Pop Culture as a Rhizome: Leveling Pretension and Resolving Appropriation
By Chase Wonderlic
In his recent book, The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface (2014), literary scholar James Braxton Peterson makes a striking comparison:
The Black underground is a rhizome, a diffuse root that projects its multifaceted conceptualizations throughout African American culture. It spreads its root-like tentacles through the fabric of history, manifesting at continuous points in reality and in cultural production. (Peterson 3).
Of course, Peterson goes on to admit that the idea of the “rhizome” is borrowed from the legacy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the intellectuals behind the seminal work in postmodern thought known as A Thousand Plateaus. He makes sure to anchor his work quite heavily in the theoretical work that Deleuze and Guattari did, because this idea is really the lynchpin of his ongoing cultural investigations. After all, the rhizome allows, or at least helps, him talk about the complicated network that is hip-hop, a genre riddled with nearly inexplicable discontinuities, a movement flush with seemingly random anomalies. For Peterson, the rhizome makes hip-hop meaningful; it is a sense-making tool.
Peterson’s work is not only creative for what it makes of hip-hop but what use it makes of the rhizome. While Deluze and Guattari’s invention seems like a wacky thought experiment, good for purely speculative or hypothetical thought experimentation, it can apparently be applied to things as real and concrete as music. It is worth mentioning that Peterson is really taking this application to its extreme, since hip-hop music in particular has lately been considered the most base and nonacademic of all music. For the past few decades, hip-hop and the culture thereof has been labeled ignorant and disrespectful, owing to its origins in some of America’s poorest, least formally educated communities. In fact, hip-hop has actually caused a large national rift dividing music listeners by race, class, and gender. It has become an unarguably divisive; perspectives on the matter are steeped in allegiance to polarized ideas of what music is supposed to provide and who musician are supposed to be. Herein lies the potential of the rhizome: it can dismantle the very binaries that separate opinion and taste. The rhizome, by its nature as an underlying unification, can undo the prejudices that inform and misinform different groups of people. In the limited context of arts and entertainment, the rhizome has the power to make popular culture more cohesive and inclusive by demonstrating the interconnectivity that already exists.
The easiest case to make for popular culture’s rhizomatic quality is by reiterating the age-old maxim that all art is derivative. It has been said and demonstrated time and time again that originality is over, that the ancients told the first and only stories. As the argument runs, there is no longer such a thing as an original production, only a retelling or a recounting. However, whether one agrees or disagrees with this denial of originality, it is clear that influence is a prominent force in art. Moreover, influence does not necessarily discredit art. An unoriginal or obviously influenced piece can still be important. In fact, this must be the case if anything like an artistic movement or period is possible. Having something in common is what gives the history of art its continuity and its cohesiveness. Without distinguishable signs of influence, every single work of art is perfectly unique and thus constitutes its own culture, its own language, its own semiological and ideological meanings, etc. If this were the case — and one can easily look out into the world of art and see for oneself that it is absolutely not —, then a popular culture would never be able to form, much less develop. After all, a popular culture is, by definition, universal and ubiquitous. It is common and everywhere. In a 1965 issue of LIFE magazine, Gloria Steinem says this about the over-arching expanse of popular culture:
Pop Culture-although big, mercurial, and slippery to define — is really an umbrella term that covers anything currently in fashion, all or most of whose ingredients are familiar to the public-at-large… Pop Art itself may mean little to the average man, but its vocabulary is always familiar. (Steinem 73)
However, the monolithic scope of popular culture should not be confused with some sort of internal consistency. Its size and omnipresence does not make it automatically recognizable. In fact, popular culture’s rhizomatic character is often expressed in the strange lines one can trace through the landscape of arts and entertainment. Nothing is isolated. Elements like style and medium get borrowed and shared, repeated and renovated, to the extent that everything is cogent. Even in the farthest reaches of time and place, where the cultural distance seems greatest, the rhizomatic interconnectivity persists.
Take the contemporary moment as a case study. As the New Year approaches, America is currently looking back on its year in retrospect. Around this time, nearly every blog on the Internet attempts a definitive guide to the cultural goings-on, a stab at pinning down the zeitgeist of 2015. As one might imagine, there are a number of ways bloggers go about doing this: some analyze a year in culture as an outgrowth of the previous year, looking at the linear continuation of earlier trends; others measure the cultural importance of a year by the production of things like records or the attendance at gallery-openings. Both of these metrics might seem to capture some of the quantitative and historical aspects of change in all things cultural from year to year. However, this sort of description does not suffice as an accurate representation of culture for the year(s) in question; it rests on an incorrect estimation of culture, a non-rhizomatic one. Culture is not something that can be bottled in an annual report because it can never be said to be something or, as a matter of fact, anything at all. In other words, there is no room for “being” in a rhizome, only “becoming.” Therefore, if popular culture is indeed a rhizomatic thing, then it is better to think of it as an amalgamation of connections and projects halfway done, not as something newly finished or as a product of something else.
