Note: all translations of quotations from linked media are the author’s own.
In early March, viewers of the Argentine public television cooking show Cocineros Argentinos were treated to a jaunty bit of live interstitial music as the program returned from a commercial break. In keeping with the day’s Italian theme, a small band consisting of an accordion, violin, and sousaphone played a lively but simple minor-key melody in a brisk tarantella rhythm. “Those boys can play anything,” one of the hosts remarked approvingly. The other observed, “It’s the hit of the summer!”
These sixteen seconds of seemingly innocuous instrumental music on a government-sponsored television program sparked a minor firestorm in the Argentine press. One channel wondered whether they were deliberately “picking a fight with [President] Mauricio Macri,” while another categorized the musical selection as “polemic.” Social media voices in support of the embattled president called for Cocineros Argentinos to be cancelled. Ultimately, the program’s directors apologized to the public for having “bothered or disrespected” their viewers with “ingredients that do not belong in the kitchen.”
How could a bit of instrumental, pseudo-Italian kitsch cause such an uproar? Understanding the offense – for the musical selection was indeed intended as an obscene insult to the nation’s president – requires a bit of a dive into the history and culture of Argentine politics, protest, and sports fandom. The “hit of the summer” of 2018 in Argentina is not a pop song, but a chant that started in a soccer stadium, and has become a viral sonic meme, multiplying across social media and fragmenting into countless musical iterations. By early March, listeners in Argentina heard a clear meaning in this melodic sequence, and no singer was necessary to hear the words it invoked: Mauricio Macri, you son of a whore.
The melody comes originally from a source that expresses quite a different political sentiment. In 1973, after eighteen years of forced exile, ousted populist president Juan Domingo Perón was allowed to return to Argentina, and was shortly thereafter re-elected president. Perón died in office ten months later and was succeeded by his vice president and third wife Isabelita. Isabelita’s reign would soon devolve into an infamously brutal military junta, but in 1973 populist national fervor was running high in the country, and the airwaves were full of catchy, simple patriotic marches:
“Es tiempo de alegrarnos” (“It is time for us to be happy”), by Raúl “Shériko” Fernandez Guzmán, is full of optimism for what Perón’s return means for the country. The second stanza celebrates: “I see that my people returns once more to laughter / It’s that my country has begun to live again / Pain and sadness are left behind / The days of happiness and bliss have returned.”
It’s a sentiment that would be difficult to find today in a country where political discourse is polarized and acrimonious. Macri was elected in November 2015 on a platform that was largely about undoing the policies of the decade of Peronist administrations that preceded him (his party itself is called “Cambiemos” [Let’s Change]). Since coming to power, Macri’s party has pursued a neoliberal agenda that has been increasingly unpopular with the working and middle class. Cuts to state subsidies have made the cost of utilities and mass transit skyrocket, and groups from truck drivers to teachers have organized large-scale protests in response to the austerity measures and budget cuts to the public sector. In response to these increasingly fervent protests, Macri has even authorized violent police repression of crowds. In short, as of the beginning of 2018, he’s politically embattled and a target of widespread criticism from a wide range of sectors.
Yet the “hit of the summer” is not merely an ironic repurposing of an old bit of patriotic musical fluff in a time of unrest. In fact, as the phenomenon first went viral, most Argentines were unware of the music’s original source, which had been a fleeting fad. Instead, the melody had lived on and been transformed through the great repository of popular musical memory that is Argentine soccer culture.
Soccer fandom in Argentina is a full-throated affair. As Kariann Goldschmitt has observed in the case of Brazil, the soundscape of mass gatherings in the soccer stadium, and the affective charge of crowds experiencing the collective pain of loss or the exultation of victory, is a fundamental ingredient of popular identity in Argentina. But it is not the commercial, mediatized end of what Goldschmitt calls the “sports-industrial complex” that is primarily influential here.
