09.01.2013
  • United States

Silent Majority Music

To put it most unkindly, trap music is adult contemporary for the prosumer age.

Illustration by Ben Sanders

Back in April, one of my favorite minor internet celebrities, Hennessy Youngman, announced his foray into deejaying. Excited, I downloaded the mix and put it on my iPod to enjoy on my commute. As I cued it up, Hennessy’s trademark “What up, Internet?” popped into my headphones amid an air raid siren, hyping me up for . . . a Foreigner power ballad? What was going on here? I should have been more prepared: after all, this was Hennessy, AKA Hen-rock Obama, a master of irreverence, and his mix was entitled CVS Bangers.

Hennessy’s work has long used hip-hop-style provocations to highlight the pretensions of the art world. His Art Thoughtz video lectures mix street slang with High Theory jargon, outfitted with blunt (and possibly blunted) detachment and cartoon-character baseball caps. A sample from one of my favorites, “Post-structuralism, what the fuck is that?” illustrates his technique nicely: “You be like, ‘This painting is truly transcendental,’ and poststructuralism be like, ‘Motherfucker, you can’t stand outside of history, the fuck you smoking on?’” I have to admit, it’s a better lecture on poststructuralism than I’ve ever managed to put together.

CVS Bangers extends Hennessy’s incisive detournement techniques into popular music. Hennessy draws from the eighties soft rock ubiquitous in checkout lines nationwide: the gentle synths, gated drums, and grim yet innocuous bleating that passed for singing during the Reagan years. Hennessy’s joke is to stuff the oversized shoulder pads of adult contemporary into the youthful structure of a hip-hop mixtape. Airhorns resound over the climactic key change in Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie”; hockey-hair-gone-comb-over fist-pumpers like Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me” are punched up with squelched samples of More Fire like we’re popping molly instead of stuffed jalapeños.

Hennessy’s first CVS Bangers mix hit the concept, but the sequel holds together much better in execution. I don’t know if Hennessey did his research, or if he merely relied, as many DJs do, on a carefully cultivated ear, but he’s nailed his object of inquiry here. Every song in CVS Bangers 2, with a couple exceptions, came off the assembly line and into the checkout aisle in the period from 1984 to 1987, with the majority released in 1986. Adult Contemporary — a format that combined easy listening with gracelessly aging Boomer rockers and New Wavers moving into more lucrative slow-dance territory — came into its own as a format at exactly this time. What was it that made 1986 such a golden age for middle-of-the-road parental jams?

The economic restructuring of the 1980s was the business in front of Kenny Loggins’ party in the back. The music industries were undergoing dramatic changes that would continue for decades. Most importantly for our story, the deregulation of radio ownership, which would reach a crescendo in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, kicked off in 1981. According to a report by the Future of Music Coalition,

Until 1981, the FCC required stations to vary [their] programming each week, including establishing time for community affairs programs and opposing voices. After a rule change in 1981, however, diversity was defined merely by the number of stations. . . . True diversity, it was argued, was achieved through a multiplicity of sources, rather than within each source.

In other words, the FCC removed diversity requirements, presuming that if one company owned many different stations, market mechanisms would kick in. Station owners would naturally want to diversify their assets, giving listeners a range of options the way God and Reagan intended: through the pursuit of self-interest, not through state interference.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way, mostly because that was never really the intention. Local stations, a crucial part of any regional music scene, were gobbled up by large media conglomerates, and programming increasingly centered around big-budget major label stars. Pop scholar Will Straw characterizes the sea change in radio as reaching “unprecedented homogeneity by 1984.”

The consolidation of radio ownership accompanied other forms of restructuring. In 1982, Billboard, the company charged with tracking music popularity, altered the way they calculated the Adult Contemporary chart. Instead of using a formula derived from record sales and airplay, the AC charts would only factor airplay into popularity. This gave the record industry a much tighter grip over what charted: with only a handful of corporate radio station owners to influence (or bribe), executives could cultivate a carefully controlled niche, immune to the unpredictable tastes of the record-buying public. Severing record buyers from the Adult Contemporary charts had demographic implications as well. Record buyers were predominantly young and predominantly male. An airplay-only chart would, according to industry theory, reflect the tastes of an older demographic that skewed female.

Such an audience would be a marketing sweet spot. Since the early twentieth century, marketers understood that women were responsible for the vast majority of purchases of consumer goods. Adult Contemporary, which had already absorbed Easy Listening, was thus poised to take over the playlists of grocery stores and pharmacies everywhere. In doing so, it supplanted the long-reviled Muzak (originally conceived not only as part of the architecture of shopping but also as a balm for unhappy workers), imbuing the soundtrack of mass-market consumption with that bit of edge that baby boomers, now pushing shopping carts and strollers, had long been accustomed to associating with authentic emotion.

