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10: Dr Robin James, vibes philosopher

10: Dr Robin James, vibes philosopher

On algorithmic listening, independent radio and the alt-rock to alt-right pipeline.

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One reason we started No Tags was to have conversations that could go beyond the usual discourse on Techno Twitter and crack into some of the big ideas that help us make sense of a changing culture.

Cue Dr Robin James, a philosopher of sound studies whose shrewd Twitter presence and frequently updated blog, It’s Her Factory, are reliable sources of galaxy-brain takes on the ins and outs of pop music discourse, from Taylor Swift Studies to “Brexit techno” (she’s a Perc fan).

After reading her spicy take on the news that Pitchfork is to be absorbed into GQ, we asked Robin to share some of her recent thinking on the forces that are changing how we listen to music, as well as introducing us to her book about American radio, The Future of Rock & Roll: 97X WOXY and the Fight for True Independence.

We talked about her philosophy of “vibes” and what playlists like Pollen say about our algorithm-driven culture. We talked about the corporate takeover of US radio and how one Ohio station stood its ground in the face of blandification. We talked about the connections between ‘90s alt-rock and the 2020s manosphere. We talked about Dude Wipes.

Robin also gifted us with a killer playlist of six pivotal songs from the heyday of 97X WOXY. Scroll down through the transcript and open up this message in your browser to get the complete experience.

Before we begin – a quick reminder to please share No Tags with all your most relevant and influential friends. Don’t worry, you’ll always be our favourites.

Chal Ravens: Maybe a good place to start is to outline what sound studies is, because I think if you're not in that world it might not be obvious why it would be different to music, or philosophy of music.

Robin James: Sound studies emerged as an academic discipline around the turn of the millennium. It was really people researching [the idea that] music is only one type of sound that exists in the world. There's many different kinds of sound studies. I was just reading a book the other day about the history of airport noise.

Chal Ravens: Not like Music for Airports?1

Robin James: No, like people complaining about jet noise in their homes. Or there's another scholar who studies noise-cancelling technologies, or other people work on tinnitus. There are sounds out there in the world that aren't musical, and they have meanings and histories and politics. Sound studies looks at musical and extra-musical sounds from a kind of cultural studies perspective.

Chal Ravens: I guess part of that is a corrective to our otherwise very visual-heavy culture, isn't it? We often think metaphorically in visual terms as well.

Robin James: Yeah, and visual studies has been a discipline for a long time, not just in art history. But you're right that it was a corrective. More recently than the advent of sound studies there's been a turn towards the affective and the haptic, so scholars are continually looking at modes of sensation that have been ignored or considered less complicated than vision. And I think sound was really one of the first places that the scholarship turned. I know there's people working on smell and taste now.

Chal Ravens: That's a good overview. So I thought we'd talk about vibes. The idea of vibe is quite central to dance music in particular, and I know that you are a dance music fan. Because it's not just about music – dance music is about the space and the general atmosphere and the people that you bump into, maybe the effect that substances are having people. There are so many things that create a vibe. We're also living in a sort of vibe-based time – we've just gone through a vibe shift, apparently. A lot of memes are about vibe: no thoughts, just vibes. And I find myself saying it all the time. So when did you first start thinking about vibes as a philosopher?

Robin James: I was really interested in streaming service playlists that were curated on the basis of vibe or mood rather than genre, and the way that people at the streaming services talked about vibe as somehow superior to genre as a category. Because genre as we know it today was basically invented by the record industry as a way to sell the same music to different race-based market segments. There was hillbilly music and race music, and it would often be the same song performed in two different styles, sold to two different audience segments. So there's this deep sense, and correct sense, that genre is tied to identity in a really central way in the music industry. 

A lot of the thinking around vibe or mood as a musical category is like, classifying people and music by race is bad; vibes don’t do that; therefore, vibes are better. So I was interested in studying how these vibes-based playlists are actually put together. Do they actually transcend things like race and gender? No. [Laughs]

For example, if you look at Spotify's two flagship genreless playlists, Pollen and Lorem. Pollen, if you think about it, kind of says it in the name – pollen is literally male plant DNA, right? And it's very explicitly contrasted to Lorem, which features a lot of indie-based [music] – think Billie Eilish, SZA; kind of softer, more mellow, but more indie. That's definitely oriented at women. Whereas Pollen is more lo-fi hip-hop and features predominantly male artists. Programmers at Spotify claimed that vibes are not as tied to identity as genres are, yet these vibes-based playlists are creating similar race and gender breakdowns that you would see in pop or rock or hip-hop. So that's what first got me interested in this idea of vibe as a musical category.

Chal Ravens: Here's a few things that were in Pollen yesterday: Yaya Bey, John Glacier & Eartheater, Lil Yachty, Four Tet, Bicep, Brittany Howard, Khruangbin, Shygirl & Boyz Noise, Matt Martians, and Erika de Casier. It’s interesting because they’re not the same genre, but as Tom was saying earlier, you look at it and think, yeah, of course they go together.

Tom Lea: It was so instinctive, I just looked at those names and was like, obviously, that makes sense. But actually they're all very different artists. 

Chal Ravens: What can you tell us about how a playlist like this gets put together and how the idea of vibe works to tie these artists together? I feel like you're saying that vibe replaces genre, yet at the same time does the same work as genre.

