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Essay: Politically Significant Music

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With reference to the relevant academic literature – whether musicological or sociological – describe the ways in which scholars have written about politics in relation to popular music. Then, making use of well-chosen examples of artists and/or music from the twenty-first century, evaluate the extent to which those authors’ concepts remain relevant.


Music as a medium to convey political ideas and carry political conversation has been undeniably effective. I aim to examine through the course of this essay, considering the context this medium continues to stay relevant in, the degree to which this remains true. In this essay, I focus largely on two concepts: the interpretive value of music in relation to politics, and the hierarchy of politically significant music. Drawing from several musicological and journalistic writings, I will aim to determine what aspects of popular music make it an effective agent in bridging the gap between positions of power and the working class. Throughout the essay, the tool I have used to compare or rebutt arguments is postmodernism. With its roots characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism, postmodernism makes questioning the significance of an objective hierarchical classification of music possible, especially in a 21st-century society, where critical and analytical tools employed in the study of popular music are being continually developed and refined.

The Interpretive Value Of Music

Music falls into the natural role of being a moderating connection between conflict and resolution for evaluating the quality of conflict resolution. Compared to language as prose which tends to delimit interpretation, music as a medium serves to liberate interpretation( O’Connel, Branco 2010). This remains valid since bracketing conflict with resolution becomes immediately limiting because it ignores the existence of a middle ground. By defining war and peace as a singular reading of conflict we are taking an equivocal position that calls into question its fixity as a concept. The beauty of music as a medium for conflict resolution lies in the fact that its cultural politics lies not only in its lyrical expression but in the nature and character of its journey and the poetry in its words. It opens up opportunities to contest expressive meaning, interpretation, and cultural capital. As Tricia Rose states, “it is not just what one says, it is where one can say it, how others react to what one says, and whether one has the means with which to command public space” (Rose 1991). Cultural politics is not simply poetic politics, it is the struggle over context, meaning, and public space. In fact, Lawrence Kramer argues that if not for musical hermeneutics, the value of music is meaningless. It seeks to show how, to interpret music verbally, is to give it a legible place in the conduct of life ( Kramer 2011). However, in the same manner, that O’Connell and Branco see limitations with the interpretation of language as opposed to music, music, especially in a political context, is by itself a complex language, so sometimes poses the same issues faced by prose that music tries to counteract. As is the case with the freedom to interpret, it can be exploited to convey, through the romanticization of political disruption, ideas that might not be necessarily honourable. Postmodern musicology asserts that music must be understood in terms of the particularity of its relations to, broadly conceived, its various contexts.

