Dialogic Music Culture and The ArchAndroid

Layan Jawdat

The ways in which we listen to and interact with music have changed as recording and listening technologies have advanced. In “The Record Effect,” Alex Ross discusses the potential “effects” of these technological advances on music’s place in society; he explains: for music to remain vital, live recordings have to exist in balance with live performance, and, these days, live performance is by far the smaller part of the equation”(Ross).

In addition to these changes, the advances in technology allow us to store and share music with ease and in large quantities. Digital media platforms like iMovie and YouTube render “remix culture” and sampling more visible today than ever before, and thus questions about the “always already” remixed state of culture, including music, are likewise highly prominent today. On the state of remix and sampling today, Eduardo Navas explains: “During the first decade of the twenty-first century, sampling is practiced in new media culture when any software users including creative industry professional as well as average consumers apply cut/copy & paste in diverse software applications…in Web 2.0 applications cut/copy & paste is a necessary element to develop mashups; yet the cultural model of mashups is not limited to software, but spans across media” (Navas, Regressive and Reflexive Mashups).

With a  little bit of digging back into the history of music and its different types and genres (easily accessible today because of websites and services like YouTube, iTunes, Grooveshark, etc), it is clear that musicians do not live in isolated bubbles, and that each new musical production incorporates and builds on the music (and styles) of the past. Today’s music production environment, however, is different from music production of the past. Instead of playing instruments, DJ producers’ “raw material comes from mass production, which has pre-existent cultural value.The role of the DJ producer is to replay–or remix–not create, like a traditional composer is expected to do”(Navas, Remix). While some types of music embed recognizable units from other music (remix that includes sampling), others are hybrid in that they are built off of various musical styles that have developed over time.

Janelle Monae’s album The ArchAndroid is an impressive amalgam of musical styles, put together in new and interesting ways. Listening to her entire album made me realize there was no way I could identify every reference to these different styles, since I am by no stretch of the imagination a music expert. I did learn, however, that various sounds and musical styles could be identified throughout the entire album–each song offering some new and unexpected combination of references from the cultural music encyclopedia. Whether we are conscious of what we’re listening to or not, as consumer of culture, we associate certain sounds and musical styles with certain artists, songs, feelings, and eras. These sounds resonate with us and have meaning even before they are embedded and reinterpreted in new types of music.  Monae’s album is a perfect example of this, and listening to it was a really fascinating exercise in trying to untangle these different embedded units.

The first song on the album, “Suite II Overture”, clearly reminds listeners of an orchestra. Even the clapping at the end makes you feel like you’re in a large concert hall, and have just finished watching/listening to a live performance. The cultural codes associated with this type of music are quickly juxtaposed with the next song, “Dance or Die,” which features Monae speaking quickly (or rapping) and has a funky sound with drums and later, an electric guitar that reminded me of Santana. The way in which Monae manipulates her voice and changes her accent throughout the album also calls our attention to the codes and meaning we associate with singing styles and accents. In “Faster” her accent is British, and she also switches into an American accent halfway through the song, then goes back to the British accent. These changes function by signifying two distinctly different voices. “Tightrope” has a decidedly jazzy and soulful sound, with what sound like trumpets blaring throughout. Other songs, like “Oh Maker” sound like they’re from a musical. In “Wondaland,” Monae again plays with her voice and sounds like an android, or something mechanical and programmed.

Listening closely to The ArchAndroid made me realize that even when we don’t recognize exactly where something comes from, or what musical references a song or an artist is making, we still recognize that there are different styles embedded in songs. Monae’s album is interesting because  she combines these styles and makes musical references, and even changes her voice and accent in novel ways.

Works Cited

Navas, Eduardo. “Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture, 2010 Revision, by Eduardo Navas.” Remix Theory. N.p., 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://remixtheory.net/?p=444>.

Navas, Eduardo. “Remix: The Bond of Repetition and Representation, by Eduardo Navas.” Remix Theory. N.p., 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://remixtheory.net/?p=361>.

Ross, Alex. “The Record Effect,” The New Yorker, June 6, 2005.