Robin James: That's exactly it. So you listed off those artists, and I don't know what particular songs from those artists, but they all sort of occupy a similar taste profile. Traditionally, Spotify curated those playlists, right? Vibes-based playlists were sort of geared toward communities. And this is how the data science works – they have personas, which are like ideal user profiles. I could definitely see someone who's into Four Tet, Boyz Noise, Brittany Howard – it's a sort of elite taste profile. People who know about music and are serious about music know about these artists. Another thing I found when I looked at specific songs by all these various artists is that they would all be the most toned-down version of that artist's catalogue.

Chal Ravens: Yeah, I think that's really noticeable.

Robin James: So even though these artists and their brands might be starkly different, they happen to have songs that have similar sonic profiles. One time, probably late 2021 or early 2022, when I was looking at Pollen, one thing I noticed was the near absence of heavy bass or percussion. It might have changed since then, but that was the sonic profile that the tracks exhibited, and they were just looking for tracks with that similar profile across multiple genres.

Chal Ravens: In your work you mention a Spotify playlister who’s explaining that they "curate for culture, rather than genre". You mentioned taste profiles, but what is the culture of Pollen? Is it that Spotify is trying to attract a certain type of demographic? Why do they want this type of person? Tom was pointing out that a lot of the most popular playlists on Spotify are still actually genre playlists, like RapCaviar and Classic Rock.

Tom Lea: Yeah, and a reggaeton one [Baila Reggaeton]. The 10 most popular playlists on Spotify2 are those three and then it's very functional – there's a gym playlist called Beast Mode, one called Songs to Sing in the Car, and the others are just decade-specific. Best of the ‘90s, Best of the ‘80s. I think you're totally on point with what you said about Pollen, but it's interesting to see that Pollen hasn’t cracked the very top tier in terms of Spotify follower count. I wonder if there's a discrepancy there between Spotify building these elite taste personas and what the top tier of playlists is actually saying about why people listen to Spotify.

Robin James: That's a great point, and I think the work of anthropologist Nick Seaver is really helpful here. He did his field work for his book Computing Taste by embedding himself at music streaming tech firms. He studies the people who program the algorithm.

Tom Lea: When you say embedding, he literally worked at those firms?

Robin James: Yeah, he got an internship so [he could do] one-on-one interviews. And what he writes about in his book is that their ideal listener – basically, listeners like themselves, this sort of elite, educated listener – prioritises what Nick Seaver calls ‘avidity’, or the passion for discovery, over everything else. And I think that's what you see in Pollen. There's this sort of broad range of artists across lots of different genres: we're looking for something new and different. And I think that's who Pollen is curated for, it's curated for who the people programming the algorithms and playlists think the most ideal, elite, top listener is. Not your average, everyday [listener].

Tom Lea: You said Pollen is low on heavy bass and low on percussion, so there is a background-y element to it, right? There's almost a modern easy listening aspect to it.

Robin James: Yeah. I was having a conversation with Kelly Hiser, she's a musicologist who now works in tech, and she made the point that [that style] – not a lot of bass, not a lot of active percussion – is perfect to listen to while you're sitting working at a computer.

Chal Ravens: Right, or playing in a café, where it's not gonna bother anyone too much but it's kind of a nice vibe and it feels fresh but not intrusive.

Robin James: Yeah. That playlist is programmed for programmers, or knowledge workers sitting at computers.

Chal Ravens: So you don't think then that Pollen has anything to do with a bottom-line decision at Spotify – “we need this demographic, this is how we get them”? You think it's more like they're feeding their own interests? Or is there an economic imperative here?

Robin James: I think that they would like more people to listen like that. They want you to listen like that because that's how their algorithms model users. One of the interesting things about the vibes-based playlists is that they do to the album format what algorithms do to individual users. When Spotify is keeping track of my likes and clicks and plays, what device I'm listening on, what time of day, that sort of thing, it's breaking me down into sub-individual data points and grouping me with, say, "iPhone users who listen mostly in the morning". Well, that's what these playlists do to albums – they break down the album into its component tracks, and then group tracks with similar profiles together. So getting people to listen in this way basically encourages them to adopt the model of listening behaviour that the algorithm is best suited to studying and capturing.

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Tom Lea: When I was doing some research for this podcast, I kept thinking, where does ‘lo-fi beats to study to’ factor into all of this? It’s a YouTube channel that just rolls live, 24/7, and it launched in 2015 on a channel called Chilled Cow before it rebranded as Lo-Fi Girl. I guess it’s half a vibes playlist and half a genre playlist. Is ‘lo-fi beats’ the Rosetta stone here? Is it something that Spotify was looking at as a case study?

Robin James: I think it's more indicative of a zeitgeist. Part of it has to do with just needing background music for productivity. I mean, if you think about what has happened since 2015, especially in the US and the UK – a lot of stuff, a lot of very concerning stuff. You think about the election of Trump, Brexit, the pandemic… I think in part this is just a productivity strategy for people. It's a privatised solution to structural problems. The pandemic is raging on outside, but you still have to work on Zoom, so listen to this and maybe forget the fact that you can hear the ambulance going to the hospital every five minutes.

