Adele’s single is the musical equivalent of the desire for experiential homogeneity that Trump satisfies
AS 2015 draws to a close, among the two biggest US media spectacles that are not mass shootings are Adele’s single “Hello” and presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stump speeches. As of December 15, “Hello” has topped the Billboard hot 100 for seven weeks. Similarly, Trump’s increasingly outrageous and decreasingly factual claims have the media obsessed with his long run at the top of the Republican polls. “Hello” seems so explicitly apolitical that SNL can present it as the one thing that unites us—or at least SNL’s generally liberal-leaning audience and their “racist [white] Republican relatives.” But despite seemingly different demographics, Trump and Adele draw on shared techniques that unite their fans as an “us.”
Trump creates an environment where his fans feel affirmed and unchallenged in their intuitive sense of the world. Having the world reflect your intuitive sense with dissonance-free immediacy is the height of privilege. This is what Trump’s white (able-bodied, English-speaking…) fans are accustomed to, and one way his performances reaffirm both their whiteness and white supremacy. As a political figure, he appears completely uninterested in facts or evidence. As Dylan Matthews suggests on Vox, whereas most politicians massage facts into the form they find most appealing, Trump just makes stuff up, stuff that’s easy to disprove with empirical evidence. For him, the point isn’t to be correct or make a rational argument (he’s no Habermasian) to get people to agree with his ideas, but to perform feelings that (some, mostly white) people identify with. He’s not interested in getting people to agree with the propositional content of his claims, but with the implicit knowledges, emotions, habits, and intuitions—what philosophers call an “interpretive horizon”—that make factually incoherent claims appear coherent. And in Trump’s case, it’s white supremacy that makes his empirically false claims feel true.
“Hello” also eschews appeals to knowledge in favor of immediate, friction-less emotional and intuitive identification. Its production and performance is so musically conservative that you don’t have to know a lot about recent trends in pop music to connect to the song and feel like part of its interpretive universe. Its closest chart competition, Bieber’s “Sorry,” is a hit because it synthesizes current trends, like a trap “skrrrrrt!” or tropical house-inspired melodies and beats. But these ideas might alienate listeners who don’t keep up with pop’s rabid assimilation of new sounds from (generally black, queer) subcultures. Over the last 40 years, as hip hop, disco, house, drum & bass, dubstep, and plenty of other black genres were appropriated by the white mainstream, their rhythmic innovations have been incorporated into pop percussion styles: we hear this in Bieber’s three new singles. “Hello”‘s composition avoids using any ideas or techniques that entered pop’s toolkit since the invention of punk, hip hop, and disco in the late 70s (its one musical reference is to “California Dreaming,” from 1965). It would have made as much sense to US and UK pop audiences in 1975 as it does in 2015.
It’s easiest to hear this “boring old-fashioned-ness” if we focus on the percussion. Other than a very soft bass drum in the chorus, there’s no percussion until the second verse. The percussion really kicks in at the second chorus, and what we get is a completely standard rock beat, with nary an Amen, breakbeat, 808, or trap hi-hat anywhere in the song. Avoiding references to sounds and techniques that haven’t been completely assimilated to whiteness (as rock has been), “Hello”‘s musical interpretive horizon is white. And just as white supremacy makes whiteness “invisible” as a race, it makes “Hello”‘s musical interpretive horizon inaudible as musical technique.
Listeners who share “Hello”‘s white interpretive horizon feel they can immediately and ubiquitously connect with the song, no explicit knowledge required. Juliet Litman says she doesn’t even need to think about what the lyrics were about: “I honestly don’t really listen to lyrics and like when I listen to hello for the first time I was so moved by it and I found it so arousing, I was just so happy…” Lots of people think that this direct, intense, purely emotional connection to “Hello” is an inevitable, universal response; the emotions are so powerful and direct that it’s impossible to be unmoved by it. The Daily Mail reported that “Hello” left actress Kate Hudson “in a pool of tears” as she “joined the [British] nation in collective weeping.” Similarly, Mikael Wood says that Adele is a “crystallizer of complicated feelings…in a way that made the music somehow feel universal.” In both Trump’s and “Hello”’s case, fans experience an apparently immediate emotional identification with a performance, and assume that everyone does, or at least should, do the same, because everyone ought to share this white interpretive horizon.
