IASPM-US Interview Series: The Political Force of Musical Beauty by Barry Shank

by Jessica Dilday on September 8, 2014

barry shank

The Political Force of Musical Beauty (Duke University Press, 2014) both describes and demonstrates how popular music scholars might think the relation between precarious experiences of musical beauty and the ability to change subjective positions within the world. Both a set of case studies and theoretical toolbox, The Political Force of Musical Beauty challenges readers to re-think what politics looks like in popular music – how do we encounter difference through music, and how can we understand the political power of these encounters? Barry Shank begins with an axiom that is as elegant as it is complex – “The experience of beauty is the recognition of the way things could be, the way things should be” (p.3) – and proceeds to follow the complicated strands that result. Drawing musical evidence from a wide range of artists, including Moby, Sam Cooke, Yoko Ono, the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Bad Brains, Alarm Will Sound, Tinariwen, and many more, Shank engages specific musical details with a group of theorists and philosophers as diverse as his musical models. Below, Barry and I explore some of the nuances of his claims and discuss how The Political Force of Musical Beauty might be of use to those of us invested in the political stakes of popular music.

political force of musical beauty

Benjamin Court: There is an implicit strand throughout The Political Force of Musical Beauty that seems influenced by classical aesthetics. It is not only important that beauty has a political force, but you also seem to argue for certain standards for the judgment musical beauty. For example, you argue that Moby’s evocation of Nancy’s sens in his sample of Vera Hall’s voice in “Natural Blues” makes that song beautiful. How significant is your particular model of musical beauty to your larger argument about politics, or would other standards of judgment work just as well?

Barry Shank: I want to step back a bit in response to this initial question. I’m not at all sure what you mean by classical aesthetics. So I want to retrace quickly the aesthetic frame that I meant to evoke in The Political Force of Musical Beauty. The question of the aesthetic emerged as I began to think about the gap in Pierre Bourdieu’s theorization of fields of cultural production. Where Bourdieu is extraordinarily lucid about the moves that actors make in a particular field and the means whereby those moves are legitimated or not, his theory has a major hole in the middle.

Bourdieu was primarily interested in critiquing the Kantian idea of a disinterested “pure” aesthetic. Indeed, the “Postcript” to Distinction is subtitled “Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of ‘Pure’ Critiques.” I agree absolutely with Bourdieu’s dismissal of the idea of some kind of pure or disinterested judgment. But something has to be working in the center of a field of cultural production that distinguishes it from mere power games. Fields of cultural production are distinguished from the field of power by a founding illusio, a belief in a core value around which the field coheres and that is appealed to by legitimating actors as they make their judgments about the relative value produced by a move in the field. This illusio is necessary for the field not to descend into mere power grabs. When a field loses the sense of its central value, it can no longer be distinguished from the field of power. (See, for example, recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court, which have severely weakened the Court’s founding in any sense of justice apart from sheer politics.) We all know that there are power games in any cultural field, and Bourdieu’s unveiling of the fundamental self-interest at the heart of these games has become common sense. But there would be no point in playing the game of good music or visual representation or literary production if there were no central illusio that all the players maintain a commitment to (even though the precise content of that commitment remains up for grabs). Why struggle to produce good music if all one wants is the extrinsic reward of attention or money or power? It just doesn’t make sense. There are much more direct ways to approach those goals. So the central value must be important enough to exert a gravitational pull on the judgments of the actors who play the game.

Another questionable aspect of Bourdieu’s theories is that he uses the rather weak concept of homology to explain how the relatively autonomous fields of cultural production can have effects outside the fields themselves and in the field of power. Bourdieu was enough of an empiricist to see the political effects of actions that take place in a cultural field, but he could not explain how that worked, given that fields of production are based on an illusion. All he could say was that the alliances that develop in a cultural field have a shape similar to the alliances in the world of power. Bourdieu has essentially said that the actual products created in field of musical production are irrelevant to the relationship between that field and the world outside it. All that matters are the sets of relationships created inside the field and the ways those relationships have a structural similarity to relationships outside the field. What can I say but, he’s wrong.

