Sound theories

December 6, 2017

Jim Bullington reviews a book by musician and political activist David Randall that looks at the role music can play in making social change.

IN SOUND System: The Political Power of Music, musician David Randall brilliantly interweaves history, theory and his own personal experiences to explore how music, musicians and social movements have been a part of the contested cultural space that has either acquiesced, challenged or even changed the world around them.

Randall begins his examination of three major modes of cultural analysis, starting with the German thinker Theodor Adorno's critique of mass culture and the culture industry.

Adorno, writes Randall, saw the U.S. not as "the land of the free," where originality and creativity were in abundance, but as a society more akin to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia, with the drab confines of approved state culture dominant and ruling the day.

In his writings, Adorno seethed with disdain for the simplicity and dumbed-down profitable cultural mass commodification that he viewed as prevalent in American society.

Music wasn't made to create interesting and challenging art. Instead, it was made in places like Tin Pan Alley (a street in New York where songwriters and publicists lived and worked) as just another mass commodity that had little if no originality or authenticity and was meant to be sold to the gullible public.

Steel pan musicians march in Port of Spain, Trinidad
Steel pan musicians march in Port of Spain, Trinidad

Adorno saw this as "music designed to blunt our desire to think for ourselves."

Randall notes that although there's truth to Adorno's critique of a cultural sphere where originality and creativity take a backseat to "formulaic popular sounds," Adorno is also guilty of a reductionist analysis.

In his critique of Adorno, Randall hits the nail on the head: Culture isn't a mechanical monolithic entity. It's a contested space where societal struggles are played out--a space where dominant reactionary commodified elements exist, but also challenges to dominant ideologies, which can create not only resistance, but also new, interesting and often revolutionary cultural realities.

Randall doesn't stop with Adorno's mechanical analysis. He's also critical of cultural theorists who actively celebrate "everything pop in all its kitsch, consumerist glory"--those who "remind us that political messages can be conveyed through every artistic choice--even a haircut."

In reaction to these two areas of analysis, Randall describes the Scratch Orchestra. Formed in 1969, the Scratch Orchestra resisted the rigidity of highbrow, elitist and technically difficult music as well as commercial pop. Together, the ensemble had, as one member put it, "a common experience of the two oppressive blocs in our social and cultural environment--the 'serious' music and art of the establishment on the one hand, and the commercialization of pop, etc. on the other."

RANDALL NOTES that although the three analyses he focuses on are interesting and can provide a useful way to examine music and culture, they leave something to be desired because they all start with the "assumption that the social impact of music is determined by style--how it is made and how it sounds. Then they ask us to pick a side, either 'classical,' 'popular' or 'free improvised.'"

Randall rightly points out that the problem is that musical styles aren't separate and homogenous. In fact, all we have to do is look at history to see a dialectical fluid interrelationship between different forms of music.

"Does it really make sense," Randall asks, "to accept the idea that 'high art' is 'theirs' and 'popular culture' is 'ours'--or the other way around? Should we really reject both in favor of a musical experiment--egalitarian in form, but inaccessible for many listeners?"

It is here where Randall sets up a more complex theoretical analysis underpinning the rest of the book. He writes:

No genre acts exclusively as a weapon of mass distraction and no genre is automatically and always on the side of progress. All forms of music can be used as a part of the system of oppression, but they can also be part of the story of our liberation--the social meaning is not fixed. In fact, the same piece of music or musical act can simultaneously have different meanings, some good and some not that good.

In sum, don't be rigid with your analysis. Music and culture exist on a battleground where they are contested and far from simplistic. And, yes, context really does matter.

This is where Sound System really takes off. Randall writes how the Beatles weren't just a pop band manufactured for mass consumption and Western propaganda, but also how they became an active marker of political resistance in the former USSR and elsewhere.

Further, Randall details the numerous documented attempts by state powers to use popular culture and cultural markers as tools to further elite interests by manufacturing consent in their competition with each other.

In one of the most fascinating chapters, Randall brilliantly describes how elite overreach, material conditions, repression, scarcity, colonialism, imperialism and continued resistance led to the birth of Carnival and the steel pan. Randall writes:

Trinidadian calls for self-rule and universal suffrage had been growing throughout the first decades of the 20th century. Troops were sent to break a strike by dockers in 1919 and with the hardships of the Great Depression spreading to the islands during the 1930s, militant nationalists' idea were gaining ground. The colonial regime became nervous and sought to keep people off the streets, fearful as to how things might escalates in the increasingly politicized atmosphere. In 1936, they introduced Ordinance 23, banning suggestive dancing, profane songs, or songs 'that insult members of the upper-class.' The outbreak of the Second World War gave them a pretext to stop Carnival altogether.

Musicians bided their time, exploring possible alternatives to bamboo. When the U.S. joined the war, the navy commandeered large parts of Trinidad, littering the island with huge numbers of oil drums. In slums areas such as Laventille in East Port of Spain, where musicians go to work, the more attentive of whom noticed that the tone of the drum produced at the start of the playing session changed as the drum became dented. Over time, a tuning system developed and something similar to the now familiar tuned steel pan was revealed to amazed revelers at Trinidad's Victory in Europe Day celebrations in 1945.

The much-loved steel pan--one of the few acoustic instruments to have been invented in the 20th century--exists only because of the creativity and determination of ordinary people facing political repression. The instrument symbolizes our indefatigable desire to express ourselves through music.

In other words, what we so often take for granted today was a direct result of a clash of resistance, politics, music and culture.

THIS IS the most powerful part of Sound System--where Randall describes the many examples of the political power of music and the role music and musicians have played in pivotal social movements as they rebelled against elite power and dominance.

All the examples he gives--the West African fight against colonial rule, the fight for Palestinian rights, Rock Against Racism in Britain, disco and LGBT liberation, the fight against white apartheid rule in South Africa, and the role musicians played in the Arab Spring, among others--add to the richness of the analysis he has interwoven throughout the book.

Yet Randall never over-exaggerates the role that musicians play in social movements. As he points out, music can't always keep pace with events, and musicians are probably not the best activists. In a society that gives way too much credence to the role famous people play, this is refreshing.

Randall also ruminates on stardom, alienation, drugs, survival, festivals, social media, the music industry and the fight for musical and social liberation. Every bit of Sound System is a fascinating journey, not only because we learn through the eyes and mind of a touring musician, but also a musician who is drenched in revolutionary history, theory and practice.

In pondering on what is ahead of us, Randall writes:

From and for communities, or from and for corporations...[t]he different visions for music point toward two different visions for humankind. The first is a vision of greater democracy--a world in which the dictates of the market are cast off and ordinary people figure things out collectively. The second, a vision of greater tyranny and continued exploitation of people and planet. Hope or denial. Socialism or barbarism.

Which path we take will be determined by our collective actions. The choice is ours. Those of us who decide to join the struggle for a better world will need to use every tool and tactic at our disposal. Understanding culture and reclaiming music is only party of the puzzle, but an important part--one that will help to reveal the bigger picture and inspire hope.

There will be trouble ahead, so let's face the music, together. One, Two, One-Two-Three-Four...

Sound System isn't just a text, it's a call to action.

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