IASPM-US Interview Series: Political Rock, edited by Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz

by Mike D'Errico on February 28, 2014

Political Rock

Edited by Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz, Political Rock (Ashgate, 2013) examines how—through their careers and oeuvre—a diverse group of musicians have expressed political statements, invoked messages of protest, supported social movements, and commented on issues related to class, gender, environmentalism, imperialism, and war. The collection’s editors and authors incorporate autobiographical reflection, song analysis, live performance interpretation, and critical theory to address the contributions of such “political rockers” as Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, The Clash, and Ani DiFranco. In this interview, Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz discuss the book’s inspirations, intentions, and contributions.


Daniel Simmons:  First off, how did you decide on the photograph of Patti Smith for the front cover of this book?

Mark Pedelty: We wanted to find either a good photo of a musician featured in one of the essays or something else that would capture the idea of political rock visually. A few years ago I performed with a drummer, Randy Jezierski, whose partner, Lorraine Mikolon (Lori), had traveled with bands in the 70’s and 80’s as a photographer. Her archive includes photos of the The Clash, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, and others. Really amazing backstage pictures and onstage images. We thought that the photo of Patti Smith performing in front of an American flag was visually stunning, and that it might quickly orient the reader to the topic.

Daniel: From the perspective of editors seeking to define and exemplify the wide range of “political rock,” which artists not written about in this anthology’s chapters do you wish you could have included, and why?

Mark: Great question regarding omission and commission. We came up with a very extensive list of rock acts, those that have the reputation of being “political,” so as to avoid the more typical “all music is political” move. Some music is coded and interpreted as being more immediately relevant to power, justice, inequality, and human stakes in general, so we created the list with those parameters in mind. Then we put out calls for authors to join us and to choose an artist that has mattered greatly to them in some form or fashion. We took the scholar-fan vantage point very seriously. We let potential authors know that if they had someone in mind that was not on the list, but fit the basic criteria (political rock), that we’d be very open to expanding it.

There is also the matter of page length. The publisher asked us to limit the book to about 200 pages and 10 chapters, give or take. We ended up with 223 pages and 11 chapters.

Hopefully, the Introduction speaks to the question of omission. We tried to fill in some blanks via the Intro, but also asked forgiveness for leaving out some very obvious acts. For example, if this were an extensive history vs. a set of biographical case studies, Bruce Springsteen would be an essential addition. Fortunately, most political rock luminaries have been covered elsewhere, so we have attempted to cite the most influential works on the topic, such as Ray Pratt’s Rhythm and Resistance. Pratt does an excellent job with Springsteen, for example.

Kristine Weglarz: I would have loved to include a chapter on System of a Down. Even though Rage Against the Machine have had a few small reunion shows, and Tom Morello still tours, for me, no other band but System of a Down embodies the same spirited use of music videos, lyrics, and the creation of means for fans to productively engage in political and social causes.

Daniel: Your introduction argues that “life, lyric, sound and movement are integrally connected” (15).  The majority of these chapters provide cogent analyses of political rock lyrics, along with musicians’ actions and affiliations with political groups, organizations, and movements; however, minimal attention is given to how the music actually sounds.  With that being said, Kristine’s chapter on Pearl Jam analyzes the band’s theatrical performance of “Bushleaguer,” while Michael LeVan’s commentary on Rage Against the Machine briefly interprets Tom Morello’s guitar noises. Why have scholars of political rock, folk, and especially, rap, focused so much on lyrics instead of on tropes of protest and social statement embedded within instrumental sounds and musical techniques? Free Jazz criticism, particularly Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (written at the very end of the 1960s), focused strictly on musical tropes, techniques, and sounds (though of course, by examining Free Jazz, Kofsky analyzed a genre largely devoid of lyrics). 

