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“Hear What You Want”: Sonic Politics, Blackness, and Racism-Canceling Headphones

Blue V, Alex

Beginning in 2013, Beats Electronics launched the first in an ongoing series of commercials and internet advertisements promoting their product—Beats Studio Headphones with Adaptive Noise Canceling. Beats Electronics, originally known as Beats By Dre, is an audio company founded in 2006 by Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine and iconic rapper/entrepreneur Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre.

The addition of noise-canceling headphones to the Beats product line is relatively recent, as the company had primarily focused on studio headphones, earbuds, and speakers; noise-canceling headphones from Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, and other popular audio companies had been on the market for years. As Beats entered this market, their website displayed an impressive collection of endorsements by prominent black male athletes including Lebron James, Richard Sherman, and Kevin Garnett. The use of black bodies to sell products has a problematic history, beginning with black people being sold as products, transitioning into a fascination with black bodies as other, primitive, and natural that allowed white advertisers to to market their products as natural and authentic (Bristor, Lee, and Hunt 1995). In particular, there is an overwhelming legacy of white fascination with black male bodies as athletic, black men as sexually virile, and black culture as fun that has strong roots in blackface minstrelsy—America’s first widely-popular entertainment form (Lott 1992). The use of black male athletes to sell headphones can be seen as an extension of this legacy. The website also promised consumers the ability to “cancel out the haters,” and implored them to “join the #BeatsArmy,” positioning Beats headphones as some sort of subversive, anti establishment, righteous weapon in a world full of enemy combatants.

In this article, I focus on these advertisements and examine their portrayed use of noise-canceling headphones as a means of investigating a vast matrix containing intersections and collisions between black subjectivity, sound, technology, space, and the neutral consumer. I also challenge the trope of blackness as inherently resistant, offering an alternate interpretation of the advertisements that rests on the ideas of interiority, inwardness, and quiet.

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Current Musicology

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October 22, 2018
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