Music From the Masses
Good morning, and welcome to the final class period of Contemporary Musical Aesthetics and Political Theory. In front of you is a booklet containing your semester exam, which will count as 35 percent of your final grade.
The semester exam will center upon a single group or performer. You will need to provide information regarding that group or performer's aesthetic and political idiom. Please write your answers in the blue book provided. When you're ready, break the tape seal on your exam booklet and begin. Good luck.
1. Provide general factual information on the musical outfit known as the (International) Noise Conspiracy.
Formed in Sweden in 1998. Its members first became interested in working together through their common ideas regarding consumerist culture and activist politics, and ways rock/pop musical formats might function as message media. The (International) Noise Conspiracy consists of former and current members of Swedish punk/rock/art bands Separation, the Refused, Saidwas, Doughnuts, and -- dig this name -- the Female Anchor of Sade. Members are Lars Strömberg, Dennis Lyxzén, Sara Almgren, Ludwig Dahlberg and Inge Johansson.
2. Describe the "noise" in question.
The Who (minus Roger Daltrey plus Jello Biafra), plus the MC5, plus the Kinks, plus the Violent Femmes without the self-referential humor, plus the Bad Seeds, plus a little bit of Dada. The art movement, not the band.
3. With reference to applicable economic and social theorists, describe the (International) Noise Conspiracy's political context and motivation.
The (I)NC is deeply serious and informed about consumer culture and politics, more so than a band that rocks this happily has any right to be. "Selling of the biggest commodity," runs the tag line on the album; "We are all cultural prostitutes." Bassist Johansson explains it thusly: "Phil Ochs once said that the perfect rock outfit would be a combination of Elvis and Che Guevara. That's what we in the beginning set out to become. It turned out to be a somewhat updated version of that vision. Something like a symbiosis of the Who and Guy Deboard. Or the Jam and Noam Chomsky."
Spin Survival Sickness (their second full-length) without paying too much attention and it sounds reasonably familiar; anyone who's ever owned a Dead Kennedys record or listened to Kick Out the Jams is going to be down with the music. But listen to the lyrics or read the CD booklet (which is packed with a truly ungodly amount of theoretical backing and trace data), and you find you're sitting in a lecture hall. An entertaining lecture hall, to be sure, but the (I)NC means without any doubt at all to take us to school.
Pay attention; I promise this will be painless. During the rise of fascism in Italy in the early 20th century there lived a Marxist theorist named Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci's great contribution to political theory was that political ideology doesn't just enforce itself through military force and legal systems, but also through material cultural production, i.e. the art and music and fashion and goods and services that flourish in any particular nation. To take one example of how this works in practice, this is why when you're traveling abroad and hear any news about home, or see your nation's flag, or hear music which originates in your own personal nation, you feel an undeniable, elemental connection with it regardless of whether you agree with it, or like it. Gramsci called this phenomenon hegemonic enforcement, which means it doesn't happen at gunpoint, it just kind of happens all on its own, so that it feels "natural."
Rock music in its earliest form represented, among other things, a youth-based rebellion against conformist culture. Rock music today is conformist culture. Consumer corporations sponsor rock events. Celebrities hawk consumer products. Rock music as a genre has, by and large, been subsumed into dominant culture so that even ostensibly "rebellious" and controversial elements of it become part of the machine.
The recent banning of Madonna's "What It Feels Like for a Girl" video is a case in point; MTV and VH1 both state that they will not air the video due to its violent content. Except for one simultaneous airing on both channels on a single day, heavily advertised and promo'd. The airing of that video thus becomes a television "event," a broadcast moment designed to pull in viewers, for which advertising space before and after can be sold at market prices. It's an unbelievably cynical and duplicitous process, and it's also the reason nothing Madonna ever does, now or in the future, can truly upset the balance of the system no matter how much seeming "controversy" it causes.
Gramsci predicted this effect, too, noting that most political systems allow a certain amount of packaged resistance to exist in the culture, to perpetuate the illusion that the dominant ideology doesn't totally control media production; "Image Is nothing," Sprite's advertising executives defiantly claim. Look anarchic and rebellious, like Limp Bizkit or Blink 182, and you'll give off the illusion of vitality and revolution without actually having to say or do anything of substance. Really try to fuck with the system, like Negativland did on their 1991 "U2" single, and you'll get sued by Island Records and Chris Blackwell.
The (I)NC (remember them?) packages its political dissent, which is broadly Marxist in a Gramscian vein, in tight little pop music formats, in songs like "Enslavement Blues," "The Subversive Sound," "Imposter Costume" and "Do I Have to Spell It Out?" (to which, apparently, the answer is "yes"). It sounds like pop, and yes it does rock well. But what the (I)NC is really intending to accomplish is what U.S. political theorist Frederic Jameson described in The Political Unconsciousness as the "bringing to the surface . . . the repressed and buried reality" of the economic and political ideologies at work within any given system.
Like the rock music industry.
4. Communism as a political ideology experienced an almost total decline in Europe in the 1990s. Are the (International) Noise Conspiracy's ideas and agendas rendered moot or outdated by this historical reality?
Not in the least, unless you mistakenly equate "Marxist" with "communist," which are two very different critical models. This is the howling banana-peel slip that the Allmusic Guide's Alex Henderson makes when he states in his review of Survival Sickness that "once you get past all the tired, antiquated Marxist rhetoric, you'll find that these guys deliver some incredibly infectious, if derivative, rock & roll." Dismissing the (I)NC's message as outdated is one example of hegemonic enforcement at work: Communism failed, therefore all Marxist thought is invalidated. Capitalism won. Ignore the message. Dance to the beat (which is a little "derivative," aren't those tousle-haired European bands funny and cute when they try to play rock music?).
