I'm Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music
I'm Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music

I'm Not Like Everybody Else: Biopolitics, Neoliberalism, and American Popular Music

by Jeffrey T. Nealon

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Despite the presence of the Flaming Lips in a commercial for a copier and Iggy Pop’s music in luxury cruise advertisements, Jeffrey T. Nealon argues that popular music has not exactly been co-opted in the American capitalist present. Contemporary neoliberal capitalism has, in fact, found a central organizing use for the values of twentieth-century popular music: being authentic, being your own person, and being free. In short, not being like everybody else.

Through a consideration of the shift in dominant modes of power in the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from what Michel Foucault calls a dominant “disciplinary” mode of power to a “biopolitical” mode, Nealon argues that the modes of musical “resistance” need to be completely rethought and that a commitment to musical authenticity or meaning—saying “no” to the mainstream—is no longer primarily where we might look for music to function against the grain.

Rather, it is in the technological revolutions that allow biopolitical subjects to deploy music within an everyday set of practices (MP3 listening on smartphones and iPods, streaming and downloading on the internet, the background music that plays nearly everywhere) that one might find a kind of ambient or ubiquitous answer to the “attention capitalism” that has come to organize neoliberalism in the American present. In short, Nealon stages the final confrontation between “keepin’ it real” and “sellin’ out.”


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496208651
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Series: Provocations Series
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 991,498
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

​Jeffrey T. Nealon is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of several books, including Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and Its Intensifications since 1984 and Post-Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism.

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Biopower Blues

In Foucault's career there is a well-known shift between his work on disciplinary institutions and power (culminating in Discipline and Punish [1975], an exhaustive history of the prison as the central institution of disciplinary power) and his late work on sexuality, wherein he introduces a mutation in modes of modern power. According to Foucault, a new form called biopower (with its primary operating system of sexuality) is born in nineteenth-century Europe and gradually becomes dominant in the twentieth. While we will eventually delve more deeply into this mutation from discipline to biopower, just to begin with the most obvious opening example, think of the shifts in Western economic production over the past one hundred years or so from a factory economy of discipline (everyone trained to master his or her segment of the mass-production process) to the supposedly creative capitalism of our day (which is all about individual empowerment and niche markets: lifestyles, innovation, creativity, and identity). Today the dominant mode of economic production entails producing any given person's life and lifestyle, not mass-producing identical objects; in fact, niche-market consumption is oftentimes ideally refined to a market of one: "Welcome to Amazon.com, Jeffrey. We have some suggestions for you." Lifestyle purchasing is the primary economic driver in a neoliberal finance economy, and that form of hyperconsumption is dependent on constant biopolitical innovation. (This, for example, explains why China is relocating masses of its population, around 250 million people, from the rural countryside into prefab cities: to unleash the power of the Chinese consumer.)

As I intimate above, popular music has had a linchpin place in shifting emphasis from a society of rigid disciplinary training to an aspirational society of individual lifestyle goals and desires. In 1976 Vacláv Havel summed up the global distinctions between a dominant discipline and an emergent biopower in terms of Western rock music, or more precisely, in terms of the Communist regime's attempts to ban rock music in Eastern Europe. What you see in that drama of the repressive state versus popular music, as Havel writes, is not "two differing political forces or conceptions, but two differing conceptions of life. On the one hand, there was the sterile Puritanism of the post-totalitarian establishment and, on the other hand, unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership."

Here Havel lays out concisely the biopolitical importance of popular music within a disciplinary framework: pop music's function is not merely entertainment. Rather, listening to popular music goes all the way into the tall grass surrounding differing conceptions of "life" itself: whether life is all about doing your disciplinary part for the greater good of the state and the authorities (society understood as an assembly line, each with his or her own job in the factory that is the nation) or whether your individual rights to happiness and freedom trump everything else — a biopolitical world where all people would be allowed and even encouraged to "sing the songs that were relevant to their lives." Music's role in this gradual and uneven shift from discipline to biopower likewise helps explain why American parents over the twentieth century have been dependably outraged by the supposedly profligate qualities of popular music shifts throughout the years: jazz, swing, crooners, bebop, rock 'n' roll, soul, punk, disco, rap, grunge, and hip-hop. Each of these new movements was received with suspicion precisely because popular music consumption is heavily associated with an individualist, identity-based, biopolitical economy ("doing your own thing," as they used to say) and a concomitant shift away from the disciplinary imperatives of getting with the program: from discipline to biopower.

