The Economy of Music or The Music Economy: Deculturalization and Musical Imperialism
I detest audiences. Not in their individual components but en masse I detest audiences, I think they are a force of evil.
Music for entertainment … seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as expression, the inability to communicate at all. It inhabits the pockets of silence that develop between people molded by anxiety, work and undemanding docility.
Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.
There was a time when culture was transmitted through music and not negated by it. The affect of late capitalism on popular music has been that of flattening culture through an evolution of pastiche artistry for the sake of entertainment. The force of evil that Glenn Gould had detected, resulting in his reluctance and final refusal to play for live audiences, is this exact homogenization of musical culture as it has been lifted from the private domain and subsumed by the capitalist global market. In this music has lost its artistic ritualism. We cannot deny, however, the wonderful nature of the beast of global capitalism and the Internet for opening our world up to the wonderful sounds of our sister cultures. Yet at the same time, we must ask ourselves when does contemporary music become merely pastiche and meaningless entertainment?
It was so that, as the Buggles sing, “video killed the radio star.” But something far more sinister than this was the death of music when it became an industry in the first place. That is, when it became a commodity. We cannot deny that music has, for centuries and centuries, served the purpose of entertainment. Indeed, there isn’t much wrong with our use of sound for entertainment and dance. Even though this is true, we risk losing something in music when it is purely an object or commodity for for entertainment. Before music came to serve capital it served the cultural economy. Within this cultural economy music was passed on in a folkloric oral or preformative tradition. Music focused on family and community, tradition and the ritual, and education and storytelling. Our bereavement and spirituality, our humanity, were all surrounded by, celebrated and expressed through music. It is not as if music has always been a beacon of democracy, an anthropological approach to music history will discover a musical class struggle relating to class tastes, but if culture is based on the gift-economy, that is it is generational shared and expressed, then we know music to be an important factor in cultural understanding, practice and transmission.
We have come to a point in the philosophy and psychology of aesthetics which has shown a great amount of freedom in an individual to develop their own tastes; however, we also know that cultural and class pressure goes a far way in shaping the way that an individual sees or understands a certain thing as beautiful or ugly. Simply stated, we have a choice in what we find aesthetically pleasing or not, but this choice can be negated, annexed or suppressed by and through peer pressure. This partly explains the class division between tastes. We often enjoy what we are given or have access to. Even though this is something we should see changing, as we have unlimited access to the sounds of the world, unfortunately classical conditioning still plays some sort of a role in shaping our beliefs and opinions.
While our class might play some role in the type(s) of music we like, it has also historically differentiated the methods of its dissemination. One way to exemplify this is through classical and folk music. Classical music, it is often believed, must be learned and shared through a thorough and rigorous academic method whereas folk music is often thought to be shared purely orally or through observation and repetition in communal settings. Of course this doesn’t always hold true, but the stigmas of musical knowledge acquisition remain.
The technology of musical transmission has changed dramatically during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These in turn have changed the way we create and share music. Music was once shared and primarily learned through performance, we now have a plethora of recording and listening technologies to spread the sounds of our world. This becomes problematic when enmeshed with we know as a music industry. Like good little Marxist analysts, we can all come to the conclusion that those who own the means of production are those who can then shape our tastes and dominate the means of distribution. Even in a increasingly democratic and Internet savvy world our tastes have become funneled into the realms of mediocrity (read as an increasingly homogeneous world, not as an aesthetic value judgement). We have lost our communal and individual sense of catharsis in music for many reasons and no more so deceivingly than through the relationship between an audience and their wagging tails on behalf of a music star.
What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power. However, and this is the supreme irony of it all, never before have musicians tried so hard to communicate with their audience, and never before has that communication been so deceiving. Music now seems hardly more than a somewhat clumsy excuse for the self-glorification of musicians and the growth of a new industrial sector.
There is a problem in both fandom and musical idolatry in that they rely on a deceptive relationship between fan and star. This relationship is embedded within the social imaginary which constructs a dystopic fantasia in which an individual (who believes themselves to be flat or without an identity) grasps onto a star, or the words the star has to say, and digests them in such a way the believe they express who they truly are. However, in their self-glorification the musician is unable to express the nuances behind their own identity as being false and staged. The deception is that the musician cannot possibly live out what they preach in a system subsumed by the late capitalist logic. The culture that they share is the culture of stardom, which is a false culture suspended in the heavens due to idolatress fans. Furthermore, these verging on idolatress relationships between fan and star become ever more pathological in the fan’s over dramatization of the star’s life in question. This is evident in the culture of tinhatting where fans believe they have special knowledge about a star and their sex lives. This, to me, is plain over-investment in something we need not value. You see, where music is powerful, it seems, the star comes to overshadow it in many cases.