Mark: I think there are several reasons for the lyrical emphasis in political rock analysis and the greater attention to other sonic qualities in jazz. Of course, much of the writing in rock studies is focused on sonic matters like timbre and rhythm, using descriptors and analytical frameworks borrowed from the discourse of rock itself. However, as I found when surveying activists several years ago (2009), lyrical content is one of the things that defines political rock as a subgenre. Pardon me for providing a few cites of my other published work; I am providing them for context, because I deal less with these issues in this book. My thinking on these issues has been influenced heavily by a few subprojects and I am uncomfortable speaking for the other authors, each of whom has very different views on the same topics, which is what makes it a worthwhile read, I think. As much as popular music scholars adhere to Simon Frith’s admonition regarding lyrics (and have overreacted to that reasonable caution), their centrality is harder to avoid in political rock. Two of the qualities that make rock songs “political” in the minds of listeners are (1) topicality and (2) lyrical denotation. In fact, the same is true of explicitly political jazz. For example, Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics are easily accessible, and heavily accessed, online. That is somewhat unusual for a jazz artist, but not for explicitly political musician-activists like those we have emphasized in Political Rock. Political rock songs tend to be defined in contradistinction to typical rock, including the emphasis on topicality and lyrical denotation. In much of rock, lyrics are ancillary or, perhaps, just part of the overall sonic gestalt. However, when Peter Gabriel sings about “Biko,” he makes that clear through lyrical performance in addition to signifying it through funereal drums, chants, and bagpipes (and, by the way, according to his assistant, Gabriel read my essay while on a flight and found my interpretation accurate enough to warrant permission to use his lyrics in the essay). When Bruce Springsteen sings “41 Shots,” he echoes Billie Holiday’s exhortations to her club audiences to really listen to the words of “Strange Fruit.” Springsteen tells his festive audience to quiet down and listen differently, to pay attention to the words.

However, I hear these same critiques over and over again when talking about political rock: (1) the canard that “all music is political” (a way of relativizing away and flattening out politically committed musical examples) and your question concerning sound, which is an excellent point. Personally, I’ll admit that I have become somewhat less interested in writing and reading about musical qualities that are better expressed in other media. As numerous persons, including Martin Mull and Elvis Costello, have famously stated, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Personally, I tend not to write as much about deeply connotative aural elements because it is what I, and every musician (i.e., every human being), communicates through musical performance itself. My music studies colleagues might vehemently disagree on this point, but I feel that text is a very good place to write about text, but a less interesting or effective place to communicate timbre, rhythm, harmonics, etc. If you want to understand what it meant and means when Jimi Hendrix performed the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, you are probably better off watching the video and listening to the recording than reading an analytical description of his emotive sound qualities as signified by a masterful balance of distortion and reverberating echo. Having said that, there is too little by way of “instrumental sound and musical technique” in the book. One reason for that might be that, per the goals of the book, these essays were not just written by musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and popular music studies scholars, but by scholar-fans from multiple humanities and social science disciplines. Not everything can be accomplished in one book; and we were more interested in giving earnest attention to what most have ignored, including explicitly political musicianship in movement-related performance contexts.

Kristine: I think it’s important to consider that what we’re seeing in terms of published products (journals, books, etc.) are reflections not just of larger patterns of music scholarship, but more importantly, patterns in how journal and music scholarship publishers interpret what constitutes “fair use” of lyrics. We ran into this issue a few times with a number of chapters and could probably write an article on this exercise alone. This combines with what Mark identified as the waxing and waning of attitudes towards Frith’s anti-lyric stance. I’ve personally tried to stay away from doing lyrical analysis not just for the reasons Frith puts forth, but also because I approach popular music studies more from a performance studies perspective. Additionally, I’m not particularly persuaded by traditional musicology arguments about the meaning, for example, behind parallel fifths, the inclusion of a cadence here rather than there, the melodic structure of the reprise and/or bridge and so forth, as so much of the theory linking these to politics is ahistorical, and really doesn’t address affect as a motivator.

Daniel: Mark’s comment about Peter Gabriel’s interest in Mark’s interpretation of “Biko” reminds me that one common theme addressed throughout this anthology is the shared ideological connection between political musicians and their audiences.  From the now-antiquated MySpace to Pandora, the musician’s ability to grant access to potential listeners has exponentially multiplied.  How might these technological advances affect musicians like Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, or even Kim Gordon, whose work first spread via “DIY” networks and/or independent labels?

