Romanticism versus repetitive beats: On Levitin’s This is your brain on music, part 2

If I was an old-school fifty-pound boombox
Would you hold me on your shoulder wherever you walk?
Would you turn my volume up in front of the cops
And crank it higher every time they told you to stop?
(Gym Class Heroes)

In my first post about Levitin’s book This is your brain on music, I described it as engaging and problematic; this post takes up the problematic part. Levitin’s study is problematic for a couple of reasons that both might be described as symptoms of Romanticism. In Levitin’s emphasis on emotion and his bias against automation, the discourse and ideology of Romanticism informs the premises and some of the specific arguments of this book.

A recurring claim in the book is the idea that music is primarily an emotional experience. “The essence of music performance is being able to convey emotion,” Levitin writes of musicianship (204); in the same chapter, he broadens the claim from the context of production to encompass reception as well: “What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience” (208). Levitin links this emphasis on emotion to a related emphasis on expression; reflecting on the research and teaching of music, he asks “at what point in the curriculum is [sic] emotion and expressivity taught?” (208): the question is ultimately rhetorical, in his finding that the teaching of music and the research of musicianship are not focused on “the emotional” but rather on “the technical” (209). The opposition here between the emotional and the technical relates to the contrasts and conjunctions that Levitin finds between music and language, in the context of evolution:

As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. (267)

I’m not disputing Levitin’s scientific point here about music, language, emotion, and cognition; I’m observing how the opposition between emotion and technique in the context of music production resonates with that between emotion and thought in the context of human evolution, reinforcing western culture’s long-standing division of the faculties – the affective and the cognitive, the expressive and the intellectual, the heart and the mind – in a way that music itself has taken a role in problematizing and critiquing, as documented in work on electronic dance music (EDM) by British scholars Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, and in work on black Atlantic music by Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy, among others. For Eshun, Afro-Futurist music is as much a practice of multimedia theorizing, narrating, and knowledge production as it is a practice of moving and being moved; for Gilroy, black diasporic music represents a complex articulation of class and racialization according to discourses of gender and sexuality – and, furthermore, bears witness to the continuing fallout of Atlantic slavery. Surveying such work, Angela McRobbie summarizes:

It has been up to black writers in Britain, such as Paul Gilroy, to demonstrate just how much thinking there is in black music. Such music can hardly contain the investment of artistry, politics, history, and literary voice, so that as an aesthetic it is, by definition, spilling out and overflowing, excessive, a first destination for social commentary, dialogue, and rap that leaves those of us still caught in the prison of language far behind. (43-4)

Eshun’s work, for its part, explores how Afro-Futurist music challenges and reconfigures the western division of the faculties, arguing that knowledge can be produced somatically and kinaesthetically, that theory can happen deep in the grooves of an acetate dubplate. That work like his does so with reference to music that is now largely if not exclusively electronic brings me to the second symptom of Romanticism in Levitin’s work: the bias against automation and the corresponding fetishization of “liveness” (as Philip Auslander calls it). This bias only crystallizes in one passage of Levitin’s book, but its implications resonate throughout his discussions of music production and reception, composition and expectation. In chapter six, Levitin turns to the subject of “groove”: “the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum … that quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent to a book you can’t put down” (170). Levitin’s example of great groove – and it’s indisputably a great example – is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (a track no DJ should be without). For Levitin, Wonder’s drumming in the opening bars of “Superstition” exemplify groove in terms of the musician’s exploitation of the listener’s expectations: how “he keeps us on our mental toes by changing aspects of the pattern every time he plays it, holding just enough of it the same to keep us grounded and oriented” (171). So far, so good. We know what groove is now, and we hear it, mentally, in his sampling of Wonder. But where Levitin takes the discussion of groove next is less to science than to Romanticism, in a passage reminiscent of Theodor Adorno’s hostility to “mechanical” music:

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machinelike. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” for example), the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.” (171-72)

In the space of two sentences, Levitin invokes Romantic assumptions – expressivity, spontaneity, organicism, and liveness (embodied presence, “being there”) – to amplify the mystique of traditional, non-technologically mediated musicianship, and all at the expense of the most globally popular and aesthetically significant music forms since the 1970s: dub and dancehall reggae, rap, disco, and its EDM successors, from Chicago house to dubstep. From the perspective of popular music studies, the concession that “some danceable songs have been made with drum machines” has got to be the understatement of the century.

This is as live as it gets

This is not at all to suggest anything as simplistic as the notion that drumming musicianship is obsolete; it is, rather, to show that the idea of drumming evoked here makes a specific and very narrow assumption about musicianship, an assumption that is reminiscent of the interwar Musicians’ Union lobbying against recorded music on behalf of “live” bands (Thornton 38-39). And the assumption becomes all the stranger in its contrast to Levitin’s arguments, elsewhere in the book, against rarefied professional specialization and for democratized participation as the more natural milieu for human music-making. Some drum machines and digital music software require specialized expertise, but the prevailing trend in their use has been to open up and democratize music-making and song recording.