Music as a tradition has been innately entwined with the religious experience. In our modern more secular times we might call this a spiritual experience. Religion has used music as both a tool for indoctrination and a tool for our personal search for and relationship with divinity. The family and community too, music was and is a calling to connect spiritually and physically. Traditionally music was not to be experienced passively but actively through participation, most often in ritual. Class divides have always complicated this and in some instances created the idea that there are musicians and their audience. This separation, almost like some sort of caste system, has helped to shape music today under the auspice of late capitalism.
Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.
The cult of capitalism has given birth to the musician as star. The traditions of yore have been replaced with the sacred symbol of the pop-star. A sort vacancy in music has taken place. The lower class are no longer interested in creating music for themselves, to share and communicate within their cultural legacies. Their cultures are being negated through their worship of our new gods taking to the stage and parroting pastiche versions of our histories back at the masses. Popular music has become a Bono-fied mess, and the Bono-fication of it all has been based largely on the service of capital and self-interest. A new genius of liberal communism has surfaced in the wakes of our new superstars whose fractured and deceiving ideologies are reflected back at them through a fan base unaware of their ego-bloating, pathology stoking nature. Below this cult of the supposedly fantastic remains a music for the common people based on folk traditions encompassed by a type of sharing economy that can’t be found in the shape of an app.
This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don’t give a darn. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.
Liner note from Woody Guthrie
Our folk traditions provide space for music to reflect our communities and spaces to gather and share our stories. We are slowly losing these spaces. Our sounds are being appropriated and regurgitated back to us through pastiche modes of expression. The music stars corrupt nature and drive for power is no longer disguised as the culture of late capitalism has thrust these people into god-like positions through lust driven idolatry. We have plenty to lose in this appropriation and bastardization of our musical traditions. We lose our identity and fall into a cycle in which we inscribe the false-fronted identity of another upon ourselves. We lose our sense of community in our waging of tastes against others. We lose the enjoyment of sharing music with each other. We lose our interest in learning music as art through ritual and instead wish to learn music as a path to employment or fame.
I will admit that speaking or writing about music is a difficult task. We always risk to offend; however, the offense is more often a response in which people wish to defend their tastes. Aesthetic taste, when we are speaking of those without an identity, who live inauthentically, in a Kierkegaardian or even Heideggerian sense, is always a risky topic. But we must take the risk in our analysis of popular music formulated as entertainment in late capitalism.
The purpose of my analysis is to highlight the efficacy of music as entertainment to homogenize and dramatize the late capitalist relations between fan and star. It seeks to open the dialogue and explore the often pathological nature of this relationship. To investigate this concept of authenticity to see if there is any ground left to recover, or if it is worth trying to recover at all.
Music has the innate quality of being entertainment, so why is there such a need to dress it up? There is a definite divide between enjoying an artists work and pathological fandom, but the line between these two can often be murky and indefinite. Regardless, the fan/star relationship has been a result of late capitalism and commodity culture. And with commodity, we find pathological fetishism:
with commodities. … it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.
This consumer fetishism causes alienation within the production of music:
Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition: My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.
Marx, Comments on James Mill
This cyclical relationship between fan and star erodes at the possibility for authentic moments within popular music. Music that is commodity cannot express itself with authenticity and becomes pure entertainment. Again, there is nothing wrong with music for entertainment; entertainment is an innate quality of music, or it is an ever-present side effect. However, when music is made for the purpose of pure entertainment we have to question the motive of capital generation and the comodification of the arts. When music is made to sell it negates its cultural value. Popular music might reach the masses; however, the masses aren’t buying the message … they are buying the idea of the message as if it were something to wear. The cultural transmission becomes pastiche and banal. Or, it becomes cultureless transmission. Capitalism does not diversify and commodity works to homogenize. Late capitalism has engulfed music creating an industry around it and commodifying it, alienating musicians and creating a pathological commodity culture around the concept of the fan.
Music needs to be taken back. Music needs to be played and shared. The rise of the rock star follows the rise of capitalist and commodity culture. Authenticity has been abandoned for capital and fame and the creation of the audience / artist divide has ensured that wealthy mediocre artists can maintain an industry hell-bent on destroying music.
As we move forward we need to dismiss the rock star and begin creating music again as communities. We need to create music not for capital under the guise of entertainment, but for the pure enjoyment of it and to share our stories. The narrative of the star mustn’t be taken seriously or idolized. The propping mechanism of commodity must be deconstructed in the realization that music is the expression of culture and catharsis which are things that should not be capitalized off of.
Listen to what you like and what you want. But keep in mind, no star speaks for you or defines you. Music does not define you. You can express yourself through music, yes, become a part of it and not a passive agent or fan. Resist the commodification of music and the flattening of your personality and culture.
Find the poetry in the musician on the street corner, the song of your uncle at family dinner, the drunk singing at the bar. This is the poetry and music of life: when music is shared between friends, family and community performed by friends, family and community. If you wish to find something revolutionary in music, these are the times to remember, not that time you were driving and singing to any number of your favorite pop-stars, who supposedly have some powerful message which is being lost between the dollar bills they have earned selling you their propaganda, getting from one place to the next fighting your own boredom.