In Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, neoliberalism (Zer0 2015), Robin James listens to popular music to hear how it sounds resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately feeds and strengthens white supremacist patriarchy–then locates popular music that is melancholic–a failed overcoming that routes power and wealth away from white supremacist patriarchy. She builds her argument by combining close readings of critical theory with close listenings of popular music: it is, as she puts it, “both philosophy of music and philosophy through music.” Not for nothing, it’s pop music analysis that should be a crucial part of what we do in popular music studies moving forward, as James’s theory of soars and drops both informs our understanding of early ’10s music and creates a template that could shape similar theoretical filters we can use to better hear pop and related genres in critical theoretical terms. James, who has upcoming presentations at PhiloSOPHIA in Denver (1:15-3, Saturday 12 March…and then don’t miss her DJ set from 9-11 that night), as part of Columbia University’s Center for Race, Philosophy & Social Justice Speaker Series (12:15-2, Friday 25 March), and at the annual POP Conference in Seattle (9am, Saturday 16 April), spent some time talking in detail about Resilience & Melancholy with Justin Burton.
Justin D Burton: The two main ideas that frame the book are your theorizations of “resilience” and “melancholy” (hey, nice title!). Without asking you to rewrite the book, could you give us a brief rundown of these two terms and how what you do with them departs from colloquial usage of the same words?
Robin James: Yeah, you’re right–these two concepts, which I’m using in a quite technical and specific sense, are the phenomena I see tying some particular aspects of contemporary gender politics to some specific pop music aesthetics and practices.
Resilience is the practice of making evident a lot of noisy damage so that you can then spectacularly overcome it in a way that produces surplus value for both you (in the form of, say, human or social capital) and for society as a whole. You can think of it like shock-doctrine capitalism for the individual psyche, especially the individual psyches of people from oppressed groups. Resilience is a specific type of therapeutic overcoming. It has three steps: (1) perform damage so that others can see, feel, and understand it; (2) recycle or overcome that damage, so that you come out ahead of where you were even before the damage hit; (3) pay that surplus value–that value added by recycling–to some hegemonic institution, like white supremacist patriarchy, or capital, or the State, something like that. This isn’t just coping–it’s a very, very specific form of coping designed to get individuals to perform the superficial trappings of recovery from deep, systemic issues, all the while reinforcing and intensifying the very systemic issues it claims to solve. Resilience is how patriarchy hides behind superficial feminist liberation, how white supremacy hides behind superficial multiculturalism.
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