In his lecture courses touching on the concept of biopower (Society Must Be Defended and The Birth of Biopolitics), Foucault discusses the ways in which an emergent biopower might differ from the disciplinary mode of power (which aims at modifying individual behaviors and is always mediated through institutions). As Foucault explains in his 1975–76 lecture course Society Must Be Defended, biopower comprises

a new technology of power, but this time it is not disciplinary. This technology of power does not exclude the former, does not exclude disciplinary technology, but it does dovetail into it, integrate it, modify it to some extent, and above all, use it by sort of infiltrating it, embedding itself in existing disciplinary techniques. This new technique does not simply do away with the disciplinary technique, because it exists at a different level, on a different scale, and because it has a different bearing area, and makes use of very different instruments. Unlike discipline, which is addressed to bodies, the new non-disciplinary power is applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being.

As Foucault insists, this new form of biopolitical power doesn't simply replace discipline but extends and intensifies the reach and scope of power's effects by freeing them from the disciplinary focus on "man-as-body" through the "exercise" of training carried out within various institutions.

Biopower, one might say, radically expands the scale of power's sway: by moving beyond discipline's "retail" emphasis on training individual bodies at linked institutional sites (family, school, church, army, factory, hospital), biopower enables an additional kind of "wholesale" saturation of power effects, distributing these effects throughout the entire social field. What Foucault calls this "different scale" and much larger "bearing area" for the practices of power make it possible for biopower to produce more continuous effects, because one's whole life (one's identity, sexuality, diet, health) is saturated by power's effects rather than power relying upon particular training functions carried out in the discontinuous domain of X or Y institution (dealing with health in the clinic, diet at the supermarket and the farm, sexuality in the family and at the nightclub, and so on). Hence, biopower works primarily to extend and intensify the reach of power's effects: not everyone has a shared disciplinary or institutional identity (as a soldier, mother, nurse, student, or politician), but everyone does have an investment in biopolitical categories like sexuality, health, or quality of life — our own, as well as our community's.

Discipline forged an enabling link between subjective aptitude and docility: as Foucault concisely puts it in Discipline and Punish, the disciplinary body becomes "more obedient as it becomes more useful." For its part, biopower forges an analogous enabling link, but this time between the individual's life and the workings of the socius: one might say we become more "obedient" to neoliberal, biopolitical imperatives the more we become ourselves, insofar as the only thing that we as biopolitical subjects have in common is that we're all individuals, charged with the task of creating and maintaining our lives. And that biopower-saturated task is performed not solely at scattered institutional sites (as it was for discipline) but virtually everywhere, all the time, across the entirety of our lives. That being the case, the major difference between discipline and biopower is that in a biopolitical society, power no longer primarily has what we might call a "mediated" relation that is aimed at confining or rigidly defining individuals (which is to say, power is not primarily doled out through institutional training as much as it is a question of direct access to one's life or lifestyle). Foucault describes the biopolitical society as a world "in which the field is left open to fluctuating processes, ... in which action is brought to bear on the rules of the game rather than on the players, and finally in which there is an environmental type of intervention instead of the internal subjugation of individuals." The bearing area of disciplinary power is what you can do, and it's primarily invested in training at a series of institutional sites. Through a kind of intensification of discipline, the bearing area of biopower has morphed into your entire life — even your taste in music — and thereby biopower's relation to any given individual tends to be less mediated by institutional factors and instead constitutes a more "environmental," diffuse, and engulfing (one might even call it "ambient") form of power.

