The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
avatar for Steven Shaviro

Steven Shaviro

Detroit, Michigan

Moses Sumney’s 2020 album grae struggles over what it means to be “in-between,”" to be “multiple,” to experience one’s identity as “a kind of patchwork” – in short, what it means to not fit into any of the binaries that conventionally circumscribe human existence. The album’s title is a homonym for the color – or better, the achromatic non-color – gray, a mixture of black and white, without any positive hue. Nonetheless, Sumney sings about “the gray hues” in one song (“Colouour”), and about “coloring in the margins” of “the in-between” and “the undefined” in another (“Neither/Nor”). Gray is still a positive presence, even at a seeming degree zero; it is the color of transitions and metamorphoses continuing indefinitely, never coming to any conclusion. The album explores these fluctuations musically, as it alternates between acoustic guitar on some tracks, and elaborate horn and synthesizer arrangments on others. And above all, it explores these themes through the multiple registers of Sumney’s voice. There is also a visual component to this: Sumney made elaborate music videos for three tracks, and more minimal lyric videos for all the others. The lyric video for “Polly,” a song about the singer’s uneasiness at his relationship with a polyamorous lover, consists only in a single close-up of Sumney sitting in front of the camera. He does not lip-sync, but he responds emotionally to the lyrics and sounds (which are fairly minimal: vocals plus guitar). This video helps to convey the way that Sumney’s explorations and struggles are all enacted on his body, in his facial expressions, and through the modulations of his voice. My talk will explore Sumney’s embodiment of flux as a positive and generative condition. The talk will be a lecture accompanied by slides and clips.

Steven Shaviro
is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author, among other books, of Digital Music Videos (2017), and of other essays on the art of the music video. In previous Pop Conferences, he has spoken about Missy Elliott, Ghostface Killah, and Grace Jones.