I think that the way out of this problem is to recognize the power of the founding llusio in cultural production. How is it that the illusio holds its power? In fields of cultural production, the illusio enables the experience of beauty, the felt experience of right relations. The commitment to this central value is the force that holds together the relationships that constitute the field and, furthermore, the experience of that value, however it is contingently produced in any particular instance, is the central existential fact that connects experience inside the field to the world of power.

I think that is something like what Adorno was trying to get at in his late masterwork, Aesthetic Theory, where he struggles with the legacy of Kant’s aesthetics. Many of Adorno’s cryptic statements in that book capture this irreducible aspect of the experience of beauty and the political significance of that experience. For me, the key statements come early, on page 6–“The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society.” And on pages 50-1, “The definition of aesthetics as the theory of the beautiful is so unfruitful because the formal character of the concept of beauty is inadequate to the full content of the aesthetic. If aesthetics were nothing but a systematic catalogue of whatever is called beautiful, it would give no idea of the life that transpires in the concept of beauty…The idea of beauty draws attention to something essential to art without, however, articulating it directly.” And then, this nearly perfect Adornian statement on page 77, “The being-in-itself to which artworks are devoted is not the imitation of something real but rather the anticipation of a being-in-itself that does not yet exist, of an unknown that—by way of the subject—is self-determining. Artworks say that something exists in itself, without predicating anything about it.”

I take all of this to mean that the experience of beauty is essential but the concept of beauty does not capture the fullness of that experience. Instead, what matters for Kant’s understanding of the beautiful is that it is fundamentally a judgment about the sense of right relations. The experience of the beautiful object is a subjective experience that feels objective about the way the world ought to be. We know that this feeling is a judgment that compels us as subjects, but we also know that aesthetic feeling is produced through the experience of a beautiful object. In this way, aesthetic judgment enables us to connect the subjective and the objective in a fleeting sensual comprehension of the way the world might be. And the intensity of that experience is precisely what lends it power outside any particular field of cultural production.

All of that, all of that abstract gesturing, is why I found Nancy and Rancière to be so helpful. Rancière also looks to Kant, but also to Schiller and his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. For Rancière, the aesthetic judgments that Kant identifies are not disinterested but undeniably socially and politically located. Rancière’s version of way that the aesthetic links the subjective and the objective works through the concept of the sensible. Here is the way he defines the problem of the relationship between art and politics: (from Aesthetics and its Discontents, p.23) “Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space.” Art is political because of its capacity to redistribute the sensible, to shift the senses of time and space that organize the legitimated and recognizable ways of knowing and being in the world.

Nancy’s beautiful book, Listening, captures exactly that moment of musical experience where such redistribution is possible. From page 7, “To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin—at least the sound that is musically listened to, that is gathered and scrutinized for itself, not, however as an acoustic phenomenon (or not merely as one) but as a resonant meaning, a meaning whose sense [a not quite correct translation of the French sens.] is supposed to be found in resonance, and only in resonance.”That being on the edge of meaning is the experience of beautiful music. In Nancy’s view, this alertness to sens is an apperception of possibility beyond the immediately given social. The experience of musical beauty is a felt momentary crystallization of those possibilities. The key point is that this experience is always socially and politically determined and it also makes possible the redistribution of those determinations.

That possibility is what I hear in the central moment of Moby’s “Natural Blues.” The drop that sets off Vera Hall’s evocation of Emmett Till, “brother was dead,” focuses the listener’s attention to sens as it evokes the redistribution of the sensible. Your question suggests that I mean to imply some absolute standard of musical beauty. Seriously, I mean no such thing. I mean that the beauty of “Natural Blues” is an effect of the formal relations generated in and by Moby’s decision to place the drop where he did and by the musical, historical and political context in which that decision took place. In this way, the drop refocuses the attention of dancing listeners on the gap that still remains between the promise of the Civil Rights Movement and the realities we continue to live in. That crystallization of a political aesthetic is the generation of a community to come, an aesthetic experience of what does not yet exist in the world. So to return to Bourdieu, all experiences of musical beauty are socially situated and politically interested; the experience of musical beauty is a felt resonance with a set of not yet existent possibilities. Hence, the political force of musical beauty.

