Audi’s (Afro)Futurism

Why one of today’s smartest multimedia artists is branding one of today’s slickest cars

by Catherine Schafer

“Small victories are progress,” says Janelle Monáe, one of today’s most colorful and hip multimedia artists, on how we each can drive progress in the world in her interview with Audi. It’s everyone’s job to move the world forward–by staying true to themselves and celebrating even the smallest victories–because we all rely on one another to survive.

It seems fitting that Audi, a brand claiming to be so focused on propelling the world forward through their “passion for progress,” would include Monáe in their marketing campaigns. Their innovations technologically, creatively, and sustainably are meant to both literally and figuratively “drive” the world into the future. But why Monáe? What can be said about Audi’s ambitions through this collaboration?

Let’s first take a closer look at their summer 2021 commercial itself, “Audi Presents: Janelle Monáe & the Audi RS e-tron GT.” It begins with Monáe setting a metronome then looking out at the rest of a city from the window of a skyscraper. The metronome pulses at a slow tempo, and she begins to sing freestyle. “Singing or speaking,” she remarks as her voice switches with a soft laugh. The camera then changes to a shot of the Audi itself, Monáe getting in the driver’s seat (the beat of the metronome fades out in the background). “Mine or yours” is followed by “reason or fun” and a plethora of either-or statements as she drives through the city streets:

“Singing or speaking.

Mine or yours.

Reason or fun.

Statement or silence.

Sensitive or strong.

Intelligent or intuitive.

Luxurious or mindful.

Fast or long-lasting.”Janelle Monáe

Here the metronome returns with “intelligent or intuitive,” as if to establish a sense of assuredness, of rhythm: Audi has technology down to a science, never skipping a beat. It returns for a third time with “fast or long-lasting” and the car coming to a stop on an overlook, the sprawling city below. “Progress isn’t either-or,” says Monáe as she stops the metronome: “progress is everything.” Almost a redefining of time itself. Audi, like Janelle Monáe, is not afraid to be bold and innovative. Neither is locked into just keeping time, the systole and diastole—the heartbeat—of the now. Either-or becomes both-and. Moving on, or, driving forward.

But Monáe’s words up to this point are not really opposites. There is no black and white. The commercial’s colors are neutral hues of gray, beige, and shades in between. The RS e-tron GT is shown in “Daytona Gray,” Monáe wears a beige suit, and the high-rise apartment is awash with beige-ish flooring and furniture. These colors even permeate the city itself. Audi wants the world to know that it can do it all, and its customers can have it all. This flagship model is a “both-and” car, looking toward the future naturally electric but fun to drive all the same.

Audi RS e-tron GT (shown in Daytona Gray) in front of city setting

However, there’s not just color; there’s also sound. A review in Car and Driver mentions the car’s “soundtrack”, played just for the driver, described as “a sort of intergalactic hum that transforms into a turbine whoosh as you accelerate, culminating in a 78-decibel whir at full thrust. It says, ‘I am the future,’ … but it’s not quite right for the e-tron.” Whether or not this sound is wrong , Audi must have done something right to let us “hear” the future of driving. Car enthusiasts are taking note.

But what does Janelle Monáe have to do with this future, or this “sound of the future”? In the interview, she describes her approach to progress as incrementalist: it’s the little things that build up to become bigger things, and there is no one-size-fits-all to this. It takes a small effort each day towards becoming the best version of yourself to drive this progress in the world. Maybe this is what Audi means when they say “Future is an attitude.” Having a growth mindset and remembering our common humanity shapes our progress towards the future.

Monáe embodies this attitude in her own life, never being afraid to be a radical storyteller and always living as authentically as possible, evidenced through her iconic fashion. She mentions her imagination a lot in her interview–imaginations are what effect change in the world and what can change others’ perspectives in the process. Imagination shapes the future.

In a recent interview with People, Monáe talked about how “Sci-fi and Afrofuturism have nurtured [her] imagination for many moons” as she works to inspire others through her passion and life’s work. In her forthcoming collection of fictional stories, she and other writers build upon the Afrofuturistic world she established in her album Dirty Computer, “exploring how different threads of liberation–queerness, race, gender plurality, and love–become tangled with future possibilities of memory and time in such a totalitarian landscape… and what the costs might be when trying to unravel and weave them into freedoms.”

The term “Afrofuturism” goes back to the late 19th century. As Mark Bould, Reader in Film and Literature at UWE Bristol, notes, it “offers a way of engaging the past [and] a site where both the past and the future can be, interwoven with the present reality.” Georgia Tech Regents Professor of Science Fiction Studies Lisa Yaszek adds that “Afrofuturists ‘use stories about the past and the present to reclaim the history of the future.’”

