It’s a shame to be so euphoric and weak …
—Mariah Carey, “Heartbreaker”
Disability, illness, and dependency—chemical and otherwise—appear remarkably often as metaphors in pop music’s vocabulary of sex, love, and desire. Lyrics like: call the doctor, don’t call the doctor, I get so weak in the knees, I can hardly speak. If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it. Food and eating do too, giving us a whole lexicon of deliciousness, juiciness, savor, and intoxication.
Mariah Carey’s 1997 hit “Honey” is one especially enthralling instance of both tendencies: “Oh, baby, I’ve got a dependency/ Always strung out for another taste of your honey …” In the song, honey appears as both a food and an addictive intoxicant, one that induces the slurring together of desire and weakness. Lovesickness is not a novel condition: disability has long served as an image of sexual need and surrender, a metaphor that hits differently depending on one’s relationship to it. But if love is sickening, might it follow that sickness, disability, and dependency offer some insight into desire and its subversion of autonomy? Vocabularies of ingestion and illness seem to offer a way to sing about sex, how it makes dependency and enjoyment commingle.
With its intoxicatingly dreamy melody,“Honey” presents a febrile case of what notoriously grouchy critical theorist Theodor Adorno labeled “culinary sound,” a special insult he directed not at pop lyrics about food but rather at the way musical sound itself can be mouthwatering. Adorno used the word “culinary” disparagingly, warning against the impulse to succumb to the purely sensory pleasures of a passage or tone at the risk of losing grasp of the work as a whole.
How unwholesome, in this framework, is work comprised entirely of such pleasures! With its gossamer vocals and extra choruses arriving like waves on a beach, “Honey” somehow transforms Carey’s powerful vocal runs into silken, filmy layers of atmosphere wafting across the squelchy ’80s, computer-sampled bass line and tinkly melodic piano. “It’s like honey when it washes over me …” Unlike other hits where Carey’s voice moves like a rollercoaster car through a sturdy pop scaffolding, “Honey”—recently remixed for the 25th anniversary edition of the album Butterfly—lets the figure melt into the ground, until overlapping liquid climaxes dissolve into a general lullaby of viscosity. Honey, after all, can double as an address of banal affection as well as (in this case, at least) a fatal sexual intoxicant: “Honey, I can’t describe / how good it feels inside.” Even the horny keening that eventually swallows up the track is cushioned by this blissful narcotic contentment. “Honey” is, in short, very smooth, as Mase observes in his backup vocals partway through.
Known for his blanket dismissal of pop and jazz, Adorno critiques exactly this kind of narcotic contentment and precipitous surrender to desire. Pop’s rigidly predictable formulas, he argues, create a kind of soothing background against which a particularly juicy musical element—a detail, an improvisation, a player’s style—becomes even more delicious, a sharper distraction amid the general blur of zoning out that contains it.
Performers are often guilty of these “regressive” moments of culinary pleasure, particularly, according to Adorno, “virtuosos” who feel themselves too much, “when the means”—the expressiveness or beauty of their playing—“becomes the end,” rather than subordinating itself to the realization of the work as a whole. Listeners are equally susceptible—have you too lost your mind during the best part of a song? In one passage from 1959, Adorno describes culinary enjoyment as an untimely “surrender” to feeling:
Only one who does not simply feel music, but also thinks it, can feel it properly. At the same time … —leaving aside the critique of mass culture—this is the argument against culinary listening and playing, ‘easy listening’, and against any passive attitude. Whoever simply surrenders themselves falls short of whatever they are surrendering to.
It’s as though, for Adorno, if the beauty is too loud, you can’t hear the structure of the work underneath. In Adorno’s notes from August 1966, he recounted an argument with his friend, harpsichordist Edith Picht-Axenfeld, who parried that music’s “sensual appearance” is enough, “as the structure communicates itself. ‘If I love a woman,’” she says, “‘I want her body, not her x-ray image.’” Adorno, predictably, calls this “pure sophistry, apologia for the … culinary element.” Without “the hidden structural element” of a work, “the overall sound, as polished as it might be, becomes gibberish.”
The X-ray photograph is actually Adorno’s preferred shorthand for how performance can reveal the interior bones of a work, all that he calls “subcutaneous” within it, which “otherwise lie[s] concealed … under the … the sound’s sensory surface.” The sound of a performance enfleshes the work but also, in this very particular way of thinking about flesh, obstructs and covers its form. The thicker and more irresistible this delicious sonic layer, the more distractions it offers, the stronger one’s appetites, and the more culinary enjoyment threatens to derail the unfolding of the work as a whole.