Transversally connected to this shift in dominant modes of power, the role of music — popular or otherwise — mutates in the transition from the disciplinary society of institutional training to a biopolitical society of identity. A disciplinary society composes itself through a series of linked and segmented institutional enclosures: those sites of graduated training conjured in the Godfathers' great song, "Birth, School, Work, Death." Idealized middleclass American teenagers of my era, for example, would wake up in the family home and, after eating a bowl of sugary cereal poured from a box featuring a tiger or a leprechaun, ride the bus to school, where all day they'd get training in the disciplines of reading, writing, and arithmetic, alongside more subtle but pervasive training in social hierarchy and obedience to authority. Then they'd go to their after-school job or sport-steam practice (more training, more authority) before finally returning home to watch three networks of largely awful and identical television programming, one-third of which was composed of advertisements (a different kind of training, to be sure, but discipline nonetheless). They'd do their homework (the disciplinary apparatus of schoolwork intersecting with the disciplinary apparatus of the home) and then repeat it all the next day.

In such a world, at least as this disciplinary subject experienced it, popular music played a largely resistant role: while the world of popular music circa the late 1970s was in retrospect training of a sort (in hip consumerism, in taste-making, in negotiating a social "scene"), music collecting and listening was nevertheless largely something that happened in the interstices of everyday life's institutional, disciplinary compulsions. You couldn't listen to Led Zeppelin alongside your institutional training — not at school, at work, or at baseball practice. And even listening at home entailed headphones plugged into the stereo because my parents hated that stuff. Listening to popular music in the disciplinary era tended, in other words, to take you out of the enclosed economies of disciplinary training and give you a certain amount of time to yourself, or at least gave you a respite from the drudgeries of a seemingly nonstop series of disciplinary architectures and tasks. In your room, at a party, in the car, in the interval spaces between institutions — that's where music could function against the grain, offering at least a momentary buffer: the raised fist of a Bruce Springsteen tune, the funky soul of James Brown, the girl power of the Runaways, or the wallowing negativity of Pink Floyd. Surely there was music out there within the institutions of the disciplinary world (at the grocery store or mall, at work, or on the AM car radio in the form of jingles written for commercials), but that music largely included sugary pop tunes and neo-Muzak, designed to assuage (rather than to explore or intensify) the very feelings of anger, isolation, and anxiety inevitably drummed up by the enclosures of the disciplinary society.

Fast-forward to the biopolitical society of today, where on a recent trip to the grocery store I heard Bad Company's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" playing over the sounds of wobbling shopping cart wheels. And this was at the downscale grocery in town. (At the more upscale Wegmans, I recently heard the National's "Fake Empire" — "We're half-awake / in a fake empire" — which is a song explicitly designed to intensify feelings of isolation and anxiety and thereby one would think a poor accompaniment to choosing between the Oreos and the Hydrox.) And it's not just at the grocery store. In a surprising turn (at least it's very surprising to me), during the decades since my disciplinary childhood, the antidisciplinary popular music of my youth (now rebranded as "classic rock") has become the Muzak of our day, to be heard everywhere from the dentist's office and the home-repair store all the way to TV and radio advertisements for any product you can imagine. Indeed, while up-tempo ditties and sincere smiles were advertising's bread and butter in the disciplinary society (sunny housewives crooning, "Don't cook tonight / call Chicken Delight"), in the biopolitical society you can hardly move a product without a rebellious rock soundtrack coupled with an ironic wink and a nod. For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken somewhat oddly used classic-rock staple "Sweet Home Alabama" as its theme song in a 2005–6 ad campaign (odd because it's not Alabama Fried Chicken, but perhaps Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman" was unavailable for use). Clearly, the Colonel wanted to use the song to highlight his chicken's rebellious streak and its proud southern heritage, even if Alabama is not exactly Kentucky.

And while the rise of disco, punk, new wave, grunge, hip-hop, indie, and rap since the 1970s did much to change the sound of the sixties-inspired rock canon, each of these musical formations, at some level, merely built on the antidisciplinary "me versus the Man" logic of 1960s and '70s popular music — the importance of being your own person, flipping the boss the bird, taking it to the streets, having fun, saying it loud. And this antinomian "personal authenticity" stance of popular music fans has become, for better or worse, the official house style of American biopolitical capitalism in the twenty-first century.

