Whorf and Whoop

As a member of Generation X, I can’t stand Millennials. Their sense of entitlement, their social-media driven narcissism, their inability to put their smart phones down for one moment and have a conversation like normal human beings. But mostly what I mind is their having stolen the media attention that was once lavished on my cohort. Lifestyle puff pieces used to read deep cultural significance into our musical and sartorial tastes. The details are fuzzy now—something about latchkey children and flannel shirts—but there was a clear consensus that something was afoot. I’d say the peak of this attention came when I was in my early twenties, which honestly doesn’t seem that long ago. Then sometime in the interim attention shifted to these Millennials. I wonder what could have changed?

Pity the poor lifestyle section writer. You are charged with chronicling the minute tics of whatever demographic is currently comfortable with the latest technology and in reasonable physical shape. The photographer sent to accompany you has it easy (“Make sure to get some pictures of pretty girls.” “No problem, boss!”), while you are charged with conveying the meaning of it all. What to do? You can latch onto some other current element in the public consciousness—divorce, Vietnam, the internet—and assert a connection. If you are in America, you can take the name of the last President, append “-era”, and pretend your subjects are representative of whatever that was. Sometimes, exhausted, you draw attention to an arbitrary detail and hope it just kinda reifies itself.

The greatest example of this is is a 2009 New York Times lifestyle piece in which a writer clearly desperate an angle took a stroll around Williamsburg, noticed that a number of the men had pot bellies, and tried to spin it into a tale of the evolving Millennial physique. The headline he came up with was “It’s Hip to be Round”, but a more honest one would have been “Young Men in Brooklyn Have Normal Human Bodies”.

The latest bit of arbitrary generational signification to make the rounds is the “Millennial Whoop”. This is the “Wa-oh-wa-oh” backup singer riff that has shown up in a lot of pop songs in the past decade or so. The clearest example may be Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”, but it’s not hard to hear once you’re cued in to it.

Given that this is just movement between a perfect 5th and a major 3rd, it’s surprising that it’s distinctive enough to register, but it does. After listening to a few of the clips linked in the article above, I am convinced that the Millennial Whoop is indeed a thing, and what’s more, it actually deserves a demographic moniker. Musical forms really are generational characteristics. Musicians naturally copy other similar musicians, who tend to be about the same age. Style is consensus and stylistic adjacency lines up with adjacency in time. Slang works the same way. In this manner, kids today really are different.

As a structural observation about music this is interesting if not terribly surprising. (Imagine the alternative: nothing ever changes.) The trick is that once you’re aware of it, it is difficult not to read some significance into it, just as its difficult not to read significance into phenomena less obviously characteristic of a generation. To its credit, the linked article mostly avoids reading these particular tea leaves, but in its final paragraph even it feels compelled to name check climate change, economic injustice, and racial violence as things from which the diatonic scale can provide refuge. And of course in the comments section, anyone who tries to judge this innovation inevitably sees it as a bad thing, a fall from that Edenic past when girl groups sang “Sha-la-la” instead of “Wa-oh-wa-oh”. This is a ratchet effect familiar to anyone foolish enough to wade into the comments section on YouTube.

Reading unwarranted cultural meaning into arbitrary schemes of signification in language is the apophenic sin linguists call Whorfianism, and we never tire of beating up on people who fall for it. Reading significance into a purely structural move such as this is a kind of musical Whorfianism, but the concluding paragraph of the Millennial Whoop article gives a hint as to why this temptation is so hard to resist. You’ve just written a short essay identifying a certain musical pattern, and now you want to end on a punchy note.

So it is that the Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.

This is well-written. But it is well-written because it doesn’t come to the more accurate if anti-climactic conclusion of “so that exists”. It pulls back to put things in a broader human context. As humans, we may construct our story-telling tools out of systems of arbitrary signification, but to be compelling the stories we tell cannot themselves be arbitrary. They have to be about us.

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