I think the emphasis on this kind of chill sound is just a fact of the zeitgeist, as the world is crumbling and we're leaving people to just self-care their way through it. But I think it's also that the economics of streaming mean that the longer that you're tuned in, the better it is for the streaming platform. The longer people keep Chilled Cow on in the background, the more money they make monetising their stream. The longer you stay tethered to Spotify, the more data they're collecting about you to then sell on. So I think there is an economic motivation to to have a sort of frictionless and eternal stream.

Tom Lea: Recently we've seen massive layoffs at Spotify and Tidal, largely in the editorial department. You've written about vibes in terms of the algorithm, and vibes almost treating us as part of the algorithm – we're kind of a piece in it, regardless of whether it is actually curated by humans or not. But I guess we're gonna see those platforms shift even focus further towards algorithmic curation now?

Robin James: One interesting thing to note is that Spotify fired their chief algorithm curator, Glenn McDonald. He was part of those layoffs. And he's really developed most of their data-driven curation strategy, so that was especially interesting.

To restate something said earlier, vibes are how we perceive ourselves the way algorithms perceive us. It's the same model of seeing the world. So when you're programming a playlist for a vibe, you're executing a model in a qualitative way that algorithms execute with numbers. It's like a qualitative and quantitative analogue to each other. It's the same practice. Vibes are more about sense perceptions or feelings, but the algorithm's doing it with data. It'll be interesting to see whether AI factors into all of this. What are they going to do without all these workers?

Tom Lea: Something I was also thinking about with the general idea of vibes… we had the DJ CCL on recently and something they were saying was that although their approach to playing records is more vibe-based than it is genre-based – one of their go-to USB playlists is simply titled ‘Hot, Dark & Horny’ – a lot of the time, they find that crowds just want to hear one specific genre. So I did wonder about the idea of vibes in a clubbing context. Vibes are so intrinsic to a good club night, or a good clubbing experience, but it feels like there's this strange juxtaposition where maybe clubbing is one of the rare situations where people do want something very genre-focused?

Robin James: Mainstream audiences still, I think, largely identify by genre. I mean, the whole controversy about Lil Nas X’s 'Old Town Road' is five years ago, not that long ago. The debate about whether or not that was country was very meaningful and got a lot of press, it involved Billboard and all sorts of things. So I think genre still matters to a lot of listeners, and musicians even. But I think the platforms are the ones driving the idea of vibe as a category. Another one of the interesting things about the rise of vibes is that the idea of vibe – and specifically in the sense of the ambience of a place, and the interaction of the sounds and the smells and the lights and the participants – that has been part of musical cultures for a really long time. But suddenly, capitalism became really interested in that. Think about Vibe magazine, which came out in the ‘90s as part of hip-hop culture when hip-hop was still barely on mainstream radio. ‘Vibe’ had this sort of countercultural purchase. But it doesn't necessarily have that sort of countercultural or independent connotation or effect [now]. We literally have brands selling us ‘vibe’ stuff. And that was another thing that I was curious about. Why was this idea co-opted in this moment? Capitalism is constantly co-opting from underground cultures, but what was it about this particular idea that was useful?

Chal Ravens: You suggest, I think, that it has a lot to do with a shift in economic reality – it connects to the financialisation of everyday life, where vibes have a very obvious economic expression. Could you say a bit about that?

Robin James: When I was first thinking about vibes, I had been reading a lot of work in political economy about how capitalism has extracted as much value as it can out of everything that actually exists. We've colonised the world, we have kids working, that sort of thing. So the only place for it to expand and marketise is in realities that don't exist yet. And recommendation systems are a good example of that. Amazon wants to figure out what you want to buy next. That's a reality that doesn't exist yet. There are financial tools where you can bet on whether or not a stock will gain or lose, so you're trying to predict a future that doesn't currently exist – and then you can trade those bets. So we're basically trying to monetise counterfactual realities, realities that don't exist yet.

Vibes are a way of seeing what is more likely or less likely. Justin Joque has written a book called Revolutionary Mathematics and he talks about how the kinds of mathematical probabilities that algorithms use are explicitly understood by mathematicians as both objective and based in math, but ultimately contain a subjective element which the mathematician brings to it. So, literally, there's math and there's vibes.

Chal Ravens: We'd love to talk about your recent book, The Future of Rock'n'Roll: 97X WOXY and The Fight for True Independence. We're really interested in American radio because it's so completely different to what we have in the UK.

Tom Lea: Obviously the UK has a rich tradition of pirate radio, but it's quite different to independent American radio and college radio. American radio feels like this very mysterious thing to us, and I've certainly never really been able to get a grip on how it works. Is it fair to loop a station like 97X WOXY in with college radio? Is that part of the same kind of spectrum or are they different things altogether?

Robin James: It's a complicated question. It's complicated because things used to be one way and now they have changed. So I'm actually going to start with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, because that's the reason why things were one way and now are another way. In the US, the Telecommunications Act deregulated radio ownership. Radio is mostly privately owned, it's a business in the US. It's not like the BBC and kind of nationally owned. So there used to be a law limiting the number of stations any one business could own in any one market. It basically was trying to prevent monopolies, prevent one company from owning all the stations in a market. In ‘96 that cap was lifted and anybody could own whatever they wanted. You had the rise of what was then called Clear Channel, now called iHeartMedia. They bought up stations everywhere and then started piping syndicated programming to the same stations in Chicago, Des Moines, Los Angeles. It was kind of like the big box store-ification of radio. 

