here's the final draft of my first essay.
Many cultural studies scholars
have focused on music as a particular kind of cultural form through which cultural
flows, bricolage, pastiche, incorporation, and cross cultural and cross ethnic
appropriations are accomplished. Examine and distinguish the arguments
these scholars have made about music, and make an argument of your own for why
music can be distinguished for other cultural forms (or not) at the level of
cultural innovation and global cultural migrations.
Music is sticky stuff. Ideas, values and attitudes have a tendency to cling to it, coloring our phenomenological experience of it with a broad symbolic palate. Music’s stickiness also allows the ideas that cling to it to travel where it travels, change as it changes, and to collide and merge with other ideas when music does the same. From a cultural perspective, this means that music is often central to the construction of identity and to the process of social change. From a scholarly perspective, this means that music often serves as a perfect example for whichever social theory an author happens to espouse. In other words, cultural studies literature contains as many different theorizations of music as there are theories of culture.
However, from this multiplicity of viewpoints, a few dominant questions emerge: Does music serve hegemonic power, or act as a conduit of resistance? Does music precede social change, or reflect it? How does the historical role of music change in an era of mass media? Is music’s meaning a product of its generative structures, the intent of its producers, an inherent quality of its form, or something produced through the act of listening? Although an exhaustive review of the answers theorists have posed to these questions could easily fill a (very interesting) book, I will attempt in this paper to outline the debates in broad brushstrokes.
Adorno (2002) is among the first cultural studies scholars to actively take on music as a subject of analysis. His groundbreaking (and much-maligned) essay ‘On Popular Music’ is primarily concerned with distinguishing between “popular” and “serious” music, and the opposing roles these two cultural forms take in shaping society. Theoretically, the essay is an extension of the ideas expressed in Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1972) The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, which serves as something of a manifesto for the Frankfurt School of cultural studies. In this book, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that mass production, communication media and the “absolute power of capitalism” (p. 120) have combined in the form of the “culture industry” to produce a symbolic environment they refer to as “mass culture.”
The problem with mass culture, according to Adorno and Horkheimer (1972), is that, by systematizing and “pre-chewing” cultural information, the culture industry inculcates a form of passivity among its audience (the lower classes), who are then brainwashed and made the dupes of the powerful elite. This process, they argue, is tantamount to – or, at the very least, opens the door to – political fascism.
For Adorno (2002), the machinery of this process can be gleaned by comparing the aesthetic principles of popular music to those of serious music. Popular music, he argues, is repetitious, infantile, and interchangeable – much like any commodity created by mass production processes. These qualities undermine a listener’s agency by depriving him of the opportunity (and, ultimately, the ability) to interpret musical information for himself. As a result, the listener is forced into “a system of response mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society” (p. 422).
Serious music, by contrast, is self-contained, teleological and unique. The listener can only access its meaning dialectically, by engaging with the music on its own terms, and on its own time. This active engagement, in turn, encourages individuality and agency in the listener, which produces a self-aware, critical and politically self-reliant society. Adorno apparently never considers the logical impossibility of this argument: how can a listener be compelled to be free? If the music and the media have absolute power to shape the minds of their audience, then there can be no appreciable difference in liberty or individuality between a popular music listener and a serious music listener.
Benjamin (1968) provides one of the most potent arguments against Adorno (2002), although he does not address music as a subject distinct from other “art.” He agrees with Adorno that mass production, and the reproducibility of aesthetic information, profoundly change the role that arts play in society. Reproducibility, he argues, destroys the “aura” of artworks as unique and irreplaceable objects, invaluable outpourings of creative genius. However, Benjamin sees this as a good thing. “For the first time in world history,” he writes, “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” (p. 224).
In other words, mechanical reproduction frees the audience for art (and music) from the constraints of the hierarchical, elitist “art-for-art’s-sake” model of meaning production, and opens up a discursive field in which the power to create meaning is far more decentralized, contentious, and transient. In this context, art gains a new political functionality. As we shall see in our later discussion of the Birmingham school, Benjamin’s (1968) point of view is brilliantly ahead of its time.