With this in mind, we should also consider Black Panther, which combines traditional (and stereotypical) Pan-African details with the hyper-futuristic city of Wakanda, thus transcending lived reality and letting liberation abound. University of Cincinnati Associate Professor of Communication Omotayo Banjo describes the effect as “[carving] out a space to reimagine Blackness ­by reclaiming the past while seizing the future.”

View of Wakanda, as seen in Black Panther

Why would Audi co-opt Afro-futurism?  It turns out the car maker also collaborated with another black artist, Regé-Jean Page, the wildly popular actor in Netflix’s Bridgerton, to advertise the new Q4 e-tron (an electric SUV). His interview was about communication and “shared experience.” Just as Monáe speaks of inspiration and imagination, he talked about how he seeks to continually allow people to “feel less alone after they’ve seen something that you’ve put into the world.”

Regé-Jean Page walks in front of the Audi Q4 e-tron

Q4 e-tron,” is not as potent as Monáe’s either-or, conveying the experience of progress slightly differently, but is similar in color palette (with fewer gray or mixed hues), minimalist city setting, and aim:

“For me, one of the best things about life is that we keep moving forward. I love that we’re constantly evolving. We progress every day. We discover exciting new technologies, redefine who we are, and how we want to lead our lives. Basically, we choose what we want our future to look like.”

Regé-Jean Page

Two new cars and faces for Audi. A man and a woman chosen as accompaniment (notable given how such advertisements have historically been oriented toward men as researcher Namrata Sandhu has noted). Both are successful (some might call them “classy”) black artists. Is Audi attempting to converge white- and blackness in a “luxury” land or perhaps responding to Black Panther or recent events like George Floyd’s murder? Regardless, like in the film, a sense of this almost-”fantasy” of black excellence persists–as a world on which Audi may be capitalizing–articulating “the ‘what if’ of a world lived and controlled by and for Black subjects.”

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Audi Q4 e-tron charges against backdrop of city

Envoicing Introverts

How Shy People Can Learn to Speak Up

by Athena Iglesia

In a society that favors extroverted people, introverts are often not seen because they are not heard. The shy, reticent, and withdrawn are overshadowed by the outgoing, talkative, and uninhibited. Often considered a deficiency, introversion is not a disability, but it can be debilitating. That this doesn’t have to be the case is the subject of a recent book by Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In a world where introverts are often told to “speak up” what power does she possibly mean?

Trait vs. State

Despite their efforts to try and break out of their shell, introverts sometimes simply can’t prevail. This, in fact, comes down to three factors: genetics, biology, and our environment.

Susan Cain and journalist Sarah Keating highlight a study that traces personality and temperament down to genetics. The study compared the personality traits of identical twins and fraternal twins. Based on the correlation of the personality traits within each pair, the study suggests that traits do have some genetic basis. As Keating notes, about 30% of introversion as a trait can be attributed to genetics.

Susan Cain also highlighted another study, which suggests that personality is influenced by our biological makeup, specifically pertaining to our brain. The study followed the lives of infants to adolescence and found that infants classified as “high-reactive” tended to be introverts whereas those classified as “low-reactive” tended to be extroverts. “High-reactive” refers to infants that reacted with a fuss and “low-reactive” refers to infants that showed little to no reaction. Infants that reacted with dramatic pumping had an easily excitable amygdala (“the brain’s emotional switchboard [that] signals the rest of the brain and the nervous system how to respond”) and therefore reacted more intensely to something new and stimulating. Since introverts have a sensitive amygdala, they find more comfort in solitude than in situations that overstimulate their nervous system. Being placed in group settings or at the center of attention can make an introvert shut down. It’s not that introverts aren’t sociable, they just need to be placed in the proper stimulating environment.

We can see how this poses an issue in our society.

Speak Up vs. Shutting Up

“The Extroversion Ideal,” as Susan Cain coins it, was a product of the United States’ Industrial Revolution. This new lifestyle birthed a cultural evolution that now focuses on personality and how others perceive someone. The new economy requires, “a salesman, a social operator, someone with a ready smile, a masterful handshake, and the ability to get along with colleagues while simultaneously outshining them.”

Those that do not meet such a standard often do not make the cut. Self-help books boomed which catered to those seeking to improve their first impressions. Advertisements promoted their products by connecting it to this “Culture of Personality” and claiming only their products can save them from the judgment of society. One such advertisement can be seen above. Perhaps not that much has changed in the age of Instagram. With a society that is centered around such a strong preference for sociable and outgoing people, or extroverts, the soft-spoken individuals are left shut out, unable to display what they have to offer. 

But, why are introverts typically soft-spoken in the first place? In a study that focused on the vocal function of introverts and extroverts in a psychological stress reactivity protocol, it was found that “vocal functioning may be less efficient in individuals defined as introverts, especially during stress.” This study collected sEMG (surface electromyography) data from two extralaryngeal sites: submental and infrahyoid. Laryngeal muscles are responsible for sound production. The data showed significant results regarding the infrahyoid, which is a muscle involved in movements of the hyoid bone and thyroid cartilage during vocalization. The researchers found that introverts had greater extralaryngeal activity, particularly with the infrahyoid muscle. Greater variation of activity in this muscle may require more energy for speech production. Thus, this may demonstrate why introverts are quiet.

As explained before, introverts are more easily overstimulated than extroverts. Part of this overstimulation includes auditory sensitivity. In a study about personality attributes and noise sensitivity, it was suggested that introverted individuals have more sensitive auditory thresholds than extroverted ones. This may explain why introverts find what they deem is their normal speaking voice to be louder to themselves than to others. Speaking at what others hear as normal may sound, to introverts, like they are yelling. Therefore, their voices tend to be softer than what society prefers.

Power vs. Powerlessness

So, returning to the question in the opening, what power could soft-spoken individuals possibly hold? Introverts have a lot to offer if society actually lets them showcase it. 

For one thing, introverts are more creative than extroverts, which is vital for innovation. Susan Cain highlighted a study that researched the nature of creativity which offered that more creative individuals tended to be independent and individualistic. She also mentioned numerous studies that showed how working independently led to better results, qualitatively and quantitatively. As she said in her Ted Talk, “solitude is a crucial ingredient often to creativity.” And how many extroverts actually crave solitude?

Contrary to popular belief, introverts make great leaders and actually produce better results than extroverted leaders. Susan Cain explains this is because they are more careful and less likely to take outsize risks. Also, being that they prefer listening over talking, introverts are more willing to let employees run with their ideas as opposed to extroverts who tend to place their own input on other people’s ideas.

Overall, when introverts speak up, it is all the more meaningful and powerful. They are hesitant to voice their opinions in the first place, so when they make their voice known, it is “because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right.” If introverts are super passionate about something, they will let it be heard. It takes a special spark to ignite introverts into speaking up.

Unless society grows to accept the power introverts hold, they can’t stay quiet forever. To help introverts speak up, Patricia Weber’s Communication Toolkit for Introverts highlights the one solution that may enable them to do so: embrace who you are. “People can’t change their personality but they can choose different behavior to get results they want.” By capitalizing upon your unique strengths, talents, and gifts, you can increase your self-confidence to gain the courage to speak up and showcase such unique qualities to the world. Use your heightened listening skills to understand what others are saying and craft a response that is deep and meaningful for “the less you say, the more someone else will remember what you say.” Use your planning skills to organize what you want to present to others and to have answers to questions you may anticipate. Use your preference for solitude to turn your creativity wheels and produce innovative ideas that are valuable. Use your authenticity to cultivate deeper relationships and strengthen your personable skills. Be the introverted person you truly are, unashamed, because the power you hold radiates and the world is simply missing out.

The Rise of Genre Blending

Why some of today’s musicians resist categorization

by Patrick Brogan

In today’s music, there is a trend of artists straying from traditional music genres. “Pop” music is often heard fused with hip-hop, R&B, or even country. Lil Nas X’s 2018 hit Old Town Road combined country and hip-hop in a way previously not seen to this extent in the mainstream, and it went on to set the record for the longest-ever run at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, remaining there for 19 weeks. 

The song’s immense success stemmed from bringing together these two genres – and several others – in a seemingly silly but largely unifying way. The original song was so popular that it was remixed four times, with the likes of country’s Billy Ray Cyrus, EDM’s Diplo, trap’s Young Thug, and even K-pop’s BTS member RM joining on different iterations. The music video features famous artists and other celebrities donning over-the-top blinged-out rodeo-style outfits, all dancing and having a good time.

Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus pose in the music video for “Old Town Road”

This kind of genre-blending is quite common. According to a 2019 article on the rise of genre-blurring music, “Of the 10 acts with the most on-demand streams [in 2019] in the U.S., six are known for blending styles,” says author Neil Shah. New rappers are singing, country artists are combining disco and psychedelia, jazz musicians are moving between a cappella, folk, and soul; completely redefining what it means to be a popular artist in the modern era. Despite the recency of these major successes, writer William Cahn claims that this crossing over of genres and styles reaches as far back as seven hundred years ago. The speed of progress for this movement increased greatly with the Internet and the newfound accessibility of music. Society as a whole is more diachronic today than ever before, and it has become easier and more desirable for listeners to explore diverse collections of songs that are right at their fingertips. Such access molds aesthetic preferences and allows artists to go beyond stylistic purity, granting them the opportunity to explore new regions of music-making.

Curious about the causes behind mixing genres, I conducted an interview with singer/songwriter Vincenzo Torsiello, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Notre Dame. Torsiello comes from a musical family: his mother does modern and flamenco dancing; his father began as a rock guitarist, studied classical music in college, and is now a highly skilled musician of many genres. “Everything I learned about music from a young age was just through my excitement about it and [my dad] telling me things.” Furthermore, he grew up speaking Spanish with his mother and was frequently surrounded by many different cultural and musical traditions. 

Torsiello has released two 12-song albums, Jittersplit (2020) and Estesqueleto / Thiskeleton (2021), both an eclectic mix of songs spanning numerous genres. The first album was written during the pandemic. “When I released the music, [the distributor] CD Baby asked me for tags, and I was at a loss. So, what I did was – I tried to figure out what would be the most all-encompassing way to describe it,” Torsiello recounts. He found that the best ways to describe his music were power pop, alternative, piano rock, and singer/songwriter – all entirely distinct categories. After the release of his first album, Torsiello described in an Observer article some of his music as junk, a term he coined to capture the fusion of jazz and punk present in Jittersplit’s leading track.

Within his collective discography, Torsiello finds it difficult to pin down a succinct response to the type of music he makes. “People ask me this, and I try to tell them, ‘I’m a little all over the place.’” Not wanting to box himself in nor influence peoples’ opinions before listening, he says that he generally avoids genre markers, opting instead for listeners to make their own judgments. According to Torsiello, the more you listen to his music, the more you realize that it’s not what you may have originally expected. This is especially true for Estesqueleto / Thiskeleton, whose first six songs are in Spanish and the other six in English. Torsiello finds that a sense of authenticity stems from his decision to avoid labels. “If I tell you it’s rock, and you hit shuffle on my artist profile and ‘Family Tree’ comes on and you hear soft folk…” Torsiello began, going on to express his worries about preconceived notions of his music raising false expectations.

At the intersection of musical creativity and the actual success of a song, however, an interesting dilemma appears. Looking through his discography Torsiello declared ‘Coyunturas y Huesos’ – the fifth track on his second album – as his most autobiographical yet least streamed song in total. Furthermore, his Spotify for Artists profile showed that all of the six Spanish songs (also the ones most unlike all his recordings so far) were his least played, begging the question of the correlation between straying beyond genre norms and how a song performs for audiences.

Cases such as that of Taylor Swift, who started her career only making country music, show that it is possible to achieve high levels of success in more than one market, as she is one of today’s biggest pop musicians. As researchers Yongren Shi, Yisook Lim, and Chan S. Suh have shown this level of inter-genre success is rare, however. They explored the relationship between boundary crossing and how the music performs or is perceived by audiences, finding “that genre-spanning musicians are more likely to receive lower rating on average compared to genre-specialist musicians in the market.” This pattern of penalty varies between genres, also. Genres with looser boundaries – those with more subcategories – tended to give straying artists a smaller negative impact than genres in which fewer variants exist.

Shi and her co-authors mapped the genres and subgenres as a network, visualizing the inter-genre relationships, showing which are close enough to move between without facing significant consequences.

Genre and subgenre network visualization from Shi et. al.

The colors of the nodes display the parent genre, the connections display which genres are cross-listed by musicians, and the greater thicknesses/shorter distances between subgenres represent an increased frequency of shared genres in songs. In some ways, this mapping can be seen as a sort of roadway for current artists: although it’s possible to move from one side or one color to another, it may be very difficult. Yet musicians continue to chart their own journeys, creating new genres, genre-blends, and other bodies of work that push the envelope of what exists in the musical world.

For now, it seems as though big genres will be here to stay. Though many of today’s hits do not fit within the typical norms of one genre alone, access to this kind of catalog gives artists and listeners alike the avenues through which music is created and distributed. A few breakout hits give a preview of what the distant future may look like, but until then, music’s mainstream still exists in only a handful of channels; with only some creative individuals capable of moving away from these norms.