by Thea Ballard
Header Image: screenshot from Jimmy Eat World “A Praise Chorus” (2001)
I’m on my feet, I’m on the floor, I’m good to go/
And all I need is just to hear a song I know/
I wanna always feel like part of this was mine/
I wanna fall in love tonight
How’s this for a song: exactly twelve seconds of propulsive drums warmed by a bass and lead guitar, each ringing out their own single note in distorted harmony. When the singer’s voice comes in and the music becomes something with a familiar shape—that is, a pop song—he has a presumptuous question, which he asks gently enough: “Are you gonna live your life wondering, standing in the back, looking around?” The second syllable of the last word of that question stretches up and then curves back down, with just enough of a friendly twang that your mother might call it “whiny” if you played the CD in the car while she drove you to school or a friend’s house. The structure is pleasingly symmetrical: the verses swing outward to address their listener, who is presumed to be shy and uncertain. Then, at the chorus, things grow taut, the wide arcs of the lead guitar muted to scraped power chords. The singer offers a sunny affirmation borne of a recreational devotion to hearing people play music, then comes the desire: “I wanna always feel like part of this was mine/I wanna fall in love tonight.”
This song, “A Praise Chorus,” is the second track on the Arizona pop-punk band Jimmy Eat World’s fourth studio album Bleed American, released on July 24, 2001. On August 21, 2001, Ryan Schreiber posted a contemptuous review of the record to his website, Pitchfork.com. Adopting the second-person address used by lead singer Jim Adkins in the song’s verses, Schreiber sneers at not only the implied listener—young and confused—but also Adkins and his bandmates. “The best thing about Bleed American is that all the songs sing directly to you,” Schreiber writes. “These guys don’t fuck around with any of that storytelling, third-person bullshit. You are misunderstood, goddamnit, and when your friends aren’t there, Jimmy Adkins always will be, rockin’ out while lifting your self-esteem”. Schreiber’s easy target is something vanilla, TRL- and drugstore-aisle-friendly—for him, a safe shot in the early aughts, when it seemed a little easier to distinguish mass from indie. We could say, more particularly, that he mocks the pretension of the middlebrow pop song to provide catharsis for America’s youth.
Schreiber’s diatribe culminates in a vicious swipe at the pop song’s tendency to exaggerate arcs of experience—an especially uncanny grievance in light of the September 11 to come: “Yes, it’s definitely time to grow up. Rites of passage are coming, if they haven’t already—sex, heartbreak, the loss of everything you own in a housefire, birth defects, and genocide … or at least things that seem that big! So do the best you can, listen to your favorite band, bury your head in the sand, before it all begins again. Hey, I just wrote a Jimmy Eat World Song!”
I love “A Praise Chorus.” I came to love it as a teenager, when music that sounded like this provided catharsis, carved a social space, and gifted an identity to the frustrated and outcast, a readymade identity for the many young people like myself who felt frustrated about growing up and fitting in. I loved that even though we’d all seen Jimmy Eat World on TRL (even the popular kids who, I imagined, lacked my threshold of sensitivity when it came to listening to music), this song told me a secret. It was hidden in the song’s crescendo, featuring the vocals of Davey von Bohlen from the Promise Ring, a less popular and more literary-seeming group that my sister and I had discovered via LiveJournal. Davey and Jim allude to an entire catalogue of songs I mostly had yet to know: Davey sings lyrics from Madness, Bad Company, They Might Be Giants, Mötley Crüe, and his own band, while Jim repeats the titular line from Tommy James and the Shondell’s much-covered hit: “Crimson and clover, over and over.” As much as Adkins may be rehearsing proximity to his vulnerable teen listeners by using second-person address, it seems he has been on the other side of this kind of parasocial intimacy too; maybe the trust I felt in him was not totally unfounded. “A Praise Chorus” has, in this respect, always seemed to me to be a song about what it means to feel your way through music—so often through music that is not especially great, or innovative, or oppositional, but just mundane and true. It is, I think, a great song for people who believe in songs.
What is a song, and what does it do? With echoes of crimson and clover in the background throughout, this essay moves asymptotically towards answering this pair of questions, sketching an evolving series of concepts of and for the form, from commodity to improvisatory process. In a practical, material sense, I posit that a song here is a unit of music: a bite-size thing that is both an expanding world unto itself and easily traded as a commodity. This understanding of the song is inextricable from the history of recorded sound, which is itself inextricable from capitalist exchange. The song predates the music industry, but the formats that industry developed to sell songs (especially the temporal restrictions that gave us the normative lengths of albums and their contents) limn the song as this audience knows it, trades it, downloads it, hears it, remembers it, makes it today—shaping the song-commodities that saturate our everyday lives.
