Log in

No account? Create an account
Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Is music up to the task of creating social critiques?
To continue my X-post extravaganza, I put this on both the BLEUGH thread and the Adjunct thread. Mark had brought up Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and I'd said — based on my unreliable memory — that, to Jones, "Black American culture contains — among other things — a critique of America, and he doesn’t want to see that critique blunted" (e.g., Black American musical practice contains a critique of America):

(1) Any opinion on Sidney Finkelstein? I read Jazz: A People's Music but can't recall specifically what I took from it; and I once owned but out of a combination of busyness and fear never read How Music Expresses Ideas (the fear because, when I opened it at random, I read something along the lines of "While the Soviet criticism of Shostakovich may have been heavy-handed, there was a fundamental truth...,"* and decided I just wasn't up for it emotionally; I'm sometimes very weak). Do remember considering the jazz book interesting and smart; also that Jones/Baraka cited him favorably — notice that for the title of my John Wójtowicz–Leroi Jones chapter I paraphrase the title "How Music..."

(2) A question we should go into — that we're implicitly raising — is whether Jones (as I've perceived or misperceived him) is right, that music (in comparison to, say, books and essays) is up to the task of creating a cultural critique, at least creating a critique that's more than merely incipient.

(3) Actually it's Otis Ferguson and Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris and ilk who really propelled me to the question. The way I thought of it in college was that the two great proto-auteurists, Ferguson and André Bazin, both treated filmmakers' aesthetic decisions (not just dialogue, but what to show, how to show it, whether to cut or pan, what angle to use) as ways of thinking. To put it crudely, Bazin reads movies for, among other things, the filmmakers' attitudes towards the world, whereas Ferguson reads movies for, among other things, what filmmakers are doing in the world. But obv. it's not either/or for those two critics or in general. Anyway, extend to anyone's behavior, e.g., musician choosing to play this note rather than that, singer phrasing this way or that, fan deciding to dance and deciding which dance, person wearing or not wearing band T-shirt, and on and on and on. Question is, does this hairstyle and acting out really take us far in the way of usable and repeatable critique, of effective understanding, rather than just placing us in Spot A or Spot B etc. in various social situations? (Ludwig Wittgenstein belongs here: we can include in our idea of language that it's more than just the utterances/words, it's also the social practices in which they're embedded, including events, actions.) Btw, what I drew from auteurism wasn't "the director is the author of the film" but rather that filmmaking is a series of choices, and these choices, no matter how original or how rote, constitute thought, no matter whom or what you assign the thought to — the actor, the screenwriter, the director, the studio, social habits, the social structure, the zeitgeist — and no matter how good or bad the thought is. Question is, how far does such thought go? E.g., how a cashier goes about scanning bar codes represents thought, but that doesn't necessarily mean one's scanning of bar codes is a form of social commentary, or can be extrapolated into social commentary.

*Can't locate the exact quote through Google books, which doesn't show any general excerpts and is sparing as to what from my searches of this book it's willing to show. The phrase "heavy-handed" gets me no hits. I did find this noxious sentence: "In the Soviet Union, criticism is a sign of the high regard the people have for music and its creators."

  • 1
One question that immediately came up for me is, "is social critique up to the task of creating a social critiques?" I don't know that music is any more or less "inherently" opaque in that regard than actual (written?) critiques, which tend to be refracted through its audiences in varying levels of comprehension and interpretation. My guess is no -- music's meaning can be widely shared even when (1) it's not "on the page" and (2) it seems not to be "about" the critique from outside some community of shared meaning (e.g. the god-awful music of Rodiguez and its apparently unifying place in the anti-apartheid movement, though I don't know if that's an accurate way of putting it).

Do you need to be conscious of creating a social critique to end up with a good one? My gut says no, of course not, a lot of good social critique happens sometimes despite or sideways to whatever the intentions of the critic were. But then my brain says "yeah but you *finding* a critique in something is not the same as the critique being *put* there. Which is to say that the question is where the onus of the work of critiquing lies -- of course Black American culture contains critique. But everything "contains" critique, because a good critique finds its way into everything (how could the critique NOT be in the omissions, distortions, etc. of white American culture?).

