Monday, August 22, 2011

Post-Kanye Schematized; On Swagger

(A response)

I've made a couple overtures towards a reading of "Post-Kanye" hip hop, without really establishing on what grounds I'm attempting to claim this paradigm. So, first of all, I'd like to get out of the way the assumptions, or givens, or whatever, that I believe act as the foundation of this argument.

First and foremost, it requires a view of hip hop as a self-replicating system - an inhuman, like capital, corporations, or nations. I think this is true of most proper genres; something doesn't really act as a genre until it establishes the conditions of its own replication. Genre, that is, is more than the coordination of aesthetic points; it is the mill, into which the grist of labour (of producers, consumers, aesthetics, and so on) is fed, in order to generate more genre.

Second, since hip hop is an aesthetic inhuman/genre, its primary knowledge of self is its embedded meta-narrative; since genres are not necessarily self-sufficient or coherent, for one to engage in its own reproduction it must subsume objects as relations to this meta-narrative, which is not fixed. Debate over what it is that the meta-narrative of the genre consists of are, of course, always rampant - thus, sub-genre - but it can suffice to be said for our purposes that it provides the structure of narrative, along with a more or less fixed set of protagonist-types, antagonist-types, and structures of viable struggle.

My initial argument for a "Post-Kanye" was that if Kanye's impact on hip hop was considered to be structural, what could most coherently be argued was not that his impact was aesthetic, but rather on this meta-narrative, and that what it consisted of would be the shifting out of the category of antagonist the figure of the hater. For Kanye, the hater is not someone to be struggled with, but is straightforwardly a category that produces value. Haters no longer have to be contended with in any way; they provide no critique worth legitimizing, and they don't even need to be overcome; they simply exist, en masse, and can be seen as a stable source of value-production.

This is, I'm arguing, very different from how haters were dealt with before Kanye - and I do not mean to claim that before, they were simply universally reviled. "Fuck the haters" and "Love your haters" are very different statements, and both existed long before Kanye had any impact on anyone. What they share, however, is an orientation towards haters, which the shift to "I <3 Haters" lacks; that of the hater as a contentious force, vs. the hater as a simple given, towards whom no proactive measures need be taken. What Kanye's hip hop does then, I might try to say, is very different from proletarianization; it is, in fact, more analogous to a making middle class than a making prole. It pretends that the structural antagonism on which hip hop is predicated simply doesn't exist. And when we're all in this together, well, being radicalized becomes a bit passé.

When I say Post-Kanye in this phrase, I mean it in the way I've always understood the 'Post-' prefix - as a moving past, but one which is indelibly marked by that which it surpasses. In this way, what Post-Kanye means to me is the generation of rappers who (perhaps unconsciously) recognize the structural deficit in hip hop imparted by Kanye, and attempt (also probably unconsciously) to rectify it. Thus, rather than taking a strictly Yeezian view of the structure of hip hop, they recognize that the hater is no longer necessarily a viable narrative opponent to the artist, and yet recognize the need for such a figure to exist.

The political economy of Kanye's hip hop, the argument might then go, is basically Keynesian, papering over the structural antagonisms with increasingly spurious wealth. That his celebrity biography is defined by unrelenting careerism (which feeds back into the music he releases - at the height of his manufactured controversy, he released 808s & Heartbreak, which seems like it should be enough to unequivocally prove my point) only underlines why, when Nico says "But taken in another context, couldn’t [Kanye's I <3 Haters] just as well be a sincere and almost Christ-like manner of speaking," my immediate response is to say, no, and fuck Kanye.

To return to Cher Lloyd, though, and swagger: Nico's post seems to me, at first, to conflate haters with trolls, and then to argue more along the lines that the haters are actually those being trolled, while the trolls themselves are the swaggerers. In a sense, this latter version is precisely what I'm trying to say Kanye obviates; for him, there seems to be no need to troll or goad the haters. They're simply an ontological fact of hip hop, to be afforded only the most cursory (dis)respect. And so, too, for Cher Lloyd, in this song. Her naysayers are very real, and prominent, but there is no sense in which she envisions them as serious opponents. They aren't even motivation; they simply exist, produce (unintentional) value, are abstractly addressed. There is no production of schadenfreude going on, because there simply aren't two agents. Haters have been absolved of their agentivity, and one doesn't go about taking pleasure in the pain of rocks.

