The B-Side of Biopower

By David J. Gunkel  
Issue 3     October 10, 2019     Download PDF

From the beginning—actually from before the beginning—it is clear that the subject of Jeff Nealon’s I’m Not Like Everybody Else is situated on the side of consumption and concerns the activities of the pop music fan. This is immediately apparent in the Acknowledgements—one of those strange literary appendages that, at least since G.W.F. Hegel’s famous preface to the Phenomenology, is considered to be both a part of the book and not yet the book. Nealon’s Acknowledgements consist of a litany of consumer/fan activity organized around verbs having to do with practices of consumption: “listening” to a particular piece of music or “seeing” a legendary band in a specific place and time with a particular set of individuals. On its surface, the gesture looks both innocent and unremarkable, consisting of shout-outs to the people, places, and performers that form the backdrop for the project. But, as is almost always the case, there is a lot more going on here. The litany provides a kind of fast-forward preview of what is ultimately argued in the book, namely that “the crucial question for thinking about popular music in the present is no longer ‘What does music mean?’…Rather, the question of the present has become ‘How does music function?’”[1]

But this functionalist approach is limited to what is admittedly one side of the equation. What is absent from—or perhaps better stated, marginalized in—Nealon’s list of popular music practices (and marginalized, I should point out, for reasons that are both understandable and necessary) are procedures and activities concerning the making or fabrication of music—operations that would be identified by a different set of verbal markers: writing, performing, recording, distributing, and so on. Consequently, I want to respond to Nealon’s book by looking at the other side of popular music, asking not “How does music function?” for the fan and consumer but “How does music come to be?” This question concerns not the biopolitical activities of the music fan but the object and the subject of popular music. This shift, it is important to note, is not without its own investments in and legacy-logics of (bio)power. In modernist aesthetics and philosophies of art, we typically differentiate between the producer of the art object/event and the consumer, and these two subject positions are typically arranged in a hierarchy where the producer/creator is “first” in terms of both temporal sequence and status. Nealon critiques this standard operating procedure by coming at it from the side of the consumer. In what follows I will mirror that effort by doing something similar on the side of the producer/creator.

The Object of Popular Music

Popular music is, as Nealon points out, largely about the circulation and consumption of a certain kind of object. It is about recordings and the different configurations this technological artifact has taken in the era of mechanical reproduction: wax cylinder, 45 single, long playing vinyl record, 8-track and cassette tape, MP3 file, streaming media, etc. And Nealon’s analysis pays particular attention to the ways alterations in recording formats “decisively changed the practices of collecting and listening to music over recent decades” (73). But sound recordings, as the recent proliferation of work in sound and remix studies have demonstrated, are a strange kind of techno-cultural object.[2]

The basic ideology of recording was originally recorded for us in Plato’s Phaedrus in the course of dealing with the first technology and artifice of transcription—writing. According to the argument supplied by Socrates in the latter part of the dialogue, recordings are secondary and unauthorized reproductions. They are derived images or copies of a more authentic and original presentation or performance. Writing can, therefore, capture and preserve ephemeral speech outside of and beyond the space and time of its original delivery. But this calcified and embalmed artifact has the deficiency of 1) being a dead object that is repetitive to a fault—it only says one and the same thing no matter how many times you inquire of it; and 2) as an independently existing object, being something that can be used and abused by anyone anywhere, insofar as it is out of the control of its originating source or the authority of its author.

This Platonic formulation institutes a concept of recording that has remained in place and in play for at least two millennia. It is, for instance, extended into the era of mechanical reproduction for other forms of recording technology—film, phonography, and photography—by way of a well-known 1936 essay from Walter Benjamin. According to the material developed in this text, recordings are inauthentic reproductions of pristine originals. They may be able to represent the basic shape and configuration of the original work of art, but they cannot preserve and present its unique aura—the singular presence that is the ultimate guarantee of authenticity. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” Benjamin writes, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. […] The presence of the original is the prerequisite of the concept of authenticity.”[3] In popular music this “authenticity” is typically located outside the material of recorded mass reproductions to which consumers have access. It is found (or it is projected onto) the expression of the original artist such that the recording is little more than a reproduction of their unique artistry or it is located in something that is called—by way of what is arguably an oxymoronic phrase—the “original recording” from which subsequent reproductions will have been derived and against which they are always evaluated.

But this conceptualization is complicated and undermined by the actual practices and the practicalities of phonographic reproduction. “The word ‘record,’” as Evan Eisenberg explains, “is misleading. Only live recordings record an event; studio recordings, which are the great majority, record nothing. Pieced together from bits of actual events, they construct an ideal event. They are like the composite photograph of a minotaur.”[4] According to Eisenberg, the word “record,” as it is applied to the phonographic disk or subsequent media like the MP3 file, is a misnomer. The nominal form “record” is derived from the verbal infinitive “to record” and gives one the impression that what is inscribed on the surface of the disk or encoded in digital data is a document of some actually (pre)existing audio event. Although there are instances where sound recording functions in a documentary mode, like the “live recording” (which, we should note, is already an indicative and curious assemblage of words) of a concert performance or the preservation efforts of ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax, the majority of commercial recordings—especially in popular music—are created and work otherwise. As Eisenberg points out, studio recordings, especially in popular music, actually record nothing. Instead they manufacture, often through clever technical manipulations and various forms of technological mediation, what the consumer presumes they have simply recorded or transcribed.

Consider the practice of tape editing, which allows musicians and record producers to fabricate entire recordings from a number of fragmented and disconnected components. As Steve Jones describes it, “editing meant that a piece [of music] did not necessarily have to be performed all the way through. Instead, parts of it could be performed and then spliced together later. Moreover, editing ability meant that the ‘perfect’ take could be assembled from several imperfect ones. The best part of each take would be chosen and carefully joined into one seamless piece.”[5] This practice not only found application in popular music with legendary producers like the Beatles’ George Martin but was also used by classical musicians. Glenn Gould, for instance, employed editing not to repair errors in his performance but to construct it. “Gould,” as Eisenberg explains, “did not use the splice, as most pianists must, mainly to correct mistakes. He used it to weld numerous takes, all correct, each different, into a structure that would stand up to repeated listening.”[6]

Another popular and useful practice is overdubbing, which was developed by guitarist Les Paul. Overdubbing, produced either by bouncing tracks between two recording devices or by use of multitrack equipment, allows a musician, like Paul, to accompany himself, creating a one-man band in which all instruments are played by one performer, or for any number of musicians to collaborate on a recording without needing to occupy the same space or time, as was the case in Natalie Cole’s duet with her deceased father on the 1991 recording of Unforgettable, or when a remix DJ like Mark Vidler (a.k.a. Go Home Productions) mashed up Madonna’s vocals from the song “Ray of Light” with music sampled from the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks to create a new musical collaboration that never took place. In either case, the result is a recording that is not, strictly speaking, the (more or less) faithful reproduction of a prior musical event but a technologically facilitated simulation of a reality that did not (and often times could not) exist. And in popular music these fabrications are not the exception; they are the rule.

Because of this, and to make matters even more complex, live performance is often the derived product of a recorded artifact. Practically speaking, “live music,” especially as it is understood in rock and other popular forms, is not some immediate original sound that precedes a particular musician’s or band’s recording efforts. Instead, the live performances are often attempts (more or less successful) to imitate the recording, providing a sound in the concert hall or club that is as close as possible to what was created for and heard on the record. As Jacques Attali describes it, “concerts of popular music, tours by artists, are now all too often nothing more than copies of the records.”[7] For this reason, it is not uncommon for a musician’s tour to try to reproduce in the live show a particularly iconic recording, playing an entire album from start to finish and crafting a “live sound” that is as close as possible to what was (re)produced on the recording.

The object of popular music therefore complicates the ideology of recording and its fetishizing of authenticity. Technically speaking, the original object of music is not something recovered or recoverable by stripping away the layers of subsequent mediation to reveal some pristine original (a kind of Platonic reductionism, seeking out the aura of the original). It is instead a matter of reproducing reproduction in an effort to (re)create the original illusion of authenticity. Or as Jacques Derrida describes this rather curious and potentially contradictory metaphysical maneuver: “Plato imitates the imitators in order to restore the truth of what they imitate: namely, truth itself.”[8] For this reason, the “original recording”—the privileged object of popular music—already complicates and undermines the presumptions of authenticity and aura that are projected on to it by music consumers. Put another way, the recorded artifact that is the object of attention of and for fan authenticity is already artificial, derived, and inauthentic.

The Subject of Popular Music

Similar opportunities/challenges complicate the subject position and authenticity of the “original artist.” As Nealon points out by way of reference to Jonathan Sterne, pop music history is “driven by people (particular performers or bands) and their innovative, authentic ‘genius’” (5). The techniques and technologies of sound recording, however, make it increasingly difficult to identify exactly who (or what) is or can be held responsible for the sound that is captured on a particular recording. “Critics,” as Jesse Walker points out, “have long debated who ‘creates’ a pop record: the artist listed on the sleeve, the producer behind the scenes, the composer in the wings, or the sometimes anonymous studio employees who actually play the music.”[9] Despite this indeterminacy, it matters who is speaking.

