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Wednesday, September 9 10:00 - 10:30am (Live Discussion of Asynchronous Stream)

Cruising Youthtopias

  • Order, Joy, Youth: Parade Aesthetics in Popular Music, Alex Reed (Ithaca College)
  • Mask Off: Future, Trap Music, and Aesthetic Nihilism in Black Pop, Dallas Donnell (U of Maryland)

Presentation Descriptions 

Order, Joy, Youth: Parade Aesthetics in Popular Music, Alex Reed (Ithaca College)

This talk identifies in popular music the concept of parade aesthetics. Connecting such far-flung acts as Funky 4 + 1, The Polyphonic Spree, and They Might Be Giants, parade aesthetics perform the conflation of order, joy, and youth.

Parade aesthetics underlie our childhood desire to form "clubs" whose only purpose is to exist. Adults experience them as camp or even cynicism, but young audiences—especially the very young—behold a promise of belonging and instrumentalized purpose. Thus the sounds and images drive a wedge between jaded grownups and kids-at-heart. Parade aesthetics are paramilitary but almost never based in institutional realism; instead they celebrate an imagined utopia. And so they more often align with Afrofuturism (e.g. Parliament-Funkadelic), alternate timelines (e.g. Cherry Poppin' Daddies), or twee (e.g. Superorganism) than with fascism. Reveling in childlike pageantry, parade aesthetics declare, "We deserve your recognition because we deserve your recognition." They beckon with the promise that you could be one of us. (For those keeping score, Sontag, Baudrillard, and Butler underpin the theorization.)

Parade aesthetics appear in sound, word, image, costume, choreography, and magnitude. Their hallmarks are opulence, guilelessness, precise interpersonal organization, and variegated unity. Parades are permeable, sweeping observers into participation. To that effect, parade pop often voices pedagogical declamations, offering listeners the first steps toward assimilation. For instance, the Sugar Hill Gang’s line “I’m rapping to the beat” is lesson one in understanding an entire genre.

From 27-member K-pop act Double B to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, the stakes of parade aesthetics in popular music are high and the outcomes are variable. As a final case study, this talk takes an extended look at early hip-hop groups, arguing that their 1980s paradelike appeal to K-5 audiences was instrumental in the music’s explosive growth and longevity.


Mask Off: Future, Trap Music, and Aesthetic Nihilism in Black Pop, Dallas Donnell (U of Maryland) 

Rap star Future is one of the most influential artists of the past ten years, revolutionizing the sound of Trap music and initiating its eventual saturation of the landscape of popular music in the post-Obama era. Trap’s ostensibly nihilistic outlook is often accused of having an unhealthy influence on Black youth. However, a deeper reading of Future’s work reveals a complex disidentification with nihilism, toward a larger critique of the social structure.

I call this approach aesthetic nihilism, an artistic strategy that allows Black artists to disidentify with nihilism by operating within a black nihilistic worldview—affirming its legitimacy as an understandable response to anti-blackness—but with recognition that nihilism itself is an ineffective method for liberation. Aesthetic nihilism is not an endorsement of apathy, hopelessness, or withdrawal; it reflects the persistence of anti-blackness—and the ineffectiveness of both Civil Rights era tactics like marching and voting, and Obama-era visions of "hope" and "change”—and demands more aggressive, confrontational tactics to truly change the social structure. Future’s recordings are aesthetically nihilistic explorations of self-destruction as an understandable attempt to cope with white supremacy, anti-blackness, and the memory of racial trauma.

Aesthetically nihilistic Black music is always controversial. However, from Robert Johnson to The Notorious B.I.G., black nihilism is ever present in black music because it is an ever-present question in the sociopolitical lives of black people. When we apply aesthetic nihilism as a theoretical lens—embracing seemingly nihilistic Black music not as an aberration but as a corroboration of a collective reality—it becomes a powerful tool for engaging with Black youth on terrain that is real to them, and with a language and framework that honors their creativity and cultural and artistic agency, and strengthens their ability to grapple with Black suffering, rather than accept it as an inescapable truth.