Lots of politicians and musicians appeal to non-propositional knowledges, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong about the desire to have your interpretive horizon reflected back to you. The problem with “Hello” and Trump is that they frame whiteness as the “natural” horizon against which all differences appear unnatural, disgusting, and unfit for inclusion in their “us.” “Hello”’s production and Trump’s rhetoric both appeal to an underlying concept and/or affect of naturalness. In Trump’s case, the most explicit example of this may be his mocking the physical disability of Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who criticized Trump’s false claim about the cheering crowds in New Jersey on 9/11. More powerful than any refutation of his claim is the refutation of Kovaleski’s interpretive horizon, irreducible to but significantly grounded in his body. In Trump’s world, there are no bad arguments, just bad bodies, unnatural bodies that lead to pathological interpretive horizons. And as the recent physical assaults of #BlackLivesMatter protesters at Trump rallies show, Trump and at least some of his fans think these bad bodies and the horizons they evoke need to be eliminated.
Defending the supporters who beat up Mercutio Southall Jr. at a rally in Alabama, Trump said: “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” Southall was expressing views and feelings that accord with his interpretive horizon, his experience of the world as a black person, in a black body. But these feelings and the horizon that generates them are not consonant with the one Trump performs and fans identify with. Labeling dissonant horizons “disgusting,” Trump implies that they’re unnatural and that’s why they need to be eliminated. In both Kovaleski’s and Southall’s cases, Trump refutes the acceptability and humanity of opponents’ interpretive horizons rather than their arguments. (This isn’t even an ad hominem, because that at least treats your opponent as a (putatively bad) person.) If his opponents are wrong because they’re disgusting, degenerate, and unnatural, that means Trump is right because his body, his feelings, his interpretive horizon is natural.
“Hello” fans often emphasize its naturalness. Sometimes this means pointing out the “naturalness” of Adele’s voice, its supposed lack of processing or AutoTuning (or even mimicking AutoTune, like Fetty Wap). Her voice is described as “flawless,” as if it woke up like that. As this viral video of a pit bull howling along to a verse and chorus from the song much in the same manner that my neighbor’s dog howls along to passing sirens shows, people think “Hello”‘s interpretive horizon is so natural even animals understand the song’s emotions.
Following the original caption, re-postings present the dog’s howling as mimicking not just the pitch of Adele’s vocals, but their emotional content and expression. And it’s not just this one dog: several websites link to two similar videos. If dogs can get the feels from “Hello,” then it must not require any special training or acculturation to understand—that’s why Ryan Seacrest’s website describes it as a “universal reaction.” And if a dog gets it, then there must be something profoundly wrong with people who don’t. If “Hello”’s natural emotiveness can unite us across species, then people who don’t feel powerfully touched by the song and its emotions must be defective, scourges of nature.
For example, L.V. Anderson eviscerates the Southern University Marching Band’s arrangement of “Hello” in terms that echo Trump’s mockery of Kovaleski and Southall. Calling it “one of the most hilariously awful things my ears have ever perceived,” Anderson thinks that SUMB’s distasteful stylistic choices disrupt the original’s intimate spirit,” eliciting revulsion rather than catharsis. And, like Trump, Anderson’s objections aren’t supported by the evidence: the arrangement actually intensifies the impact of the song’s climax. It does this by putting a drop in at the end of the first verse, setting up the downbeat of the chorus as an even bigger climax than the original arrangement: the low brass descend rapidly into the downbeat of the chorus, when everybody belts out the melody at full volume. (This hit of full-blast melody is a pretty standard way of arranging the climax of a marching band show, generally accompanied by a company front in the drill.)