Rather, hinchadas, or fan clubs, pride themselves on being able to sing loudly throughout the match, arms extending in unison, typically accompanied by bombos (bass drums), trumpets, and other loud instruments. Fan clubs pride themselves on the variety and creativity of their cantitos – the ‘little songs” that repurpose popular melodies with new lyrics that praise their own side, and insult their opponents’ lack of fortitude. Any memorable melody is fair game: for example, fans of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” might have found the cantito that Argentina embraced during the 2014 World Cup vaguely familiar. In the decades since its release, “Es tiempo de alegrarnos” had been used periodically by the clubs of several teams, in variants whose unifying factor was the use of the obscenity “la puta que te parió” (literally, “the whore that birthed you”) for emphasis.
It was San Lorenzo’s fans who gave the cantito a new life in politics, during a match against Boca Juniors. The connection between Boca and President Macri was obvious for fans of both teams; Macri began his political career as the president of that team. When San Lorenzo fans felt they had been the victim of biased refereeing, the song began: “Mauricio Macri, la puta que te parió…”. All four phrases of the melody repeated the same words.
Unusually for a soccer cantito, the chant was soon picked up by the fans of another team, River Plate, who used it in similar circumstances when facing Macri’s Boca Juniors, their archrivals. Even more unusual, though, is the life that the chant has since taken on outside of the soccer stadium, where it is directed at the President not due to his association with his former club, but because of growing discontent with his political career. In the last weeks of February the cantito, now popularly known by its initials as “MMLPQTP” was heard in concert halls, basketball stadiums, and even in a crowded subway station (where, despite fare prices that have risen at eight times the rate of inflation, service remains irregular and delays are common). Journalists covering the phenomenon began to refer to it as “el hit del verano,” or “the hit of the summer.”
Using the English-language “hit” made clear that the allusion was not merely to the season (February is, of course, summer in the southern hemisphere, and a popular vacation time for Argentines) but to the seasonal nature of pop music consumption. The popular music critic’s thinkpiece seeking to define the essence of the summer song, celebrate it or lament its banality is almost as much of a trope as the phenomenon of the hit summer song itself. The sonic zeitgeist of summer 2018, these journalists suggested, could best be defined not with a breezy club banger, but with the hoarse and irate voices of a nation embroiled in an economic crisis that would make idle days at the beach unthinkable for many of its citizens.
There were attempts to curtail the spread of MMLPTQTP: the national referee’s association debated suspending future soccer matches if the chant broke out, characterizing it as potentially “discriminatory” speech (some cantitos do traffic in racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic epithets, and referees have suspended games in the past to control them). In the end, no such suspensions occurred, perhaps because soccer fans and other musicians alike had already realized that the MMLPQTP chant had re-signified its melody so strongly that the lyrics were no longer necessary. One political cartoonist pointed out the referees’ conundrum perfectly: “They’re not singing the lyrics, sir, just humming the music,” the referee observes, asking, “should I suspend [the game] anyway?” Faced with the specter of censorship, Argentines embraced the full expressive potential of non-linguistic sonic signifiers, and the democratic possibilities of virally distributed, user-created content. A sonic meme was born.
The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, who used it to mean a basic unit of information analogous to a gene, only for information or ideas. I use the term here, though, in keeping with the more contemporary popular usage, to refer to user-generated humorous content – generally captioned images — shared online. Meme sharing sites often provide templates to help users easily generate variations on a theme. In this case, the structural template was a melody and two simple chords (which musicians helpfully transcribed and shared, both in standard Western notation and instructional video formats).
Musicians of all backgrounds flocked to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to riff on MMLPQTP. In a catalog too long to list in its entirety here, a greatest hits compilation might include solo versions for piano and charango, covers in popular genres from blues to cumbia to metal. Argentines with a strong sense of national identity might prefer tango, but Brazilian-style Carnival samba also made an appearance (playfully invoking the possibility of censorship with Spanish “subtitles” that replace the offending phrase with “la la la”). And thus finally, scandalously, the hit song made its way to national television on a cooking show, where despite its transformation into an Italian-style instrumental ditty, the sting of its insulting words was still clearly heard.
