Further Thoughts on Bieber: Because…IDK Why Not?

I have a post over on Sounding Out! today that’s about the way Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber use feminized sonic tropes to underline Beibs’s heteromasculinity. Below are some loose ideas about “Where Are Ü Now” that didn’t directly relate to the SO! post or that just expand too far past the narrower idea I wanted to develop there. So read that first, then come back here for the after party. Or, you know, don’t do any of it; the internet’s a big place, and I’m not the boss of you.

And I’ll say this every chance I get: it’s such a pleasure to write for Sounding Out!, whose editorial team is spectacular. Thanks especially to Liana Silva, who took the lead on this one.


Okay, fine, we can talk about the dolphin sound.

My analysis in the SO! post hinges on the not-soar that happens right before the first drop in “Where Are Ü Now.” The significance of that not-soar–and its relationship to James’s Resilience & Melancholy–came to me while I was thinking about the fact that WAÜN was really hard to remix. Soundcloud is chock full of WAÜN remixes, and they’re largely underwhelming (the ones I talk about in more detail below are the exceptions). Eventually I realized that the structural oddity–the not-soar–played a large role in this, but there are other reasons WAÜN is hard to remix, too, including the fact that all of the remixes are, as far as I can tell, bootlegs. Something called a “bootleg” or “edit” is made from the finished mix, while a sanctioned remix–the kind that gets released on EPs under the original artist’s name–will work from STEMs, where different instruments are isolated, making it easier to pull a motif and do something with it or to isolate vocals and compose an entirely new instrumental. Since bootlegs can only work from the final mix, then if, say, that dolphin-sounding thing (it’s built from Bieber’s voice) in the drop of WAÜN shares the same frequency range and stereo space as his non-dolphin vocals in that section….then a bootlegger who wants to use his vocals also has to make room for the dolphin. Of course, these producers have mastered cutting techniques that I haven’t, so it’s possible that they could slice Bieber’s drop vocals from the dolphin, but after listening to as many bootlegs as I could find on soundcloud, I haven’t found any that do slice them apart (correct me if I’m wrong, plz!). Kaskade, Alex Preston, and Direct all compose drops that use the dolphin/vocal stickiness in intriguing ways.

Kaskade’s drop starts at 1:54, and after 8 measures (2:10), Biebs’s vocals come riding in on that dolphin. Kaskade sets this up with a bass synth based on the dolphin motif. It works; the entrance of the dolphin makes structural sense, with the higher register filling out the range of the drop.

Alex Preston’s drop is at 1:34, and it revolves around vocal snippets pulled from the intro, not the drop–”I…..I……you thoo thoo thoo.” The end of the first eighth measure phrase pays off the vocal snippets with a full phrase (1:45), but it’s the titular drop lyrics we get (“where are you now”) instead of the one he’s been cutting from (“I need you the most”). The last two 8-measure phrases of the drop, though, don’t pay off with a full vocal phrase. Rather, we hear the same dolphin snippet from earlier in the Jack U drop, when it’s unaccompanied by vocals (2:00 and 2:15 in Preston). So Preston uses the stickiness of the sounds to call to mind a vocal phrase without actually playing it for us.


“Hello, It’s Marshmello”: Thoughts on Robin James’s Trump/Adele Piece

In Robin James’s fabulous new New Inquiry piece where she draws an affective connection between Trump and Adele, she notes that “‘Hello’’s composition avoids using any ideas or techniques that entered pop’s toolkit since the invention of punk, hip hop, and disco in the late 70s (its one musical reference is to “California Dreaming,” from 1965). It would have made as much sense to US and UK pop audiences in 1975 as it does in 2015.” James backs this point up with a comparison to Bieber’s latest sound, which is so 2015 that it’s sure to be 2016, too, then pivots to focus on the way that Adele’s “natural” sound depends on accepting white interpreptive horizons as natural. I want to use James’s TNI piece alongside her 2015 book Resilience & Melancholy (the price is great – go cop that shit) to make a couple of observations about 1) how Adele doesn’t quite sound 2015 and 2) how we can hear whiteness in the way “Hello” is structured. Let’s start with the way Adele doesn’t quite sound 2015 by listening to two remixes of “Hello” by High Contrast and Marshmello.*

We’ll listen in more detail to Adele’s “Hello” in a minute, but we can start with something simple: the climax of “Hello” is when Adele belts out that chorus, “Hallo from the other siiiiiiiieeyiiiiiiiiide.” Both High Contrast and Marshmello hear it this way, too, so High Contrast’s drum-n-bass bootleg drops all the Amens in the chorus, while Marshmello goes for a more classic DJ Snake-ish trapstep drop. What’s striking about each, though, is that neither High Contrast nor Marshmello drops right where Adele belts. Instead, they each require an extra eight measures after Adele’s first verse before they’re ready to peak.

Here’s Adele, immediately belting the chorus (2:21) after concluding the first verse (which starts at 1:12) with “a million miles.”

Now High Contrast, who inserts an 8-measure soar after the verse ends (1:07) and before the chorus begins (1:29). The soar is built from a newly composed keyboard motif that outlines the melody of “to tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart,” sampled vocals of “to tell you” and “iiyeeiiiiiiyeiiiiiii,” and a kick drum/hihat combo. The drums rhythmically intensify over the last four measures of the soar, and they’re joined by a swoosh and a filter sweep that pulls the low end from both the drums and swoosh as we tumble into the chorus. So the barrage of Amen drum samples hit in double time at the beginning of the chorus; it’s just that the chorus has been displaced to allow for a build.

