Sampling Stories: On The XX’s “On Hold”

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“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
-Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146

There is much that’s elegant in the music of the UK trio, The XX. Their instrumentation is spare–two voices (one female, one male), an electric guitar and bass, and a DJ making beats and other sounds, from pad chords to noise effects. The voices of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim are unaffected in the sense of not being swamped in reverb or Auto-Tune but rather recorded up front and dry, and in the sense that they stick to a fairly limited range and have a whispered, almost spoken quality. And The XX’s song designs make maximal use of minimal materials–a few chords carefully arranged are enough to carry the vocal melodies far.

“On Hold”, the first single from their new album, is elegant in all these ways, but has a few twists. The song has an electro kick-snare-hi hat-hand claps beat and a four chord progression that snakes around a few variations: I-V-vi-IV, to I-vi-IV-ii, to I-Iv-ii-IV. The progression is coolly effective in sounding almost but not quite the same each time through, which in turn makes the vocal melodies stand out differently. Listening to the song becomes like looking at the same figure against differently colored backgrounds. On the chorus we hear a third voice in the form of a sample from Hall & Oates 1984 song, “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” Though I remember that song from when I was a kid (I used to make cassette mix tapes for house parties—don’t ask), I returned to it on YouTube last week and was delighted to notice that it features a drum machine, has a 50 second intro without vocals, and its video has an opening shot of singer Daryl Hall manipulating sounds on a Prophet synthesizer. Anyway, the verse of this 80s song has the line “You’ve got the body, now you want my soul…” On “On Hold” Jamie XX, The XX’s third member and producer, samples and re-pitches Hall’s lines “Where does it stop/where do you dare me” and “You got my body”, but the word “body” is cut off, which makes it more rhythmic and insistent. Parts of these lines are also mixed in underneath to make a kind of lower register sample wash counterpoint.

Why this sample though? Maybe to set up a play of opposites. Sampling is often used this way–to re-frame audio from the past in the present, while simultaneously commenting on the present through the past. While the Hall & Oates song alternates between swooning (“I, I-I, I’ll do anything”) and then coming to one’s senses (“Say, no go), the XX’s “On Hold” stays fixed on a bleaker realization that a relationship simply isn’t/wasn’t/hasn’t been working (“When did we go cold? I thought I had you on hold”). When we hear and recognize the Hall & Oates sample we notice how the word “body” has been truncated which steals it away from us, as if to reinforce The XX’s point: that our relationship went cold to the point that you don’t even have my body (!). Beyond the meaning of the lyrics, the sample material also simply works as rhythmic Play-Doh: under Jamie XX’s manipulation, Hall’s vocals add a pleasing texture to the song’s electro beat. However you interpret it, this use of a Hall & Oates sample illustrates Roland Barthes’ idea of a text being a “tissue of quotations.” Barthes went on to elaborate the idea:

“the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.”

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