The viral success of instrumental versions of MMLPTQP is a prime example what ethnomusicologist Anne Rasmussen has recently called “the politicization of melody.” In music’s potential to comprise and thus link simultaneous linguistic and non-linguistic codes lies its ability to render those linguistic codes superfluous. These linkages provide the potential to signify political messages through melody alone, opening up possibilities for protest that are more difficult to prevent through legal means (broadcasters’ obscenity clauses, for example), or easier to circumvent through technological means (amplified instruments). It would be easy to overstate the durability or pervasiveness of such linkages, however. One need only look back to that same melody’s entirely differently politicized origin, which is today largely forgotten or seen as a curiosity, to imagine that the linkage between the melody to “Es tiempo de alegrarnos” and its current manifestation of partisan abuse might one day fade from popular memory like the one-hit wonders of summers past.
Featured Image: Screencapture from “Monumental MMLPQTP”
Michael S. O’Brien is an assistant professor of music at the College of Charleston. He has been conducting ethnographic field research on music and cultural politics in Argentina since 2003. His article examining the use of thebombocon platillo in Carnival music, soccer fandom, and political culture is forthcoming in the journal Ethnomusicology this fall. He has also published research on protest music in the U.S. in the journal Music and Politics and Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.
**This post is co-authored by Gabriel Solomon Mindel and Alexander J. Ullman
On February 2, 2017, thousands of protesters took to the University of California Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza to protest and ultimately shut down a planned talk by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Captured in real time, its dark and blurry image projected to screens across the world, this gathering dumped fuel on a fire that had been burning slowly for many years. Conservative and predominantly “white-male” resentment against the mainstreaming of “politically correct” speech had become the basis for an inchoate community via the internet and was now emerging as a socially acceptable sentiment in the era of Trump. For those protesting at Berkeley, the silencing of Yiannopoulos was not intended simply to condemn the content of his speech, but to intervene preemptively in the culture-wide “fascist creep” disguising itself as humour and taboo breaking. It called into question the actual meaning of both speech and freedom in a place that had become synonymous with the struggle for both.
Viewed by some as a riot, the militant protest tactics evoked scorn, distress, and confusion from a wide spectrum of respondents. Conservative audiences were horrified by the self-evident violence of the Left, even while enjoying a laugh with Milo at the various fails of “SJW’s” and “snowflakes”. Meanwhile Liberals couldn’t seem to fathom the expressions of anger and nihilism evinced by the black-clad mass celebrating in front of the shattered windows of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, who set a fire at the very steps upon which the Free Speech Movement of 1964 had been birthed. The cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s talk has since set off a chain of rhetorical and physical confrontations resulting in the cancellation of Conservative speeches on campus and multiple “free speech” rallies which have devolved into street battles between a motley cohort of alt-right groups and various counter-protesters surrounding a park that was also named after MLK.
Coincident with the events that same spring, Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre staged Temple by British playwright Steve Waters, a revisiting of 2011’s Occupy London protests whose encampments surrounded the area of St. Paul’s Cathedral. First performed in London in 2015, the play speculates that the swirling circumstances of the ten-day period leading up to the dean’s resignation (including the cathedral’s closing on October 21; the Canon Chancellor’s abrupt resignation on the morning of October 28; and the reopening of the cathedral later that day, effectively evicting the protesters) had something to do with the church’s own struggle to reconcile its responsibility to serve both God and his people in the face of ethical contradictions.
Seeing Temple on Aurora Street, barely two weeks and two blocks from the “Patriot’s Day” melee on April 15, provoked us to consider what resonances seemed to be emerging between places and times evoked in the play and humming in the streets. Thinking comparatively between Berkeley in 2017 and Temple yields historical and political synchronicities, between protest movements and the institutions which arbitrate public space and public speech. Temple offers a critique of how the discourse of “free speech” is naturalized, even weaponized, by historical actors; yet it also imagines speech as sonic form never separate from its ethical content. The play exposes how “free speech” often serves as an empty signifier mobilized for political purposes, how it always risks being separated from its material and ethical consequences. Against this, the play pits the noise of protest as a powerful riposte to these abstractions.