Mark: Good question. I have not thought enough about the ways new technologies have changed the production, distribution, and reception of political rock in comparison to other types of rock. Other than a passing reference to tape sharing, I don’t really deal with it in the book chapter either. Linda Keefe and I completed a quantitative content analysis of fan blogs (2010) that does deal with the issue indirectly. We found evidence that fans of political rock acts write about overtly political topics much more often than do fans of other pop and rock artists. However, we did not compare blogs with other media. Yet, as you indicate, it is important to consider how technology might influence politics. I’ve been doing that lately in my work concerning environmental activism among musicians.

One vantage point of Political Rock is autoethnographic. At some point in their essays each scholar-fan was asked to reflect on his/her individual relationship to the chosen artist, especially in terms of political thought and action. Therefore, perhaps I should mainly speak to my own idiosyncratic experience and chapter as it relates to tech. Because it did not receive radio play, I might not have encountered Gabriel’s “Biko” if it were not for the mix tapes my brother sent to me in college. I say that because my main entry to politicized rock, like many of my generation, came about through listening to punk rather than more mainstream musics. That is one reason why, especially with age, I came to appreciate Gabriel more and more. Also, in the anti-apartheid and anti-interventionist movements—especially in relation to U.S. imperialism in Central America—you heard new music and exchanged it as well, so those were my main sources of information about political rock artists as a young activist. I am sure that social media and online distribution has changed the way in which activists exchange musical ideas, with peer-to-peer sharing becoming all the more important, and exposure to diverse and distant music increasing. My relationship to movements has changed with age, as per usual, so I don’t have much insight into that question other than to note that in the survey of activists almost all of them focused on examples from their college-age years, no matter how old they were when filling out the survey. I’ve done the same in my chapter and so have several of the other authors.

Given the changes in tech, I am always a bit surprised by the fact that most of my students listen to a shared set of intersecting artists, depending on their genre of choice. Perhaps the ease of acquiring music outside of industrial distribution channels has produced more of a theoretical than practical opening for critically challenging music. The echo-chamber effect might have increased the insularity of some listeners. I know in my case that I am no more or less likely to encounter politically engaged music now than I was when music was exchanged via tapes and face-to-face conversations with other activists. Pandora-ish algorithms might do more to make the listener feel cosmopolitan and distinct in their musical tastes than they do to truly diversify listeners’ actual tastes.

The big question that I have been working on in this regard is why more people don’t make their own music and, for those who do, why more don’t make it in relation to the local places and communities they inhabit. I’ve been resistant to Sherry Turkle’s idea of Alone Together, but think she has something there. Deterritorialized mindsets and the hyper-mediatization of daily life have had both positive and negative ramifications for political rock and, more importantly, political movements, but I have not thought enough about the topic. Thanks for planting the seed.

Pedelty, Mark. “Musical News: Popular Music in Political Movements.” In The Anthropology of News and Journalism: Global Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Bird, 215-237. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Pedelty, Mark and Linda Keefe. “Political Pop, Political Fans?: A Content Analysis of Music Fan Blogs.” Music and Politics 4, no. 1 (2010): 1-11.

Kristine: I think one of the larger questions this issue raises is about access. I’m skeptical, for issues related to political economy reasons, of the liberatory power of the Internet and file sharing in terms of its equalizing potential. If anything, I believe it exasperates existing differences in power and access. I think this is a challenge that DIY artists face when dealing with new media-centric means for producing and distributing music. The other issue that remains a problem is touring. Even if we accept that music recording and production can and has been decentralized, the industry of touring is still largely centralized and controlled by a very small group of players, who in turn have exclusivity contracts with both venues and labels. This does not bode well for many independent artists looking to find paths of reaching audiences without “plugging in” to a larger traditional network of labels, promoters and eventually, producers.

Daniel: One distinct contribution of your collection is its invitation for readers to engage in ongoing discourse about political rock at “the Political Rock blog on WordPress.com” (xv).  How is that going?

Kristine: I wish I could have better timed my own website to better promote the political rock blog, but alas, I have just managed over the short winter break to get mine up and going, with a link to both the book as well as the Political Rock WordPress blog. My hope is that it provides some needed traffic.