The Hierarchy Of Politically Significant Music

In order to effectively study politically significant music, we must move away from the implication that the hierarchy of politically significant music exists in a perpetual form. As Jacques Attali shows, the ever-evolving nature of popular music is prophetic. He states, “It has always been in its essence a herald of the times to come. Thus, as we shall see, if it is true that the political organization of the twentieth century is rooted in the political thought of the nineteenth, the latter is almost entirely present in embryonic form in the music of the eighteenth century” (Attali 1985). He argues that in a society where it has turned from an immaterial pleasure to a commodity, it is the music that is illustrative of the evolution of our entire society that is at the top of the influential pyramid. On considering the fluctuating nature of prominent culture, the topic of the hierarchy of socially relevant music cannot be addressed without discussing Theodor Adorno, and his analysis of mass culture and products of the music industry. A German intellectual and a classical pianist with a love for challenging, European music, Adorno expressed his deep distaste for popular music and how it champions the destruction of creative and intellectual thinking: “Even the best -intentioned reformers who use an impoverished and debased language to recommend renewal, strenghten the very power of the established order they are trying to break” (Adorno 1970) , essentially stressing that listening to pop music or low brow music made you no better than the repressive and capitalist industry that manufactures it giving way to the growth of an economic consumerist system that supports the well-off.As musicologist Tia DeNora points out, “Adorno’s project begins philosophically with a critique of reason” (DeNora 2003). However, while Adorno’s socio-musical work holds considerable seriousness in its validity, it fails to acknowledge a difference between mainstream commercial pop and less formulaic popular sounds. His insistence that all pop music was based on an economic system that gave power to a few and had one fundamental characteristic: standardization, limited him from appreciating the varied and often anti-establishment stance that pop music took. Instead, he remained steadfast in his belief that progress was found only in music that dismantled traditional approaches to harmony and replaced them with new sounds to stimulate the intellect as well as stir the soul, making it possible to deem his work irrelevant, since the world is seen as the product of multiple perspectives all of which have some truth. Mendall (2006) understands that the hierarchy lies on the process of composition- “the important thing is not how you justify it, the important thing is how it sounds” and asserts the issue that “the only way you can be recognized is if in the intellectual environment they accept you or reject you.” However, Mendall refuses to erase his identity and political views from his music, which might marginalize him within this musical culture, even though he is conscious that the complex relationship between his musical identity and cultural identity could be a straightjacket. This argument is based on hypocrisy- he maintains a certain authority and legitimacy as a composer of contemporary Western art music while criticizing the system it represents(Randall 2017). In connection with Mendall’s thinking, a left-leaning group in the 1950s and 60s, Scratch orchestra saw two oppressive blocs ‘serious art music’ and ‘commercialization of pop’. They rejected both serious music and commercial pop and argued that music should be freer and more open in terms of who could participate. Alan Lomax disagreed and celebrated pop- and so did a cultural brand that theorised messages that were communicated through pop culture– fashion choices, record covers. Pop culture enables the mobilisation of media to challenge dissociations and asymmetries of spectatorship in a way that art music is unable to. The blind demogration of pop culture is flawed, and this line of thinking is enabled by postmodernism (Lomax 1966). Dave Randall asserts the importance of a post-modern perspective and argues that the premise of all three positions is problematic. He stresses that they all start with the assumption that the social impact of music is determined by style (Randall 2017). All the styles are inter-fluid,which is why taking

independent positions might be problematic. This is supported by the concept of post-structuralism, which dictates that all aspects of human experience are textual, that is everything we know about ourselves and the world is based on language. The arbitrary binary, that is high-brow and low-brow demonstrates that the motivation for it lies in cultural dominance. Ania Loomba proposes in her critical review of postcolonial theories that this is the result of the postcolonial perspective. Scholars need to think, she argues, “about how subjectivities of genre are shaped by questions of class, gender and context”. Western art music represents the “colonized stance” while popular music represents the opposition. Differentiating the popular from ‘higher’ forms of music that especially include western art music and certain types of jazz fail to acknowledge the colonial elitist and racist philosophies that have shaped hierarchies of the “high” and the “low” in western art forms. This, however, adds suspect to critique that is not coming from the outside, since it is then an exercise in self-criticism, is polluted by postcolonial subjectivity(Loomba 1998). In the context of western pop culture in the 21st century, the colonized stance can be understood to be replaced by the capitalist stance. This implies that since high brow would have to exist in a colonial setting to be relevant politically if we’re assuming that popular music holds any power of influence in the present postcolonial setting, it requires a capitalist economy to exist. M.I.A.: The British-Srilankan musician and activist was instrumental in expanding the conversation of political music to places that had largely been excluded. Released alongside her third album, ‘Maya’, ‘Born Free’, a music video/documentary directed by Romain Gavras covers the blanket topic of oppression, put in a horrifying context that is fictional yet imaginable thus increasing its shock value, simply because it is conceivable. M.I.A. exercises ideological power and resistance through signs and language. Inspired by genocide against Tamilians in Sri Lanka, coming face to face with third world war zones, slums and border towns, and outwardly challenging institutions that have been ignored even by the US. Music enables insurgence in the most undisguised and visible manner. An undeniably powerful piece of cinema, ‘Born Free’ is an excellent example of how music as a device can be used in an interpretive manner, such that consequentially it can prove more effective than addressing the issue directly. It is a medium where witness and documentary truth-telling coexist with an aesthetics of verbal and visual play.When an element of performativity is introduced it becomes that much easier to digest. “Packaging inherent politics in the form of pleasurable dance music” as Perera explains, MIA recites issues in a conceivable manner such that the guerilla stories of a distant war zone merge with an insurgent metropolitan tactics of survival(Perera 2016). The effectiveness of the sentiment M.I.A. is trying to convey in ‘Born Free’ is so palpable because the irrepressible Energia of M.I.A.’s music is inseparable from the technological conditions of its emergence:a landscape of pre-recorded samples, computer-generated mixes, file-sharing and the internet, as rightly pointed out by Meenakshi Durham in her analysis of the production of M.I.As music. It’s drum-driven dance music that compulsively engages. The aggressiveness of track is brought out with the soundtrack of sirens, heavy machinery, electronics, explosions, and shrieking. The graphic intensity through which it is presented is bound to garner backlash. Statements questioning the validity of pop culture such as “MIA’s message about ethnic cleaning is diluted with too many shocking images to make a serious point” were made. (The Guardian 2010) Pop culture surprisingly garners more offense than real-life atrocities, perhaps since we allow it to seep more into our lives considering the safety of it being a trend in passing. Pop culture and pop artists hold a unique position in this sense since even when the ethics are being questioned, it still enables conversation.