More recent scholars have directly confronted Adorno (2002), seeking both to illuminate the holes in his argument and to reclaim what is valuable in it. Paddison (1982), for example, argues that Adorno is correct in distinguishing between music that is inherently critical (thus allowing resistance) and inherently uncritical (thus compelling passivity). However, Paddison faults Adorno for failing to distinguish between the critical/uncritical binary and the serious/popular binary. If Adorno weren’t blinded by his own “irrational prejudices” (p. 208) against popular music, Paddison argues, he would have recognized that any genre of music may contain both critical and uncritical works.
Paddison (1982) looks to Adorno’s writings on art (e.g. Minima Moralia) to show that his theories allow for the possibility of resistant music distributed via the mass media. Resistance may be achieved, According to Adorno, by drawing on aesthetic “left-overs” and recontextualizing them in a critical way. Although Paddison doesn’t explicitly make this connection, it may be argued that hip-hop, mash-ups, and other forms of musical bricolage fit this bill to a tee. However, Paddison agrees with Adorno that structural forces may have the capacity to trump even the most resistant aesthetic processes: “increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of marketing and distribution make it ever more difficult for any music – whether serious or popular, traditional or avant-garde, Western or non-Western – to resist its fate as a commodity” (p. 217).
All of the theorists I have discussed thus far are primarily concerned with the interplay between structural and agentic power among music audiences. However, some theorists would argue that the very notion of an audience as a separate class of individual from musical performers is itself the product of a systemic disequilibrium between structural and agentic forces. Barthes (1977), for example, distinguishes between music made to be played and music made to be listened to. The function of technically challenging and theoretically dense music such as Beethoven, he argues, is to render amateurs incapable of playing music for themselves – not necessarily because they lack the physical skill, but because they lack the aesthetic code and the material resources.
According to Barthes (1977), Beethoven wrote fundamentally orchestral music that demanded a conductor, which thus could not be translated into the context of the popular (amateur) musical praxis of his time – e.g. small-group ensembles or soloists. In other words, Beethoven’s aesthetic contains structural imperatives privileging social dynamics such as hierarchy, mechanistic organization, and professionalism. Seen through this lens, it is impossible to view the elevation and dominance of Beethoven’s aesthetic separately from the rise of industrialized society, and from the social reorganization that accompanied it. The end results of this aesthetic-structural shift, according to Barthes, are very similar to the effects Adorno (2002) attributed to popular music: the professional musician becomes a “technician, who relieves the listener of all activity, even by procuration, and abolishes in the sphere of music the very notion of doing.” (p. 150, emphasis in original).
Attali (1985) makes some arguments similar to Barthes’ (1977), although he posits a more cyclical and complex relationship between structural and aesthetic codes. Like Barthes, Attali views the separation of musical production and consumption warily, and interprets the rupture as a function of the demands made by structural forces. For Attali, musical expression is a form of collective social imagination, and changes in musical aesthetic codes thus presage social or organizational change, the one sowing the seeds for the other. In his words, “all music, any organization of sounds is . . . a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community” (p. 6).
Because of its capacity to spur social change, Attali (1985) argues, music is inherently resistant, and poses a constant threat to power. Thus, vested powers have historically attempted to channel and control the production and distribution of musical information. It is through this lens that Attali interprets the gradual professionalization of (European) musicians, which he traces to the fourteenth century enclosure of musical production within the feudal courts. Although music had previously been integrated into daily existence and practiced by nearly every member of society, Attali writes that at this point “musicians became professionals bound to a single master, domestics, producers of spectacles exclusively reserved for a minority” (p. 15, emphasis in original).
This distancing between consumers and producers was made complete, Attali (1985) argues, in the age of capitalism and mass production. Today, he writes, the musician/consumer dialectic both reflects and reproduces the central division of labor at the heart of the capitalist system. However, unlike Adorno (2002), Attali sees a light at the end of the tunnel; beyond the “repetition” that marks industrial society, he sees a new model of musical practice, which he calls “composition.” In this nascent model of musical and social organization, power over the distribution of aesthetic codes becomes decentralized, leading to a utopian rupture, “transforming the world into an art form and life into a shifting pleasure” (p. 147). Although I think this model, like all utopian visions, can be more usefully understood as a vector of change than as a destination, I think it is a valuable framework within which to understand the changes characterizing musical culture today (e.g. peer-to-peer music distribution, online collaboration and performance).