What Levitin overlooks in this brief but revealing statement is, broadly speaking, nothing less than the globally transformative contribution of black Atlantic culture to popular music since roughly the postwar period; and what he overlooks more specifically is this culture’s creative adaptation of recording technologies and music automations – turntablism, tape splicing, synthesizers, digital sampling, timestretching, and so on – in the service of breathing new life into rhythm tracks and finding new ways for rhythm tracks to breathe: both expanding the total lung capacity of music – and giving it gills too. Black Atlantic music-makers, more than any others, have amply succeeded in redefining groove not against mechanical regularity but through it, from Afrika Bambaaata’s bass-quaking electro remix of Kraftwerk in “Planet Rock” and the dystopian drumscapes of Detroit techno, to the digital dicing of old funk breaks and splicing of drum machine patterns in the funky-frenetic rinse-outs of drum & bass, and the baleful bass drops of its dubstep progeny.

Derrick May has famously compared the sound of Detroit techno to the city itself as “a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator” (qtd. in Sicko, 26). What black Atlantic music-makers before and after May have repeatedly demonstrated, though, is that you can clear everybody out of that elevator and sample and sequence its machine sounds, metronome sounds, unmusical sounds to make music that will fill a dancefloor, will leave the crowd breathless. In the kyriarchically related context of black diasporic music, Ben Williams argues that “becoming robots was, for African American musicians, a subliminally political act […] a form of self-empowerment” (“Black Secret Technology” 161). In the kyriarchically and subculturally related context of queer dance, Walter Hughes calls it a kind of liberatory, “technological identification”:

The fearful paradox of the technological age, that machines created as artificial slaves will somehow enslave and even mechanize human beings, is ritually enacted at the discotheque. (151-2)

“Music is organized sound,” Levitin continues (citing Edgard Varèse’s definition), “but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that on one wants to listen to” (173). As an elaboration of the previously quoted statement and its explicit Romantic organicism, this latter passage forecloses on the ways in which Afro-Futurist music and EDM amplify rather than mute a “robotic” and “emotionally flat” aesthetic to exploit listener expectation and anticipation, and to reconfigure music’s effects beyond just affect. In its very early days, Chicago house music was widely dismissed by music critics for being too robotic and too repetitious – for some (according to telling associations of taste and bigotry), it was also too gay and too black. For house music’s initially queer, minoritized audience, its robotic and repetitious characteristics of the music were a big part of the music’s attraction: they made it a potent dancefloor analogue and accompaniment to sexual practices, and – just as importantly – they produced a sound alien and abrasive enough to function as a gatekeeper, keeping out wider audiences and thus keeping spaces like the Warehouse and the Paradise Garage safe for queer night life.

Come on let’s work it to the bone
Let’s work it to the bone bone bone
Let’s work
To the bone bone bone

Following the massive popularization of techno and raves in the 1990s, the criticism that the music was too robotic and repetitious came from a much more insidious source: the British government itself, whose 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act criminalized raves by expressly prohibiting gatherings of ten or more people in scenes featuring dance music, which the Act notoriously defines as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (qtd. in McKay 164). Since then, despite further regulatory pressures and moral panics, the culture of EDM has gone from strength to strength in entrenching its global popularity and influencing the direction and aesthetics of popular music. For Levitin’s popular science book to reinscribe the bias against robotic and repetitive music on behalf of Romantic investments in authenticity and aura is to lend a dangerous veneer of scientific authority to the wider-reaching socio-political beatdowns that have historically met music scenes characterized by a succession of repetitive beats.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991. 26-52.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet, 1998.

Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine. “Stereo Hearts.” Warner Bros., 2011.

Hughes, Walter. “In the Empire of the Beat.” Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture. Ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose. New York: Routledge, 1994. 147-57.

Levitin, Daniel. This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Penguin Plume, 2007.

LNR. “Work it to the bone.” House Jam, 1987.

McKay, George. Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London: Verso, 1996.

McRobbie, Angela. “Thinking with Music.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 37-49.

Reynolds, Simon. “How Rave Music Conquered America.” The Guardian 2 Aug. 2012.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Williams, Ben. “Black Secret Technology: Detroit Techno and the Information Age.” Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Ed. Alondra Nelson and Thuy Linh N. Tu. New York: New York UP, 2001. 154-76.

2 responses to “Romanticism versus repetitive beats: On Levitin’s This is your brain on music, part 2

  1. When the humanities and social sciences are in such dire need of an infusion of scientific literacy, and the sciences need an infusion of the arts, it is such a bad idea to reinforce those old dichotomies. And, as your post illustrates so well, the Western tradition continues to need an infusion of vitality from the colonized.

  2. Autechre released an album that sounded like four the floor to human ears, but mechanically wasn’t, in protest to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.