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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.

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Eric Waggoner