The distinction, apart from the semantic one, is that (I)NC isn't about pushing a political agenda per se; the group merely wants listeners to think a little bit past the culture they (we) grew up in. From "I Wanna Know About U": "I wanna know about Tiananmen Square, the names and the faces of who died there/I wanna know about 1939, Spanish anarchists in our time/I wanna know about the books you're reading, and the blood that you are bleeding/I wanna know about U." Or, from "Smash It Up": "I want to smash it up for all the kids/Who got fucked up like their parents did/I want to smash it up for all my sisters/Who got caught up in this funky system."
"Manifest this repression/With smart bombs and easy listening," sings Dennis Lyxzén on "(I've Got) Survival Sickness." Are you hearing anything like this on commercial radio much? No. You're hearing Dream run through "He Loves U Not" for the blue millionth time. And you're supposed to. Ignore the message.
5. Is the (International) Noise Conspiracy's political aesthetic too esoteric to reach a wide audience? Discuss whether young punks want to learn about economic theory, or whether Alan Greenspan cares about post-punk music.
Take it away, Dennis Lyxzén.
"When people see us come up on the stage [(I)NC members wear really bitchin' Beatles suits in performance] and they hear us play, a lot of times they're like, 'Oh, yeah, I know this song. The Kinks did it 35 years ago.' But if they listen to the words, after a while they'll have to say, 'Um, no. The Kinks never sang this.' And that's the effect we want. Protest music has usually been confined to either the crusty punk scene or the peace-loving hippie scene. And we wanted to play music for people like my dad, who listened to '60s pop, and also my brother, who listens to contemporary punk rock. We wanted to package it in a certain way so that people would be hit by something they didn't expect. People everywhere by now understand basic rock music. The hard-core punk rock people usually hate us; but the political ideas we're talking about, which are not very new, we think are far too important to be confined to any one scene or genre or music."
So why not stand on a street corner, or pass out leaflets, or teach class, or go to activist meetings? Why take on this project via an essentially ephemeral form of musical expression?
"All those things, passing out leaflets or speaking at meetings, it's all good. But we do this well. We play music well. And if we can take that energy and passion from our politics and put that into music, and make our music that powerful and passionate, then people can understand that politics and protest and all of that can be very sexy and beautiful. And inspiring. The whole reason I got into politics was from listening to the Dead Kennedys, and other punk bands who were into talking about politics. And I went, 'Whoa, this is fucking amazing.' And maybe by doing this we can inspire people to do those things, to play music or pass out flyers or become teachers. Or just to educate themselves. That's a very important role to fill, because music is such a big part of our popular culture, and there are very few bands who are saying the stuff that we're saying."
"It's a very pretentious project," says Lyxzén, and laughs softly. "Let's not lie. It's very pretentious. But we don't think we're bringing The Truth to people. Just a method of analysis. I was in America a couple of times two years ago, with another band, and we talked about this stuff and people didn't like us. They were not impressed by the pinkos. So when we went over last November with the Noise Conspiracy, we were ready for that: 'Let's arm ourselves for battle.' But after every show on that tour, people came up to us afterward and they wanted to talk about all this stuff, about these political issues. And they were informed. They knew about [radical U.S. historian] Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. I think maybe what happened in Seattle two years ago was a point of recognition for American kids; they were not only talking to us about political issues, but about political issues of the day. That made me very happy."
6. Discuss the paradox presented by the fact that the (International) Noise Conspiracy is a band that sells records and presumably wants to make money, while simultaneously railing against consumer culture.
Lyxzén, for one, is particularly sensitive to this point, and it isn't just a theoretical question.
For example, editorial reviewers at Amazon.com recently named Survival Sickness the top indie album of 2000. To appreciate the complexity of this pronouncement, you must know that Amazon.com repeatedly and publicly resisted union organization of its tech workers during that year. "Amazon needs to be flexible in order to innovate on behalf of customers and employees," spokesperson Patty Smith (God, the irony) said in a January 23 article posted on CNN.com. "[Unions] are not terribly flexible when it comes to making changes for the workforce or customer base."
By all means, let's save the workers from the very possibility of forming advocate groups. Amazon.com straw bosses take note, there might be a bit more activism boiling in the editorial ranks of the music offices than you're aware of.
What we're talking about here is the complicated process by which protest movements attempt to appropriate the master's tools -- in this case, the music "biz" -- in order to dismantle the master's house. "We try to look at it from this point of view," says Lyxzén, "Resistance against capitalism has strengthened capitalism. Every time there's a criticism made of capitalism, capitalism tries to buy that resistance and commodify it, turn it into something to be sold." (Remember soda maker Sprite's axiom "Image Is Nothing"?) "But capitalism in the global economy has gone to the point where it can't go any further; there's almost nothing left to buy, and political resistance is now exposing that commodifying process as well. And now everything that's forming a resistance to capitalism is starting to create huge cracks in the system.
"We are 'selling protest.' We realize that we're consumables, we're a product to be bought and sold. I can almost hear the people at Epitaph saying, 'They look good, they say good things in interviews, it's gonna sell.' But at the same time we try to be a product that subverts the meaning of being a product. We want to be a product that when people bring it home, it'll be something more than just a record. I see a lot of hope in it."
7. Do you?
Justify your answer.
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