So, SUMB’s arrangement isn’t, as Anderson thinks, “totally at odds with” the original, but a quite consistent translation of the radio edit into a HBCU marching band style. However, the arrangement’s musical interpretive horizon is black rather than white. What Anderson really perceives here is a difference in style, in musical interpretive horizon: the original style is pleasingly intimate, whereas SUMB’s style is hilariously awful and disgusting. SUMB’s performance lacks the original’s “intimate spirit” because it doesn’t intimate whiteness, at least not to Anderson. SUMB’s performance of “Hello” feels disgusting and unnatural because it disrupts the immediacy and naturalness of white interpretive horizons.
SNL’s “Hellosgiving” sketch implies that such disruptions are unfit for inclusion in “our” liberal, diverse society. If “Hello” unites everyone, then the jerk who would crash that feels party with some “actually”s about how, say, Sia’s a more interesting vocalist or Bieber’s album will have more influence on the future of pop music, that person isn’t fit for inclusion in the multicultural, quintessentially liberal group that tolerates even your racist (therefore white) Republican relatives. People who respond emotionally to “Hello” share the same interpretive horizon, the same set of implicit knowledges, habits, patterns of communication, intuitions, and so on. If this response is so natural that it transcends language, culture, even species, then people who don’t share this response must have a defective, unnatural interpretive horizon—one that’s illiberal, incapable of the tolerance for difference that good liberal subjects and societies must demonstrate. (This parallels European stereotypes of Muslim immigrants as illiberal, intolerant of secularism and women’s rights.) Here, liberalism isn’t a consciously articulated political view, but a quality of one’s intuitive, affective, non-conceptual orientation to the world.
To be clear: I’m not arguing anything about Adele herself, nor about all possible interpretations of “Hello,” but about a liberal one that dominates media coverage of the song. This particular strain of “Hello” fandom is about the pleasure in sharing a common interpretive horizon, a common underlying set of habits, intuitions, and bodily orientations to the world. This is also the crux of Trump fandom. In itself, this pleasure isn’t a bad thing. Fitting in and not having to code switch feels comforting and empowering: think about the ease, intuitiveness, and adeptness you can demonstrate when speaking your first language, or by being right-handed. But expecting your white interpretive horizon to grant you this ease, intuitiveness, and adeptness everywhere you turn is white supremacist. And feeling that disruptions of this immediacy are unnatural, disgusting, and degenerate–that’s the type of biopolitical white supremacy that informs both fascist nationalisms (like Trump’s) and neoliberal multiculturalisms (like SNL’s Hellosgiving). Because you don’t have to be phenotypically white (Jay Pharoah in Hellosgiving) or even human (those dogs!) to share “Hello”‘s interpretive horizon, “Hello”-style liberalism seems more progressive than overtly racist Trump. Whereas he excludes people explicitly on the basis of identity (race, disability, etc.), this strain of liberalism excludes people on the basis of performance: anyone who responds appropriately to “Hello” is fit for inclusion. Here, identity is a secondary, implicit factor that affects performance, but not the primary, overt criterion for in/exclusion, so “Hello” liberalism can pass as nondiscriminatory and quintessentially liberal. However, the parallels in reception of Trump and “Hello” show that liberal “Hello” fans who overtly disidentify and disagree with Trump’s politics want to experience the same feeling of white privilege in terms more palatable to liberal tastes. This strain of “Hello” fandom is the (neo)liberal version of the same white supremacy that Trump expresses in more traditional terms.
Both Trump’s conservativism and “Hello”’s liberalism expect everyone in the universe, and the universe itself, to reflect their interpretive horizon back to them because this horizon is “natural”; other horizons are disgusting or hilariously awful. This is no mere naturalistic fallacy, which assumes that natural means good. Shaped by the lived experience of white people and whiteness, these horizons are themselves white. Both fandoms treat whiteness as the natural foundation of their respective communities, and this common white supremacy is what makes liberal “Hello” fandom as dangerous as reactionary Trump fandom. We need to disrupt neoliberal white supremacist interpretive horizons in the same way #BlackLivesMatter interrupt Trump rallies.