That was the big shift, because before the Telecom Act there were a lot of small, independently owned radio stations. WOXY was literally a family business. It was run by two people who were married, they owned it and that was their one business. That was kind of the model of independent radio that they had. You also have nonprofit independent radio, and there's a certain spectrum of the FM signal that's reserved for that – I think it's 88 through 92 which is reserved for nonprofits. College radio would be an example of that, community radio would be another example of that. We have national public radio here, which is not government-owned but it's basically listener-funded, so it's like a national nonprofit radio. So those all exist down at the bottom of the dial, and then everything else is commercially owned. It used to be the case that there was a lot more diversity in that ownership, but in the last 20 or 30 years it's really become just the huge players, like CBS or iHeartMedia, just having really generic syndicated content across the nation. So that's kind of the picture of radio in the US.

Tom Lea: Clearly, stations like WOXY and various college radio stations were super important and had a ton of influence. Were those stations drowned out by the main players after that? Did independent radio's influence in the US wane after 1996?

Robin James: In part. There's another complicating factor. It basically became impossible for small business people to get into the radio game after the Telecom Act. They were just priced out of the market. That's possibly changing now, as radio stations aren't as valuable as they used to be. But right now, yeah, radio is unattainable to your average not-mega-corporation. I think of, like, Rinse FM in the UK – that would be really difficult to do in the US for other regulatory reasons. The only way that streaming radio is really affordable here is if you're also simulcasting on an FM broadcast, because you pay different royalty rates if you're broadcasting on the FM or just online only. You pay more for an online-only broadcast than you do for an FM signal that you simulcast online.

Tom Lea: Which feels backwards, right?

Robin James: Yeah. So there's another US law, it's called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that was passed in the [late ‘90s and] early 2000s. In theory it was supposed to help pay artists more fairly, but in practice it made it harder for smaller broadcasters to exist in the online-only space. And that's a really huge challenge in the US context for independent radio, because if people could just broadcast online and pay FM royalty rates, I think there'd be a lot more activity.

Chal Ravens: So coming back to WOXY, what kind of station was this? You draw a distinction between a modern rock station and an alternative station, which sound like they would play all the same stuff, but... tell us a bit about WOXY and what made it a special station.

Robin James: So WOXY was, we think, the fifth or sixth modern rock station in the US. It adopted the format in 1983, at first basically copying the playlist of Los Angeles's KROQ, which was the first North American modern rock station. It did that because the signal reached parts of three different markets but didn't cover all of any of the markets, so the station couldn't be sold to advertisers purely in terms of ratings. The ratings were always low because they were divided across three different cities' markets. So the station had to be really creative – how do we package ourselves so that advertisers understand what we are?

And that format allowed them to really focus on the educated listener, the listener who wanted new and different things. They played more different songs in a day than just about any other station in that format. They adopted this format in the ‘80s, and throughout the ‘90s they continued to play that same sort of mix that we would characterise as modern rock. That includes guitar-focused acts, like maybe Peter Murphy's 'Cuts You Up', the first mega hit on the Modern Rock Billboard chart. But there was also Pet Shop Boys, Tracy Chapman, there was a lot of dance music. I got into dance music by listening to WOXY's dance music programme – I remember as a kid hearing L.A. Style's 'James Brown is Dead' and just being like, “This is amazing.” So a real variety of underground musics.

WOXY continued to program their station like that throughout the ‘90s as alternative rock became more narrow, white guys with guitars, as it devolved into Nickelback and Limp Bizkit and stuff like that. So that's kind of how WOXY came to prominence. It resisted the dumbing down of alternative rock. Chris Molanphy calls it the bro-ification of modern rock3

But WOXY grew to international prominence because they started simulcasting their FM signal online in 1998. They really became a leader in that modern rock space because they were one of the first stations that you could hear anywhere, as long as you had – well, you probably had to have a desktop at that time. They were also, we think, the first station to go from FM to online-only broadcast. So a lot of innovation. But what was special about the station, as I argue in the book, and what allowed them to be so different and so innovative, is that they were really defined by this value of independence, which they understood in a particular way.

Over here in the US, the common sense notion of independence would be 'independence from' – for example, from Britain. “I don't have to do what anybody else tells me to do, I'm independent from my mother,” or whatever. But what I argue in the book is that WOXY understood independence as something that you had to do as part of a community, like an 'independence to' play all sorts of different kinds of weird music. Keep in mind, this station is based in rural Ohio. If you're familiar with J. D. Vance, the right-wing politician...

Chal Ravens: Oh yeah, the Hillbilly Elegy guy4.

Robin James: WOXY was based in the same county that he grew up in. Red state land.

Chal Ravens: I wonder if he listened. Now he's not in that headspace, I guess!

Robin James: It's entirely likely. He could have gotten the signal at his house. We're about the same age and I grew up in the next town over from him, so he lived in between the station and me. Like, that's how I learned about grime, by listening to this station. It's broadcasting all this, from a US context, very niche, innovative new music in the middle of Ohio, because it had this really dedicated community of listeners. There was really this sense that in order to be independent, to do innovative new things, you have to serve a community, because the community is what will support you in doing what is new and different. A

I think that idea and practice of independence is going to be the only thing that can rescue the music industry in its current state. I mean, we all know the myriad problems going on for artists, for labels, for anyone trying to operate independently. We have to be thinking of communal solutions and solutions where we all work together. I don't make this point in the book but I have said it elsewhere – if you think about the paradigmatic DIY music scene, the punk scene in the ‘70s, it existed in conditions of robust social democracy. You had the NHS...

