Author: justindburton

EMP: Rae Sremmurd’s Club

RS Jump

I’m reading at the EMP Pop Conference today (5:30 Seattle time – come on out!!). Here’s a link to my paper and the opening paragraphs.

Safe Sex, Pay Checks, and Cracked Voices: Rae Sremmurd’s Disappearing Club

Rae Sremmurd party. Hard. Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi write songs about throwing money at strippers, the parameters of where one may or may not flex, buying shots for the bar, and setting swags free. But in these seemingly frivolous and heteronormative performances, Rae Sremmurd sound a party that is very much aware of the dangers of being young and black in the United States. Here, I listen to Rae Sremmurd in the context of postwork futurity, where partying opens up the possibility of a future without work as we currently know it. Thinking with LH Stallings, Robin James, and Lee Edelman especially, I hear in Rae Sremmurd’s use of trap aesthetics a queer performance–”transitional bodies in transitional spaces”–that vibrates outside of neoliberal imperatives to produce and reproduce for the benefit of whiteness (Stallings 135-6). My analysis unfolds in three parts: 1). Partying as postwork 2). Trap aesthetics and the queer club, and 3). Rae Sremmurd’s queer club performances in “Throw Sum Mo” and “Safe Sex Pay Checks.” The composite is a postwork futurity of productive and reproductive failure that siphons money from the mainstream even as it remains largely illegible as such.


Postwork Partying

Postwork, like any “post” term, can mean a number of things, depending on who’s using it and what their conception of the original term–in this case, work–is. Read the July/August 2015 Atlantic article on postwork, and you’ll come away with the sense that postwork is the death of human work, the automation and roboticization of jobs. In this formula, “work” becomes something to be protected, yearned for. Stanley Aronowitz et al’s 1998 “Post-Work Manifesto,” on the other hand, revolves around the notion that work hasn’t given us All the Shiny Things we’re entitled to, so it’s time to work less and leisure more. “Work,” in this formulation, is something to tame. Kathi Weeks, in The Problem with Work (2011), frames a more complex futurity with her concept of postwork. Here, work is necessary to function in the neoliberal present, but “utopian demands” for shorter work weeks and guaranteed basic incomes open the possibility for radically reconfiguring what we imagine work to be and, in so doing, hint at a future without work as we know it.
Weeks’s use of the term “postwork society” “to hold the space of a different future open with the term ‘post’ [rather than] to presume to be able to name [that future]” is the one I want to work with here, with Rae Sremmurd and broader Dirty South party politics (see what I did there?) bringing a much-needed black and queer dimension to Weeks’s postwork project (30). The fundamental problem with Weeks’s utopian vision is that it works best for white heteronormativity, which, duh, is part of the problem to begin with. Weeks’s postwork future is premised on heternormative logic, so that guaranteed basic incomes, for instance, are “not for the common production of value, but the common reproduction of life…income to sustain the social worlds necessary for, among other things, production” (230). I suspect Weeks wants to use “reproduction” metaphorically, which might be fine [read this with some incredulous uptalk], but when the result of it is the sustenance of existing social worlds, then the heteronormative reproduction metaphor becomes incredibly tone deaf, a double down on white supremacist patriarchy that, like the social worlds she wants to preserve, continues to push queer and black populations further from resources and power. If Weeks offers an antiproductive but pro-reproductive utopian demand, as she claims, I think listening to Rae Sremmurd can expand this to a queerly antireproductive futurity. I want to start in the Dirty South club to consider how black sonic aesthetics map antiproductivity and queerness, then listen closer to Swae Lee’s and Slimm Jxmmi’s voices to hear how their queer postwork, um, works.


Old White Doors are Runnin This Rap Shit

I have a paragraph in my forthcoming book (did I mention I have a forthcoming book? I have a forthcoming book. It’s a book I’m writing. And it’s forthcoming), Posthuman Pop, where I use Mos Def’s “The Rape Over” as an example of hegemony profiting from critique. The tl;dr is that Mos Def writes a(n anti-Semitic, homophobic…anybody wanna talk about what’s conscious in conscious rap? anybody?) song about how “old white men” and “corporate force” are “runnin this rap shit,” and then he releases it through Rawkus Records, owned and distributed in 2004 by Geffen, a division of Universal, the quintessential “corporate force” run by “old white men.” ie, it’s in Universal’s best interest for this song to exist because 1) they make money off of it, and 2) how bad can things be when someone can excoriate the so-called powerful record industry, huh? (answer: bad, but you’ll have to read the book or wait for the other blog post to get the parallel with how multiculturalism works in neoliberal society). Universal is afforded the room to be more evil in its dealings by giving “voice” to artists who call it out. Let’s call it the Benevolent Bad.

But that’s not the point of this post.

I was curious about how the writing credits for “The Rape Over” got shared. Kanye produced both it and “The Takeover,” the 2001 Jay Z song whose sample runs through “The Rape Over.” And because this is early 00s Yeezy, “The Takeover” includes a bajillion samples; the one that shows up in “The Rape Over” is from the Doors’ “5 to 1.” Kanye and Jay Z would’ve been working under Roc-A-Fella, another Universal division, but the Doors were with Elektra, a Warner subsidiary. So I’m looking up ASCAP writing credits in the interest of seeing whether Mos Def is hustling for Universal and Warner.

Turns out: just Warner. Somehow, “The Takeover” got clearances for KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” (which includes a sample of Grand Funk Railroad covering the Animals covering a folk song they heard from an Alan Lomax recording….you know what, Ethan Hein can cover this for you) and the Doors’ “5 to 1” so that the writing credits are hilariously long. (the rest of the samples may or may not have been cleared; if they were, it must’ve happened as a one-time payout instead of writing credits)


But “The Rape Over”… belongs entirely to the Doors.


Which is weird because, well, they didn’t write it all. And their part is filtered through the production techniques Kanye applied. And Kanye was there when “Takeover” happened and, I mean we all are familiar with is ego but surely he remembered that wasn’t his song. My basic google skills haven’t turned up a lawsuit, so my best guess is that for reasons that are beyond me, “The Rape Over” didn’t clear the Doors sample, then everyone got busted, and they just handed over 100% authorship because they knew they were doomed in a court ruling after “The Takeover” had already acknowledged the Doors’ contribution, and giving up the song is cheaper than giving up the song and paying all those legal fees.

Anyway, yeah, Mos Def really stuck it to the man, huh?

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.


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.