Everyday Analysis editors Ben Moore and Alfie Bown reflect on the depoliticising effect of a worn-out old DJ sampling the speech of a significant young activist.
In sampling Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN, Fat Boy Slim played on a happy coincidence: Thunberg’s use of the phrase ‘right here, right now’ is also the refrain of his own 1999 hit of that name. By sampling the speech, FBS transformed the anger, frustration and accusation of Thunberg’s words (‘We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line’) into a different mode: that of dance music, and specifically late 90s house music, so turning it into a shared euphoric experience not only for those present but for those sharing the viral footage on social media. This created the possibility for a vast affective identification with her words on the part of the audience, cashing in on the sweeping emotive pull of the music. What’s not to like?
Certainly, there are concerns. For one thing, turn of the century dance music was often aimlessly utopic; its primary mode can be described as utopianism without utopia. The original track works perfectly in this mode because it is a celebration of the hedonistic instant – ‘right here, right now’ refers only to the moment in which I am listening, or dancing. Nothing else matters.
The problem is that Thunberg’s speech to the UN was driven not by affective enjoyment, or by focusing on the present moment alone, but by antagonism and an insistence on an imminent threat which can only be understood in historical context. Her words are a threat, and are meant to be uncomfortable, but this discomfort is exchanged in FBS’s sampling for something else: the affective charge of euphoric celebration. The danger is that this affective reversal drains out and depoliticises Thunberg’s words.
The original sample used by FBS in the song becomes strangely relevant in this new context. The phrase ‘right here, right now’ was clipped from the largely forgotten 1995 Kathryn Bigelow film Strange Days, which takes place in a near future world where a device known as a SQUID enables memories and sensations to be recorded from the wearer’s brain, so that they can be re-experienced later, or passed on to others. These recordings are traded on the black market, and can also be ‘amplified’ to fry the viewer’s mind with overwhelming sensation. The most interesting things about the line ‘right here, right now’ is therefore not its celebration of the present, but its endless repetition, which points to the iterability of affect.
In the new version of the song, the track becomes a kind of SQUID itself, but one which by repeating the experience of Thunberg’s speech also transforms it, making it a site of collective enjoyment at the cost of an infelicity to its original tone. One element of the speech is indeed amplified here – the sense that Thunberg is speaking on behalf of a vast collective, that she is ‘our’ voice – but another more important element, the dangerous discomfort of the current failure to confront climate crisis, is lost.
In a sense, the event recalls a point made by Slavoj Žižek about the “universal adaptability” of music and suggests that the point may extend to include other forms of collective affect. Using the example of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ which was used to create a shared affective experience by political movements with completely opposing ideologies where the song was deployed in completely different contexts (from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia to China’s Cultural Revolution), Žižek shows that the iterability of affect can be deployed in effect to trick an audience into aligning with a particular ideology. In this way, while completely oblivious to the process himself, by recontextualizing Thunberg’s speech FBS tricks the audience into identifying with the logic of his own musical context – that of hedonistic immediacy – by redirecting Thunberg’s ability to create collective affect in his own direction. (This without even mentioning the repackaging of Thunberg’s broadly anti-capitalist position into something to which tickets are sold via Eventbrite.)
But is this process inherently something to oppose, or only something to be concerned about in this context? It’s probably fair to say that the contemporary right has made use of this form of political pleasure more often than has the left, certainly of late. As we noted before, Donald Trump’s campaign was full of slogans which aimed to harness collective affect as such and direct it toward his own agenda. Chanting ‘build the wall’ or ‘lock her up’, was as much about the pleasure of joining in with a desire so passionately enjoyed by others – and one which could be connected to Trump – as it was about any personally held policy conviction, not unlike those chanting with FBS’s sampling. Despite these examples though, might it not be that in today’s climate in which politics is more affectual than ever, the left also needs to be able to work inside this space of putting affect to work in the service of its own political agendas. While FBS depoliticizes his material but retains its affectual capacity, it is at least conceivable to unite politics with affect differently.
A suggestive counterpart might even be found in the well-known ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant, which takes the apolitical iteratable collective affect of the football chant and politicizes it in almost the opposite process to FBS’s de-politicizing sampling. Fortuitously, another ‘remix’ of Thunberg’s speech also emerged in the wake of her visit to New York: John Mollusk’s Swedish Death Metal version.
This viral mash-up brilliantly takes the opposite path to FBS, doubling down on the threat contained in Thunberg’s original speech rather than suppressing it. The refrain of this song is not ‘right here, right now’ but ‘how dare you?’. The affective charge amplified in this case is anger, and the disturbance of the words is matched by the discordance of the music and the weird flashing colours of the video. Even if we should be wary that our sharing and resharing of this remix does not end up reducing Thunberg’s words to a mere affective commodity, this is surely a preferable option to FBS’s approach. Affect has been a significant political tool for the right, and it might be time for the left to put this tactic into action in a more sustained way.
Alfie Bown and Ben Moore are co-editors of Everyday Analysis