Frith (1996), like Attali (1985), views the historical professionalization of music as a function of social control. He shares Attali’s view that music communicates possibilities for social change through aesthetic means, and thus, poses a threat to entrenched power. In his words, “music gives us a real experience of what the ideal could be” (p. 274). Unlike Attali, however, he views the producer/consumer binary primarily as a map for high/low cultural distinctions (such as those espoused by Adorno ), which in turn map onto social hierarchies, such as race and class. This relationship is, in his model, bi-directional: “pop tastes do not just derive from our socially constructed identities; they also help to shape them” (p. 276). Also unlike Attali, Frith acknowledges that despite the power of these codified aesthetic boundaries, many (if not most) people have historically transcended them in one way or another. Thus, he does not need to resort to Attali’s utopian hopes for the future – instead, he identifies the possibility of agency and self-determination today, within the existing system.
If Frith (1996) owes much of his musical-social model to Attali (1985), he owes just as much to Bourdieu (1984). For Bourdieu, musical taste (like any other taste, from food to film to fashion) is produced and organized through a complex web of social and institutional relations called “the habitus” and artificially normalized to the point where personal taste appears to be innate, rather than socially acquired. This process of taste-production serves one primary function: to establish and legitimate class distinctions. In his oft-quoted words, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (p. 6).
According to Bourdieu (1984), taste-based class distinctions are not simply reflected in generic preferences (e.g. opera vs. country & western), but also in the very attitude one brings to aesthetic experience. High art, which reflects and constitutes the tastes of the upper class, demands a different mode of engagement (which Bourdieu refers to as the “aesthetic disposition”) than lowbrow or middlebrow culture. In Bourdieu’s words, “Intellectuals could be said to believe in the representation – literature, theatre, painting – more than in the things represented, whereas the people chiefly expect representations and the conventions which govern them to allow them to believe ‘naively’ in the things represented” (p. 5).
This aesthetic distancing from the subject of representation, Bourdieu (1984) argues, is the point and the sole meaning of high art (at least since the nineteenth century). It produces a commensurate distance between the individual and the world at large – a distance which is both the luxury of an elite class without material concerns and the necessary attitude of a ruling class sustained by the exploitation of others. Frith (1996) quibbles with Bourdieu on this point, arguing that Bourdieu’s understanding of art’s meaning misses the communicative aspects that make art art, or music music. Distinction doesn’t necessarily need to be hierarchical, Frith argues; for instance, two people can build a friendship on a common love for Miles Davis or Britney Spears. Thus, he argues, a full understanding of music’s social role would have to include both its representational and its semiotic content.
Nearly all of the theorists I have reviewed at this point – from Adorno (2002) to Barthes (1977) to Attali (1985) to Bourdieu (1984) – would agree that the meaning of music is related, to a greater or lesser degree, with the structural forces that shaped its production, and that this meaning can be understood simply by conducting structural and formal analysis. However, the Birmingham school and its followers – Hall (1996a; 1996b), Hebdige (1979; 1987) and Morley (2000), for example – would ascribe a larger role to audience reception in the production of musical meaning.
Rather than describing the ways in which music “effects” listeners, these theorists take a deeper interest in exploring the ways in which people “use” music strategically to achieve their social and political ambitions, from identity construction to political message dissemination to social intervention. Hall (1996a) sets the tone for much of this research, arguing for a model of constrained agency, in which music listeners (and producers) have a degree of power over the production of meaning, but are also limited by the “net of constraints, the ‘conditions of existence’ for practical thought and calculation about society” (p. 44) that surround them.
Despite these limitations, Hall (1996b) feels that the cultural arena is an essential site of resistance for disempowered groups or individuals. The decentring of global power following the collapse of European hegemony, he argues, “opens up new spaces of contestation . . . thus presenting us with a strategic and important opportunity for intervention in the popular cultural field” (p. 466).