What then does it actually mean to believe in songs? Is it really possible to defend the song on such sentimental grounds? Between industry poptimism and the breakdown of high and low that has made popular the enthusiastic study of mass-cultural music in cultural studies today, my sense is that we are eager to stake quite a bit of hope to the song form. How we do this—how we hear songs—seems of great consequence, not least of all because of the intense, but sometimes slipshod, politicization of such cultural objects that can occur at the hands of their academic and para-academic interpreters. Take the recent essay collection Pop Song by Larissa Pham, which brings together a sequence of intensely personal essays, their form dictated, it seems, by the act of vulnerability. A pop song, a Joni Mitchell cover by James Blake, is the first example Pham uses to describe her theory of aesthetics, which she calls simply having “it” and likens to Benjamin’s notion of the aura. “What I mean by it is a kind of emotivity, a strength of gesture or performance that comes through the work so strongly I don’t have to know what the piece is about in order to feel what it’s trying to say to me,” she writes. Pham vaguely alludes to the violences of American society throughout her essays, but whereas Benjamin’s notion of the aura (towards which, she fails to note, he is fundamentally ambivalent) serves as a step in an argument about the urgency of cinema as a populist tool in the face of rising fascism, for Pham “it” ultimately has to do with intimate relations, not to mention the relationship she is constantly negotiating with herself. The last sentence of the essay: “I just want to make you feel.”
In this approach to the song form, it is feelings (sublime and/or banal) that seem to make songs worthy of the kind of belief that allow them to transcend their commodity status. And yet perhaps such feelings are part of the very architecture of the contemporary song-commodity. Sociologist Eva Illouz offers a term that here may be of use: “emodities,” or emotional commodities. “Consumer capitalism has increasingly transformed emotions into commodities and it is this historical process which explains the intensification of emotional life,” she writes in the introduction to the anthology Emotions as Commodities.
Ori Schwarz, a student of Illouz, focuses on music’s emodity status in his entry in Emotions as Commodities. Schwarz notes the long history of ascribing emotional power to music, but sees the development of recording technology as the point of “transformation of music into objects.” Expanding on Illouz’s thesis, he traces the rise of emotional-cultural navigation techniques in the twentieth century, paying particular attention to emotional reflexivity, a form of “conscious emotional management” requiring that subjects “reify emotions and moods and construct them as objects of reflection, monitoring, interpretation and manipulation.” Such techniques, in combination with aesthetic-technological developments such as cinematic soundtracking and the rise of personal listening devices, have led to a normative practice of emotional listening. According to Schwarz, consuming music to “manage” mood is more than the repressive workplace tactic described in recent studies by Paul Allen Anderson and Liz Pelly. Managing mood can also be an expressive or cathartic practice; a song with narrative arcs (like, say, “A Case of You” or “A Praise Chorus”) might interject a satisfying feeling of drama that intensifies the listener’s inner world, as much as the background music playing in a grocery store might encourage a flattening of that drama to keep the shoppers’ peace.
Read generously, Schreiber’s review of Bleed American could be seen as a blistering objection to the emotionally driven cultural economy of American life at the turn of the century as pointed towards by Illouz and Schwarz, the country populated by a generation of coddled, dramatic kids with bad taste—as an objection, that is, to a genre-limited concept of the emodification of music, rock music’s fatal condescension in catering to adolescents shamefully unprepared for life’s real trials. (It could also be read, less generously, as an embodiment of that very climate: Schreiber’s attachment to what music is for and ideals of depth, authenticity, and maturity are themselves emotionally coded.) If the consumers of Jimmy Eat World, as Schreiber deduces from their direct lyrical address, are just so many whiny teens, then was I one of them, too?
The line I love the most from “A Praise Chorus,” then, takes on a slightly different meaning. “I want to always feel like part of this was mine”: what sounded to my teenage ears like a melodic idea about belonging to something musical and alive might actually be an e-modified concept of objectification through ownership—and ownership executed through feeling, a feeling that I bought into and believed in.