Chal Ravens: The dole. Free art school.

Robin James: These people were squatting, they were getting welfare, they had healthcare taken care of, they could go to school if they wanted to, for free. That's what made that sort of independence possible. One of the things that's really hard today about being an independent creative person is paying your rent.

Chal Ravens: I'm curious about how the station was making its money. Rural area, dispersed listenership, very specific type of listener, presumably college-educated or something, maybe they're listening to this after they've been to college, maybe not. But WOXY are presumably making money through advertising – so what are the adverts? Who is advertising?

Robin James: All sorts of different kinds of people. Think of it more on the model of small town business. The local grocery, the Oxford Kroger Save-On. There was a veterinarian who ran ads, the local McDonald's ran ads. So it was really local businesses.

Chal Ravens: I bet you remember the jingles.

Robin James: Yeah. There's a famous jingle for Frank Eavey, the Rock and Roll Grocer. They literally just took the Ramones' 'Rock 'N’ Roll High School' – "Rock-rock, rock-rock, rock n’ roll" – and just cut this guy in saying "GROCER".

Chal Ravens: We can talk about the need for interdependence and a communal attitude to the music we're making, but some people do have to stump up some cash somewhere along the way to keep the wheels turning. It's funny to think of WOXY being actually part of small town life in this area, that you can advertise your local business on this otherwise kind of niche station. That's something that's really hard to imagine for now. It's very hard to advertise anything that's locally targeted in that way.

Robin James: Well, everything's personally targeted now. I did a deep dive into whatever listener data I could find, and I found a list of people who won tickets to Lollapalooza '94. The addresses were from all different socioeconomic areas. There's listener data showing everyone from a customer service representative to an auto mechanic, a local bus driver. The listenership wasn't the sort of stereotypical college radio listener, who you would think of as being middle class, educated, with lots of cultural capital. It really was just all over the place. I would say it was an outlier in that way.

I think part of how it had that appeal is that one of the station's taglines was 'corporate radio sucks'. It really understood itself as the underdog, fighting for the little guy. I think that tapped into some sort of worker, blue-collar sentiment, but not in an aggrieved way – more like, [other music] is bland and generic. This is the classic punk critique of corporate rock, right? “This is bland and generic, we're doing something cool and interesting here. This is where it's really at.”

Tom Lea: Was there ever much kickback, local or otherwise, to the station's politics and philosophy? From what I understand it was very anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and tried to hold the mainstream music media to account at times.

Robin James: It's fascinating. The short answer is no. What makes it interesting is that the local area is famous for suing visual artists for obscenity. I don't know if you've ever heard of Hustler magazine and Larry Flynt? Larry Flynt is from Cincinnati. He operated his business there, he was brought up on charges of obscenity multiple times, once in the ‘70s, once again in the ‘90s. The more famous obscenity case was the City of Cincinnati versus the Contemporary Art Center, which ran a [Robert] Mapplethorpe retrospective right after he died, and it included some photos of implicitly gay sex acts – there were naked men, things like that. 

Oh, and we all know about Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center and their ‘Parental Warning: Explicit Lyrics’ [stickers]? That all started in Cincinnati in the ‘80s with respect to a Prince album, when Rick and Mitzi Alley, who lived in suburban Cincinnati, heard Prince's 'Let's Pretend We’re Married' and heard in that an endorsement of extramarital sex. They complained to their local school's Parent Teacher Association, and then that got blown up to the National Parent Teacher Association, and then that got blown up to Tipper Gore.

So this is not a liberal area. They like to literally prosecute art that they think is bad. But no one seemed to care about WOXY. The only thing I can think of is that they didn't have anything sexual to complain about. I remember, in 1991 and in 2001-2003, when we were bombing various parts of the Middle East, the BBC and other stations would ban certain songs. WOXY never did any of that, and in fact was noted as playing anti-war songs. There was a [anarchist industrial band] KMFDM song that they played in 2003, which someone wrote about. So the critiques made by the music WOXY played were more about politics, war, violence, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, that sort of stuff. I know that the station didn't play, for example, a lot of [sex 'n' drugs industrial-techno outfit] Lords of Acid. So my only guess is that the local culture was really litigious and conservative, but in the typical sort of conservative hypocrisy, they're interested in banning sex, but violence is fine.

Chal Ravens: I think all of this research into radio leads us quite smoothly into something that you did touch on briefly there, which is the ‘bro-ification’ of indie, which is Chris Molanphy’s term, and the 'alt-rock to alt-right pipeline', which is your own terminology. On your blog you’ve made a connection between the disaster of Woodstock '99 – which I think is on a lot of people's minds at the moment because of two documentaries recently – and the news that Pitchfork is to be "folded into" GQ, a men's magazine. Could you map that out for us?

Robin James: Sure. I'll start with alt-rock in the ‘90s. So we talked about the Telecom Act of '96 and how that led big companies to buy up lots of radio stations. As you can imagine, in 1996 the hot new format was alternative rock. This was also appealing to the big corporations who probably already had a country station in many markets, so they could reach out to another segment of middle-class white people by switching a new station they bought to alternative rock.