FOR ADORNO, POP PROLIFERATES because it offers moments of reprieve and distraction from the capitalist drudgery that both requires and produces it. At the same time, these pleasures, needed to survive capitalism, only entrap people in it further, in “a circle which makes escape impossible,” as he put it in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music.” Oddly, this nearly summarizes Lauren Berlant’s argument, 70 years later, about eating and the so-called “obesity epidemic”—only with the culinary metaphor rendered literal. Berlant, who died last year, was a well-loved theorist of ordinariness, but it can be hard to stomach their takes on fatness and disability, a theme they returned to in multiple essays and talks. Best known of these is “Slow Death” from 2007, which helped anchor their concept of “cruel optimism,” or how the attachments that make you want to keep living are also “an obstacle to your flourishing.” (To be clear, I am using fatness to describe an embodiment, while “obesity” pathologizes this embodiment.)
The enjoyment of food, for Berlant, like pop’s “culinary” pleasures for Adorno, is both effect and cause of unsustainable social conditions. Eating, Berlant argues, offers moments of relief, absorption in sensations, or just a break from the exhausting daily cycles of trying to stay alive under capitalism, but this “attachment to life,” while making life bearable, also hurts and kills us. Eating is interesting to Berlant because it’s a thing we do on purpose but also habitually, often without really thinking—perhaps in order to have relief from thinking—and where small feelings and larger forces intertwine ambiguously. Like our taste for pop, it’s both personal and impersonal.
Diet logic conjoins austerity to futurity—eat to cope with life, or ration your enjoyment to live longer, Berlant writes. But for Berlant, fatness is less an individual moral failing than it is evidence of the general Catch-22 of trying to have a future in this economy. Epidemics are, by definition, social, communicable, shared, and inherited; they are hard to pin down to a single cause. While fatphobia and ableism often frame a body’s appearance as shameful evidence of poor habits or circumstances, Berlant places more emphasis on the circumstances. But this hardly cloaks their aversion, and an individual body is held up as an example of broader societal ills. “No one meant,” Berlant writes, “to fatten up the world … scarily.”
Part of the conceptual knot Berlant proposes is that eating, admittedly “necessary to existence, part of the care of the self, the reproduction of life” in the present, can, in an apparent paradox, also be a cause of long-term decay, hence “slow death.” Fatness is a key example for them of how, under capitalism, “life building and the attrition of human life are indistinguishable.” In one sense, “slow death” could be a technically accurate, if rude, way of describing life as a mode of ongoing, intermittent, or progressive dependency. Eating—a basic, intractable dependency—allows you to live, and could make you die: food is nutritive, an intoxicant, self-medication, poison.
Mariah Carey’s attitude toward dependency, however sugary and mass-produced, is a little more humane. This is not to downplay racial capitalism’s unequal distribution of life expectancy, or, for that matter, its control of the food system. It is, however, to suggest that what Berlant discovers as a problem—the dependencies that accompany us through living and dying, disability and pleasure—are quite obviously a profound aesthetic and social resource.
At the end of “Honey,” the word honey, ornamented by Carey’s vocal runs, devolves, via agonizingly horny turns, into the phrase I need. At least, that’s what it sounds like. We’ve all made up pop lyrics from blurry phonemes where “culinary” singing distorts and distends meaning, necessitating equally hungry listening. Just as with eating, here, enjoyment and need become inseparably entangled. As Barbara Browning has observed, sexual need is an interesting thing, because it’s a case in which a need can be met by being redoubled and combined with other people’s, such that the more need you have together, the more you have of what you need.
If, according to Berlant, thickness is a form of debility, we could also say, conversely, disability produces the kind of thickness that we like. What I mean is that, when everyone is contributing their need, the variety of their needs, it makes the party thicker, and lusher, and noisier—more culinary.
Another word for this is access. We could think about this in terms of the literal multiple ways of entering or being in an actual space—or on the level of an image, a text, an artwork, or a song, the layering of access information that becomes a “distracting” augmentation or enrichment.
Access—as in, for example, captions, architectural modifications, or anything else that helps us get together—is sometimes regarded as a kind of ungainly addition to an artwork or a space, meant to make up for a perceptual “deficit” on the part of disabled people. It’s an addition that makes the form bulkier, violating the imagined elegance and completeness of a form or concept, getting us further from the X-ray, the structure. What is understood as a decay or delay of the artwork is also its increase or growth. It makes the artwork fatter, thicker, slower, and richer. This happens a lot with CART (communication access realtime translation), or automatic captions on YouTube, for example. That gain and static is a thickness that you could fall in love with, because it involves you in the means of getting around, or communicability, and the poetry or choreography of that means.