Robin James - USA

Chill Pop, Feminine Excess & Lemonade’s Demonic Calculus:
“Harmony” as an Ideal in the 21st Century


I argue that neoliberalism updates the ancient Greek of sophrosyne–translated as moderation, self-mastery, and harmony–and consider how it plays out in contemporary global corporate Top 40. The first part of the talk considers “chill” as a pop music aesthetic that, like ancient Greek notions of sophrosyne, institutes a patriarchal relation of gender subordination. Comparing the song structure and critical response to Harry Styles’s “Sign of the Times” to more “chill” recent chart-toppers by The Chainsmokers and Ed Sheeran, I argue that “chill” feminizes enthusiasm and excess.

The second part of the talk uses geographer Katherine McKittrick’s idea of “demonic calculus” to interpret Beyonce’s 2016 visual album Lemonade. McKittrick offers “demonic calculus” as a “mathematics of black life,” a kind of math that avoids the relations of subordination that contemporary algorithmic culture uses to produce and maintain blackness as social death. The songwriting strategies in “6 Inch” and “Formation” exhibit aspects of demonic calculus, and, as such, offer an ethics and aesthetics that rejects the relations of subordination that rationalize “chill” moderation.