Consider, for instance, the fabrication of musical authenticity and authority within the discipline of musicology, which developed in Germany and Austria in the late nineteenth century. Musicology typically identifies a piece of music by assigning it to a composer. For this reason, “historical work in musicology,” as explained by David Brackett, “often takes the form of the ‘life and works’ of the historical composer, whose creative intentions are understood to underlie much of a work’s meaning or are understood as background to the creation of musical works.”[10] Consequently, the discipline of musicology and the genre of European classical music are organized around the figure of particular musical geniuses—Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Verdi—and their original, authoritative scores, which are collected in a canonical and cataloged opus. In this particular system, other participants, like arrangers, orchestral conductors, instrumentalists, and recording engineers are relegated to the position of interpreters and functional intermediaries.

The celebrated figure of this author-composer, which functions quite well and almost without question in European classical music, has been significantly complicated by folk traditions and other popular musical forms, where the “composer” is neither recognized as such nor authorized to serve this function. This has led critics and scholars as well as fans and record labels to fabricate other kinds of authority figures, most notably the singer-songwriter. “In the case of the singer-songwriter,” Brackett writes, “the lead singer is responsible both for writing the song and for playing an instrument around which the accompaniment is based. In this category, the song’s lyrics usually fall into the ‘confessional’ mode, appearing to reveal some aspects of the singer-songwriter’s inner experience.”[11] This authoritative figure of “individual artistic authenticity” (67) is particularly useful for and apparent in music journalism, where magazines, artist biographies, and newspaper interviews try to tease out and trace the connections between a song and the singer-songwriter’s life experiences. All of this is perfectly in sync with prior developments in literature, which seeks an explanation for a work in the life experiences of the person who created it. “The author,” Roland Barthes argues, “still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions….”[12]

The fabrication of authenticity even extends to more recent and problematic authority figures, like the DJ. On the one hand, the DJ could have and should have undermined and even liquidated the artifice of authenticity that is vested in the musical genius of the original artist, who is the (artificially fabricated) subject supporting the “way cool/sold out” debate that, as Nealon correctly points out, has resulted in a kind of interminable cul-de-sac of pointless discursive activity. In appropriating and reworking the recorded material of others—creating unauthorized copies of copies (an activity that some might be tempted to call “plagiarism”)—the DJ intentionally violates and challenges the usual assumptions of authorship, musical authenticity, and the romantic notion of artistic genius. As Henry Rollins, the vocal “genius” behind the band Black Flag, has argued in one of his spoken word performances: The DJ is no artist. He is just “a record player player.”[13]

On the other hand, the industry, music fans, and even practitioners have worked tirelessly to promote the DJ to the authoritative position of author, fabricating a new version of 21st century authenticity. Even though sampling and remixing have been celebrated as revolutionary practices that challenge the usual configurations of authorship, “the traditional artist/audience dichotomy,”[14] and the institution of authority in popular culture, advocates often seek to attribute these practices to DJ celebrities and remix superstars.[15] Indicative of this effort are the comments supplied by Greg Gilles (a.k.a. Girl Talk), who made a legitimate (and legitimizing) claim to authorship and authenticity during an interview published in the music magazine Pitchfork: “People can judge me on whatever level they think but I’ve always tried to make my own songs. They’re blatantly sample based but I tried to make them so that you’d listen and think, ‘Oh, that’s that Girl Talk song,’ as opposed to just a DJ mix.”[16]

What this all means is that the “original artist” of popular music is more a product of the recording and not the other way around. The proper name of a noted singer-songwriter, like “Joni Mitchell” or “Taylor Swift,” for example, is not just the designation of an individual woman who possesses a particular musical talent; it is also (and perhaps more so) a commodity and corporate brand. The name serves to identify a product line, to facilitate its marketing and promotion, and to ensure the proper collection and distribution of revenue. Michel Foucault articulates/anticipates the situation rather well in the essay “What is an Author?”

The third characteristic of this author function is that it does not develop spontaneously as the attribution of discourse to an individual. It is, rather, the result of a complex operation which constructs a certain rational being that we call “author.” Critics doubtless try to give this intelligible being a realistic status, by discerning, in the individual, a “deep” motive, a “creative” power, or a “design” […]. Nevertheless, these aspects of an individual which we designate as making him an author are only a projection, in more or less psychologizing terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize, or the exclusions that we practice.[17]

The author—especially in popular music—does not predate and inform the work to which his/her/their name is attached. Instead she or he (or “it” insofar as there are now algorithms that write and produce original music) is a presumed subject—literally something “thrown under”—fabricated and projected behind the recorded artifact by the marketing department, the rock critic, or the music fan. As Thomas Schumacher accurately summarizes it, “The qualities that we would characterize as constituting the author of a musical piece are those which we choose to locate in the individual to whom authorship is attributed.”[18]

Consequently, the subject of popular music—the original artist who is credited (or blamed) as the individual genius (or sell-out) behind the music—is a kind of void or empty place that can be filled in by the (more or less successful) efforts instituted by performers, distributors, and consumers, who need (at various times and for particular purposes) to guarantee the authenticity of a recording by making it the unique expression of some authority figure. For this reason, the authorizing subject in popular music—the musician or the band that could be celebrated for being “way cool” and/or criticized for having “sold out”—is neither original nor authentic to begin with. The artifice of authenticity that is operative in the subject formation of the music fan—e.g., the biopolitical declaration of “mass individuality” (67) found in a collective proclamation of “I’m not like everybody else”—is something that is already operative in and mirrored by a similar artifice of authenticity in the subject of popular music.

