this investment helps hegemony disinvest in other, more threatening and “unhealthful” populations.[vi] If otherwise “normal” (i.e., not too queer, disabled, etc.) Black Atlantic middle classes are included within neoliberal privilege, how are black artists challenging and critiquing this appropriation and instrumentalizaiton? How does this manifest both musically and politically?
[i] Cruz, Taio. TY.O. Island Records, 2011.
[ii] There is a little bit of a musical “hangover”: at the end of each chorus/build, the four-bar phrase pattern is broken with an extra 2 bars. The last phrase of each chorus is effectively six bars total.
[iii] For more on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, specifically, the relationship between the Oedipal/social contract and the opera’s use of tonality, see my article “The Musical Semiotic” in Philosophy Today Vol. 46 (2003).
[iv] Halberstam, J. Jack. In A Queer Time and Place. New York: NYU Press 2005.
[v] It’s significant that this is a panda bear—in the US, pandas strongly connote east Asia in general, China in particular (e.g., all pandas at the National Zoo are given Chinese names). Moreover, US zoos are known to fail abysmally in their attempts to breed pandas. So, the panda not only symbolizes east Asian identity, but also failed heterosexuality.
[vi] See Sheth, and Gilroy, Paul. Darker than Blue. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.