Monday Musings: Music, Politics, Subculture and Resistance

Posted on July 11, 2011


The critic is puzzled.

My thinking in various areas has been converging in recent months. For a while this weekly series of essays was alternating between pieces on the music industry, and pieces on music criticism: it’s getting steadily harder for me to maintain that distinction. For one thing, my valuations of music are not entirely independent of my position on various aspects of musical production: recordings that contain audible signs of artistic integrity tend to sound better to me than those that sound as though they were made with the market in mind. This might sound as though I am compromising my aesthetic evaluation with an ideological perspective, but I would actually argue (forcefully) that these two areas of judgement are closely related.

The politics of aesthetics is a pretty interesting topic (to sad theory geeks like me, at least), but it’s one for another day. What I want to talk about now is the political dimension of music (and all music has politics, whether it wants to or not), and the way that it relates to broader social currents, particularly as articulated in subcultures or other minority identities. Recent developments in the technological framework for the distribution of music have enabled the promotion of a whole smorgasbord of independent and oppositional music, in ways that were possible in the past, but far less accessible. Of course, any Marxist theorist will point to its context, its reliance on architectures controlled by global capital (the distribution services, the internet itself), and write any such music off as entirely compromised, its oppositional character exploited as a differential marketing feature. It’s times like this that I’m glad I’m not a Marxist.

The world we live in contains new networks, that allow individuals to connect in ways that are liberating and democratizing, but which are still under the control of small groups of people: these networks are not quite the same as word of mouth, because we’re all born with a mouth. Twitter, for all the revolutionary use that’s recently been made of it in the Arab world, exists to make money (notwithstanding that they have yet to work out exactly how to do that). Open source is a fantastic movement in ICT, one which ties in happily with my anarchist beliefs, but there is no open source global network to go with Linux and Wikipedia: however, it’s entirely possible to use networks like Facebook and Twitter in ways that are oppositional to the very grounds for their existence, without even harming or threatening them in any way. They just want the traffic, and freedom of speech is entirely in their interest, even if it advocates the overthrow of global capitalism: after all, how likely is that to happen? And if it did, how likely would the groups that brought it about be to destroy the very networks that enabled them to manifest as global phenomena?

Yes, things are very complicated. I regard truly independent music, where the only middlemen are access providers like Bandcamp or Reverb Nation (or even the atrocious and crippled Myspace) as politically radical, although that may be the last thing on its authors’ minds. Within the microcosm of the music industry, it’s as though citizens decided to stop paying tax and started going out and sourcing everything government provides for themselves: the long standing architectures of control and exploitation are completely undercut, even if the majority of musicians and listeners don’t yet realise it. The option is there now: any one of us can say ‘no, I won’t buy the pap that’s foisted on me, because I’m going to listen to some of this vast wave of equally (or more) listenable music that’s suddenly become available’. This is an oppositional position.

Such oppositional positions, as they relate to popular music, have historically been the stuff of subculture: held by members of subcultures, and a fundamental constituent of the value systems that inform those subcultures. I’m not just talking about self-consciously political movements like punk, but also the Mods, for example, with their embrace of marginalised black music, the obscurer the better, and their nuanced sartorial codes, designed to signal their difference from mainstream society to the knowing observer.

As mainstreams have fragmented, however, so have subcultures, under pressure from the same forces. In some ways, subcultures have drawn new strength from instant and global communications, but they have split into a confusing plethora of finer distinctions, trying hard to outpace internet accessibility. The coded exclusivity of subcultural symbols and signs is immediately penetrated by the all seeing eye of the global network, and classified like so many butterflies pinned in the lepidopterist’s case: if you want to be a cybergoth you just look on Wikipedia to find out how, and then order the outfits from the specialist suppliers. Gone are the days when the wannabes had to loiter on the fringes of the scene, gradually learning the visual, verbal and musical language by osmosis, and gradually winning acceptance as their identity conformed more closely to type. Perhaps hackers are the new punks, since you have to actually learn to code to become a member.

Subcultures, in terms of groups that identify with a particular visual style and music, are no more oppositional than Sloan rangers now. They may retain adherents with a commitment to something more fundamental, but ultimately, they are differentiated niche markets: brand affiliations are as important to subcultural denizens as to the mainstream today, if not more so. Positions of resistance are articulated in more subtle and stealthy ways.

Refusal is one such way: many people just turn their back on the menu they are given, and cook to their own recipe, still engaged in the networks and processes of digital post-modernity, but listening to sludge-metal, wearing thirties boating outfits, and living in the back of a delivery van. Or whatever. Because the anodyne of the 2010s is so much more depressingly, oppressively anodyne, than even the ideologically bankrupt 1980s, that I’m sure it must drive people away in increasing numbers, given that the options and alternatives are right there for them on their computer screens.

I don’t pretend to have any answers, or any form of superior perspective (I lack the discipline to do the real research that could inform a genuinely meaningful analysis). What I am sure about, without falling into the fallacy of reflectionism, is that there is a relationship between the new socio-economic shape of the music business and musical form. Just as, on a crude level, the requirements of the market meant that many pieces of music were written that lasted for around three minutes, so the myriad contextual forces that shape musical production in the digital era have an effect on the types of music that are performed and recorded, and on the valuations that are placed on them. Two clear, contradictory tendencies are towards a newly total and ruthless genericism on the one hand (new technologies enabling empty professionalism to emerge from even the bedroom studio), and a furiously individual experimentalism and authenticism on the other hand.

I wouldn’t want to fall into the theorist’s trap of valorizing the ‘difficult’ and avant-garde above other types of music (as Theodor Adorno did, in the throes of his future-shock reaction to popular music): I would put a band like Hope And Social as firmly in the second category as say, Throbbing Gristle. Dancing and feeling happy is an important part of being human, even if it is not inherently oppositional, but reclaiming the means by which we achieve that is certainly an act of resistance. I’m wary of reducing issues to a dialectic between two forces: the truth always seems more complex to me. Nevertheless, if it’s a choice between the two tendencies I outlined above, I know which side I’m throwing in with. What about you?