This is a slightly expanded cross-post from Its Her Factory.
The Chainsmokers’ song “Selfie” is the new novelty song that everyone (or, almost everyone) loves to hate. In this Fact Magazine critics roundup, the song is called everything from “a low point…even for EDM,” to the one thing worse than the “arena-bound, taurine-fuelled, optimised-for-raging EDM” that the song nominally parodies. It seems like everyone hates it because they think it embodies what one might interpret as Tiqqun’s “Young Girl,” the ideal subject of neoliberal capitalism, human capital itself–or at least, the song gives voice to who we derisively imagine that ideal neoliberal subject to be: the vapid, selfie-obsessed young woman who is only concerned with amping up her value (her “likes” on Instagram) and her enjoyment (or her male/bro equivalent).
Is all the derision targeted at what the song’s about? Or do people dislike it because of how it sounds? Or both?
I want to leave aside, at least for a moment, what the song is about and focus on how it sounds, how it works as a piece of music. Maybe a better understanding of the music will give us a more nuanced grasp of “#Selfie”’s lyrical and visual content, and people’s reactions to that content.
The song is basically a combination of (a) a ripoff of the treble synth riff, cued up here, from LMFAO’s 2011 “Party Rock Anthem” and (b) the soar from Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” The LMFAO rip is first audible in the very beginning of the song, and the Soar (the soar is: (1) the Zeno’s-paradox style rhythmic intensification up to and past the limit of our ability to hear distinct rhythmic events + (2) the measure of instrumental silence with the “but first, let me take a selfie” vocal + (3) the “hit” or drop on the following downbeat) you hear starting here:
So, musically, the song regurgitates two, well, old megahits. “Party Rock Anthem” and “Gangnam Style” are not fresh or trendy–they’re worn out, too young to be retro but too old to be hot. Though the song’s soar would not have been out of place in, say 2012, most contemporary EDM pop uses a much more restrained, less exaggerated and crassly maximalist soar. (Think, for example, of the soar in Calvin Harris’s most recent single, “Summer.” Compared to his 2012 “We Found Love,” the soar in “Summer” sounds refined and demur.) Compared to its contemporaries on the pop and dance charts, “Selfie” sounds both backwards and vulgar (both excessive and common). But this is the point: it’s a parody song. It’s not designed to sound “good.” It’s presenting us a caricature of EDM at its supposed worst, much in the same way that “Spaceballs” parodies late 20th c space operas, or “Scream” parodies horror films. This raises the question: if you’re making a parody EDM track to skewer mainstream EDMC (EDM culture), why make that song about selfies? If the Chainsmokers were looking for some lyrical content to compliment their sonic caricature, why choose the so-called “selfie” as this compliment? Why is the selfie–or what the song presents as a selfie (which, like the musical content, is likely a caricature of ‘selfie’ practice)–the best content to compliment this sonic caricature?
I’ll get back to that question later. For now, I want to stay focused on the music. First, it’s interesting how the refrain “but first, let me take a selfie” serves in place of the scream or silence or other sonic shock that precedes the drop. For example, in a lot of brosteppy songs, the drop is immediately preceded by some sort of distorted, disruptive vocal–”bangarang” in Skrillex’s “Bangarang,” “tsunami” in DVBBS’s “Tusanmi,” you get the idea. I like to think of that vocal disruption as analogous to the “shock” in shock capitalism: in the same way that a tsunami wipes out civilization and prepares it for redevelopment, the sonically distorted “tsunami” interrupts the flow of the song and prepares listeners to experience the reintroduction of order (the ‘hit’ on the next downbeat) as even more intensely pleasurable. The idea is that this apparent disruption isn’t actually disruptive–the shock is not an end, but a necessary first step. Why, then, would a girl taking a selfie be so (apparently, but not actually) disruptive? Why does the girl selfie need to seem like a disruption? Who benefits from–where’s the profit or surplus value in–the perception that girl selfies are disruptive?
Perhaps the answer to these questions is this: the devaluation of girl-selfies as disruptive is what makes other kinds of human capital appear both more valuable and less disruptive/violent/appropriative/etc. In the same way that the song’s hook and soar are too crass and unsophisticated for anything but the dumbest and most mainstream of EDM listeners, are selfies just too crass and unsophisticated a means of human-capital building? I mean, anyone can take a selfie, but not everyone can, say, take an unpaid internship, get plastic surgery, lose weight, quit smoking, etc. Or, perhaps in the same way gendered devaluations of pop music give “classic” or “intelligent” music its (gendered) value, the devaluation of girl-selfie-capital gives more sophisticated kinds of human capital its worth. (As musicologist Susan Cook argues, “the ‘popular’ gives the ‘classical’ its worth; the ‘classical’ is worthwhile only if the ‘popular’ is worthless” (141).)
So, that’s the song. But the video is also very interesting. It’s basically a montage of fan selfies. That in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy. However, the fans’ participation in the video was an explicit and intentional marketing decision. As Liv Buli notes in her Forbes.com article, this participatory (what art historians and aestheticians would call “relational”) strategy
creates a personal connection between the video and the fan, ensuring that not only would there a built-in audience for the video, but that there would be the added imperative to share. “It is social engineering to an effect,” says Luckett. [one of the Chainsmokers]
The Chainsmokers and their managers wanted to make a hit record; and, given the way the music industry measures hits, the best way to make a hit record, apparently, is to make a viral video. And the best way to make a viral video is to build in fan participation.  The article notes that the duo also take this approach to their music: they encourage remixes and samples because that contributes to the, erm, virality or clout, I guess, of their original. Thing is, it’s a lot easier to take a selfie than it is to remix an entire pop song. So, it seems like the way to maximize fan participation is to find the media to which fans have the most mastery and access.
I’m obviously rather pleased that this seems to support my argument here that music is coincidental to contemporary music industries and mainstream consumption practices. But at this point I also have a number of other questions:
What’s the relationship between virality as an industry strategy (or a ‘mode of production’), on the one hand, and relational aesthetics or social practice, on the other? (Has anyone written on this?)
- Is listening as an aesthetic practice or leisure activity getting disarticulated from other aspects of mainstream music fandom and the music industry? Maybe not. But regardless, what’s the role of listening in an aesthetic and an economy that de-centers the musical work and musical experience?
 Buli’s article begins by noting that “#Selfie” is the most viral of all viral music videos to date: “The EDM duo currently ranks as the most viral act on YouTube, both in terms of plays and new subscribers over the past 90 days. They are all over Soundcloud, trail 5 Seconds of Summer for most viral on Wikipedia in the past 90 days, and have the fifth largest percentage increase in US radio spins of all artists in the last month.” So there’s something measurably, perhaps even qualitatively different about the kind of virality it exhibits.
Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj