resilience and melancholy: pop music, feminism, neoliberalism
Robin James, Zero Books, UK, 2015, 234pp., ISBN: 978-1-7827-9598-8, £12.99 (Pbk).
When critical theorists like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer diagnosed the relationship between popular music and the broader social world, they argued that the lack of dissonance in mainstream songs reflected larger social pressures to conform, adjust and submit to the status quo. In her fascinating book Resilience and Melancholy, philosopher Robin James remixes this connection between music, society and power. According to James, contemporary music actually relies on noise and dissonance as resources for productivity, as raw materials for the reproduction of social life. In other words, contemporary songs ‘incite damage for the purpose of recycling it. … Noisemaking is the means of musical, cultural and social production’ (p. 6). This trend of making noise useful and productive is emblematic of neo-liberalism’s demand to be resilient in the face of trauma and loss. As James puts it, ‘resilience discourse is what ties contemporary pop music aesthetics to neoliberal capitalism and racism/sexism’ (p. 6). While previous systems of power encouraged selves to avoid damage, neo-liberalism or what she calls ‘multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy’ instructs us to name, demonstrate and (visibly) overcome various forms of damage. This ability to overcome loss, especially by marginalised communities and individuals, is ‘rewarded with increased human capital, status, and other forms of recognition and recompense, because … this individual’s own resilience boosts society’s resilience’ (p. 7). Throughout this exhilarating text, James provides provocative readings of songs and videos that perform the resiliency imperative. At the same time, she cites and interprets songs and artists that refuse to turn noise, death and loss into something profitable.
As James points out, ‘resilience is a technique for investing in life’ (p. 8). Drawing on Foucault’s notion of bio-power, James insists that overcoming damage becomes a kind of ticket or permit of entry into a more livable life. (Those marginalised bodies that just cannot get over it are ‘further marginalised’ and debased.) In other words, the commitment to and performance of resiliency is the main way in which the boundary between life and death, livable and unlivable lives, and recognition and abjection gets redrawn in the era of late capitalism. For James, we can hear this resiliency paradigm in the structure and format of popular songs—the soars and drops in pop songs rely on modes of intensification that are eventually smoothed out and rendered pleasurable. More specifically, James contends that we hear and see this resiliency in artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga, who have become symbols of female empowerment and ‘pop’ feminism. In Chapter 3 of the book, James provides an acute reading of Beyoncé’s ‘Video Phone’, a video/track that underscores the violence of the male gaze in order to demonstrate Beyoncé’s ability to triumph over patriarchal strategies and expectations. In Chapter 4, James directs the reader’s attention to Lady Gaga, an artist who appropriates goth culture as ‘a medium in which she demonstrates her overcoming of her own damage’ (p. 127). Lady Gaga, according to the author, ‘uses damage [and goth culture] as the means to achieve success in mainstream terms’ (p. 135). In her close examination of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s video ‘Telephone’, James argues that the song’s affirmation of female independence and resilience relies on reinforcing pernicious tropes attached to black men (thug, brute, pimp). In this video, ‘women overcome patriarchal damage by executing non-bourgeois black men’ (p. 134). Resilience, like recognition, comes with a cost; a resilient subject defines itself over and against those bodies, selves and communities that are associated with death, loss and damage.
As an alternative to the sound/image of resilience within popular music and neo-liberal logic, James points to groups/artists like Atari Teenage Riot and Rihanna who refuse to allow damage, noise and tension to be converted into an affirmation of the status quo. These artists embrace a kind of melancholy or an ‘investment in death’ (p. 141). By introducing the language of melancholy, James departs from Freud’s well-known description of this condition. In his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud appears to make a stark distinction between the two—mourning is a healthy response to loss while melancholy is a pathological response to loss and trauma. As James points out, Freud’s description of mourning, a process by which the individual successfully replaces a new object for the lost/absent one, seems to privilege completeness, wholeness and so forth. For James, melancholy takes on an updated, critical quality; melancholy names those investments and endeavours to overcome damage that don’t quite work. It signifies musical and social attempts to embrace and tarry with loss and incoherence rather than overcome these conditions. For James, Rihanna’s 2012 album Unapologetic performs this melancholic sensibility as Rihanna fails to meet public expectations to ‘get over’ Chris Brown or to condemn black masculinity more generally. This album has been criticised because it ‘is not the resilience machine fans and critics expect from neoliberal pop’ (p. 154).
It might seem as if James creates a rigid binary between melancholy and resilience, leaving marginalised subjects with no alternative to the place of damage. Yet in the concluding chapter, James reminds the reader that melancholy is itself a mode of resilience that simply fails to buttress neo-liberalism; in other words melancholy is a break or cut from within neo-liberal discourses of resilience. In addition, James insists that there are ‘many, many ways to deal with damage and trauma, and people frequently recover, survive, cope and flourish in ways that don’t adequately support hegemony’ (p. 168). Here it might have been helpful for the author to flesh out how this transition from damage to life-affirmation occurs, without being determined or co-opted by dominant narratives and arrangements. But this is something that all of us need to be thinking about—how to re-imagine and critically engage coping strategies for marginalised communities while refusing the kinds of resilience narratives that diminish or deflect the painful, traumatic qualities of social existence. For musicians, music scholars, philosophers, and gender and critical race theorists interested in this pursuit, Robin James’s Resilience and Melancholy will be a challenging, provocative read.