The idea that radio reflects audience taste is largely bullshit; instead, radio playlists are, like much of the music industry, a bunch of middle-aged men constructing an idealized fantasy listener whose tastes they then must appeal to. In this way, Adult Contemporary became the musical equivalent of the Silent Majority, those magical white middle-class millions whose supposed interests, though never vocalized, must always be appealed to. Echoing this, Billboard Magazine triumphantly claimed the mantle of “Vanilla” for the format, noting that ice cream’s least exciting flavor is also (according to industry research) the perennial favorite. At least they weren’t so obvious as to point to the popularity of white bread!

Hennessy makes this racial coding explicit in his mix: while he draws from instantly recognizable mid-eighties hits from white artists like The Moody Blues and Steve Winwood, he doesn’t include anything from the leading lights of Adult Contemporary, Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie, black artists whose successful crossovers to the mainstream (i.e. that Silent Majority of white listeners) were predicated on polishing off anything too recognizably black in their music. Instead, Hennessy, as he so often does, dramatizes the racism at the heart of the Adult Contemporary genre, which, just like whiteness itself, accepted members only to the extent that they could assimilate to its values — values, as the cult YouTube series “Yacht Rock” hammered home, like smoothness and inoffensiveness.

Making fun of big-hair corporate pop from a generation ago is hardly a challenge for a critic as incisive as Hennessy. But CVS Bangers is not really a skewering of Adult Contemporary; indeed, there is a lot of gentle, even begrudging affection for this cheese, from listeners and Hennessy himself. “Racism — but so good!” he booms over Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy.” In CVS Bangers, the major target of satire is the form, not the content: the current trends in club deejaying. And 1986 — an alternate 1986, if you will — provides another key to interpreting Hennessy’s mix.

In 1986, a hip-hop album went to number one on the charts for the first time. The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill proved that hip-hop had seeped into American youth culture, even into the suburbs. Of course, it helped that the Beastie Boys looked a lot like those suburban kids, and had songs about throwing ragers in your parents’ house. This was the obverse of Lionel Ritchie’s achievement: the Beasties crossed over by presenting the rebellious aesthetics of hip-hop shorn of its race- and class-based defiance. This success was replicated by Vanilla Ice, and arguably Eminem as well — after all, Em’s biggest hits were mostly about MTV celebrities and spousal abuse; his working-class backstory was something pushed by his management more than by his music. These three acts have four of the top ten best-selling hip-hop albums of all time; Eminem holds the top two spots.

This switching of black faces for white ones (which, I want to stress, should be blamed on the industry, not the artists) has only intensified. From Macklemore’s NPR-liberal wish-fulfillment rap to Mac Miller’s dorm-ready stoner anthems to Lil Debbie’s staging of postmodern minstrel shows, the past few years validate Eminem’s prediction in “Without Me” of an army of white rappers following in his footsteps (his prediction that popular culture would feel empty without him was far less accurate). Appropriation (“love and theft,” as Eric Lott puts it) is a story as old as American popular music itself, and it’s affected the other elements of hip-hop as well, including DJ culture. Here’s where Hennessy’s biggest barbs find their mark: the trendy club subgenre known as trap music.

“Trap” comes from southern street slang, a wry way drug dealers refer to their workplace. T. I. named his breakthrough 2003 album Trap Muzik; on hustler anthems like “Doing My Job” and “Rubber Band Man” he makes a virtue of the necessities of street life. Young Jeezy is a bit more overt about hustlers’ stark choices in his “Trap or Die” mixtapes, and Gucci Mane crafted the term into a badge of honor with such mixtape series as “Trap House,” “Trap Back,” and “Trap God.”

As a genre — or to be specific, as a sound — trap crystallized in two ways. First was the ascension of producer Lex Luger, who reached mainstream attention by sending Southern hip-hop’s tricked-out bass drums and skittering hi-hats into Wagnerian levels of bombast. Second was the mixtape mavens Trap-a-Holics, who curated their mixes with “drops” (small vocal samples that serve to brand DJs’ mixes) of a booming white-guy voice thundering “Real trap shit!” and the now-legendary “Damn, son, where’d you find this?”

Music styles that, like hip-hop, are connected to some kind of grass roots, are fluid, with constant incremental changes building into epochal ones. When they move from their base audience, it’s often because a particular conjuncture of sounds resonates with a new crowd. But here is where a kind of misrecognition occurs: for the neophytes, the style is this one way, frozen in time. The give and take between music makers and their core followings, the push and pull, ebb and flow that built disco, hip-hop, house, reggaeton, and so on, is interrupted by listeners who in their enthusiasm don’t always understand the history or sociology of their genres. They don’t have to: when music becomes a commodity, it can travel worldwide, as all commodities do, severed from any knowledge of the conditions of its production. Genres cease to be grassroots social worlds, and instead become something more like brands: mere sonic surfaces rather than deep historical processes.

When a genre develops a signature sound, it’s ripe for the plucking by interlopers. Instead of having any real connection to the communities that develop musical styles through the dialectical movement between music makers and their core audiences, an outside producer just has to have a decent set of ears and a computer, and can start cranking out reasonable facsimiles, like factories in China churning out fake Coach purses indistinguishable to everyone but connoisseurs. Even if you can tell the difference, the functional parts are close enough. Today’s Chinese pirate manufacturers pride themselves on their quality goods, just as today’s kings of musical appropriation do.