But this still ends me thinking that the role of the critique is in the listener more than the sayer, so hmmmm.

Yeah, I think what you're getting at is right, and my question is plenty sloppy.

It may take me a lot of work to even figure out how to pose the question so that it's at all usable. My underlying concern is that people in my rockwrite/musicwrite(wrong) world — and this goes back to the beginning, e.g., Paul Nelson and Irwin Silber and crew, and Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and crew — were never and are never very good at following through on their incipient critiques. And my world isn't doing a good job of creating good critiques, and is creating a lot of stuff that sounds or feels like critique but isn't. And how's the weather?

So obviously the shortcomings are not confined to just "musical" activity. And my reason for just now putting scare quotes around "musical" is that "music" doesn't exist in isolation. So to ask, "In isolation, is music up to the task of creating a critique?" isn't helpful, given that "music" isn't an isolated activity (and isn't the same activity in every instance people use the word "music").

In early WMS I was moving towards the idea that anything, including naptime and lunch, that leads to a good idea can be considered a part of thought. A critique happens as a part of a stream — a critique is a stream, let's say, in that a brilliant essay that has no past or future is like the tree that falls in the forest. It's not a critique if it leads nowhere. (And I blame the forest.)

But remember the two passages from Blues People that I quoted back in WMS #4, and the first paragraph of my own commentary that followed. I find what Jones wrote and what I wrote very problematic, even if I feel that what both of us wrote — still, somehow, even if I've lost a lot of my optimism — leads in the right direction. The first of the Jones quotes was in the chapter on bop, the second was in regard to Bix Beiderbecke:

Heroin is the most popular addictive drug used by Negroes because, it seems to me, the drug itself transforms the Negro's normal separation from the mainstream of society into an advantage (which, I have been saying, I think it is anyway). It is one-upmanship of the highest order.... The terms of value change radically, and no one can tell the "nodding junkie" that employment or success are of any value at all.

Music, as paradoxical as it might seem, is the result of thought. It is the result of thought perfected at its most empirical, i.e., as attitude, or stance.

--LeRoi Jones, Blues People (1963)
The second quote is more than a bit puzzling — what is "thought perfected at its most empirical"? — the words "attitude" and "stance" are too passive, and the word "thought" implies something too private. Nonetheless, Jones's idea leads in the right direction. E.g. you [John Wójtowicz] have described the jazz musician’s relation to rhythm-form-tradition, but you've left out his equally important relationship to other human beings. On the bandstand or in rehearsal (or jam session), the musician literally interacts with other people every time he plays a note (or doesn't play a note — see Jimmy Garrison). His music contains "thought" (in Jones's sense) because it contains his answer to the question, "How do I relate to these guys?" "These guys" refers to the other musicians, the audience, and, in a vaguer way, the world.
--Frank Kogan, Why Music Sucks #4, 1988.
Continuing the theme "You can walk and chew gum at the same time," I'll emphasize that this sort of thinking — answering the question "How do I relate to these guys?" — is not the only way that a musician's activities can be considered thought.

Edited at 2015-04-06 03:26 am (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
Here's four examples, two live jazz and two radio norteño; the point of all four might just be "context matters," but we'll see:

1. Jazz composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith plays excerpts from his civil rights suite "Ten Freedom Summers" in Chicago's Millennium Park as part of Jazz Fest 2013. (Some context here.) The music is part improv and part composed, for jazz quartet and string ensemble, no vocals at all, and its prevailing mood is serious. On the 4-disc set, Smith gets a lot of social critique mileage out of titles like "Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964." On the other hand, anyone listening to the 4-disc set is the kind of person who listens to 4-disc abstract jazz concept albums about the civil rights movement. In the park is a different story. I've been there for previous years' avant-headliners Ornette and Threadgill, and they were immensely popular, but they grooved and swung and gave the people a good time. Now Smith -- as much modern classical composer as he is jazz artist -- is grooving occasionally, barely swinging, and not creating much that resembles a jazz club. Sometimes his creation resembles the CSO on one of their "new composer" nights -- long tones scraping against one another, passages without any discernible tonality or rhythm. People, I'm pretty sure both black and white, get up and leave. I ascribe this to their philistinism, though maybe they just needed to catch a train. Possible social critique: jazz isn't what you think it is, you Jazz Fest interlopers, and maybe you don't adequately understand the civil rights movement either.

2. Jazz composer, saxophonist, and vocalist Matana Roberts plays her suite "Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile" in Millennium Park in 2014, though NOT as part of Jazz Fest -- she's headlining a standalone show. (Some context here.) Before the piece begins she dedicates it to a whole host of people, ending with the recently slain "Mike Brown." The beginning of the piece swells to cacophony, even louder and harder to parse than on record. The second half incorporates spoken word, catchy ostinato tunes, and hymns, ending with "In the Garden," a song about walking and talking with Jesus. I imagine Michael Brown is singing it. People attending this show probably know what they're getting into, but some still leave during the cacophony. Philistines! Possible social critique: if you can't abide the cacophony you don't deserve the hymn, and vice versa -- only now apply that to LIFE.

3. In 2014 two Mexican corrido artists, Calibre 50 and El Komander, sometimes find themselves banned from performing in certain jurisdictions, in a country that's been known to ban violent corridos from the radio. To retaliate, they record "Qué Tiene de Malo" (some context here), a non-violent (though not nonviolent) corrido about how listening to violent corridos doesn't make you a bad person. The song is ultra catchy, though Juana at the Jukebox disagrees. It hits #1 on Mexican radio. Possible social critique: all in all you're just another brick in the wall; though actually, I think these guys just want our money.

4. In 2014 another Mexican corrido artist, 22-year-old Ariel Camacho, records a hot new corrido called "El Karma." The song is about kidnapping ending in death by R-15, though my Spanish is sketchy enough I'm not sure who's doing the kidnapping or the shooting. The song ends with the line, "nobody escapes the reaper." Other versions of this song are speedy, either triumphal or drunken, performed by norteño quintet or banda. Camacho's version is slower, stripped down to two guitars and a tuba (some context here), the fatalistic retelling of an old old story. Camacho's version becomes the hit version on regional Mexican radio, where it sounds like nothing else -- it's surrounded by sappy love songs and cheery trafficking songs. In early 2015 Camacho dies in a car wreck and "El Karma" hits #1 on Billboard's overall Hot Latin chart, albeit during a slow week. (It's the first norteño song to do so in years.) Possible social critique: this death we sing about so blithely deserves our respect.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how Camacho differs from Springsteen releasing all his fatalistic demos as "Nebraska" -- did THAT music function as social critique? And does it matter that all these possible social critiques, maybe except #3, seem to function first as critiques of their own audience?

Edited at 2015-04-10 03:42 am (UTC)

But yeah, in all four of my examples there are at least three (?) distinct steps to the critique:

1. Artist creates music, i.e., makes choices about how to set a particular text, or whether to swing this bit about Fannie Lou Hamer (BOTH Wadada and Matana address her), or how many and which instruments should be playing here, or how long to repeat this "free" section;

2. Someone -- artist, concert programmer, record label -- places that music into a particular social context -- concert in the park, radio.

3. Audience receives music and uses it: as a big "fuck you" to government censorship, as an excuse to walk out in a huff, as a private source of awe and wonder, as a lesson in what you can get away with (those two are where I usually land), as a barely heard soundtrack to play frisbee, etc.

