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Songs for Invertebrates
Auto-Tune, Rhythm, and the Innateness of Music
As le monde is the kingdom of nothingness, there are only insignificant degrees between the merits of the various women in le monde, which M. de Charlus’s grudges and imagination could only wildly amplify. And of course, if he speaks as he just did, in this language that is an ambiguous expression of the preciousness of the objects of art and of le monde, this is because his old-lady-like sensitivities and his mondain culture furnished that true eloquence that was his own only with insignificant themes. The world of differences being non-existent upon the surface of the earth, amidst all the landscapes that our perception renders uniform, a fortiori does it not exist in “le monde”. But does it exist somewhere? Vinteuil’s septet seemed to tell me: yes, it does. But where?
—Proust, La Prisonnière, volume 5 of À la recherche du temps perdu1
Quelle voix salutaire ordonne que je vive,
Et rappelle en mon sein mon âme fugitive ?
—Racine, Esther II, vii.
My gym in the heart of the 19th arrondissement is inhabited by a goodly mix of young Tunisian beefcakes admiring themselves and one another in the full-wall mirrors; older barrel-shaped strongmen, often with moustaches and faded anchor tattoos on their forearms, as if straight off the carnival circuit circa 1910, where you might see them wearing skimpy leopard-spotted togas and lifting those ball-shaped barbells from the cartoons; and a scattering of scrawny ageing bourgeois who are quite plainly there on the stern recommendation of their doctors.
I fear I belong to this latter category. I gained an embarrassing amount of weight during the first lockdown, and overcompensated by losing it all, and much more, with a strict diet I started in early 2021 (zero flour, zero sugar, etc.). Without an accompanying exercise regime, my muscles atrophied, and by the end of that year I found myself dreading even the task of opening doors. My shoulders were so weak that the mere weight of my arms hanging from them caused tremendous pain. Get back to the gym! the physical therapist said, and so I did.
Although the gym hosts a mixture of age groups, the music is chosen by the staff, who all seem to be around twenty years old. I wish I could describe what I have heard there for you; the fact that I —a professional describer, and for decades a sharply attuned critic of virtually every current of popular music— cannot describe it is itself the problem and the mystery that has motivated the present essay.
Some of the songs seem to have an ancestral connection to reggae. I believe they might belong at their origin to that genre called reggaetón, but that they have been further processed through several additional filters at the remix stage to fit them to some other genre’s conventions, for which I have no name. Some of them have nothing to do with reggae, but clearly originate in American hip-hop — on those rare occasions I can make out a word, it is often that charged bisyllabic lexeme that starts with an “n” and ends, thankfully, with an “a” rather than a hard “r”. But here too there is further filtration through machines, so that the resulting vocal product seems completely alienated from whoever first sang it. I have been trying for weeks to identify a single vocal phrase distinctive enough for me to Google it and find out its source, but so far I have not succeeded.
Everything is muffled and distant, not just the lyrics, but also what little remains of the beat, as if the people who listen to it no longer care about rhythm. It all sounds very European to me, a further degeneration of those strange arrangements cooked up in corporate offices in Düsseldorf or Antwerp decades ago gave us Snap!, Technotronic, Milli Vanilli, and other top-down producer-driven creations that all had the air of fraud about them whether or not they were built on straightforward deception. But “Pump Up the Jam” was, at least, a jam. However stupid it may have been, everything about it was crisp, and vivid, and quickening. What I hear at the gym today makes me feel weak, nauseous; it makes me lose my will-to-strength. Even though I can’t cite any names or link to any YouTube clips to show you what I mean (the closest thing I’ve been able to find is Number 9 from this medley of 2016’s top Auto-Tune hits; as if to add to the mystery, whoever created this video does not list the artists or titles), I hope you will understand when I say that what I’ve been hearing at the gym is best described as “music for invertebrates”.
It is strange to me that in an era of “poptimism”, when “serious” critics are happy to write for the ageing bourgeoisie about the most dismal output of our culture industry and to insist that it, whatever it is, is further proof that “the kids are alright”, I as an ageing bourgeois should still have no idea what I am hearing. I hear it coming from cars; I hear it issuing from Bluetooth speakers carried by bands of scrappy teenagers on the Canal d’Ourcq; I do not see it discussed by Jon Caramanica in the New York Times.
I suspect that no matter how poptimistic mid-to-high culture tries to be, there is and must always be a pale, on the other side of which lie all sorts of low-status cultural artifacts too risky for the professional classes even to pretend to pick up. I remember well, in 1994, the time at the New School I heard a grad student with a septum-ring announce that she was currently working on a reading of “Snoop Dogg avec Lacan”. That was a legitimate move on the culture-board at the time, and I’ve seen countless variations of it since then. But nobody has offered a Deleuzean reading of O-Zone or a Lukácsian reading of the Cheeky Girls. Are you a white academic excited about the new Kendrick Lamar album? Go ahead and let others know about it. Are you more interested in learning about the spread of Juggalo gangs to Native reservations in the rural West? Tread carefully. NPR might have made it briefly possible for its listeners to talk about Manny Pacquiao, but if you are any sort of precarious culture-industry worker, and you know the names of some cauliflower-eared mixed-martial-artists from Uzbekistan, you should probably keep silent about that. There are limits, I mean, and I believe whatever it is I’m hearing at the gym lies beyond those limits. It falls to me to cross over the limits, to pick up whatever radioactive junk I find there, and report back to you.
I sometimes consider asking the young woman at the front counter to alternate the playlist from time to time, to put on some fucking Slayer or something, put on “Pump Up the Jam”, or anything at all with a bit of lifeblood coursing through it, anything with backbone. The mystery deepens when I look at the barrel-shaped strongmen and see that they are happily pumping iron, entirely oblivious to the background audio ooze that makes me want to lie down on the floor and never get up again, like a dead medusa turned to pure gelatin. And the girl at the counter is rocking her head back and forth, grinning, mumbling along to the lyrics she somehow understands and knows by heart. What is happening here? Is this hell?
I can recall my grandmother catching sight of Madonna on MTV, circa 1989 (I believe it was the video for “Like a Prayer”). “Who is that?” she asked, and I was stunned. I myself did not care about Madonna. She only made it onto the TV screen by neglect, and she was as far from my corner of the culture-board as possible, but still, I simply could not imagine what it would be like to not know who Madonna is. There was condemnation in my grandmother’s query —she did not like what she was seeing—, though I also remember a moment perhaps five years earlier, riding down a country road in the passenger seat of my grandfather’s (her husband’s) little Datsun, when George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” came on the radio. Grandpa’s elbows started bouncing up and down, no less oblivious to what he was hearing than grandma would later be —he was born in 1912, what could he have known of Wham!?—, and he looked at me and said: “That’s a nice melody.” Seconds later the car was upside down in the ditch by the side of the road. We crawled out and hitched a ride into Marysville in the back of an ice-cream truck, and the driver gave me a fudgesicle. That’s the power of music. And grandpa was right: it is a nice melody.
So the older generation listened in on the most familiar pop-music output of my era, and gave it mixed reviews. My era was over by 1990. After that for me it was all just recomposition, encyclopedism, genealogy, and syncretism: digging up lost treasures from before I was born, growing increasingly hostile to the present, going off to grad school and finding pop-cultural output subjected, everywhere I turned, to high-brow “interrogation”. And then it’s 1996 or so and I’m back home in California, and a family friend of my parent’s generation ensnares me in an inane conversation of a very familiar sort, in which he acknowledges the artistic virtues of the Beatles, and insists that rap music is “not music”. “It’s just beats and rhyming,” he says.
Jump ahead further, to early 2022. I’m at a dinner in Paris sitting next to Oxmo Puccino, the acclaimed French rapper-turned-novelist. He grew up in the 19th arrondissement, and doesn’t like what he sees on his occasional visits to his old haunts. The kids making rap videos with their iPhones on the Canal d’Ourcq these days, he complains, “don’t even bother to rhyme. They’re just talking.”
I ask Oxmo if it’s possible for a rapper to age with dignity.
“It’s a young genre,” he says. “We’re just now beginning to find out.”
Is it possible to become an ex-rapper?
What, anyhow, is music? Could its necessary and sufficient conditions be met when only “beats and talking” are present? And why, now, when I am at the gym, do I likewise feel pulled toward the exasperated conclusion that what I am hearing is “not music”? On deeper reflection, it seems to me I am wrong in this judgment, and here I am concerned to explain why.
Let us postpone the question of beats for now and concern ourselves with melody. Music theory often makes a distinction between the two most primitive varieties of vocalization: the imitation of animal sounds, on the one hand, music as a blending-in with the natural milieu, an identification with the full community of non-human beings; and on the other hand so-called “bel canto”, which channels the voice toward something transcendent, something “beyond nature” — but what exactly? We don’t know. Birdsong, mysteriously, straddles the boundary between these two. Throughout history the most ethereal and divine women’s voices have been said to be “like a bird”, but not in the same way that a hunter’s duck-call is “like a duck”. Not that kind of bird, and not that kind of call. What kind, then? Again, we don’t know.
As I have been repeatedly subjected over the past months to the degradations of Auto-Tune, it has come to seem to me that there is a third basic category of vocalization, of which Auto-Tune technology is only the latest expression. As far as I have been able to learn, Auto-Tune as we now understand it was imposed on our culture with Cher’s 1998 dance-pop anthem, “Believe”. It remained so strongly associated with her voice that it was long known as “the Cher effect”, but by the end of the first decade of the 2000s would come to be even more strongly associated with rappers like Lil Wayne and T-Pain. As far as I can tell, it hypostasized downward from them over the 2010s, and found its way into a whole generation of minor and indistinguishable mumble rappers and tenth-generation remixes of the sort I’ve described hearing at the gym.
The relevant software for altering vocal pitch had been developed in 1997 by Antares Audio Technologies, but in its aesthetic quality this effect reproduces the portamento saw-wave sound heavily associated with “G-funk” rap from the West Coast, and more precisely from Long Beach, beginning in the early 1990s. This in turn echoes the robotic vocal effects common to first-generation funk, which in turn have ancestors in such early electronic experiments as the country steel-guitarist Pete Drake’s so-called “talking guitar”, the most haunting demonstration of which is surely this performance of “Forever” from 1964; in an earlier appearance on the Jimmy Dean Show in the late 1950s, the host and future sausage-magnate assures the audience that the tube Drake places in his mouth to sing through his guitar in no way endangers the musician’s vocal chords. Drake himself is in turn developing for a country-western audience techniques that had already been tried out in a big-band setting by Alvino Rey (ancestor to the Butler boys from Arcade Fire), who in 1944 played “St. Louis Blues” along with a puppet named “Stringy” impersonating the sounds of the “talk-box” through which he processed his guitar.
The YouTube comments on these masterpieces routinely evoke the names of Daft Punk, Warren G, and indeed Cher, as latter-day incarnations. But in truth Rey and Drake are themselves only picking up, at the beginning of the era of electronic music, a practice whose vastly longer pre-history, which likely has no beginning other than with the human species itself, involves reed instruments and other simple devices that alter the voice without entirely transforming it into something else. Here one does not go downward into the animal realm, nor upward as in bel canto into the ethereal realm, but somehow sideways, into an uncanny quasi-human realm, one that until recently would not have been conceptualized as the realm of “robots”, but that nonetheless seems to anticipate our current cultural unease surrounding androids and other entities that are near to, but far from, the truly human.
These older instruments are typically heard by us today as adding a quasi-comical element of novelty, as in the so-called “Jew’s harp” or mouth harp, or as adding a flavor of the cut-rate neo-shamanism marketed in boardwalk headshops, as in the didgeridoo. But the experience of the uncanny that this “third voice” provides can be more than just a novelty, if you know what you’re listening for. It can provide, I think, a reminder of what I’m tempted to call the “prelinguistic sources of storytelling”. Before we told stories, we modulated our voices in time, in ways that seemed to weave together “the three realms” of the heavens (bel canto), of nature (animal calls), and of the social. But in this weave the final element, the social, was never simply a faithful reproduction of lived human experience. It was always transfigured, unreal. The mouth harp “tells” of that transfigured reality. Sometimes, even string instruments can be bent to sound like voices, as when George Harrison’s guitar “weeps” or when “haiduk”-style violinists in the Balkans scrape a broken string across the tuned strings to achieve an even more powerfully plaintive tone. B.B. King always insisted that he and Lucille could never “sing” at the same time, but instead must take turns, and the degree of convergence between their respective “vocal” styles defies all human understanding.
Perhaps the only other musician who comes close to King’s instrumental singing is Chet Baker on his trumpet, but here the alternation feels different, as the technique involved, embouchure and blowing into the mouthpiece, seems more continuous with the primal technique I am interested in describing, of mediating the human voice through instruments that modulate it and transfigure it. Significantly, in the Sakha language the mouth harp is called a хомус/khomus, which is the same word for “reed”. My native informant tells me this is a mere homonymy, like “bark” and “bark”, but I’m not convinced. I suspect the mouth harp transfers to metal, and renders metallic, what would later become electronic, a sort of effect that we know in its first instance through vegetal instruments.
Orangutans have been spotted putting leaves in front of their lips and blowing into them, manipulating them with their hands in order to alternate the pitch. So far only adolescent males have been observed doing this. The presumption is that the leaves lower the pitch of their signature “kiss squeak”, and thus that they are issuing a deceptive signal in order to convince potentially hostile beings in their midst that they are adult males, who for their part typically do not need to mediate their kiss squeaks through instruments of any sort. But given that we now also believe we know that “enhanced imitation” of the sort we see in adolescent orangutans is what provided the “essential scaffolding for protospeech in the evolution of protolanguage” among our own primate ancestors, it seems reasonable to suppose that this use of leaves is not just deceptive signalling for the sake of “survival” in a hostile environment, but also something involving the free play of imagination, just as in the prelinguistic storytelling mediated by a mouth harp, where even though no concrete propositions come through, nonetheless the experience, for the listener, is of some sort of transfigured reality in which something —but what, exactly?— is transpiring.
We filter the voice through a device —a bundle of leaves, a reed, a mouth harp, a talk-box, Auto-Tune software— and it does something to reality that even language —straightforward language— cannot do. It tells of reality through modulation of pitch rather than of sense. The reality it tells of though, is the one that can only be hinted at, the very one of which Proust’s narrator becomes aware, even through all the nothingness of the Verdurins’ interminable soirées, when he hears a septet by Vinteuil.
The composer on whom Proust models Vinteuil is none other than Camille Saint-Saëns, and the musical work that weaves throughout so much of the Recherche seems to be the Septet in E♭ major, Op. 65, of 1879-80. This is the work whose central idea, which is apparently just a melody a few notes long, animates the soirées at the Verdurins in the early days, before Marcel is born, and Swann is courting Odette. The idea returns again in La Prisonnière, accompanying Marcel’s own “toxic” courtship (imprisonment?) of Albertine. Swann and the narrator both are plainly in love with Vinteuil’s musical idea, but they don’t know where it is, don’t know how, practically speaking, one might go about loving a piece of music, and so they dissipate themselves in worldly love instead, within the kingdom of nothingness where differences between the objects of one’s love can only ever be insignificant.
I should confess that if there is any music that makes me more nauseous than the music I’ve described from the gym, any music more effective at exsecting my spinal column, it is, perhaps alongside the music of Claude Debussy, the music of Saint-Saëns. It makes me think of a long cloudless day with gusting wind and nothing to do. Boredom is an emotion that I only ever experienced in childhood; it has been decades, for better or worse, since I last had “nothing to do”. But Saint-Saëns has the power, like no one else, to bring that old emotion back alive, not so that I experience boredom directly, but so that I experience what seems to me the aesthetic thematization of boredom. The music is soft, pastel-colored, foamy; it is what you get when you barricade against any Wagnerian influence in what remains a Wagnerian era. It has no heft to it, and this lightness feels to me more like a retreat from something than an autonomous artistic expression.