Well then, if the issue of popular culture is to be taken up as the Deleuzean rhizome, what then should it look like? At this point, it might be most helpful to refer to the textual origins of the concept itself:
A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb “to be,” but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and… and …” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be.” (Deleuze 25)
Now, with this conception of the rhizome in mind, what kind of report on culture is fitting? Without treating culture — a veritable spider’s web of ideas, statistics, and events — like it was some sort of specimen, the rhizomatically informed academic can think of culture as an ongoing process, an unfinished product. As opposed to thinking of culture in purely structural terms as if it is was a ready-made object of scientific analysis, an observer could think of the culture as constantly unfolding. This is not to mystify culture as some sort of ambiguous entity, made opaque and inscrutable by the multiplicity of its root-like features. On the contrary, the rhizome models the phenomena of popular culture without getting lost in a hopeless mess of equivocating and qualifying, because it is content with a revelatory peek where the scientists wants an exact, complete picture. Having neither beginning nor end, the rhizome is technically infinite and thus impossible to illustrate. Nonetheless, the rhizome does allow for thorough exploration, considering that one can enter it anywhere and arrive somewhere else. Even if it is a system limited immediacy and proximity, the rhizome still makes for an optimistic epistemology. That is, if the rhizome is a cave, the trekker’s headlamp does not shine very far but it does illuminate the nearest walls. There is always plenty to see but it is impossible to see all at once. Furthermore, it is not hard to use the rhizome everyday; anything is a portal into the rhizome, a threshold into history and semiology. What is more, entertaining the rhizomatic model means holding back the usual associations and segregations that collect and divide the world. The world gets reverted when it turns into a rhizome. Suddenly, popular culture becomes open season for fresh attempts at cultural criticism.
It is now time for an experimental attempt at “rhizomatizing” popular culture. Of course, the starting place is arbitrary but for the sake of making a point, it will be a contemporary touchstone, a landmark in recent memory. The touchstone in question is “Hotline Bling,” the catchy, upbeat single from pop music sensation Drake. Released on July 31, 2015, the song quickly took off to become one of this summer’s most infectious hits, playing out of car radios, clubs, and Internet browsers across the world. Drake, though already a superstar with an inexhaustible catalog of successful records, seemed to have really hit a nerve with this particular release. In fact, critics had a hard time making sense out of this song because it launched a response that had barely anything to do with the music itself:
Whatever it was, it hardly mattered, because at that point, “Hotline Bling” was barely a song at all anymore. It was one big, goofy, self-aware cultural force. (Ryce)
There is something eerily rhizomatic about this critic’s description; it hints at the song’s strange appeal and staying power. No generational anthem gets to keep the spotlight for very long, much less enjoy anything more than a cross-section of the listening population. “Hotline Bling” managed to cater to the whole demographic pie chart for almost six months with no sign of faltering. To unpack the mystery of Drake’s masterpiece, the song should be considered as a part of the greater cultural scene, in the context of its audio and visual lineage.
First of all, “Hotline Bling” is built on top of a sample. Unlike other genres where in-studio recording is expected and standard, hip-hop invites artists to rework past material in their lyrics or their beats. This tenet of hip-hop, known as sampling, is what gives Drakes the creative license to directly plug his song into the cultural recesses of past time. That is, behind the syncopated dance rhythm of “Hotline Bling” is the rougher organ melody from Timmy Thomas’s 1972 single “Why Can’t We Live Together?” The sounds are indistinguishable. All it takes is one listen of each for the two different songs to meld together in a strange mental association. Far from this being a detriment to Drake’s artistry, this sampling is an intentional, deliberate move. The song now is taking part in a sonic relationship — as a step in the evolution of music technology — as well as a historical relationship — as a reaction to the jazz and R&B signatures of the twentieth century. Perhaps this open dialogue with earlier movements is the reason for “Hotline Bling” finding warm reception from adults of all ages. If Drake is as conscious of the rhizome as the cultural critic, he can exploit the network that connects consumers and fans by making music localizable in a multitude of backgrounds, genres, movements, and even causes.