Step 2 is the crucial link. If 1 happens and either nobody hears the music, or nobody hears it except for people already sympathetic (lefty critics getting music from publicists, people who purchase minimal corrido albums), the critique won't go very far. It might not even constitute a critique, whether or not the artist intended it as one. (I guess those sympathetic people could clamor for the music to appear in a more public setting, which may be what happened with Camacho's "El Karma," I'm not sure.) And if, during step 2, you throw the music into a setting that proves irrelevant, like a daycare or a noisy everybody-sharing-everything space like Tumblr, the critique still falls flat. But if you can program your critique to speak to people's expectations, then the critique has a shot. If you can upend those expectations, even better, which may explain why my examples seem to first critique their own audience.

Steps 1 and 2 aren't necessarily independent of one another. Wadada and Matana may have composed their music with the idea of challenging people at festivals. But actually getting that music onto a festival stage is as important as the choices made during composition, at least if we're judging whether music gets to constitute a social critique.

Edited at 2015-04-10 11:06 am (UTC)

... which leads to a followup question: If music IS up to the task of creating (and sustaining?) social critiques -- which isn't established, but I lean toward "yes" -- how does it accomplish this task? By mobilizing its audience? By critiquing its audience? By critiquing WHILE mobilizing its audience, or by critiquing THEN mobilizing its audience? Depends?

If music creates social critique by critiquing its own audience, this may explain why music has trouble maintaining social critiques -- the audience as a target of critique is ever shifting. If I hate Wadada in the park and walk out, I might avoid future Wadada park appearances because I'll think they're all stuffy highfalutin art music. If enough of the critiqued jazz audience does the same, Wadada ends up just preaching to the choir again, until he changes his approach and finds a new way to speak to the walker-outers, or a new way to critique the choir.

Matana has sort of done this with her new album, Coin Coin Chapter Three -- it basically rejects the live collage aesthetic of the previous two chapters, instead taking as antecedent (to my ears) mid-20th-century French electro-acoustic collage. It's drony. Matana fans Xhuxk, Anthony, and I are giving it the benefit of the doubt, but the music is certainly critiquing us (or at least ME, I shouldn't speak for the other two). What did we like about the previous two chapters? What place will we allow this chapter within the whole Coin Coin project? Why do we feel entitled to make that call? Whether that translates into larger social critique remains to be seen.

Mobilizing the audience, on the other hand, seems even less predictable -- I'm thinking of "Another Brick In the Wall" showing up as a playground chant (and getting banned, is that right?), or Rob Sheffield's Pazz/Jop comment about Iraq War protesters using "Hot In Herre" during a march. When you TRY to use music as a mobilizing social critique, like one of my wife's colleagues invariably does during union rallies and strikes, it comes off as corny and nostalgic. The organization as critique would continue to exist without the "join the union" songs.

Edited at 2015-04-11 05:03 pm (UTC)

Interestingly, your first three examples are of music that was somewhat intended as conscious critique (e.g., of social injustice, of radio being dumbass), while what you draw out of them as potential or actual critique isn't really — or isn't much — the intended critique. Btw, there's no reason the same can't happen with books and essays, a main intended social message not being nearly as potent (and not being the same) as what's embedded in the "hairstyle" (e.g., social markers) and writing style.

You immediately — and crucially — go into the relationship between work and audience. In my proto-auteurist examples, Ferguson does more with this than Bazin does. Of course, how an audience uses a work is not always going to be embedded in the work (e.g. brick in the wall & hot in herre), though a commentator can read a new work for how it can potentially be used. Ferguson has a nice bit where he predicts the lines in a movie that people are likely to repeat upon leaving a theater.

(I find Ferguson's film criticism more useful than his music criticism, his eye for how movies look, how they're constructed, how they relate outward and radiate outward.)