BC: This gap, problem, or illusio that you identify in your musical examples provides a strong model for other scholars to think through the notoriously tricky relationship between music and politics. And your focus on music’s formal ability to demonstrate social/political possibilities affords a material usefulness to this politics. But to narrow in on my first question, the simultaneous necessity and inadequacy of beauty that you reference from Adorno has me wondering about the multitude of subjective relations to beautiful objects. For instance, drawing on your example of Moby and Vera Hall from Chapter 1, “The sens of the song is opened up by this gap – the sudden silence that embraces that line and forces the listener to ask, ‘what?’” (p. 36). How can we account, politically speaking, for listening subjects that hear no sens in this moment, or the blogger you reference that heard this as a musical moment of white supremacy?

BS: Great questions, Ben. They really hit at the heart of the issue. There are a multitude of subjective relations to beautiful objects—and even significant dispute about what objects are beautiful. It is not possible to account for them in advance. What matters for me is that experience of the beautiful. There are always going to be persons for whom that Moby track doesn’t work—it doesn’t sound beautiful to them. There could be uncountable reasons for that, ranging from responses to the musical choices made to any of the political or social associations conjured by those choices. My sense is that many listeners who have a strong negative reaction to any of those factors have to be captured first by the music. After all, the political force of musical beauty does not produce agreement or consensus, but the legitimate grounds for dissensus. It is, therefore, necessary to talk about specific examples, specific relations. Which is why I’m really glad you brought up Luxnigra’s response to Moby’s work. Luxnigra isn’t wrong. The analysis that points out the complicity between Moby’s use of Vera Hall’s voice and the history of white supremacy is necessary. I also think it is incomplete. What I’m trying to outline in this and other examples is how the experience of musical beauty can capture the alertness of a listener as it reaches beyond itself to construct a sense of the world. Remember that the experience of musical beauty is a judgment by a subject about an object. It feels objective, even when we know it is not. It can contain contradictory complexities. It often produces significant disagreement about political choices as it distributes and reinforces a shared orientation towards what and who matters, what and who counts, what and who are political objects and subjects.

BC: Speaking of dissensus, lately there has been a revived interest in issues of difference and sameness in musicology. You place these issues right up front by stating, “Political community is not characterized by sameness,” (p. 3) and make a convincing case in part through the use of theoretical precedents set by Carl Schmitt and Chantel Mouffe. I was wondering if you could expand on your understanding of ostensible sameness in musical communities, particularly the “being-in-common” that marks the cultural environment of rock music.

BS: I’m not fully sure what you mean by “ostensible sameness in musical communities.” But I’ll take a shot at answering in this way. I think you might mean the way that a musical community might be thought of as having some particular qualities in common. Sure it can, in a reductive sense. But I’m interested in contesting those reductions. Communities are always sites of contestation. Some concepts of political community try to ground their legitimacy in something outside this contestation, often through an asserted identity. Specifying that identity, enumerating its qualities, is always an essentializing move. (Mouffe identifies all the problems with Schmitt’s efforts to purge any community of meaningful difference. Another important reference point here is Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark: The Political Foundations of Black Solidarity.) Throughout The Political Force of Musical Beauty I try to eschew not only essentialism, but also any preformed concept of identity. Identities are contingently and temporarily constructed. Identity, therefore, is no less tenuous than any other ground for community. The two terms are mutually constitutive; neither term can be the ground of the other.