Mark: The book is too new to know yet. Political Rock was written as a conversation starter, so we hope to see part of the conversation happen at http://politicalrock.wordpress.com/. Our hope is that initial library sales and course discounts will get the book out there (and in paperback) so that teachers and instructors might assign a short submission to http://politicalrock.wordpress.com/ as part of using the book in their classes. However, as Kristine points out, it is up to us to get out there and promote it. I hope that everyone reading this interview considers submitting a short story about his or her experience with rock and politics, a favorite political rock artist, etc. There is so little written in terms of the intertextual relationship between rock performance, texts, and lives in relation to politics, and we want to hear from everyone that feels like sharing their experiences and insights. Thanks for helping us get that going. Hopefully we will have a number of submissions to feature by this time next year.

Daniel: Could you elaborate more on a point addressed in your introduction: while it is true that not all political rockers have affiliated themselves with liberal or even leftist causes, much of the scholarship surrounding political rock (including your anthology itself) has somewhat ignored the work of right wing musicians (xvi). Why?

Mark: I would let the explanation in the Introduction stand as is. Most rock explicitly defined as political—whether by fans or critics—has been articulated with liberal politics and/or left movements. Granted, as Lawrence Grossberg explained so effectively in the 90’s, there is nothing intrinsically left, right, or otherwise about rock music as a genre. However, the very fact that he felt compelled to launch an argument against that popular thesis (that rock is tendentiously left) demonstrates the centrality of that popular discourse. As Grossberg demonstrates, it is fallacious to think of rock as intrinsically rebellious, but it is equally undeniable that most of the rock music explicitly coded and decoded as “political” has been articulated with liberal and left movements and ideologies.

Nevertheless, what I often refer to as the “Joe Hill tradition” very clearly articulates “political” folk and rock music to Left politics. Once again, I am only talking about that relatively rare, yet important, subgenre of popular music coded by fans and critics alike as “political.” Whether it is right wing critics [such as Laura Ingraham] asking rock musicians to “shut up and sing” or fans voicing an interest in political rock, let’s face it: few have Ted Nugent in mind. Instead, most mention names that role off the tongue and onto surveys, from Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco.

Having said that, someone needs to write the book on right wing rockers. Pat Long’s article for the New Statesman (March 8, 2012), “Why are there so few right-wing rock stars?” does a nice job of restarting that conversation. In the 90’s, Mark Hamm crafted an excellent chapter on racist skinhead Oi music in American Skinheads. In fact, I found that a frightening and enlightening read. It made me realize what a fine line there is between critical punk parody and less ironic renderings of fascism. It made me think about bands like Fear in a very different way.

Also, as I mentioned above, Political Rock recruited fan-scholars to write about musicians that have greatly influenced them in their thinking and political action. Good luck finding an academic who exhibits that kind of relationship towards a right wing musician.

However, the main point stands: if explicitly political liberal and left rock musicians are rare, explicitly right-wing rock musicians are a very endangered species (once again, I am thinking here in terms of more explicit political articulations and evocations, not a pop musician who evades taxes or a critical reading of Ke$ha). In fact, libraries are chock full of books about what we do not cover in Political Rock. When taking on political topics in rock I am often reminded of Philip Tagg’s concern over inertia in music studies, a powerful poststructural norming that threatens to relativize away and flattens political meaning (everything is political; therefore, nothing is political). Political Rock is purposely crafted to get at a subgenre of music that, despite its importance among politically engaged fans, is largely ignored in mainstream music studies. In fact, music journalists and critics have much more to say on the topic than have popular music scholars. However, that simply adds to your point. Studies of right-wing rock are rarer yet and worthy of a book. Someone should write that book.

Daniel: What were you hoping to learn about the intersection between music and politics when you first chose this project?  How has your understanding of political rock music’s historical and contemporary relationship to politics changed due to either your own personal findings or those of the chapters’ individual authors? I am particularly intrigued by Michael LeVan’s idea of Rage Against the Machine’s “guerilla use of corporate media” to further anti-corporate, anti-imperialist aims from within the body of the corporate, imperialist system itself (202). 