Temple’s story centers around the personal conflict of the Dean, who vacillates between support for the protests surrounding the church and for the city eager to evict them, dramatizing how London’s Occupy movement, displaced from its original encampment outside the London Stock Exchange, took refuge in the courtyards surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral, replacing one symbolic institution of power with another. As the Dean reminds us, this debating throng gathered on the church’s doorstep is an echo of the folkmoot at St. Paul’s Cross from nearly 800 years before: “In the Reformation era firebrands would preach against usury, against merchants in the very presence of the Mayor…doubtless a riotous affair…” Thus Temple situates Occupy as not an impediment to the functioning of the Church, but a revival of “a tradition of free, even odious utterance… of untrammelled public speech” (41-42).
Despite this sympathetic gesture, the Dean struggles against the unremitting noise of the current protestors outside his window. He frequently sits on the window ledge, holding his head as he peers out toward the loud chanting in what otherwise would be moments of silence: “This drumming, the music, the occasional shout…every night this fitful rhythm of noise, shouts, cries” (34). The polyphonic mass is yet another ethically demanding voice fighting for the dean’s attention. So too the other church leaders, the city lawyer arguing for the camp’s eviction, and the Canon Chancellor’s resort to Twitter where the realm of appearances seems to dictate political decisions because “like the whispering gallery …everything we do is broadcast …amplified …reverberating around the world” (42). Should the dean re-open the church and have the protest camp removed? Should he resign? What would Jesus do?
This interior struggle is formalized in the clash between the sound of protesters and the ritualized sounds of the church. The play compresses the drama of a three hour period into an hour and a half, and every quarter hour the bells at St. Paul’s ring, marking the ritualized time structure of the church and its domination over the city’s soundscape. R. Murray Schafer points out in The Soundscape that “time is always running out in the Christian system,” (i.e. its inevitable destiny in the apocalypse) “and the clock bell punctuates this fact” (56). The bells mark time, but they also mark power, for they are the “Sacred Noise” that Schafer claims societies “deliberately invoked as a break from the tedium of tranquility” – the silent world of the profane (51). The Church’s ability to determine time and disturb the peace is the (sound)mark of its power, yet the sound of the London protest encampment frequently disrupts its claim to sovereignty. The sonic agon of the play allegorized the one in the street: as Occupy’s cacophony challenged St. Paul’s exclusive right to make noise without censure, so too can the free speech protests be heard as a kind of sonic riposte to the institutionalized soundscape of the university, a sparse scholarly murmur punctuated by the bells of Berkeley’s Sather Tower.
Sonic ritual and sacred noise bookend Temple: the sound of a church choir opening it and the bells in closing. However, the play’s critique of such ritual occurs through constant sonic disruption and the unremitting attack on silence in the final stage direction (“the noise builds”). Therefore, as the Dean’s decision to reopen the cathedral suggests that the church’s rituals have won out, Temple insinuates that Occupy’s struggle was as much about the power to disrupt the peace with speech as it was to preserve its camp. This disruptive quality of ‘noise’ in the play calls attention to protest’s spatial capacities: the ability for sounding to extend beyond the limits of the body, to challenge the very architectures of power. We never see the protesters in the play, yet their acousmatic noise is manifest as if a distinct body were sharing space within the rectory. . Yet what are the limits of this ghostly aurality? Does the noise of the crowd simply become metaphor? We might ask the same thing of the protests at Berkeley, their proximity to the halls of power – university buildings, city hall, police stations – not compensating for their simultaneous containment in public space and exclusion from power’s internal deliberation. How does this risk metaphorizing the very material presence of these protests, the people who were using their actions and bodies to protest against the right’s usurpation of the term “free speech”?
The contest between the pew and the street in Temple exposed how the term “free speech” is metaphorically mobilized for political and ethical convenience. In a way, Temple is a critique of the Dean Graeme Knowles’s actual homily given on October 28th, 2011, just before the church reopened and just after the diegetic time of the play closes. In this homily, Knowles appropriates the language of testimony while at the same time appealing to a more abstract notion of “free speech”:
We are called out to be witnesses, to speak out, to testify…like Simon and Jude, many of us will be anonymous, but like them, our voices need to be heard. Because of their testimony, we are here today. Without their voice, the good news of the gospel would not have reached us.