Chal Ravens: There was a detail that we perhaps didn't really iron out – in America, radio stations are locked to a ‘format’. A big media company could have multiple stations, but they're all different formats. I've heard accounts of a station going from alt-rock to Christmas music, or from Christmas music to hip-hop oldies. So just to clarify, because that's not how it works in the UK, a format is quite a baked-in thing for a station, right? You play what your format dictates that you play?

Robin James: It's tied to market segment and advertising. Eric Weisbard, a popular music studies scholar at the University of Alabama, has a book, Top 40 Democracy, where he makes this distinction between genre, which is like a musical style, and format, which is a demographic category. These stylistic formats are also targeted to literal audience market segments, and that's how stations sell themselves to advertisers. So if you've got what I call the ‘office lady’ station, it's like, ‘today's hits, no hip-hop’, right? [Laughs] You could probably advertise things like diet regimens or whatever. Whereas if you're playing hip-hop, you're probably going to be advertising things to a younger audience. That's how it works. 

Anyway, there was a big bubble in alt-rock radio in the '90s. It was the trendy style, all these new stations, and like any market bubble, it burst towards the end of the decade. The stations were bleeding listeners, and the programmers said, ‘OK, who is our core audience and how do we shore it up?’ The thinking back then was that women listeners were more likely to switch over to other formats, like adult alternative – so Sheryl Crow and Tracy Chapman, more singer-songwriter, less heavy. So they said, well, if women are more likely to defect from the format, then our core audience is men aged 12 to 24. So they start to program music that appeals to that target audience by reflecting back what they think that masculine ideal is. I don't know if you have this over there, but we have yoghurt branded for men – it's like, ‘tough’.

Chal Ravens: I imagine it's coming. 

Tom Lea: I keep thinking of the men's wet wipes that were doing the rounds on the timeline recently – Dude Wipes. That's actually what they’re called.

Robin James: Yeah, it's the musical version of that. You have this sort of cartoonish masculinity, and that's what Chris Molanphy meant by ‘bro-ification’. It's appealing to not just men, but this very cartoonish masculine ideal, of which Fred Durst is kind of an epitome. So the choice to narrowcast alt-rock radio to that sort of stereotype was very deliberate, and it was absolutely in response to falling stock prices. Because Clear Channel, or iHeartMedia, they make their money not so much by selling stuff – it's a financialised company, its shareholders want returns. That's what they're judging the performance on: is there growth? Am I getting more money by holding stocks? Profitability is less of a concern for them than stock value. You want to show your investors that you are growing, that you are growth-minded, that everything is going to lead towards more money in their pockets, and that their investment is going to appreciate in value. 

So that's why alt-rock turned bro in the '90s: shareholders were unhappy, stock prices were falling, and programmers then said, "We will bro out in order to, we think, shore up our core audience, which will lead to higher stock prices and happy shareholders." So that's the first moment of that. And then when Pitchfork was announced to be folded into GQ, I was like, “Huh, that's really interesting, because that's kind of the same move.” I remember Jillian Mapes was on Twitter saying, "We could keep the lights on. The money at Pitchfork was not the issue. We could pay people." But Condé Nast perhaps didn't see Pitchfork as performing well in the portfolio. Again, it's not about turning a profit, it's about making shareholders happy. And it's interesting that Condé Nast adopted the exact same strategy that these alt-rock radio programmers adopted in the ‘90s. Here's this media property that we have to turn around – or we think we have to turn it around.

Tom Lea: It was apparently one of the best performing websites on the Condé Nast roster. That's been publicised.

Robin James: Yeah, and that's the contradiction here, right? Performance doesn't matter. It's shareholder vibes. You know, Spotify struggles to regularly turn a profit but the stock price stays high. In a financialised economy, actual performance matters less than the market's belief about the future price of the stock. And it was interesting to me to see that sort of analogous business decision between alt-rock radio in the ‘90s and what Condé Nast is doing with Pitchfork by folding it into GQ. We're choosing to reorient these media properties towards men in a culture that widely overestimates the capacities and performance of men and masculine things. In that sense, this perhaps arbitrary logic maybe makes a little more sense. We're orienting this media property specifically towards men because that taps into pre-existing shareholder biases about men and masculine things and their capacity to perform.

Tom Lea: Which I guess ties into who a lot of those shareholders are, right?

Robin James: Well, exactly.

Chal Ravens: You also use the term popular misogyny to dig a bit further into that as well. Can you explain that a little bit?

Robin James: Popular misogyny is Sarah Banet-Weiser's term from her book Empowered. She talks about how social media has enabled the rise of both popular feminism and popular misogyny. So popular feminism would be like Meghan Trainor, or Beyoncé at the VMAs with "feminist" [projected behind her]. It's feminism as a brand in a marketplace. But this is also what we see with Andrew Tate or Joe Rogan. It's misogyny and racism as a brand, in a marketplace. So we have these sort of two interlocked phenomena: the rise of popular feminism and the rise of popular misogyny. Going back to this idea of financialisation, investors always want to make maximum profit from minimum output. You want to buy low and sell high. So there's this idea that things that are starting at some sort of disadvantage have greater capacity for growth. If I buy a house that's falling apart and I repair it and flip it, I'm gonna make more money than if I buy a house in perfect condition, right? 