Beyonce: The concept of only high brow music being worthy of political notice, if we consider Adorno’s perspective on high brow music as western art music, it holds almost no grounds for argument in the 21st century. However, postmodernism allows us to reimagine the meaning of high brow. If highbrow, as Adorno saw it, was any music that was autonomous and strayed from the traditional, then it is possible to validate numerous 21st-century popstars as composers of highbrow music. With a focus on Beyonce, a monolith in pop culture, the first of her kind to achieve record levels of success, the justification of her ‘highbrow’ness stems from the claim that “Formation is both provocation and pleasure; inherently political and a deeply personal look at the black and queer bodies who have most often borne the burnt of out politics. all shapes and shades of black bodies are signaled here and move- dare we say “forward”? – information. Even the song’s title is subversive, winking at how we have constructed our identities from that which we were even allowed to call our own.” (The Guardian 2016) It is journalistic writing such as this, which is by The Guardian that is consumed in enormous amounts by the masses enables pop stars to gain some sort of political validity. However, this privileges the capitalist focusing on how much money a musician makes rather than what the music actually conveys. As the New Yorker’s Alex Ross commented, “once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm” (New Yorker 2017). Pushing the capitalist agenda even further, Beyonce addresses race issues in such a manner that her language dictates that her solution requires embracing the class divide. The last line of Formation “Always stay gracious, the best revenge is your paper”. Where paper stands for the universal sign for cash, Beyonce presents a convenient conclusion to the discussion of racial inequality. This brings to question whether pop music should be given the importance of being politically admissible, because, the stardom of artists such as Beyonce overshadows the opinion of other African-American artists who take different, arguably more appropriate approaches such as that the US needs less inequality brought about by a redistribution of wealth. Take, for instance, hip-hop artist Killer Mike who voiced his opinion and belief that everyone deserved economic freedom but faced a much sparser reception since this happened around the same time Formation had been dropped and had garnered a massive amount of interest. Had this been subject to criticism in the conventional way that high brow music is subjected to, perhaps ‘Formation’ would hold a different social significance, perhaps there would be louder questions of monetization of racial struggles. Her abiding interest in money, however, can also be seen as having played to her advantage, not in a reductive materialist sense, but because she has a deep understanding of how money informs social and romantic relations.


Where theorists like Adorno have bordered on the hyperbolic on their condemnation of pop culture, and its inability to be politically accurate; postmodernism celebrates the ambiguity and mediocrity that comes with popular music commenting on politics because of its ability to be more conceivable. It suggests that everything is constructed, nothing is real and as such can question truth formations and political status quo. Any discussion regarding pop music in relation to politics calls for society to ultimately operate in a way that is not ignorant. While music as a medium of conflict awareness open doors for communication, the danger that it romanticizes violence always persists. It becomes inaudible in the commodity and hides behind the mask of stardom.In a culture that accepts the democratization of music with open arms, it might be time to face the reality that is the death of the highbrow. Subsidiarily, the intention of studying pop music in relation to politics and employing tools of musicological analysis is not necessarily an aim in itself. Instead, by studying how this music functions in society both as a medium for art and news, it can be used to address many different issues of broader relevance. It makes it possible to brings to the surface, in the global sphere, the unspeakable violence of small, hidden wars and existing class and racial struggles. We desperately need a more measured critique of political connections with pop music in order to attain fair assessments of its costs and benefits.


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