This is how a new definition of trap arose, one tied to EDM, or Electronic Dance Music, a term whose anodyne unwieldiness belies its coinage by academics — dance music fans ignored the name for years. EDM is now the branding initiative accompanying the latest wave of the mainstreaming of electronic music in the US (remember electronica in the late nineties?).

As you might guess, EDM trap has little to do with the off-the-books hustles of the urban poor. Rather, it’s a largely middle-class affair, slapped together by suburban teens and college sophomores; using dubstep as your Call of Duty soundtrack is so 2009. Today’s trap retains most of the sounds of underground hip-hop: the booming 808 bass drums, the hi-hats, and of course, the drops, now deployed in that irritatingly knowing way that characterizes so much digital culture. The answer to “Damn, son, where’d you find this?” is always the same: you downloaded it off the internet.

But there’s one important sound that has been removed in this refurbishing process: EDM trap is mostly instrumental. By dispensing with the rapping, EDM trap effectively silences the black voices that kept the style connected to the stories of the American lumpenproletariat. It’s the auditory equivalent of kicking out a poor family so you can live in their classic brownstone. In the words of one of the dance underground’s sharpest figures, Rizzla DJ: “Damn, son, put that back where you found it!”

Hennessy is hip to the easy appropriation that characterizes EDM trap: after all, the genre’s biggest hit, Baauer’s “The Harlem Shake,” sampled his voice without attribution for its hook and title, and eventually landed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. In CVS Bangers, Hennessy gets his revenge, connecting trap’s empty dudebro swagger to the schmaltz of Sad White Guys like Take That and Rod Stewart. He drops a “Damn, Hen, where’d you find this?” over Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” one of the most overplayed songs of the late eighties. What’s underground or obscure about a genre as enthusiastically new-economy commercial as trap?

So, to put it most unkindly, trap is the adult contemporary for the prosumer age: instead of a top-down strategy of gentrifying the airwaves, now the structures are in place so that such appropriation appears as spontaneous and driven by fans, even though the commercial internet runs on corporation-cultivated virality. While AC continues to do the vital work of soundtracking our shampoo purchases, viral video crazes like the Harlem Shake become an important part of austerity-era work discipline: every middle manager’s “great idea” for a morale booster is to corral the office into ironically flailing around in front of a webcam.

That trap is as safe and gentrified as eighties adult contemporary probably isn’t that much of a leap for your average jaded music fan or skeptical leftist. But let’s take Hennessy’s mix where he wants us to go: the store. Here’s the manifesto that accompanied the first mix, a sort of rough draft for the opus that is CVS Bangers 2:

CVS BANGERS IS THE AUDIOSCAPE FOR WHEN YOU’RE BUYING TAMPONS OR A [12-PACK] OF CONDOMS, A SAMPLING OF THOSE MAGIC TUNES THAT PLAY WHEN YOU’RE CONTEMPLATING HOW RIDICULOUS YOU WOULD LOOK CARRYING 24 ROLLS OF [TOILET] PAPER ON THE TRAIN, THOSE BITTERSWEET TUNES OF YESTERYEAR THAT SKIP THROUGH YOUR MIND AS YOU READ THE NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION ON THE BACK OF A BOX OF FROZEN PIZZA AND OPT FOR A PINT OF ICE CREAM INSTEAD, THOSE SPECIAL DITTIES THAT ACCOMPANY YOUR SMASHING THE BAR CODE OF A CAN OF RED BULL AGAINST THE SCANNER OF [A] BROKEN SELF-CHECKOUT MACHINE. CVS BANGERS IS COMMERCE ITSELF, AND COMMERCE, MY FACELESS INTERNET FRIENDS, IS BEAUTIFUL.

The “you” in this, as in so much of Hennessy’s work, is that art-school hipster type, the type of person who would go to a club where they might hear a few Baauer tracks — or better yet, the kind of person who would snicker at the middlebrow bro who actually likes Baauer. But Hennessy’s right: even if you’re too much of an aesthete for trap, and no matter what subculture you identify with, you’re probably getting your prophylactics and empty calories from somewhere that plays “Back For Good” by Take That a dozen times a day.

For me, this raises an interesting problem: how sub- or counter- are our cultures? Sure, we can develop our tastes and social networks in any number of directions, espouse any number of subversive political positions, make radical art. But when it comes time to meet necessities, we all rely on lowest-common-denominator mass production and mass consumption. Whatever show you went to, however face-meltingly avant-garde the club’s tracks, you’re going to end up rehydrating and caffeinating with mass-market goods. Subcultural capitalism seems less like an alternative to corporate capitalism, and more like its arts district. What Hennessy’s mixes suggest is that at the level of social reproduction, as with so much else, we haven’t really left the Reagan years.