When I lived in Istanbul I used to get home at dawn after a night of drinking and clubbing, and my throbbing head would hit the pillow just as the amplified call to prayer began at the mosque across the street. I realize the list I’m compiling here of musical experiences that have made me nauseous is getting longer than I had meant it to be, but now that I think of it I’m confident in saying this one is the worst of my life — worse than Saint-Saëns, worse than the gym. I might also add R. Kelly, pre- and post-scandal, and that whole subgenre of R&B that I’ve always thought of as “hot-oil music” — I don’t know quite where to draw the line, since I love Isaac Hayes although he is clearly the ancestor, perhaps even the godfather, of hot-oil; but at some point, by the end of the 1970s, this music had its backbone pulled out and all that was left was a quivering mass — it may be, in the case of Hayes, that Burt Bacharach as principal songwriter was the force that kept the music recognizably vertebrate.
I often think of the call to prayer in connection with the declaration made by the Taliban shortly after they came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, to the effect that cassette-tapes of Bollywood soundtracks, of Michael Jackson and whatever else, were henceforth outlawed: all music was outlawed, in fact, but not the ritual ululations of the adhan, since this, strictly speaking, was “not music”, but something else. What I feel like saying now is that this cannot be right: I know the call to prayer was music, and what pained me so much in hearing it was, as with Saint-Saëns, as at the gym, something distinctly musical. This was, specifically, musalgia, musical pain, and to experience this pain for what it is is to know that music we hate is by no means for that reason “not music”. On the contrary, we hate it in a way that only music can be hated.
So, what is music? Here in Paris the other day I heard a talk from Elizabeth Spelke, the developmental psychologist who wrote the definitive What Babies Know. She discussed some recent research indicating that late-term fetuses dream (most of what we know comes from research on fetal mice, subsequently extrapolated to humans). What do fetal mice dream of, and why do they dream of it? It seems they are mostly “getting ready” for a life of navigating objects in space. They have yet ever to encounter a single object, and yet they are already experiencing objects. Another way of putting this is to say that knowledge of the external world is a priori, if not in the way classical rationalist philosophy conceptualized a-prioricity.
So much for space, what now about time? Significant work in the anthropology of music has long sought to anchor the primordial experience of rhythm in the regularity of the heartbeat. If we also become attuned, however dimly, to this regularity while still in utero, it might be proposed that the a-prioricity of time is not of time as a “pure form of intuition”, waiting until birth, or some moment after birth, to get filled out with experience and thereby to become something other than “blind”. Rather, ab initio time is ordered, moments stacked on moments like vertebrae in a backbone — you don’t need “experience” of the external world in order to experience time, since you already have an ordering principle pulsating within you. After you are born, and you encounter artificially produced rhythms, you will find yourself pulled towards them, and as it were into them, because they remind you of something — the paradigmatic experience of temporality as ordered succession that you have always known. In their artificial production, rhythms seem to call you into a sort of ritual time that is outside of the ordinary experience of time, the temporal frame of a transfigured experience of life.
Inside of this transfigured frame, sometimes transfigured voices, or voice-like sounds, are added, which is to say that lyrics are often placed on top of beats, or tones that are like lyrics but not robustly linguistic are added, and we get the elements of what most of us are prepared to recognize, most of the time, as music. The two elements, then, are storytelling, linguistic or prelinguistic, and time, and both are transfigured into something that is variously experienced as unfolding alongside or beyond reality, but not in reality, in such a way that Proust’s question —“But where?”— can never be satisfactorily answered.