While the church’s reopening (and the concomitant removal of Occupy) may actually appear like a restriction on free speech, the dean reassures congregants that the church is itself a testament to it. “World leaders have spoken under this throne,” he says, at once emphasizing the church’s personal importance to Christians who feel silenced by the church’s closing and the political importance of an otherwise “neutral” institution.
Waters’s play attempts to resolve the church/streets binary by filling hollow calls to testimony with multiple voices across a political spectrum, offering a polyvocality that helps to unpack this contradiction of the church standing up for free speech while simultaneously denying it. Through the clash of sounds and the characters voices, Temple exposes how Knowles’s homily is actually covering up a historical contradiction between numerous relations: between various iterations of what “free speech” means; between who controls the soundscape; between various iterations of free speech movements throughout history. It is here that the link to what is happening in Berkeley in 2017 is most poignant, in the resonance between the church’s past and its conflicted present on the one hand, and the dissonance between the historic memory of the UC Berkeley-based Free Speech Movement (FSM) of the fall of 1964 and how the “New Free Speech Movement” of the “alt-right” has effortlessly yet inaccurately usurped its language and moral ground.
If the Church and the University are spaces of exception, institutions that are both public and private, their responsibility to democratized speech is premised on ethical and legal principles that are not the same as the constitution-bound worlds around them. It is this being of the world and not that incites the agonism around who can speak and what they can say: according to Jesus in John 15:19 “… because you do not belong to the world…therefore the world hates you.”
The Free Speech Movement of 1964 advocated for the ability to offer persuasive speech with social consequences–rather than mere talk–carried forth by an uneasy alliance of liberal and conservative students brought together by the simultaneity of the Civil Rights Movement and Republican Party election campaigns. Campus administrators and the economic and political elite of the day claimed that students were being persuaded to perform illegal activities off campus, while it was the FSM leadership’s assertion that civil disobedience and direct action of the type being developed in civil rights and labor struggles was in fact defensible “free expression.” 50 years ago tactics such as sit-ins, occupations, blocking an arrest, and transforming a police car into a stage were seen by moderate and conservative commentators as coercive and violent forms of rebellion, but for activists they paled in comparison to the everyday racist violence affecting Black people in America, the imperial violence of the Vietnam War, or the total annihilation promised by a potential nuclear war. Similarly today, Antifa accept pre-emptive and coercive violence as necessitated by the potential violence summoned by the “alt-right,” whether in the form of lone individuals inspired by their white supremacist ideology or the spectre of a large scale fascist transformation of American society.
Though protest songs provided the background music to the FSM of the 60’s, the current debate and protests over “free speech” call attention to another constitutive relationship between sound and protest, between noise and power. Behind the liberal plea to “lower the voices” and heighten the reason in political discourse is a reminder that sound has an ability to interact with consciousness in non-rational, even hypnotic ways. We see a kind of hypnosis in the very language of “free speech” today, a term invoked by the alt-right and the university to protect certain political agendas similar to the way that the term “objectivity” was deployed mid-century. Stanley Fish made a similar argument in the 1990’s amidst that moment’s culture wars, arguing that because all speech is socially constructed and ideologically asserted “there’s no such thing as Free Speech.”
Free speech, for Fish, only exists as an ideal construct outside of history in which voices are pure “noise,” separated from consequences and assertions. But his notion of “noise” and “free speech” again are too metaphorical, separated from the uneven histories of protected speech and the materiality of noisy protests. As Jonathan Sterne writes, out of the perceived noise and meaninglessness of protests there emerge rhythms and grooves that can be heard farther than they can be seen, that invite participation and resistance. In the context of Temple and the UC Berkeley protests, the “noise” created within and against the term “free speech” should not simply be dialed down or declared a realm of meaningless utterance, but unpacked as an important opening in to how power is both employed and resisted by institutions like the university and the church.