According to Hall (1996b), this combination of constraint and agency, subjugation and opportunity, can be witnessed in the centrality of music to black popular culture. Strategically prevented for many years from competing for power in the field of linguistic discourse, blacks focused on music as an alternative mode of expression and opportunity for cultural dominance. This was achieved, Hall argues, only through the costly exercise of “strategic essentialism,” the aesthetic codification of blackness. This strategy successfully created discursive power for blacks as a social group, but ultimately undermined the power of individual blacks by shackling their individual identities to the group identity and offering support for racist ideologies based on essentialist beliefs. Hall questions whether such strategic essentialism is still a valuable tactic, arguing that “it is to the diversity, not the homogeneity, of black experience that we must now give our undivided creative attention” (p. 473).
Hebdige (1987) uses this theoretical framework to explore the rise and spread of reggae as an aesthetic vehicle for grassroots news dissemination, social imagination, and identity construction. Like Hall (1996b), he views cultural expression as an opportunity for social intervention, and music as a site for power confrontations: “the important issues for the [recording] artist have less to do with staying ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ and refusing to ‘sell out’ than with grabbing and retaining control of the product at every stage and in all its forms” (p. 107).
Like Attali (1985) and Barthes (1977), Hebdige (1987) believes that social ideas can be coded into musical aesthetic information. However, like Hall (1996a; 1996b) and Gross (1995), he emphasizes the importance of communities of shared meaning and shared practice in the transmission of these ideas. One aesthetic strategy Hebdige makes much of is “versioning,” the Jamaican term for innovation based on the musical commons (e.g. adding new vocals to a hit record). Hebdige uses it as a blanket term to represent the spirit of pastiche at the heart of all Afro-diasporic musics. Versioning, he argues, is “a democratic principle because it implies that no one has the final say” (p. 14). In other words, meanings are endlessly recreated and reinterpreted as aesthetic information travels and morphs throughout culture.
Hebdige (1987) traces the voyage of the musical pastiche “cut ‘n’ mix attitude” (p. 141) from a localized Jamaican cultural strategy to New York City, where it became the genesis of hip-hop, a musical form that has now achieved a degree of global cultural dominance. “When taken to its logical conclusion in rap,” he argues, “cut ‘n’ mix suggests that we shouldn’t be so concerned about where a sound comes from. It’s there for everyone to use. And every time a new connection is made between different kinds of music, a new channel of communication opens up” (p. 146).
This strategy of forging cultural alliances by blending aesthetic codes typifies the kind of “anti-essentialist” intervention recommended by Hall (1996b), Frith (1996) and Lipsitz (1994), and described by Rose (1994) and Neal (1999) with regards to hip-hop and in my own research (Sinnreich, 2004) with regards to mash-ups. Ultimately, these theorists argue, such temporary alliances between strategically defined social groups, enacted through music but geared toward social change, can be an engine of aesthetic innovation, a source of political power, and an important generator of shared meanings in the field of popular music.
For many of the theorists I have discussed, music is largely interchangeable with other cultural forms. For Adorno (2002), popular music is simply one of the many soulless products of the culture industry. For Bourdieu (1984), music functions no differently as a marker of social class than do literature or sports. For Hall (1996b), music is simply one of many cultural forms in which disparate groups and individuals may struggle for power. Personally, I tend to disagree with these viewpoints, and side with scholars such as Attali (1985), Frith (1996) and Hebdige (1987), who see music as a unique form of human communication.
One of music’s most important and unique qualities is so obvious, it seems almost trite to mention: it is invisible. Yet, it makes a world of difference. In our ocularcentric culture, which prizes the eyes over the ears (McCann, 2002; Ong, 1982), this invisibility gives musical information the stealth and power of a secret agent, doing its work while hiding in plain sight. Another, similar aspect of music is that (lyrics notwithstanding), it is a prelinguistic form of communication. Hall (1996b) regards this as a form of inferiority, viewing music as a second-rate booby prize for a political bloc barred from linguistic discourse. But, like its invisibility, music’s prelinguistic quality may be also seen as a source of (hidden) strength. It’s very difficult to censor social ideas expressed musically, because it’s nearly impossible to ascribe a literal meaning to it. And even the most rigidly codified meanings (e.g. the linguistic referents of African talking drum patterns, or the religious implications of Baroque harmonies) can be lost entirely once the musical information is disembedded from its original cultural context and imported into a new one (e.g. a “world music” or “classical” radio format).