Part of what's going on with popular feminism is there's this narrative of sort of resilience or redemption. This is what you saw with a lot of the popular feminist songs of 2013-2015, like Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off', for example: here are all these negative stereotypes about women in the music industry, but I'm over them, I am my own individual person, and successful. That idea of sexism keeping you down, but then overcoming that sexism, that's an analogue for this model of market growth. That's a way for growing your human capital or your brand. Popular misogyny is another way to do that. It's a way to present the people who are at the most advantage and our society as somehow at a disadvantage – that sort of 'wounded entitlement'. "I am a victim of the woke mob," despite being the richest man on the planet. [Laughs]

So it's a way to perform the same sort of spectacular overcoming, or brand growth or value growth, that we want to see from any property on a market. Because if we're all brands, and we're all little entities of human capital that have to grow our personal brand and reputation, and if market performance needs to be this model of flipping distressed assets, well, the only way to make white cis hetero masculinity seem like it's distressed is to perform some kind of woundedness, or aggrievedness. And you see this in incel culture, right? "I'm a man, I'm owed sex by women, I'm not getting it, but this also gives me a platform to say very controversial things online and get lots of clicks, or hate-clicks."

Chal Ravens: Yeah, and then sell you some weird vitamins or something. About the Pitchfork thing, just to clarify, what you're saying is that it's not that Pitchfork is pivoting to millennial male readership as such. You're saying it's about putting on a kind of performance for investors about the potential growth of Pitchfork if they retreat into this different type of audience, if they specify their audience more, right?

Robin James: Yeah. The audience isn't readers or listeners, but investors. That's who that performance is for. If you're Condé Nast's board of directors, that's your audience.5

Chal Ravens: That was the galaxy brain take that I was after, and that also is vibes, is it not? We have two more questions for you. I'm interested in how ideas from academia interact, if at all, with the kind of music discourse we're sifting through on Music Twitter every day. Often there's not all that much two-way traffic. Do you have any thoughts about what can be done to improve that?

Robin James: I think the situation is a little different in the US, for popular music studies in particular, because I think there are institutional mechanisms in the US, like the Pop Conference, where music writers in the journalism space and academics actually talk to each other and get together in physical space. And there are a lot of music academics who started in journalism. I think of Evelyn McDonell at Loyola Marymount, or Oliver Wang, or Eric Weisbard, who started with the Village Voice and Spin and now he's an academic. So I think there's more conversation between pop music studies scholars and music writers over here. I know Liz Pelly gave a paper at an academic conference, and she's kind of recognised as the Spotify expert.

But you're right that there could be more back and forth. One thing would just be if academics can promote their work more, because I know that I've been interviewed, scholars get interviewed for pieces by journalists, so there can be this conversation. But I think the wider public has to be made aware that the work is out there, and it can't just be paywalled in a library. I think younger generations of scholars are getting better about citing music journalism in the same way that you would cite scholarship. And I think that popular music studies is a sort of outlier in the academy, in that it understands itself as having one foot in the academy and one foot outside of it. I think it might even be unique in that way. 

There's a lot of pressure for academics to try to write for general audiences but that's a real skill. That takes a lot of practice, and journalists are really good at it. So having conversations across the two sectors is going to be really important, because academics do possess skill sets, and lots of time to do research. But also, music journalists are much more experienced than most academics at speaking to non-academic audiences. So there's also a lot to share and learn. And it really shouldn't be understood as academics just sort of descending and sharing our wisdom. We're good at some things, but we're not good at other things! 

Another point of solidarity is that there have been so many media layoffs this year, as we're all well aware, but there have also been massive numbers of programme closures and faculty layoffs. There's two colleges just in the City University of New York that have laid off 30 permanent faculty each this year. So I think there are labour alliances as our industries are being restructured, that's another point of solidarity. It seems impossible to do intellectual work inside or outside the academy. How do you become a creative? How do you become an intellectual when the institutions that typically support that labour are really fundamentally restructuring?

Chal Ravens: We’re going to end on a very different question.

Tom Lea: We always ask our guests to recommend a film.

Robin James: I am so basic when it comes to films.

Chal Ravens: That’s fine because my favourite movie is The Matrix – which I think you hate, actually? I read that on your blog! I’m sure philosophers get really tired of hearing about The Matrix.

Robin James: My least favourite trope is ‘what if we were living in a simulation?’

Chal Ravens: Dude.

Robin James: That’s just my own personal pet peeve. So I was actually rewatching The Blues Brothers a month ago and it’s really interesting to rewatch from the perspective of 2024. It’s all about, like, hating Nazis is a good thing to do, hating cops is a good thing to do, live music is a good thing to do. Also, because of the setting, it’s an interesting prehistory to think about things like Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation as actually an industrial album. Janet Jackson is from a Chicago suburb, like all of the Jacksons, a suburb that was predominantly African-American and there was a lot of steel mill activity. The film is set in that gritty, industrial, steel mill version of Chicago, but it includes performances by Cab Calloway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. So it’s interesting to think about black industrial musics in the US Midwest.

It’s also interesting to think about from the perspective of getting these very important 20th century African-American artists on film to a white audience that might otherwise never really be interested. Would a kid in 1970 care who Cab Calloway is? I don’t know, but Cab Calloway is very important. I just saw it in a new way – probably because I was not 12 years old this time and had a greater intellectual understanding of the stakes of the movie. But yeah, that was a movie that pleasantly surprised me recently. Oh – plus, Carrie Fisher wields a flamethrower in it.

