“Different Trains” (Kronos Quartet)

Steve Reich’s setting of three groups of voices (“America—Before the War,” “Europe—During the War,” and “After the War”) amid repeated figures representing “different” trains implies a certain technocratic base: triumphally major and mobile in “America” as the trains race between the oceans and unite the land; clashing and discordant in “Europe,” as the Holocaust comes into view. “We” are superstructural/epiphenomenal, it appears, cut into (musical) phrases as the State-machines track our similarities and differences. So why are the genders made instrument-specific (woman = viola; man = cello)? Where do these particular differences emanate from, if not a certain technics? The error in (any form of) social constructionism is, of course, that it leaves no room for a true and legitimate point of view, even though it insists it has one. Here, it’s smuggled in, manwise.




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“He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” (The Crystals)

Sanger’s got nothing on this. Sandwiched between the releases of “Uptown” and “He’s a Rebel“— the transition from lionizing the common, alienated working stiff to affirming the sensitive  rebel—Spector’s most unsuccessful single takes dead aim at the foundational violence of the betrothal’s gift: the landed man. Spiraling strings, especially at the song’s center, explain this problematic logic by centering on the “care” which induces the “glad” somnambulance of the “tender” self.


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“Señorita” (Justin Timberlake)

As chapter one, verse one of Timberlake’s solo career, it’s also ground zero for the (anticipation of a) post-racial future. If you recall his running for cover after 2004’s “Nipplegate,” it’s realpolitik when it comes to salvaging a livelihood. This serves as a baseline of Timberlake’s racial politics, which carries over to the trax in question. Holding “real love” in his hands, singer declares that Latinas “still deserve the crown” and, deep inside, are priceless princesses. We know this is all a canard (and racial pandering) to get laid by the end of the song. More importantly, though, it’s the faux updating of a multiracial call-and-response, which “they don’t do . . . anymore.” Structured, gendered girls/guys section takes the cake, with Timberlake’s affected black vernacular, condescending falsetto, and interruptions of the women half the time marking the furthest edge of allowable participation. The man who sings in line does no time.


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“From a Dry Camel” (Dust)

Something about man is best understood as a “machine,” but this is not cybernetics: the focus is not on the brain, but on something lower, between the legs. This simple lever needs tending, but beating off is not enough to “take care” of it. Importantly, however, one can easily suffice without a “maiden”; indeed, a “dry camel,” “one hump or two,” will work just as well, provided that you can get the camel to “lie down on its side” and give you time to rub one out on its back. (It may take you ten minutes, and you’ll have to keep shifting gears around a four-note, descending figure, from slow to medium to fast and back again, with only limited wankery.) This machine aspires to sovereign self-sufficiency: the goal is to “solve your own game” without oil or the lubrication of other persons. Indeed, from this perspective, everything outside the machine-self is merely a tool and therefore for me. “Marion,” the discarded, “dry” maiden, had to go because she tried to “incise” every man she met, cutting into, marking, or draining him. So she’s a tool, too—but just beyond his leverage.


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“Brotherhood of Man” (Robert Morse/Company)

From How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: there already is a club where membership is a foregone conclusion (you’re always already “in,” and it’s “free”), and where everyone is in the space of endlessly “giving” toward the other. It’s called corporate fratriarchy. So, brother, you are “in” (right here, where the theatrical “company,” in choral moments, meets the wicket company).


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“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” (Doris Day)

Corporate pop music’s 21st century message to young women is easy to parse: (1) you are great just the way you are (you are beautiful, no matter what they say!); and (2) you can achieve anything you desire (you are a firework!). You are an amazing being of unlimited potential–a perfect, undetermined sort capable of perfect choice. This is called “empowerment.” But only three score ago, in the mid-1950s, Doris Day was singing to her young daughter: I don’t know if you’ll be “pretty” or “rich.” Indeed, I know nothing about your future, which is absolutely sealed (both opaque and certain). You may wind up in the gutter, or you may die young. It’s possible that there won’t be a “rainbow” in the sky tomorrow, which tinges the trax with Cold War anxieties (the Soviets had tested their first H-bomb in 1953). The phrase, “que sera sera,” is polyglot, and finds first use in English as a sixteenth century heraldic motto, forecasting, at least, a certain shielded defensiveness.  In short, and “tenderly,” “what will be will be,” and you can’t fight the future. The (tauta)logic is unimpeachable: tomorrow, one can always claim that “what will be” was. At the joining of such faulty realism and our own fantasies of empowerment, however, there must remain fate and chance, entwined, each the condition of the other’s possibility.


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“Volunteered Slavery” (Rahsaan Roland Kirk)

Nothing is solved by acts of congress/Congress. Gendered (and racial) performativity experimented with, demonstrating how, for example, singer’s claim that women “be free” “by spending all day in bed with me” eventually leads to his plea of “don’t take it away”: supposed volitional freedom creates distraction, indicating failure of the performative without clear direction. “We all know” this, and double-instrument solo, at its end, produces screeching white noise underpinned by spaced-out, staccato jabs. Single-ness and identity will always know its place.


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“Chances Are” (Johnny Mathis)

With(holding). Ominous, wide vibrato reinforces singer’s ability to control the appearance/timing of chance. The doubled governance (and omission)—”chances are your chances are awfully good”—holds the lover at bay. Suggestive hypnosis and (tepid) confirmation lyrical structure re-routes desire across smoothed out, gendered landscape: laying down some serious pavement.


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“All About that Bass” (Meghan Trainor)

Not to bypass the obvious—this review eventually ends up there, volitionally—but what if this trax isn’t about booty pluralism? It’s about a confidence in the reality of things (no Photoshop, please). And a kind of self-assertion premised on excessively gratifying your lover just through sheer embodiment. (The politics of the self and active debasement are fascinating here, though too mutualistic to serve any political purpose.) It’s also concerned with how to voice the lower end from those with lower ends. In a way, Trainor inverts the “lower frequencies” of Ralph Ellison by removing the dread implications (for the listener) of really letting (it) go. With 50s homage, things may be too clean here (or to hear). Q-Tip, on The Low-End Theory, would say that successful communication needs “floss” to get to “the grit and the dirt.” Maybe that’s the difference between transformation and (white or self-?)adulation: the desire to get shitty about it. A thong through it all, then, splitting the muck of the center.


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“Bird Seed” (Whitehouse)

Peter Sotos collage of voices of prostitutes, abused children, parents of kidnapped and murdered children, and the ubiquitous, soothing voices of social workers and media interviewers. Sexual abuse has been “hidden in the closet too long,” says one voice. While this taped testimony is “out,” perhaps, it is being disseminated within something else: a legal buyer’s market for the pornographic, under cover of a media-induced “therapy” of expression and positive thinking. In an abuser’s pecking order, the State and the media come first.


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