The Chancellors of UC Berkeley have never been averse to using violence to correct and regulate speech on its campuses, whether it be Chancellor Strong’s eviction of the FSM’s occupation of Sproul Hall in 1964, or the brutalization of student protesters by campus police under the watchful eye of Chancellor Birgeneau in 2009. The Dean of St. Paul’s agony could give us insight into what went into Chancellor Christ’s ambivalent public letter that assures us that “free speech” and “safety” will come at a cost. In ‘64 the discourse of “free speech” became a platform for political dialogue and social transformation, not for usurping the language of testimony and personal experience while abstracting real societal power. What the “alt-right” frames as a common struggle for a moral and legal principle only disguises the balances of power that determine who can speak without the consequence of violence: white people or people of color; governments or protestors; bankers or the poor.
“Free Speech” is the domain of a particular sacred noise, one that has the power to disrupt what Martin Luther King Jr. himself described as the “appalling silence and indifference of good people who sit around saying ‘wait on time’.” In this recently discovered speech, given in London just after he spoke at St. Paul’s in December 1964, MLK goes on to say that “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” retroactively giving moral weight to Mario Savio’s demand that “you’ve got to put your bodies […] upon the wheels.” We can see this spirit of rebellion in the counter-rhythms of London’s anti-austerity occupations, rising up to meet the bells of St. Paul’s, and as well in the “rough music” of outraged students rising up to meet the Sather Tower Carillon as it insistently keeps time.
Featured Image: Still from video of Berkeley Protests, February 2017
Gabriel Salomon Mindel is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar whose research considers ways that people produce and struggle for space using sound to extend beyond the limits of their bodies, particularly in formal and informal modes of protest. He received an MFA in Visual Arts from Simon Fraser University where his work focused on the production of visual artworks from time-based phenomena such as sound composition, dance, social practices and protest. He has also spent nearly two decades exhibiting artwork, performing improvised music and composing for dance and film. Images, writings and recordings can be found at https://diademdiscos.com/gms/.
Alexander J. Ullman is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Department of English where he researches Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-first Century Literatures.
On Ventriloquism, Dummies, and Trump’s Voice–Sarah Kessler
A sound art multimedia piece by Anthony William Rasmussen
Funded by the UC MEXUS Dissertation Research Grant
Map graphics by Julie K. Wesp
Additional Footage by Oswaldo Mejía
The megalopolis of Mexico City is experienced by many who live there as a network of “known” places, laden with both personal memory and collective meaning. Sounds provide inhabitants with a powerful means of navigation: the unique calls of street vendors, song fragments, speech, and protest chants echolocate the listener within a vast spatiotemporal grid. The title of this piece (“the snail/the shell”) refers to the prolific spiral motif in Mesoamerican cosmology and alludes to a nonlinear vision of time and space.
The piece consists of four journeys, each beginning at the outskirts of the city and ending in or near the Zócalo—Mexico City’s central plaza and the symbolic heart of the nation. The video element consists of footage captured while walking through various sites in Mexico City and represents the phenomenological present. The audio element provides a counterpoint to the visual: sounds meander and drift from the visual field; occasional ruptures of historical sound expose layers of this audible palimpsest.
Sounding Out! is thrilled to host a virtual installation of “El Caracol” right here, right now:
Featured Image: Screen Capture from El Caracol
Anthony W. Rasmussen is a musician, educator, and postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Currently, he is investigating the transformation of whistles from a rural system of long-distance communication to an aesthetic/symbolic practice in Mexico City. In 2017, he completed a PhD in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside with a dissertation on sound culture and urban conflict, “Resistance Resounds: Hearing Power in Mexico City.” His work can be found in Ethnomusicology Forum. Anthony also holds an MFA from UC Irvine where he studied Persian classical music, music composition, and interactive arts technology. He has composed for film, a range of traditional and experimental ensembles, and is singer/songwriter for the pop group, The Fantastic Toes.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
Standing Up, For Jose–Installation Piece by Mandie O’Connell
In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”
Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:
I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) January 29, 2018
I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?
The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:
Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.
He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.
Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it. He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.
The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:
In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.
He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.
In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.
As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.
In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.
That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.
Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:
Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?
Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.
That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.
Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.
All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.
Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.
Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:
What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.
But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.
The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.
In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.
I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?
Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”
“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.
Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Reads: Jace Clayton’s Uproot–Elizabeth Newton
Re: Chuck Klosterman – “Tomorrow Rarely Knows”–Aaron Trammell