It is hard not to feel that, if our attachments to songs emodify them as such, the song as a form is neutralized or even corrupted. Can we recover the song by listening from a different angle, one that examines listening as an experience linked instead to musicking? In debates over the ontological status of songs, some academics have made use of a taxonomy of “thick” and “thin” songs (first defined by Stephen Davies). A thick song, writes song-philosopher Jeanette Bicknell, “gives musicians comparatively little freedom or room for interpretation,” while “the thinner the work, the more interpretive freedom the musician is allowed, and the thinner the song text, the more acceptable it is to change the text in performance.” “Happy Birthday,” the spiritual “Canaan’s Good Shore,” and “House of the Rising Sun,” are all, to Bicknell, thin songs, while she believes “classical or ‘art’ songs” to be generally thick. Davies and Bicknell are each careful not to arrange thick and thin songs in a hierarchy such that one is presented as more culturally valuable or legitimate than the other; indeed, the very categories insist, within a certain philosophical discourse, on an expansion of what counts as a “musical work.” However, it seems fair to say that, perhaps due to the hangover of modernist paradigms that insist on a moralistic distinction between high and low (mass) culture, the various institutions that comprise Western music culture still tend to insist that avant-garde approaches to the song be imagined as thick: that is, immoveable, the sort of object a critic might conceive of like a devoted aesthete before the altar of a perfectly conceived original. Meanwhile, from on high, thin songs are cast as profane objects, a mass-cultural, endlessly revolving series of remixes, edits, and samples—like the tissue-paper tapestry of lyrics sampled from songs past in “A Praise Chorus.”
I am drawn, then, to the idea of the thin song, which seems to make trouble for what Andreas Huyssen has termed “the Great Divide” (“the categorical distinction between high art and mass culture,” of which Adorno “was the theorist par excellence”). I wonder if songs can be rendered thin not just through how they are composed, but how they are heard: if “thickness” and “thinness” aren’t intrinsic qualities, but ways of hearing. After all, hasn’t pop discovered in recent decades that recording technology can make anything thin? One example among many: Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me,” a singular cello-and-voice sketch, becomes, through sampling, part of the instrumental architecture of Kanye West and Andre 3000’s “30 Hours.” And yet, treating this shift to thinness as a crisis, the legal business of recordings (as commodities) makes songs, we could say, “thick” in turn: through ownership rights and DMCA complaints, legally binding songs to their alleged point of authorial origin.
If one can approach songs as thick or as thin, I imagine that each way of hearing contains its own emotional logic, and social forms—complicating Schwarz’s somewhat flat concept of emotional listening. Thick listening binds songs: as when Pham listens to “A Case of You,” she is moved not by Joni Mitchell’s original changing hands, changing shape, nor by any fleeting aspect of its liveness—but rather by a particular instance of its performance made familiar to her alone through repetitive listens. In this instance, a song is made thick through her emotional fixation on particular details captured and frozen. The song becomes a fixed memory of a place once visited, rather than something bound to an unfolding, uncertain present. Thin listening, meanwhile, makes no promises of what the song will hold: it hears the song less as an object than as a living, changing thing, constituted within a community of listener and (re)producers.
The idea of thinness, as I imagine it here, bears a resemblance to the concept of composition with which French theorist Jacques Attali closes his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. The text tells the politico-economic story of music through four historical regimes: sacrifice (a pre-history leading up to the emergence of capitalism), representation (roughly the 18th through the late 19th centuries), repetition (heralded by the arrival of recording technology), and, finally, composition (contemporary to Attali’s writing in the mid 1970s)—the latter which, as of his writing, he imagined as a field of possibility undermining repetition’s hold on listening. In composition, “Music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled, but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest of new, immediate communication, without ritual and always unstable.” Crucially, composition is a participatory regime, one populated by producer-consumers:
… to listen to music in the network of composition is to rewrite it: “to put music into operation, to draw it toward an unknown praxis,” as Roland Barthes writes in a fine text on Beethoven. The listener is the operator. Composition, then, beyond the realm of music, calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer, between doing and destroying… to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments, the tools of communication, in use-time and exchange-time as lived and no longer as stockpiled.