Spelke also described the relative independence in infant cognitive development of the processes by which our apprehension of the external world takes shape, on the one hand, and on the other the formation of our social ontology. An infant begins to develop a “theory of other minds”, and eventually also to apprehend language, primarily in encounters with others who have deep affective relationships to it — notably, relationships of parental love. A baby left alone in a room with news-talk radio on all the time would likely never learn to speak, at least not in the language it is hearing. The language the infant learns from its parents is initially not language in the narrowest sense, as it is not intended to communicate propositional content. It is warm gesture, humming, lullabies, “sweet nothings”, as we tellingly say — those expressions of humanness that strictly speaking don’t mean anything, but that seem to tell a story of our true home (but where?).
These sweet nothings are often, later in life, layered over the rhythms that order time, and we experience what results as music. Sometimes these two elements occur independently, and we have essential elements of music isolated in ways that move some people to say that what results is “not music”. But what is essential to music is not that all the “requisite” elements be present, but that whatever elements are present transmit that sense of transfiguration that I’ve been trying to capture. As Jerome Rothenberg (my mentor and inspiration in the work of poetic translation) has shown us, our conception of the poetic is greatly etiolated in the modern world, and sundered from the musical in a way that has little precedent in human experience. Almost everywhere, poetry is essentially something recited, and not just recited, but unfolding within a rhythmically ordered temporal frame and modulated by changes in gest, pitch, and other elements that are typically not captured by poetic transcriptions on a page. A poet might grunt like a bear and stomp his feet at rhythmic intervals. A musician might do the same. The distinction between the two, in most places and times, is meaningless.
In light of all this, my hatred of Auto-Tune cannot be an occasion to condemn certain musical works as “not music”. They are transfigurative in the relevant way — they are even disfigurative, you might say. It feels like they are ripping out one’s spine. The voice that comes through in them is not a voice you ever hear in “reality”, nor is it a voice that imitates nature, nor yet a voice that seems to hint at the divine. It is a voice that, like the robot-voices of Kraftwerk or Midnight Star, takes the human and makes it into something next-to-human. Here however it is no longer an exciting fantasy of some glistening and steely posthuman future, but rather only a sad reminder of the condition of our present, in which we have all become next-to-human, filtered through machines for aggressively commercial ends. Auto-Tune —you will not be surprised to hear from me if you are a regular reader of The Hinternet—, is the most veridical artistic mirror yet of our age of algorithmic capitalism. My friends at the gym do not seem to hear it, but I hear it, and I feel as though it is killing me.
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And don’t forget to listen to the most recent episode of my podcast, “What Is X?” featuring Luvell Anderson, author of the forthcoming The Ethics of Racial Humor (Oxford), talking about Humor, and what it is.
My long critical essay on Michel Houllebecq has appeared in Foreign Policy. Read it!
There are some great new reviews out of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. Here is Trevor Quirk in Bookforum. Here is the one-of-a-kind Sam Kriss, writing in Damage Magazine. And here is David Beer in Berfrois. One thing I especially like about the Quirk and Beer pieces is that they both describe my Substack project not only in complimentary terms, but in a way that takes it very seriously, not as a puzzling digression from what I “actually” do, but as an extension of it. Thanks, Quirk and Beer.
I’ll also have the cover-story (I think) in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine (which in fact appears in mid-May). It is tentatively titled “Permanent Pandemic”. Watch for it!
Le monde étant le royaume du néant, il n’y a entre les mérites des différentes femmes du monde que des degrés insignifiants, que peuvent seulement follement majorer les rancunes ou l’imagination de M. de Charlus. Et certes, s’il parlait comme il venait de le faire, dans ce langage qui était un ambigu précieux des choses de l’art et du monde, c’est parce que ses colères de vieille femme et sa culture de mondain ne fournissaient à l’éloquence véritable qui était la sienne que des thèmes insignifiants. Le monde des différences n’éxistant pas à la surface de la terre, parmi tous les pays que notre perception uniformise, à plus forte raison n’existe-t-il pas dans le ‘monde’. Existe-t-il, d’ailleurs, quelque part ? Le septuor de Vinteuil avait semblé me dire que oui. Mais où ?