And then Marshmello, who, unlike High Contrast, moves directly from verse to chorus (1:02), like Adele does. But this isn’t zirs climax; instead, Marshmello uses the first eight measures of Adele’s chorus to build an instrumental soar. There are a lot of moving parts in here, including some synths and vocal samples, but the primary soar effect is created with a rhythmic intensification of clap/snare (1:14-1:23) and, like High Contrast, an upward filter sweep (1:14-1:23) that crests on the third beat of measure 8 (1:23), then a pause-drop: “to tell you” [drop]. (“Hello, it’s Sony,” which is unsurprisingly going after remixes posted to soundcloud and youtube. Most youtube posts of it are sped up to avoid Sony’s sensors, so I’m linking to a version I can’t embed – sorry for breaking your heart)


So: why? Why do High Contrast and Marshmello both need an extra 8 measures to soar into their drops? I think there are three things going on here, all related to structure: vocals, instrumental, and…let’s call it structural balance. The first two have to do with why Adele sounds more 1975 than 2015, and the last comes back around to James’s point about Adele’s “natural” voice and Whiteness.


Wham!’s “Last Christmas”: We Would Like to Know if Something Does Not Sound Quite Right

Now usually I don’t do this, but uh…go ahead on and break ‘em off with a little previews of the xmas remix.

Remember that time everyone got mad about the red Starbucks cups? Bc they didn’t say “Happy Birthday Jesus” or whatever on them and therefore couldn’t possibly be about xmas? I don’t want to spend a ton of time making this point because it’s kinda duh, but of course they were about xmas! Because Christian ideology has dominated religion in the US since before there was officially a US, there is no gesture even mildly related to Christianity–say, changing all your cups from white to red sometime in November–that isn’t therefore about Christianity. That’s how hegemony works: discourse and power and money and and and all tend to bend back toward it (this is a description, not a prescription, ftr). I mean, look how easy it was to make red cups be about xmas.

In the same way those Starbucks cups were always already about xmas, pop xmas songs that don’t explicitly say anything about Christianity actually reinforce dominant Christian ideology. Calculating the results of a data set I gathered by being alive, I think there are four basic options for what the lyrical content of a xmas song is: 1) Jesus, 2) Santa, 3) omg it’s winter, and 4) love. It’s the last category I want to focus on. I understand why pop stars may not want to sing a song about Jesus (too religious) or Santa (too childish), but what I’m asking here is why they do want to sing a xmas song about love.

One easy answer: “because, like, love is what pop is about.” Okay, fine. That is true, though I could stand a little less snark from you, tbh. Plus, I think there’s more to it.

An answer that’s not at all at odds with the easy one above: “bc we like to reproduce white cisheteropatriarchy.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Lee Edelman, in No Future, calls this reproductive futurism and describes it as

terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.

In other words, the importance of reproducing and then protecting (white) Children is embedded so deeply in politics that it isn’t even up for debate. It is, instead, the societal framework within which debate happens, and anything outside that framework resonates as queer.

Let’s pivot back to xmas with this idea in mind and think for a minute about the nativity scene. It can be built with a variety of details, but at its center every time is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – baby, mom, and dad. In a reproductive futurist society, recurring images like the nativity scene underscore the normalcy of the nuclear family, regardless of how utterly abnormal the details of the story surrounding the nativity scene might be. I think the heteronormativity of the nativity scene “impose[s] an ideological limit” on the discourse of xmas love songs: every cuddle next to the fireplace, each spark under the mistletoe is a reproduction of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – baby, mom, and dad. What on the surface is simply Mariah Carey’s confession that all she wants for xmas is meeeeeheeeeeeeee becomes miraculously pregnant with a dominant religio-political ideology that delimits queerness and manufactures White Children. That’s why pop stars sing love songs when they don’t want to sing about Jesus and Santa; it’s because the love songs are actually about a Christian ideology that squares comfortably with dominant political discourse even when they don’t explicitly mention religion.

Of course, just because something is a dominant ideology doesn’t mean it’s totalizing. A discourse like queer theory looks and listens for moments of potential disruption in the norm, for what Edelman reads from A Christmas Carol: a Scrooge in the narrative, a “self-denying miser” in the soundscape who loves not according to the logic of the nativity but the joy of negativity, an insistent denial of the desires offered by a world delimited by reproductive futurism. By which I mean, let’s listen to “Last Christmas.”



There will be blog. It’ll be about pop music and race and gender. And OMG it will be good. For now, here’s me:

I am a popular music scholar whose interests revolve primarily around hip hop and pop, critical race theory, and theories of gender and sexuality. I’m currently Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where I teach in the school’s Popular Music Studies program.

My single-author book-length project – Posthuman Pop – blends my interests in hip hop, race, and gender by engaging contemporary popular music alongside posthuman theory. My other book-length project is one I’m working on with Jason Lee Oakes as co-editors of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies: check out the cfp here.

I co-edited with Ali Colleen Neff the special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4 titled “Sounding Global Southernness.” Other recent publications include an exploration of the Mozart myth as it is presented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and then parodied in an episode of the Simpsons (Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, 2013), an examination of the earliest iPod silhouette commercials and the notions of freedom they are meant to convey (Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies), a piece on popular music pedagogy in the posthumanities (Journal of Music History Pedagogy, and a long comparative review of Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne and the Roots’ Undun (Journal for the Society of American Music).

You can contact me at justindburton [at] gmail [dot] com and follow me on twitter @justindburton.