Mark: Frankly, the idea for the book originally came from Doug McLeod at Wisconsin. We were sitting in a bar in Madison and he suggested that we recruit fellow scholars to write about their favorite political rock musicians. He mentioned Michael Franti as a contemporary example. I loved the idea, having been a fan of several punk bands and artists mentioned in the book. However, in undertaking the project I learned a lot about what made rock resonate politically for others, or at least for the scholar-fan-activists involved in the project.

There was a great deal of commonality as well as distinct experiences and voices. For example, although Ani DiFranco, Joan Baez, Julieta Venegas and other women rockers have had a major impact in my own life as a fan and activist, I was not sure if that was true for those who would take up our call for essays. Thanks to great chapters by Marcy Chvasta, Norma Coates, and Nancy Love, women rockers were featured as well as the men who so often dominate these books on the cultural history of rock.

However, despite co-editing the project, I had a hard time choosing a rock artist to write about. I would have naturally turned to The Clash, Billy Bragg, or maybe even Bob Geldof (The Boomtown Rats’ The Fine Art of Surfacing was the first album I memorized). However, after contemplating figures that were influential in movements that I have been a part of over the years (decreasingly with age), Peter Gabriel jumped out, despite the fact that he had only written one explicitly political song that fit all of the requirements of the book (e.g., part of my own past or present as an activist-scholar), “Biko.” I have always been a fan of Gabriel’s music, but was neither part of the mega-benefit phenomenon he helped to invent nor active in Amnesty International and the organizations he supported. However, the moment I wrote about at the end of the essay made such an impression in my mind, and I became so impressed with Gabriel’s backstage organizing over the years, that I felt compelled to write about him. His combination of character-driven maskwork on stage and backstage organizing of peer rock stars is unique and impressive from the standpoint of merging art and politics. As I mention in the essay, as opposed to Bono, Sting, etc., Gabriel made a point of separating his musical characters (onstage) and political persona (offstage), using creative maskwork to create music that had a surprisingly autonomous power. Rather than Bono as deadly serious stage personality preaching about X (a fine and effective orientation as well), Gabriel the artist has always been a performer behind the compelling musical mask, while Gabriel the human being works backstage to foment change. Although I make the point about explicit political articulations in the Introduction, I was intrigued by Gabriel’s powerful, purposeful, and highly selective employment of political themes in music to do political work that reaches far beyond the concert stage and stadium. To answer your second question, that is what changed for me as a result of this research and writing. Writing the essay made me appreciate Gabriel the person, the artist, and activist even more, but really brought home to me how much work goes into making music do something more than selling beer or providing a soundtrack for romance. There is a fear among many Western musicians and scholars alike that thinking about social effects might profane art. However, for some artists and activists, it is just the opposite; not thinking about wider and deeper connections can restrict art to “text,” culture to performance, and people to playthings. That is perhaps what I enjoyed exploring most, the clever ways some musicians break out of the cage of cool that keeps so many other rock artists and fans in check. “Shut up and sing” seems to be lobbed at musicians from all angles, but some find ways to compose, perform, and sing about more than the usual fare despite checkbook exigencies, disciplining critiques, and mainstream genre expectations.

I imagine each author learned something new in writing his or her essay and I hope that these essays inform and even inspire readers to explore their own musical histories (and then share them with us at http://politicalrock.wordpress.com/). I’d like to think that our N of 11 is just the start of a wider conversation.

Kristine: I was working on my dissertation and prospectus when Mark approached me with the idea of doing an edited collection. Although I was initially somewhat nervous about including an edited collection on top of the work I had to complete to earn my doctorate, my dissertation was already evolving into a piece on rock and politics, in a broader sense. The process of writing for the book, reading the chapters, and editing really helped to strengthen my own dissertation arguments, rather than drawing out the writing process of both; and for that, I’m thankful and fortunate.

For better or worse, my dissertation wandered more into the waters of political economy, rather than politics, where I originally thought it would be in terms of subject matter. The book served as a really worthwhile means to look more deeply at the specifics of political and social movements within rock away from my analysis of touring and rock ecologies.