Indeed, Attali foresees an idiosyncratic version of the “prosumer” role so central to our contemporary habits, prosumption being the collapse of production of labor and consumption of goods into one boundless whole, a term widely credited to futurist writer Alvin Toffler and his 1980 book The Third Wave. Attali uses the term somewhat more optimistically than most on the left would today: his political economy of music positions the prosumer as active, even with an apocalyptic kind of energy, ultimately realizing a fundamental transformation in the logic of labor. Attali’s composition requires a relational, communal concept of labor, one in which the purpose of labor itself shifts. “To produce is first of all to take pleasure in the production of differences,” he writes. “…Composition ties music to gesture, whose natural support it is; it plugs music into the noises of life and the body, whose movement it fuels. It is thus laden with risk, disquieting, an unstable challenging, an anarchic and ominous festival, like a Carnival with an unpredictable outcome.” There is an emotional valence to this improvisatory concept of music; pleasure from music, Attali argues, becomes possible through composition. His image of the festival places such experiences of music among people, lending a crucial sense of the social and communal aspects of composition as well. “To compose is to stay repetition and the death inherent in it, in other words, to locate liberation not in a faraway future, either sacred or material, but in the present, in production and in one’s own enjoyment.” Attali summarizes the challenge that our contemporary regime of compositional thinness poses to the old style of avant-garde aestheticism: namely, in refusing the demand to purify culture, and rather working within—and enjoying—the dialogic relation between production and consumption, performance and listening. In this opposition, I find myself redeemed from Schreiber’s sneers. Furthermore, I sense a sketch of what it might mean to feel through a process of thin listening: that such feeling would be relational and marked by difference, belonging, perhaps, to a community rather than an individual.
I opened this essay with “A Praise Chorus” in part because I believe it can be heard along exactly these lines. Maybe the emotional peak of the song is not the possessive chorus line, wanting to feel like part of “this” was always “mi-i-iiine”; rather, the peak is the bridge, Jimmy and Davey weaving their rough harmony of references, crimson and clover, over and over. I hear the song now as part of a larger network of songs, infinite refractions of the bright nonsense written and recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells in 1968. For one, among many, Crimson and Clover (Over and Over) (2003) is the title of a video by the late conceptual artist Lutz Bacher. The thirty-minute piece is a single cut, shot by the elusive Bacher on handheld video, of the band Angelblood (Lizzi Bougatsos, David Nuss, and Rita Ackermann) soundchecking and then playing a drawn-out cover of the Tommy James song, at gallerist Colin de Land’s memorial service at CBGB’s in 2003. Funnily enough, the video bears some surface aesthetic similarities to the music video for “A Praise Chorus,” both glancing, erratic visual catalogues of rock-and-roll-coded events illuminated by stage lights and studded with amplificatory equipment. But where the music video relies on montage and even split screens to create a frenetic sense of duration and community, Bacher relies on one camera, one apparent source of perspective. And where “Crimson and Clover” has a modular assembly in the Jimmy Eat World song, here the song arrives stretched out across time and space. It is composed from and by a field of audiovisual minutiae, less a portrait of defined individuals than of the stuff between them, a social space at its most diffuse and activated. Instruments buzz and twang, people walk on stage; it’s not clear where the song ends or begins, or to whom it really belongs. Bodies sing into microphones and dance on stage, an electric guitar scrawls a familiar riff, the repetition of those titular lyrics goes on like a mantra or a drone. Bacher’s video—the artwork that takes the song’s title—could be considered documentation of an event. But somehow, her filming—the liveness of it, the camera wandering the club, searching faces and instruments in a loosely arranged and spiritually charged social space—also constitutes a cover, a listening that itself manages to compose in memorial.
At what feels like a crescendo of the band’s performance, the camera comes to rest on the neck of the guitar, which catches the light such that the strings become a vibrating horizon: pure affect, escaping any individual, an abstract kind of catharsis. It does not necessarily impose any authentic sense of being there, or what it should mean, but rather invites, as if through the machinery of composition, an act of listening that animates me. In this way, it also exemplifies something made possible through the embrace of the thin: of the song less an object than a process, mutating, passed around, caressed, altered, and regenerated by the artists and listeners who receive it.