Now, it is nearly impossible to discuss “Hotline Bling” without bringing up its music video component. The song made possible the video, but the video propelled the song into a new altitude of relevance. The reason for this is actually best explained using the linguistic coinage “meme.” The meme is the term used to stand for a discrete unit of culture. Words can be memes but so can events. With the Internet’s uncanny knack for making all things permanence and reproducible, any event, however private and isolated, can quickly become collectivized and shared, enough so to earn it the title of meme. Thus, despite the conventional rollout of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video, the material went viral immediately, both literally and idiomatically. In linguistic terms, the four-minute long video became a hysterical conversation in which nearly everyone took part. Websites like YouTube and Apple Music became feeding frenzies of watchers and commentators, and sites like Twitter and Reddit became breeding grounds for endless iterations of “Hotline Bling”-inspired jokes. For weeks, it seemed like the world would not stop reacting to the video. By now, the buzz has died down but the video remains as iconic as ever. In it, Drake himself dances variations of the cha-cha in empty rooms cloaked in ambient, colored light (see Figure 1). While many fans seem impressed or even obsessed by his dance moves, the real cue that kept watchers fascinated was the directional choices. The scenes vacillate in color scheme between cool blue-green and warm orange-yellow. It is actually speculated by many art historians that the colorful backdrops are inspired by the works of James Turell, a artist known for designing large-scale installations around lighting and coloration (see Figure 2). Moreover, the shot changes along with Drake as he doubles up his tempo and then slows to a steady pulse as soon as he resumes his slow, calculated dancing. The visuals are similar to a feature film in their quality of cutting, splicing, and editing. It is no wonder that this music video enamored audiences because it interwove so many different threads of culture! Drawing either implicitly or explicitly from James Turell and high-budget cinema, “Hotline Bling” seemed to represent all of the world at once.
The implications of this rhizomatic investigation are numerous and far-reaching, but it is worthwhile to point out two distinct themes. For one, the composition of “Hotline Bling” is clearly an assembly of other artistic pieces, some considered high-brow and other considered quite pedestrian. Even something like a hip-hop music video is an amalgamation of disparate sources materials, or in the existentialist’s terms, disparate others. This recognition of multifacetedness in popular culture runs counter to the normal divide that condemns and condescends to all things popular. How would a pretentious critic respond to the renewal of James Turell’s legacy or the usage of Hollywood shooting if it occurred in something labeled hip-hop? This analysis starts to chip away at the barriers that confine popular culture to a segregated and depraved place, where listeners are judged on account of their predilection for the things they hear most often. With the rhizome in mind, the average listener gets redeemed for the taste it takes to appreciate popular culture in the first place. Pretension gets eradicated when the rhizome supersedes the hierarchical model of culture that places so-called elite works at the top and popular works at the bottom.
Another consequence of the rhizome’s application is the way it makes a fallacy of the usual argument about appropriation. If culture is as much of a rhizome as it appears, then the question of originality can be thrown out. Since any constituent part of the rhizome is somehow, someway adherent to other parts, the whole must figure into any single instance. In language borrowed from computer science, the cultural rhizome is a master class, while the temporary phases, fads, trends, and spectacles are instantiated objects. In language borrowed from Hegelian philosophy, the current moment in popular culture contains the entirety of theses and antitheses leading up to it. In sum, the confluence of influence that must occur in any given segment of popular culture overcomes the common objection that popular culture must be authentic. That is, the objection that popular culture is stolen or appropriated does not account for the condition under which popular culture operates. To argue that some moment in popular culture is taken from something or somebody is obvious and necessary; as a matter of fact, it is inevitable.
Of course, taking up the rhizome disintegrates popular culture, breaking apart the model of one world —one version of things — into numerous, albeit smaller, tracts of navigable terrain. In Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, a similar argument is presented for the scrapping of totalizing ideas and the adoption of non-comprehensive, working hypotheses:
Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value… The [observer’s] orientation then favors a multiplicity of finite meta-arguments, by which I mean argumentation that concerns metaprescriptives and is limited in space and time. (Lyotard 66)
Where the blogger characters described earlier wanted concise pictures of reality, the rhizome only offers passing snapshots. Once again, this advocacy for culture-as-rhizome is not to be confused with a resignation to hopelessness and futility in the event of serious inquiry. Far from making popular culture into an unintelligible beat, the merit of the rhizome is to make popular culture into some digestible food for thought. Once popular culture is afforded the properties of the rhizome, it can wield the enormous power it already has, while at the same time becoming approachable and undiscriminating. Egalitarian in nature, the rhizome of popular culture is a crossroads through all areas of society, through every neighborhoods and block of America. Everybody has access to the rhizome because everybody is a part of it.
Deleuve, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987. Print.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1984. Print.
Peterson, James B. The Hip-hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Ryce, Andrew. “Hotline Bling.” Pitchfork Media. Pitchfork.com, 14 December 2015. Web. 15 December 2015.Steinem, Gloria. “Outs of Pop Culture.” LIFE magazine. 20 August 1965. Page 73. Print.