Sunday, 11 March 2012

Essay submission

Separating Popular Music and Political Activism
from the Warencharakter

'I believe, in fact, that attempts to bring political protest together with ‘popular music’ – that is, with entertainment music – are for the following reason doomed from the start.
The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise is to such a degree inseparable from the Warencharakter (1) from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempt to outfit it with a new function remain superficial
And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason (accompanies) maudlin music by singing something or other about Vietnam being unbearable…I find, in fact, THIS SONG unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumption-qualities out of it.’
A transcript of an interview ‘Adorno about popular music’

In this interview, Adorno is referring to a Joan Baez performance of ‘oh, freedom’. The interview must have been recorded between 1967 and 1969, given the nature of the footage and also due to the fact Adorno died in 1969. Joan Baez, an American recording artist, had been using her music as a form of political protest in the fields of human rights, peace and environmental justice since 1963 when She sang ‘We shall overcome’ at the March on Washington for jobs and freedom.

This is not an argument that Joan Baez is the best example of popular music and political protest coming together, quite clearly looking through her back catalogue although a songwriter she is more known for being an interpreter of other people’s music. She has however throughout her career remained true to her belief in non-violence and as such has used her music to promote this by connecting with both the subject in the real world and also with her audience.
Instead the essay aims to prove that bringing together political protest and popular music creates authentic culture, which in turn promotes active listening and opens up its meaning and significance thus separating itself from the ‘warencharakter’. This argument will be supported by an analysis of certain Album Covers and how their ‘paratextual’ qualities contribute to this authentic culture.

Adorno qualified his assertion that popular music and political protest are doomed ‘even when it dresses itself in Modernist guise’; meaning even when the intention is to improve people’s lives. This suggests he may have been aware of Baez’s dedication to social justice to this point. She had been vocal about her disagreement with the Vietnam War since 1964 when she publicly endorsed resisting taxes by withholding sixty per cent of her 1963 income taxes. In 1967, she was arrested and imprisoned for ten days for taking part in a sit-in at a military induction centre. In 1972, she attended a peace delegation travelling to North Vietnam and was caught in the eleven-day bombings of Hanoi. (The Guardian 2009 and BBC news archives)

There is strong evidence to demonstrate that her motives for singing in the context of the Vietnam War were in fact to raise awareness and promote action against the horrendous nature of the Vietnam War and not to sell more ‘entertainment records’.
On the whole her album artwork has not been expressive of her political activism apart from 'Blessed are' (Vanguard, 1971) and ‘Come from the shadows' (A& M Records 1972). The black and white cover photograph of Come from the shadows (Figure one) documents an elderly couple being arrested at an anti-war protest, holding hands and flashing peace signs as they are led away. This signifies that the protest is not just part of a sub-cultural movement but is supported by middle class America too. These two serious, diminutive rain soaked figures provide a rousing juxtaposition in front of the much taller, stronger, helmeted arresting Officers. The young man in support in the background proudly displays his CND badge and strides almost triumphantly to his arrest.
Joan Baez quoted from the back of the Album cover (figure two):
“.... In 1972 if you don't fight against a rotten thing you become a part of it.
What I'm asking you to do is take some risks”. ….... “in short, sisters and brothers, arm up with love and come from the shadows " –(Come from the shadows, Joan Baez A&M records 1972)

The Album Cover does not seek to promote itself, being deliberately low key and completely black and white. The title and artist name are set in a small point size typewriter style font, which would have been commonplace at this time. In Coverscaping ,the authors suggest an album cover, ‘simultaneously embodies commercial, indexical, ekphrastic, narrative and paratextual qualities’ (2010, p11) They use paratextual as Genette’s literary notion ‘ a zone not only of transition but also transaction’ (p10). The ‘Come from the shadows’ cover uses paratextual and ekphrastic qualities, particularly in a historical context, over and above a commercial function.
This Album cover analysis and also the contextualizing of Joan Baez’s life provides a strong case that her primary objective has been to raise awareness and promote change, in other words contribute to the creation of ‘Authentic Culture’.
Authentic’ Culture is defined by Horkeimer, a fellow theorist of Adorno from the Frankfurt School. John Storey explains Horkeimer’s Authentic Culture ‘as a function… to keep alive human desire for a better world beyond the confines of the present.’ (2001, p86)
Also contrary to Adorno’s own ideas that popular music promotes ‘passive listening’ and acts as ‘social cement’; by raising political and social issues in popular music, musicians create a ‘desire to change the status quo’ in their audiences.
The Clash, a pioneering Punk band formed in the Summer of 1976, are credited with advocating radical politics in their music. Joe Strummer, the front man and rhythm guitarist, explained how the Notting Hill Carnival riots influenced them
‘We were there at the throw of the very first brick…. This was one time where people went we’ve had enough. This was what gave rise to the song ‘white riot’ because we participated in the riot but I was aware all the time this was the black people’s riot i.e. they had more of an axe to grind and they had the guts to do something physical about it.’( Westway to the world DVd 2001)

Billy Bragg explains this further ‘Their first single, ‘White Riot’, was an explicit attempt to make a connection between the frustration faced by unemployed white youth and their black counterparts whose employment prospects were blighted by racism.’ (Bragg, 2011)

Their first Album, The Clash (CBS 1977) and subsequent Albums have featured authentic and thought provoking imagery on the covers. The back cover of The Clash (figure three) features a photograph shot by Rocco Macauly, of police charging towards black youth under the Westway. This photo was chosen for its paratextual qualities and can be viewed as authentic given Strummer and Simonon, the bass guitarist were both at the riot. The design’s graphically raw feel is enhanced by the image apparently being ripped from a newspaper and the use of an uppercase typewriter style font. In this way the cover lends the same authenticity and rawness to the lyrics.

Their third album London calling (CBS, 1977) designed by Ray Lowry, is a homage to Elvis Presley’s debut album and features a photograph of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar, shot live at The Palladium in New York by Pennie Smith (figure four). In Coverscaping, Sigrid Lien describes the image ‘it radiates young energy and untamed vitality - ideals that represent the very core of the punk aesthetic’ (2010, p160). Similar live shots of the other band members’ feature on the back cover. In keeping with the Punk aesthetic, Smith prides herself on taking ‘authentic’ portraits of musicians and deliberately uses documentary black and white to strengthen this.

Bragg cites it was The Clash that spurred him to take part in his first act of Political Activism at the Rock against Racism concert in 1977. He went on to front Red Wedge in 1986, a group of musicians using their music as a platform to engage young people with politics. To quote a recent article in The Guardian ‘With love songs and folk anthems and an unshakeable commitment to democratic socialism, Bragg and his guitar have been preaching a modest, very English kind of revolution from stages up and down the land for more than three decades now.’ (2011)
Political protest in the form of popular music does not necessarily change the world however in the words of Billy Bragg ‘ it wasn't the Clash that changed my world. It was the audience. In the office I was working in at the time, there was a lot of casual racism. I didn't like it, but I wasn't big enough to say anything. But then I went along to Victoria Park in Hackney one afternoon, and there were 100,000 kids there who felt exactly like me. So I went back to work on Monday morning, and I knew I wasn't alone. My world hadn't changed, but my perception of it had. And that's the role of the musician."

Adorno’s idea that Popular Music is inseparable from consumption takes no account of the critical and discriminating audience or the meanings they can take from the music. Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ offers a much more positive analysis of technological reproduction in culture.
‘The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object produced.’ (Benjamin, 1936, p3)

Benjamin suggests that meaning is produced at the moment of consumption; significance is determined by the process of consumption, regardless of the mode of production. Storey explains this further ‘meaning is no longer seen as unique but open to question, open to use and mobilization’ (2001,p94)
Returning to The Clash, the fact they had to ‘sell out’ to CBS in order to distribute their politicised lyrics did not weaken their meaning and significance but armed their global audience with questions and led them to find solidarity with other liberation movement such as the Anti-Nazi League. The Anti-Nazi league together with bands like The Clash and journalists set up ‘Rock against racism’ As Hebdige observed in Hiding in the light ’RAR…was extraordinarily successful in mobilising a popular front to counter the threatened resurgence in the late 1970’s of racist political parties’ (2002, p213)

The interpretation that there is a role for political protest in popular music also brings into question an idea promoted by another Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse.

‘The idea of art has been turned into a business and all art as gone. As we consume the mass culture ie TV shows and songs this can code us into thinking a certain way about the world in a one dimensional way. Reduces our capacity for free independent thought.’ (Marcuse, 1968, p26-28)

There is no doubt that popular music on many levels is just a business and delivers a form of escapism and one dimensional thinking. Kiss, an American Rock band from the 1970’s are famous for embracing consumer culture, not only selling their music but also licensing a Kiss brand with dolls, comics playing cards and films. Thirty years later, the ‘Kiss Army‘ still travel around the world to see the band at Kiss conventions, shows and trading in merchandise.
On another level some popular music can be authentic in expressing and representing the attitudes of a generation and in this way increase their capacity for free independent thought beyond the institutions they have been brought up in.
Storey, explains how the Cultural study of Popular culture emerged from the work of The Birmingham School. He describes Hall and Whannel ‘The main thesis of the Popular Arts is that in terms of actual quality…’the struggle between what is good and worthwhile and what is shoddy and debased is not a struggle against the modern forms of communication but a conflict within these media.’ (2001, p51) He goes on to explain how they take the idea that our mass media is pre-digested from Greenberg (who took it from Adorno) and use this to discriminate between good and bad popular culture. They define good popular culture as being able to re-establish the rapport between the performer and audience that was lost with industrialisation. On this basis, the use of political protest within popular music can also be differentiated from the mass; Joan Baez and The Clash were able to re-establish the rapport with their audiences that led to active production of culture rather than its passive consumption.

Although Adorno defined his ‘Culture Industry’ and wrote his critical analysis of popular music around seventy years ago it was obvious from the views expressed in the interview that his ideas had not changed towards the end of his life. This was despite the huge cultural changes that were occurring in part because of music with the advent of Rock and Roll since the fifties.
So it makes for a paradoxical conclusion, that with the benefit of historical context, political protest brought together with popular music can be differentiated from mass culture and the ‘warencharakter’ using The Frankfurt School own set of rules; its real and multi-dimensional and promotes active consumption, individual creation and imagination. (Storey 2001, p 93)

Note 1: a commodity character

Figure one

Figure two

Figure three

Figure four

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