- Ryan Schreiber, ‘Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American’, Pitchfork <https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/4261-bleed-american/>. Emphasis mine. ↑
- Schreiber. ↑
- A short list of academic and academic-adjacent texts that come to mind here: Katherine McKittrick and Alexander G. Weheliye, ‘808s & Heartbreak’, Propter Nos, 2.1 (2017), 13–42.; Joshua Clover’s writing on George Michael and Kacey Musgraves: 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); ‘Slow Burn’, Popula, 2019 <https://popula.com/2019/02/06/slow-burn/>; Fred Moten’s passages on Rakim and Eric B’s “I Know You Got Soul” in ‘Entanglement and Virtuosity’, in Black and Blur (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 270–79.; Robin James essay on Adele’s “Hello” in The New Inquiry: ‘Hello From the Same Side’, The New Inquiry, 2015 <https://thenewinquiry.com/hello-from-the-same-side/>. ↑
- Larissa Pham, Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy (New York, NY: Catapult, 2021). ↑
- Pham, p. 162. ↑
- Pham, p. 176. ↑
- Eva Illouz, ‘Introduction: Emodities or the Making of Emotional Commodities’, in Emotions as Commodities: Capitalism, Consumption and Authenticity, ed. by Eva Illouz (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 1–29 (p. 10). ↑
- Ori Schwarz, ‘Emotional Ear Drops: The Music Industry and Technologies of Emotional Management’, in Emotions as Commodities: Capitalism, Consumption and Authenticity, ed. by Eva Illouz (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 56–78 (p. 56). ↑
- “This state of emotional reflexivity is indispensable for both modern utilitarian morality (in Bentham’s version) which quantifies justice in emotionalized terms of utility qua happiness, and for significant trends in psychology which have preached the imperative of being aware of one’s emotions as a way towards self-knowledge, self-understanding and self-change.” Schwarz, pp. 60–61. ↑
- See Paul Allen Anderson, ‘Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood’, Critical Inquiry, 41.4 (2015), 811–40; Liz Pelly, ‘Big Mood Machine’, The Baffler, 2019 <https://thebaffler.com/downstream/big-mood-machine-pelly>. ↑
- To meaningfully borrow a term from the late musicologist Christopher Small, who wrote in 1998, “There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.” Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), p. 2. ↑
- Stephen Davies, Musical Works and Performances: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 3–4. ↑
- Davies cited in Jeanette Bicknell, Philosophy of Song and Singing: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 8. ↑
- Bicknell, p. 8. ↑
- “I see no reason to privilege extended, highly specified Western works in this way and prefer more relaxed conditions for work identity (S. Davies 2001, 2003). For my purposes, “Happy Birthday” (the melody of which comes from “Good Morning to All,” attributed to Patty and Mildred Hill, c. 1893) is a musical work. It can have many renditions and, despite how these differ (e.g., in whose name is sung), each is identifiable as being of the same piece. Indeed, in my view, works are ancient and present in almost all musical cultures.” Stephen Davies, ‘Works of Music: Approaches to the Ontology of Music from Analytic Philosophy’, Music Research Annual, 1 (2020), 1–29 (p. 2). ↑
- Movements like minimalism or chance composition might seem to trouble this association between the avant-garde and the thick song, but Davies writes otherwise: “The thickening of musical works went hand-in-hand with developments in notations and scores, with composers indicating with more and more specificity what the performer was supposed to bring off. In the twentieth-century, there was something of a reaction to this kind of musical determinism. Composers adopted (or instructed) aleatoric methods or chance procedures for determining the work’s content. Provided the chance procedure generated a specific outcome, the result was not a thinning of the work. Responsibility for the outcome shifted, however, from the composer, who no longer controlled the selection of notes, to the non-deterministic procedure.” Davies, 2020, p. 4. ↑
- In other words, conceived of from this vantage point, the categories of thick vs. thin song effectively reproduce the basic distinction between avant-garde and mass culture, as famously surveyed by Andreas Huyssen in After the Great Divide: “The loss of potency of the avantgarde may be related more fundamentally to a broad cultural change in the West in the 20th century: it may be argued that the rise of the Western culture industry, which paralleled the decline of the historical avantgarde, has made the avantgarde’s enterprise itself obsolete”. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 6. ↑
- Huyssen, introduction, iii–ix. ↑
- Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985). ↑
- Attali, p. 141. ↑
- Attali, p. 135. ↑
- Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam, 1984). ↑
- Attali, p. 144. ↑
- Attali, p. 142. ↑
- Attali, p. 143. ↑
- Descriptions of this work, which is not currently to my knowledge available for public viewing, can be found in Lia Gangitano, “My Secret Life: Lutz Bacher,” Afterall 17 (Spring 2008): 90–97, and Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, “Lutz Bacher: Disjecta Membra” in Lutz Bacher: Snow (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2013). ↑