There are other points on which my own theoretical understanding of music as a social force diverges from and builds upon the readings I have reviewed here. For instance, I am attracted to Attali’s (1985) and Bourdieu’s (1984) political economic treatment of music as a form of “capital,” but I don’t think either of them got the whole story. Attali focuses on music’s capacity to spur social change. Bourdieu focuses on musical knowledge as a form of “cultural capital” that can act as a mark of power. But I think there is another, more elemental quality to music that underlies both of these qualities – namely, its operation at the levels of cognition and psychology. To me, the nervous system (and the “consciousness” that emerges from it) is a very useful bottom line from which to discuss other levels of human activity and experience. From this perspective, music can be understood as neither political capital nor cultural capital, but cognitive capital. I’m fully aware that there’s no objective “bottom line” for the human condition (someone with a physics background could theoretically argue for “quantum capital”), but I find this a practical framework for both qualitative and quantitative analysis.
A final, related issue that I find lacking in most of the literature is an acknowledgment of music as a phenomenological, or somatic, experience. Music isn’t just an abstract form of information that can be communicated independently of its medium (such as quantitative data or raw text) – it’s an event, something that happens to you physically. Most cultural theory avoids this perspective because it is messy – it’s impossible to capture via any known methodology (I am confident that FMRI tells us no more than ethnography can about people’s physical experiences of music), and it suggests a material determinism and physical essentialism that are anathema to contemporary modes of thought.
Yet, it would also be foolish to continue to ignore this aspect of musical communication. A perfect fifth interval sounds meaningful to people in every culture because the rudimentary mathematical relationship of 2:1 operates uniquely on our ears and our aural/perceptive structures. Similarly, a sound repeated at regular intervals feels rhythmic to us because our perception of time is inherently somatic and our lives are dictated by (dare I say circadian?) rhythms. This doesn’t mean that a perfect fifth or a 4/4 time cycle means the same thing in every culture or to every person – obviously, they don’t – but they are universally recognizable as having the capacity to carry meaning, because of their fundamentally distinctive phenomenological qualities.
Clearly, I have not (yet) assembled a grand unifying theory of music and society, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have the space or the time to discuss it in any detail here. But these are the bare bones of my current model as it stands: music as a physical event, bearing a cognitive capital, subject to the imposition of power and offering the capacity for resistance as it travels in the interpersonal communicative and symbolic space we call culture.
Adorno, T. W. (2002). On popular music. In R. Leppert (ed.), S. H. Gillespie (trans.), Essays on Music, pp. 437-469. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Adorno & Horkheimer (1972). The Dialectic of the Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder.
Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1977)
Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text (Stephen Heath, Ed. and trans.). New York: Hill
Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Frith, S. (1996). Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gross, L. (1995). Art and artists on the margins. In L. Gross, ed., On the Margins of Art Worlds.
Hall, S. (1996a). The problem of ideology. In D. Morley and K.-H. Chen (eds.) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.
Hall, S. (1996b). What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture? In D. Morley and K.-H. Chen (eds.) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.
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Hebdige, D. (1987). Cut 'n' mix: cultural identity and Caribbean music. London: Comedia.
Lipsitz, G. (1994). Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. London: Verso.
McCann, A. (2002, November) Beyond the term ‘music’. Presented at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, LA.
Morley, D. (2000). Home Territories: Media, Mobility, and Identity. London: Routledge.
Neal, M. A. (1999). What the music said: Black popular music and Black public culture. New York: Routledge.
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.
Paddison, M. (1982). The critique criticized: Adorno and popular music. Popular Music, 2, 201-218.
Rose, T. (1994). Black noise: rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Sinnreich, A. (2004). Mash it up!: Hearing a new musical form as an aesthetic resistance movement. National Communication Association, Chicago, 2004.