Not to speak for Jones-Baraka, whom I need to reread. But what I was reading in him (or into him) was what I was also getting from Ferguson, Farber, Bazin, Truffaut, Bangs, Meltzer, et al.: the idea that behavior itself contains possibilities and messages, even or especially behavior that isn't explicitly "social commentary," and that such possibilities go deeper when embedded as behavior than when merely stated verbally. And — believe it or not — my basic complaint in "The Autobiography Of Bob Dylan" and in the first several issues of Why Music Sucks — that modern music circa mid 1980s, especially punk and postpunk, was letting the symbol stand in for the event (an extension, "the feeling stands in for the event")* — is a cousin to Truffaut's complaint in the early '50s that the films in the French postwar Tradition Of Quality were in effect illustrating a bunch of simplistic verbal points rather than deeply communicating by way of mise en scène (mise en scène being, e.g., the "what to show, how to show it" stuff in my post).** An example of my complaint would be:

Dylan feels most real not when he's attacking injustice but when he's attacking Dylan (ditto Stones providing greatest rush when pulling rug out from under Stones) --> punks running this into the ground --> finally, in punk and postpunk, self-destruction merely symbolizes a critique without being a social critique --> HENCE ONE REASON I FIND THAT JONES QUOTE ABOUT HEROIN IN BEBOP SO PROBLEMATIC.

I mean, come on, can being a junkie really be a social critique? —I don't want to simply say "No." Maybe in certain circumstances it can be. But I'm not confident I'll arrive at a "Yes." And my complaint about symbol standing in for event is about how "Yeses" turn into "Noes," anyway.

Hope this wasn't too condensed.

*This is where, back in the day, you and I began our convo, right? Don't get hung up on the word "symbol" — I'm not using it in any deep way, just as a synonym for "signifier."

**This misleadingly makes Truffaut seem anti-verbal. When I get back to my apt. I'll try to dig out a great quote where he talks about how a novel ends with a passage that's essentially mise-en-scène, which the movie version ruins by changing the setting to make a sneering social point.

Edited at 2015-04-11 05:13 pm (UTC)

Jones does seem to value junkiedom as much for its symbolic/shibbolethy possibilities as for the actual effects of the drug -- the "nodding junkie" frees himself from white society's expectations, yes, but he's also "successful" when he "has no trouble procuring his 'shit'" and masters the "addict's jargon" -- and then Jones writes, "The purpose was to isolate even more definitely a cult of protection and rebellion." I also have problems with this, but then I would, not having any desire to belong to the cult. And his idea seems to lead to an authenticity argument: it doesn't matter how well you've mastered the "hip talk" or other heroin signifiers; "Many heroin addicts [leaving himself an escape hatch there] believe that no one can be knowledgeable or "hip" unless he is an addict."

Another example I forgot to mention was "Move That Dope," which I hear and love as reveling in its irresponsibility, a big old "fuck you" to anyone who'd ask rap musicians to be good examples for the community. I'm pretty sure none of those guys actually sell drugs.

I'm still pondering how this works in norteño music, and lack of historical and social immersion is holding me back, but here's my current theory. One of the current and very gradual (like, glacial) lyrical shifts is from narratives of drug production -- narcocorridos about cartel bosses and drug runners -- to narratives of drug consumption -- partying and getting high in the bathroom and whatnot. It SEEMS LIKE most of the consumption narratives are by US bands -- Maura just ran my piece about San Francisco's hyphy norteño movement of last decade -- whereas most of the production narratives are by Mexican bands (although narcocorridista El Komander's lately been singing a lot about getting drunk). If this is the case, for immigrants and their children drug consumption becomes a reverse shibboleth (??), a symbol of belonging to a broader US culture that privileges consumption because it means you have enough money, or you belong enough to know how to procure your shit. This could in turn be a big old "fuck you" from a subaltern culture to a predominant culture who often makes it clear they don't want the subaltern culture here. Possible social critique: we belong because we're buying drugs and not selling them to you?

Though of course, that critique falls on very few ears of the "you," but it could mobilize the "we."

(Anthony just taught me the word "shibboleth" and I've been using it like horse.)

  • 1