There is a similar claim, I think, in the final paragraph of the post JR linked me to, which points up the similarities betwen Lloyd and a young Mick Jagger, in order to make a dig at "rockist authenticity." Which is all well and good, I suppose, but again it leaves me cold. If your target is a group of people so desperately musically illiterate as to find anything "novel" about this song, then you aren't contending with a group against whom you have to truly struggle; surely they are a very privileged group, and socially ingrained, even moreso in Britain, but they're still a group that can be easily bypassed, whose very definition makes their criticisms irrelevant. The GZA line "First of all, whose your A&R / A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar," or the Jay-z line "Industry shady it need to be taken over" aren't irrelevant at this point - the music industry, like most industries, is still largely by and for straight white men, of course, and it would be stupid to claim that it wasn't - but the conditions have changed. Twenty years later, that same A&R is almost certainly listening to Gaga while he's climbing the rock wall at the gym, or smiling and tapping along when he hears Arcade Fire leaking out of his sons room. Maybe he even turns on Rihanna's S&M to hide the sounds of the Internet porn he's watching when he's masturbating while his kids are home. The point being that while rockist authenticity he may crave, he's sure as fuck not going to let that stand in the way of his profit, and he knows as well as anyone else that deep down he might be a hater - but so what? And isn't that, in a very real way, a good thing?

And this is where, I think, swagger as a sort of labour is necessary to understand this turn in hip hop. At its very core, swagger is of course a jaunt, or a sneer; it is fabric hung from your frame just so, or stones and chains. It is, in other words, an etching of the body in the world, a performative gesture, and it is a very specific sort of performance. Following Evan, I would say that it is a performance of a very particular kind of dispossession, an affective position which codes for no resolution, and whose only outlet is a form of explosive violence. Swagger is, that is to say, both the schematization of Kanye's hip hop, and the precondition of a riot.

This is only so performatively, of course, but then I'm not the person to come to to see performance as a secondary, or parasitic, form of action. And swagger is precisely, of course, the performance of this position as if it could be otherwise, as if this position could produce, have effects.

To turn back, as I'm sure I will again and again, to Soulja Boy's "hop up out the bed / turn my swag on / took a look in the mirror, said what's up / yeah, I'm gettin' money, oh;" it is precisely the garbling of language here, the accident of ambiguity that this lyrical construction creates, that points through the impasse of labour/swagger vs. rage/swagger. Is Soulja Boy, here, describing a situation in which he looks in the mirror, swag turned on, and gets money, or one in which he looks in the mirror, swagged turned on, and says to himself "I'm getting money?"

It, of course, absolutely does not matter; Soulja Boy is a figure who quite literally gets money by saying "get money." There is no gap. And to reach the point where the word and the thing are one and the same - or, more precisely, where there is no differentiation between performance and action - one must simply turn one's swag on.

To swagger is to perform - to make of one's body a sign - an affective condition - which, to be clear, I mean to be much closer to 'material conditions' than 'feelings' - as though it could possibly be productive. To labour is to perform - to transmute one's body into labour-power - a productive process - the creation of consumer objects or services and surplus-value - as though labour itself were outside the regime of production. Both are, in the end, a mystification, a falsifying of origin; and it is only the swagger jacker/jagger, or the scab, whose material demystification of this individualism brings about the proper return to real order of things.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Post-Kanye: Cher Lloyd

I've just read a short post over at my friend Nico's blog Breakbeats, Beatitudes, & Becomings called Cher Lloyd and the Proletarianization of a Generation, and I thought I should respond to it. So here's what I've written.

There are certain obvious musical predecessors to this song - Ke$ha's "the boys linin up cuz they know we got swagger / but we kick em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger" line, most immediately, and people's subsequent inability to find another word that rhymed with swagger is here made vacuous even of the cultural reference, but also moments of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" (particularly the beginning of the second verse), perhaps some Diplo/Afrojack*, or a chorus that seems to be cribbed from My Darling Clementine. I think it's interesting that the song isn't called the nearly-homophonous "Swagger Jacker;" the rhyme there is admittedly at a (very slight) slant, but that seems to be much more descriptive of what the song is talking about. In that sense it's actually a deeply stupid chorus ("Swagger Jagger, you should get some of your own" - as though the Ke$ha similarities weren't obvious enough already - and, I mean, fuck, even the video seems like a real low rent version of the "Your Love Is My Drug" video (or, you know, one of many shitty consumer technology commercials from the early '00s)).