When it comes to linking the logic of biopower with the logic of popular music, the connection is perhaps nowhere more succinctly stated than in David Hesmondhalgh's Why Music Matters. He offers this concise response to his titling query:

The fact that music matters so much to so many people may derive from two contrasting yet complementary dimensions of musical experience in modern societies. The first is that music often feels intensely and emotionally linked to the private self ... music is a set of cultural practices that have come to be intricately bound up with the realm of the personal and the subjective. ... The second is that music is often the basis of collective, public experiences, whether in live performance, mad dancing at a party, or simply by virtue of the fact that thousands and sometimes millions of people can come to know the same sounds and performers.

Much against the grain of his own highly optimistic humanist premises (the book argues that music matters because it helps facilitate what Hesmondhalgh calls "human flourishing," a phenomenon that one might less generously dub the "great extinction event that is the Anthropocene"), he does at least make it clear why music matters to a world where biopower is the dominant mode of power: if biopower strives to connect individual lives and identities seamlessly to mass demographic patterns, then we can see more easily music's privileged status as a kind of operating system for biopower. Music "matters," as Hesmondhalgh so clearly shows us, because it's a set of intimately and deeply personal investments, yet at the same time it's a mass social phenomenon. In any case, that's the biopolitical magic: "Music, then, represents a remarkable meeting point of intimate and social realms. It provides a basis for self-identity (this is who I am, this is who I'm not) and collective identity (this is who we are, this is who we're not), often in the same moment." Insofar as "music's seemingly special link to emotions and feelings makes it an especially powerful site for the bringing together of private and public experience," that fact likewise makes music a privileged operator within a regime of biopower. In his essay on "Music and Identity," Simon Frith restates the biopolitical claim succinctly: "Identity is not a thing but a process — an experiential process which is most vividly grasped as music. Music seems to be a key to identity because it offers, so intensely, a sense of both self and others, of the subjective in the collective."


Steal Your Face

There is no better way to illustrate the difference between a society of discipline and one of biopower than by looking at the reception of popular music in the twentieth century. Specifically, I'd like to call attention to a 1967 CBS special report (available on YouTube) hosted by the aptly named Harry Reasoner, where American viewers were warned about a growing youth menace in San Francisco, "The Hippie Temptation" (the temptation there being the hippie lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll). Reasoner's prime examples for this special report were (who else?) the Grateful Dead, who are seen sitting around their Haight-Ashbury commune house smoking cigarettes (and God knows what else), playing songs, and talking peace, love, and mind expansion — with the middle-aged CBS guy in a suit playing the straight-man heavy with real verve. I encourage you to watch the whole clip on YouTube, but I'd like to begin by zeroing in on the moment when the interviewer asks the Dead what they hope to accomplish by nonparticipation in mainstream social life as we knew it in the 1960s. Why not get with the disciplinary society? Get a job, get married, start a family, grow up, dammit! Various members of the Dead reply by insisting they don't want to "accomplish" anything — they just want to live free from interference by the Man, which will of course later become the mass-individualizing mantra of biopolitics. As Reasoner notes, the hippies exemplified by the Dead "do not want" the existing disciplinary identities (worker, family member, citizen, soldier) that "our civilization" offers them, "except on their own terms"; they recognize the immense problems of society, but "their remedy is to withdraw into private satisfactions," which Reasoner concludes is the "greatest waste of all." The whole thing is pretty funny, in retrospect, and it even reminds us that Jerry Garcia didn't always have a beard. (I'd always assumed he was born with one.)


Excerpted from "I'm Not Like Everybody Else"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Biopower Blues
2. Steal Your Face
3. Not for Sale
4. A Genealogy of Popular Music and Authenticity; or, You Can Fake the Funk
5. Good Rockin’ Tonite
6. Musical Community, from In- to Excorporation
7. Capitalism, from Meaning to Usage
8. In the Mood
9. Will There Be Music
10. Bourdieu, Bourdon’t
11. Everywhere, All the Time

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