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Episode recorded at: SRP Studios
Theme music: Jennifer Walton
Branding: All Purpose

Robin has also gifted us with a killer playlist of six pivotal songs from the heyday of 97X WOXY…

L.A. Style – ‘James Brown Is Dead

“As the oldest child of a father whose favorite musician was Rick Astley (no joke) and whose mom was really into Christian choral music, the only way I learned about new-to-me music was WOXY. They had a Friday night dance music program called XTRABEATS, which in the early 1990s was hosted by Jae Foreman. As an 8th or 9th grader in the early ‘90s, I had no idea what electronic dance music was; I didn't even understand that the pop-house I heard on the Top 40 radio station (think ‘Show Me Love’) was, well, house music. And then I heard this song one night on XTRABEATS. I was hooked: this was so heavy, but it still had a groove.”

Meryn Cadell – ‘The Sweater

“This is widely considered by the WOXY community to be one of the station's stand-out songs. A spoken-word piece that tells a satirical story of a teenage girl who fetishistically wears the sweater of a classmate she thinks is her boyfriend, I liked it as a teenager in the ‘90s because it was quirky and funny. Only later as an adult did I realise that the song was really satirising heterosexuality; that made me like it better. Since releasing this song, Cadell has come out as trans.”

OutKast – ’BOB (Bombs Over Baghdad)’

“I have a very clear memory of driving down the road in the summer of 2001 with the windows down in my 1997 Toyota Corolla as this song blasted on the radio. WOXY didn't play a ton of hip-hop (they did have a long-running reggae programme), but they didn't not play hip-hop. If a hip-hop track was new and different enough, it would get put in regular rotation – songs like Time Zone's ‘World Destruction’, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy's ‘Television, The Drug Of A Nation’, acts like Digable Planets, etc. I've always thought this Outkast video needs to be understood alongside the work of fellow Georgians The B-52s.”

The Breeders – ‘Divine Hammer’

“Kim and Kelly Deal grew up in the WOXY listening area in Kettering, Ohio. I have a 97X water bottle signed by Kim sitting in my home office, gifted to me by station owner Doug Balogh. The Breeders had a long relationship with WOXY, doing guest DJ sets and such; their mom even filled in on the morning show a few times. She would introduce herself as ‘Ann Deal, the breeder of The Breeders.’”

KMFDM – ‘Naive (Thrill Kill Kult Remix)

“One of the station memos I discovered when doing my archival research ended with the line, ‘NO ONE DANCE SHOW CAN BE 100% WAX TRAX!’ The famous Chicago industrial record label was a huge influence on 97X, and I tended toward the songs and artists that were in conversation with the city's burgeoning house music scene. Combining some EBM-leaning arpeggiation with a house-like vibe, this track is a great example of that. This remix specifically helps clarify how Lady Gaga tracks like ‘Born This Way’ and ‘Stupid Love’ are doing more or less the same thing. These days, when people ask what kind of music I like, I say ‘campy techno’, like Pablo Bozzi (the second song on the new Soft Crash EP has a similar feel to this remix).

The Clash – ‘Magnificent Seven’

“By the time WOXY adopted a modern rock format in fall 1983, The Clash had for all intents and purposes broken up after Mick and Topper left the band. But that didn't stop them from becoming perhaps the most influential act at the station; for example, they were the only band that didn't release music in the 21st century to make the top 25 most played artists of the station's online-only era (2004-2010). I picked ‘Magnificent Seven’ because it demonstrates why The Clash epitomise WOXY's sound. The Clash may be an iconic punk band, but this is a rap song. It got played on NYC's hip hop station WBLS. The Clash were omnivorous listeners before it was cool, and this song reflects this openness to new and different sounds. The Clash are probably my favourite band?”


Ambient 1: Music for Airports is a 1978 album by Brian Eno, the first of his albums made under the Ambient banner and largely credited with coining the term.


The biggest 10 playlists on Spotify, by follower count, are currently: 01. Today’s Top Hits, 02. Top 50 – Global, 03. RapCaviar, 04. Viva Latino, 05. Rock Classics, 06. Baila Reggaeton, 07. All Out 2000s, 08. Songs to Sing in the Car, 09. All Out ‘80s, 10. Beast Mode.


Chris Molanphy’s condensed history of Billboard’s Modern Rock chart and the shifting definition of “alternative”, from 2013, is very informative.


Within five years, Ohio senator J.D. Vance underwent a bizarre political transformation, from SF venture capitalist voicing concern about a cultural crisis among America’s working class to MAGA-verse purveyor of white grievance politics. A recent tweet: “I wish I could go back in time and tell my high school self that in 2024 Wall Street, big pharma, the CIA, and Rage Against the Machine would have the same politics.” Yeah, no.


Condé Nast is not actually responsible to shareholders because it’s privately owned by Advance Publications, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate which also owns Reddit, a company long rumoured to be preparing for a massive IPO. After years of slumping revenue, Condé Nast – which is run by Anna Wintour and counts Vogue, The New Yorker and Wired among its titles – reportedly turned a profitable corner last year. Understanding Condé’s business strategy is basically kremlinology for media spotters.

No Tags
No Tags
No Tags is a podcast and newsletter from Chal Ravens and Tom Lea chronicling underground music culture.