The Pearl Jam chapter really represents, to me, all of the motivations for studying political science, going to graduate school and pursuing doctoral work. Thinking of LeVan’s observation with Rage Against the Machine, there was a moment during a live performance of Pearl Jam’s “Bushleaguer” where it just felt as though the “game” had changed. The actual act of attending shows felt different. Bands had been playing in politics for years, but never a band I had known so well, or followed so closely. I wanted to figure out what, specifically, was happening in terms of the fan base, in terms of their rhetorical tropes, and the response. For better or worse for fans, but thankfully for my work, the band kept that political edge long since “Bushleager” was ill-received.

Daniel: Once thanking you for this interview, I’d like to ask two final questions: what understanding or definition of “political rock” do you hope readers will obtain from this collection? Also, what do you think is Political Rock’s most definitive contribution to the secondary literature on rock’s intersection with politics?

Mark: Most activist-fan readers will immediately get what the book is about, and it is in large part written for them. In fact, although scholars have remained somewhat uninterested in explicitly political popular music, rock fans seem to have an appetite for it. I’ve noticed that musicians with political reputations seem to be over-represented on the bookshelves relative to other indicators, such as record sales. There is a lasting sense of gravitas there.

For students, I’d hope that they learn about political traditions in rock that are not always apparent in VH1/MTV-style retrospectives on rock. Hopefully, if and when the book becomes an affordable paperback and eBook (ask Ashgate for the course and student discounts), the book will reach both of those primary audiences.

As for fellow scholars, I’d hope to further forestall the fairly knee-jerk reaction experienced in so many music studies contexts, the tendency to act as if there is no useful political distinction to be made. As mentioned earlier, there is a strong, mainstream tendency to dismiss explicitly political rock as lacking in art and/or to relativize away its very existence. Speaking for myself, I think of the book as trying to create a space for explicitly political art and forestall the “Isn’t all music political?” critique. Yep, all music is political, but at a more nuanced level we see that there are many ways of being political and one of them is represented in explicit, topical, movement-oriented rock. That is why we draw a distinction between the “politics of rock” and “political rock” in the Introduction. Yes, it is interesting to think about how ostensibly non-ideological rock is also politically meaningful, especially once the critic considers intertextual connections, interpretive frameworks, institutional links, etc. I am as much a sucker for political readings of Ke$ha and Justin Bieber as the next person. My courses are filled with such articles. However, this book is about rock that artists, fans, and critics think of as “political,” music whose internal discourse is purposefully and artfully political, music that does not have to be unmasked and interpreted by scholars in order for its political charge to become evident. That does not mean there is nothing left for scholars and critics to do with political rock, but rather that it presents distinct avenues for understanding that mark it as a meaningful subgenre. In my experience, fans, activists, and critics listen to and use Neil Young very differently than they do Huey Lewis, and part of the difference is in the artists’ political intentions, as inscribed within the music itself. I guess that’s one of the missions of the book, to urge music studies to take that musical tradition more seriously, in rock and other popular genres.

However, to end where I started, I would say that the book’s main mission is to impart new understandings of the biographical trajectories and movement connections of influential political rock icons.

Kristine: I’d echo what Mark said regarding what we’d hope to have other scholars and academics get out of reading the book, without a wholesale dive into lyrical analysis.  There’s an amazing amount of discussion of political musicians, particularly around election time, and most of it is dismissive, negative, or really lacking any substance. What always surprises me is how shocked journalists and the general public act when musicians do jump into electoral politics. This is especially the case with musicians who’ve had a track record of doing so, and yet, the surprise, backlash, and overall dismissal of these artists’ efforts continues. At the same time, we wanted readers to understand that we weren’t trying to limit our discussion of political rock to tangible connection between parties, NGOs, and the musicians themselves. Political rock, in this sense, has a history, weaves between artists, and often repeats itself.

Mark Pedelty is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. His website is Ecomusicology.net.

Kristine Weglarz is an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of West Florida. Her website is http://subpoprockcity.tk.

Daniel Simmons recently completed his Ph.D. in Modern American History at the University of Connecticut. His dissertation was titled “Must Be the Season of the Witch”: The Repression and Harassment of Rock and Folk Music during the Long Sixties. His e-mail address is dr.danielsimmons@yahoo.com.

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