But I'm really interested in this song as an extension of the claim I was trying to make about a Post-Kanye aesthetic in rap, defined by a structural shift from the hater as antagonist to the hater as primary site of value production. This song seems to possess that shift as an already complete ideological imprint - it is, as it were, the "common sense" of the song that the ephemeral "hater" is a source of value.

There is something unclear, here, however, a seeming muddling of the addressee. When the song makes recourse to that least-ironic of all dance music injunctions: "get on the floor," the idea that this song is addressed directly to haters (see: every other lyric) gets a bit confusing. The musical tradition that that trope comes from is an utopian one, or one in which the assumption of the audience is of one preaching to the choir; it is a musical tradition which operates in a very specific space, and has a respect for that space's sanctity. When it gets transposed, as in "Swagger Jagger," into the context of being addressed to an audience that is both generalized and explicitly heretical, there is (or, perhaps, should be) a bit of cognitive dissonance.

The point of recognizing the (possibility of**) cognitive dissonance in this song, in relation to the claims I've tried to make about the paradigm shift in rap music that Kanye epitomizes/enacts, is to say that this is precisely what we would expect to happen if my "post-Kanye" were the new norm. Common sense is not a form of knowledge, but a particular structuring of understanding; common sense (as an ideological construct) is not, that is, how you understand the world, but rather how you understand what you are capable of understanding. When someone says, for instance, that "you should stay off that street at night - it's just common sense," what is common sense about that is that one should hate the poor. And, to continue with this example, if 'hate the poor' is one specific kind of 'common sense,' then it is clear that common sense is not something that gets expressed unambiguously. All kinds of 'aspirational' films - a movie I find personally intolerable, Slumdog Millionaires, springs immediately to mind - reinforce this exact common sensical view of reality precisely by expressing it in its inversion, that poor people can be just wonderful too.

And this is not quite exactly how Cher Lloyd's song works - there is still a bit of strain in insisting that haters are monetized, a bit of the stench of rhetoric about the whole mess - but it is much less strained about it than, say, Kanye's "Stronger," or other similar "I <3 Haters" anthems, and is willing to let itself devolve into babble (her swagger's in check, just so you know!).

The main thing I'm interested in responding to though, in terms of Nico's response to the video, is the way in which he points to swagger as commodity. Many of his individual points I tend to agree with - that there is the scent of planned obsolescence about the whole endeavour, and the mirroring that it shares with consumer electronics, especially - but, as a whole (and as I've tried to write elsewhere on this blog), I tend to be more convinced by the argument that swagger is a reference to work, rather than product. Which, I mean, isn't to fetishize labour - "Labor is a commodity, like any other," after all - but simply to say that when one talks of swagger, one talks of entering a (head)space in which commodities and surplus-value can be generated. Swagger, that is, is not what is being sold, but the simultaneous avowal and mystification of where what is being sold came from. There is a difference between a "swagger ja[ck]er" and a "biter," after all.

These two points - that of the "hater" as primary creator of value, and swagger as (might I go so far as to say fetishized?) labour - seem to me to be indispensable to an understanding of this song, and the milieu out of which it rises. The particulars of the political economy - that is, how it produces value and allocates resources, and how this is inextricably tied to the regulation of its sociality - of the contemporary entertainment industry (in all its blazing glory) are well worth investigating, precisely because - well, actually, fuck it, I'm sure the reasons you can imagine me saying here are better than the ones I can come up with right now, I've just listened to Swagger Jagger probably a hundred times in a row, fuck it.

Happy fucking #based day.

*Actually, if you google [Cher Lloyd Swagger Jagger Diplo] you get a bunch of results claiming that he produced it, though both discogs and wikipedia disconfirm that.

**I make no claims on how others experience this song.