The B-Side

At the end, all of this can be gathered up and replayed by returning to the musical artifact that furnishes Nealon’s book with its title. The song “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” as the author of the book accurately points out, was originally composed by Ray Davies, recorded by the Kinks in 1966, and released as the B-side of the single “Sunny Afternoon.” As Nealon deploys it, the composition serves as something of an authenticity anthem, which becomes simultaneously iconic and ironic when the eponymous chorus is sung in unison by a crowd of hipsters collectively declaring their unique neoliberal identities during an Austin City Limits performance that Nealon admits ends up looking something like a “mini-Nuremberg rally celebrating biopower” (68).

But the version of the song that most people know, Nealon included (and he notes this in a brief parenthetical aside), is not the “original recording” but a cover version—something Nealon calls a “killer cover” that is “better than the original” (68)—recorded by The Chocolate Watchband in 1968 and released on their second album The Inner Mystique. This complicates things in at least two ways. First, as a cover version, the Watchband’s recording is two-steps removed from the original version by the original artist. The authorized original, as it is theorized from Plato through Benjamin and beyond, is assumed to be (or is at least posited as being) the unique artistic expression of the song-writing genius of Ray Davies and the synergy of the band that had initially performed it. The recorded version—the B-side of “Sunny Afternoon”—is a copy or image of the Kinks’ artistry momentarily captured in the studio and preserved on magnetic tape and eventually distributed on mass produced 7” vinyl disk. The Watchband’s recording, which comes two years later, is a copy of that copy; it is therefore the derivation of a derivation.

Second, this copy of a copy appears on an album that is, from the perspective of pop music authenticity and artistic integrity, a total mess. By 1968, the band called The Chocolate Watchband was in disarray and on the verge of splitting apart. For this reason, over half the album was recorded using professional studio musicians and many of the tracks feature a replacement lead singer, meaning that The Inner Mystique was more an artifact of “the man’s” music-industrial-complex assembled in the studio than it was the authentic expression of the counter-culture, garage rock ‘n’ roll that it pretended to be and was marketed as representing. The authenticity anthem—when looked at from the side of its development and distribution— was already an inauthentic and corporatized product.

None of this, of course, is (or is meant to be) “critical” of Nealon’s analysis. In fact, what I have developed here reaffirms the argument presented in I’m Not Like Everybody Else; it simply does so by approaching the object and the subject of popular music from the other side. If, as Nealon writes, “any given subject today doesn’t need an authentic identity to inhabit, but a soundtrack for becoming” (71), I would simply point out that the various audio artifacts that comprise this soundtrack are themselves already emptied and void of authenticity.


[1] Jeffrey T. Nealon, I’m Not Like Everybody Else (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 74. All subsequent references will be indicated parenthetically in the body of the text.

[2] See, for instance, Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Eduardo Navas, Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling (Vienna: Springer, 2012); and David J. Gunkel, Of Remixology: Ethics and Aesthetics After Remix (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).

[3] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 220.

[4] Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 89.

[5] Steve Jones, Rock Formation: Music, Technology, and Mass Communication (London: Sage, 1992), 129.

[6] Eisenberg, 85-86.

[7] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 118.

[8] Jacques Derrida, Disseminations, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 112.

[9] Jesse Walker, “Monster Mash-ups,” Reason,Vol. 35, issue 1 (May, 2003), 57.

[10] David Brackett, “Music,” in Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, ed. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 127.

[11] David Brackett, Interpreting Popular Music (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 14.

[12] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), 143; emphasis in original.

[13] “Henry Rollins on rave and modern rock music,” September 19, 2007, video, 4:09, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyRDDOpKaLM; accessed October 2019.

[14] Aram Sinnreich, Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), 112.

[15] John Shiga, “Copy-and-Persist: The Logic of Mash-up Culture,” Critical Studies in Media Communication,Vol. 24, issue 2 (2007), 94.

[16] Ryan Dombal, “Girl Talk,” Pitchfork, Aug. 30, 2006); http://pitchfork.com/features/ interviews/6415-girl-talk/; accessed October 2019.

[17] Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?,” trans. Josué V. Harari, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 110.

[18] Thomas Schumacher, “This is a Sampling Sport: Digital Sampling, Rap Music, and the Law in Cultural Production,” Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 17, issue 2 (1995), 263.

Posted in Issue 3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *