To succeed on the pop charts these days, songs (and videos) have to do more. Producers and editors have to be able to rework the visual and sonic material in an ever-expanding number of ways while still creating something that’s legible to Billboard as the same piece of intellectual property. For example, crucial to the recent months-long battle between Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” for the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100, for instance, was what Slate’s Chris Molanphy calls “remixability” — how open a song is to being iteratively reworked, meme-style, without becoming substantially different.
Since Billboard, for ranking purposes, groups the original song together with remixes that don’t change all that much (e.g., those that merely add a new verse from a clickbait-y guest artist), it is easy for artists and producers to game the system. “Lil Nas X has been a total master of this gambit,” Molanphy argues, writing a tune in “Old Town Road” that exhibits both “sturdiness and adaptability,” lending itself to many remixes without exhausting it. Lil Nas X’s now legendary use of memes and social-media video to promote the song both exemplifies and clarifies the importance of those companion media forms for contemporary pop music. Memes and apps like TikTok allow fans to participate in reworkings of their favorite records, allowing a single record to do even more than it could if its re-editing was left only to professionals. It helps too if an original release is adaptable enough to transgress boundaries between things like genres or demographics.
Eilish’s voice is calibrated to suit the intensifying privatization of listening
Chart success is now measured in the same terms that 21st century neoliberalism measures value: what political theorist Lisa Adkins, in The Time of Money, calls “capacity.” Whereas earlier forms of neoliberalism relied on markets and quantification to determine political and economic value, new forms have since emerged, according to critics like Adkins and Melinda Cooper, that push past quantification and derive value from speculation, affect, and other qualitative forms of rationality. Under these 21st century forms of neoliberalism, which are associated with the use of derivatives, success involves resiliently transgressing the material limitations of any assets (like real estate or wages) and making your money do more than mere assets can. In other words, it’s not how much money you have that matters, but how much your money can do. At the level of individuals — a.k.a. “human capital” — this translates into an imperative to always maximize one’s capability. The point is to be legible as having capacity, as being adaptable, as being resilient.
Records now work the same way: To succeed on the charts, they need not only raw quantities of sales and clicks but also the potential to secure more numbers from derivative versions. Both Lil Nas X’s and Eilish’s tracks express this new regime of value at the level of aesthetic form. Eilish tried to unseat “Old Town Road” by beating X at his own game, releasing a remix of “Bad Guy” featuring Justin Bieber, and eventually triumphed, according to Buzzfeed’s Michael Blackmon, by releasing a new vertical video for the song.
But the aesthetic of “Bad Guy” moves beyond resilient remixability to exemplify another aspect of the emerging neoliberalisms. It rewards ever more privatized listening, which means that invites a practice that conscripts audiences into producing “capacity” not merely by participating in memes but also by putting private listening to work in privatizing value.
“Bad Guy” is a quirky, quiet-loud-quiet banger that sets Eilish apart from other leading white women pop stars like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, who seem to be in a competition to out-chill one another. Chill, as I have argued elsewhere, is about status and respectability: The extremely diminutive soars in such songs as “thank u, next” and “You Need to Calm Down” stand in contrast with the full-on soar in Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” suggesting a kind of restraint that tracks as the already achieved self-ownership expected of post- or popular feminism’s ideal woman.
“Bad Guy” may sound chill on the surface but it conveys something other than an achieved self-ownership to listeners. And unlike Rihanna, whose voice has been prized for its ability to cut through a loud (i.e. highly compressed) mix and noisy environment, Eilish’s voice stands out because it doesn’t try to do those things. NPR described it as “intimate, confiding and slurry.” That she and her producer-brother Finneas are quintessential “bedroom artists” — they started working together in their family home (where they were homeschooled no less) churning out singles when she was barely out of her tweens — reinforces this idea of intimacy. Her voice seems designed to be piped directly into ears and not over speakers, for being heard privately and not in (relatively) common space like the grocery aisle. Her debut’s “ASMR-inducing textures” and “understated and whispery vocals” (as this review describes it) were apparently made with earbuds in mind.
In this respect, Eilish is a contemporary analogue of 20th century vocalists like Rudy Vallée, who leveraged new audio technology to develop a more intimate vocal style. As Allison McCracken has argued, early 20th century microphone technology birthed a new vocal style as singers no longer needed to forcefully project their voices to be heard. Similarly, Eilish doesn’t need to belt to come through over headphones or earbuds. Her voice is calibrated to suit the intensifying privatization of listening that has accompanied new media technologies and which has become central to neoliberalism’s imperative to produce capacity-value. Whereas the hyper-memeable aesthetics of “Old Town Road” enrolls its audiences into a political economy of virality, the intimate, private feel of “Bad Guy” puts audiences to a different kind of work, facilitating the kind of privatized listening that is transforming clubbing into an analogue of contemporary capitalist production. In other words, her whisper is designed for the silent disco era.
Silent discos, which replace speakers with individual headsets and DJs with individually controllable playlists, could be seen as one culmination of the long-developing privatization of media consumption. For more than a century, scholars and critics have been fretting about how radio, phonographs, and later TV allowed people to consume culture in the privacy of their own home, undermining what Hannah Arendt called “the political” — the shared space of communication and meaning making that she believed was the only place we could relate to each other non-instrumentally. The advent of the Walkman threw such concerns into relief, launching countless academic articles about “electronic narcissism,” “the ultimate object of private listening,” “creating a kind of private world,” and “headphone culture.”
Under neoliberalism’s capacity-oriented regime, you just have to be taken as infinitely malleable and augmentable
More recently, mobile phones and wireless earbuds have sparked concerns about the destruction of public listening and “political” interaction. In this Buzzfeed piece, Tomi Obaro describes Apple’s wireless AirPods as agents of gentrification that “gesture toward a future in which class barriers are represented in extremely visible ways. AirPods say, ‘I can afford not to hear the same sounds you do.’” Drew Austin similarly argues that AirPods interpellate us as “isolated yet networked individuals rather than as potentially collective subjects in shared space.” In both cases, headphones are treated as a sort of enclosure of the aural commons, fencing off ear bandwidth that ought to be dedicated to Arendtian “political” interactions.
Silent discos are peak headphone culture. The entire point of a silent disco is to share space but then disavow that sharing by dancing and listening separately. This way, you can demonstrate you are cool enough to have friends without having to bother with the burden of finding shared tastes or interests. This Elite Daily piece champions them on the grounds that “they allow us the freedom to choose,” as if this was liberating us from sound-system tyranny and the inconvenience of common experience. From this perspective, DJs don’t save lives; they impede the neoliberal subject’s right to maximum freedom of choice. Silent discos thus transform the formerly shared, quasi-public space of the dance floor into private markets which maximize individual choice.
Under neoliberalism’s capacity-oriented regime, value derives not from following rules but breaking them, exceeding limits to unfold a capacity to do more. In this context, people are most productive when fixed up to go down their own rabbit holes rather than conforming to disciplinary rules. That potential need not be realized concretely by doing something specific; you just have to be taken as infinitely malleable and augmentable.
Silent discos use resilience to make a state of absence productive
For this, we need tools and practices that help us discover limitless possibilities. The silent disco can be understood as one such practice. Rather than coordinate attendees to synchronize their movements (as though they were workers on a Fordist factory floor) and affirm the pleasures of collective listening, it abandons this commitment and promotes a different kind of listening and pleasure suited to the demands of a different regime of production. As Cooper explains in Life as Surplus, under Fordism the labor of muscles and machines are united in their subservience to the laws of thermodynamics and clock time. “Industrial” music of the 1980s reflected this, interpellating everyone and everything to the same strict meter. Silent discos and records such as Eilish’s fit a new world order, helping participants be productive for a political economy based neither on synchrony nor on obedience to hard and fast physical limits. Under this regime, to reiterate Adkins’s point, value isn’t generated from labor or labor time but from the intensification of capacity. This form of capitalism requires people to, as Cooper puts it, “remain in a permanent state of self-transformation,” often by employing various strategies of resilience, such as constantly reinventing oneself as one moves from collapsing industry to collapsing industry.
Silent discos likewise use resilience to make a state of absence productive. They turn what seems like a fatal flaw — the absence of music on a dance floor — into a tool that helps maximize its capacity, not in terms of quantity of dancers but in terms of the range of possible movements that can be done there. Headphones liberate individual dancers from a single BPM, letting them choose their own drummer. Instead of one mass of bodies who “join in the chant” in unison (as in Nitzer Ebb’s 1987 anthem), we have a dance floor populated by numerous “highly organized, complex, evolving structures” of movement. Whereas industrial music — both the historical kind used to manage assembly line workers and the genre — teaches us to find pleasure in the disciplinary adherence to rules, silent disco persuades participants that rule-breaking for the purpose of producing capacity-value is fun.
Don’t get me wrong: It does feel good to learn, innovate, and believe oneself to be capable of doing more and better things. And “Bad Guy” is a fun song. But the song’s performance and production rewards listening that is privatized in both senses of the word: It’s individualized, and it’s a component of a private-property relation. Insofar as such individualized listening affords people the opportunity to exercise the skills they need to produce capacity-value, listening (and dancing) to music serves as a way to grow one’s own capacities and augment one’s human capital. When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.
The solution, however, is not to be found in recuperating some lost common space of listening. Such spaces are often inhospitable for gender, sexual, and racial minorities, for example. Rather it is to develop listening practices and songs that avoid reproducing racialized, gendered property relations. How might we reimagine and repurpose earbuds as Grandmaster Flash did with turntables? How might we use listening technologies in ways that have been previously unimaginable because they transgress the limits of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal reality?