That said, I assume that the “ostensible sameness in musical communities” in reference to rock can point in two directions. It can point to the musical conventions that stabilize rock as a genre, and it can point towards the way that rock as a genre has been racialized and gendered. But the gendering and racializing of the musical conventions of rock do not define the “being-in-common” that the experience of musical beauty in rock can evoke. Being-in-common is an emergent process. You cannot know what that common is until after it has developed from the relations of those interacting. Here it is important to reintroduce the flow of history. Rock’s musical conventions solidified in the late sixties and early seventies. That solidification was self-consciously distilled in much of the punk rock of the later seventies into the hardcore of the eighties. The sense of right relations generated by the experience of musical beauty in rock is always related to the orientation towards the world that was lived by its producers and fans at that historical moment. I cannot take the time here to fully identify all those relations. But a certain sense of the rightness of particular hierarchies was encoded in rock. In the book, I argue that Patti Smith’s articulation of the primary rock value of freedom with an ever-receding imaginary blackness was central to the genre’s conventions. But there are many different ways to live that value. Furthermore, the being-in-common generated by the shared experience in our own time of the musical beauty of rock is not indelibly shaped by those historically lived hierarchies, even though it can never really escape that legacy. For example, recent recordings by an act like Wussy along with almost all 21st century indie rock, articulate the declining slope of those hierarchies, a shrinking of the horizon of the old forms of domination. What seems to set apart Wussy right now is the force with which they use those old musical signs of domination to reveal their current attenuation.

BC: Sorry for the vagueness – you make it very clear in The Political Force of Musical Beauty that your political model is not one based on identity. I am glad you mentioned your argument about Patti Smith (from Chapter 5) because that section stuck out for its reference to the experience of the common: “Rock generates an experience of the common that parcels out a commitment to freedom only for those who can sense the freedom that constantly recedes from the center of rock’s productions – a freedom coded as disappearing blackness” (p. 166). If, as you state, political community is characterized by difference, then is this experience of the common one of an imagined future? In other words, do you see this politics of possibility, via Rancière, Nancy, and others, as “utopian?”

BS: I don’t think you were vague, Ben. It’s just that we’re struggling to find a common vocabulary. So defining terms becomes part of the conversation. For example, what is this “common” that I draw from Nancy (and suggest is related to Rancière’s sensible)? This is another crucially specific question. In places, I clearly imply that the common is constructed in and through the shared experience of musical beauty. In that sense, it is projective. But in my discussion of Patti Smith’s version of “Hey Joe” I seem to be talking about a pre-existing tradition of the extra-musical significance of particular generic conventions. I meant this passage to identify some of the more regressive aspects of rock’s beauty. There is nothing utopian in this example. Because of the historical conditions under which it developed, many of rock’s conventions attempt to contain and control the source from which they were taken. As in so much of American culture, rock’s expression of freedom was incumbent upon imagined limits placed on others. One of the things I love about Patti Smith’s earlier interviews is the unselfconscious way that she talks about this. It can produce a really uncomfortable reaction among today’s readers. It’s painful (for me at least) to see rock’s roots in minstrelsy so blatantly revealed. Any future common that can be imagined to emerge from the musical beauty generated by rock has to deal with this legacy. Regardless of the identity of the musician or the listener. It is built into the ways the conventions work. Which is not to say that no politically progressive common can emerge at this moment from the shared experience of rock’s beauty. Just that for it to do so, it must not deny its history. I think that’s a general point about all genres, by the way.

BC: I absolutely agree that this racial history is a necessity when studying the history of genres. Race is an unavoidable topic in popular music studies and almost every chapter of The Political Force of Musical Beauty deals with race in one way or another. While your overall argument is not based on identity, how would you say that race seems to necessarily overlap with issues of musical beauty?

BS: You cannot talk about the political force of musical beauty without talking about race. As Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman state in the introduction to their important collection, Music and the Racial Imagination, “Race lives on in the house of music because it is so saturated with racial stuff…. As a key signifier of difference, music for America—in its wonder, in its transcendence, in its affective danger—historically conjures racial meaning” (p. 1). Race is a fundamental fracture point and integral component of musical production in the Western world. It has played a central role in the development of secular popular music in the United States for longer than there has been a United States. The history of musical production in the US is inextricably intertwined with the historical context of colonialism, genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, and (in Michelle Alexander’s words) The New Jim Crow. As so many scholars have shown, (e.g. Toll, Lott, Cockrell, Lhamon, Miller) commercial secular popular music in the US developed out of blackface minstrelsy, that fundamentally deconstructive performative practice that simultaneously asserted its authenticity and its falseness. The experience of musical beauty cannot escape this legacy. Race structures the experience of musical beauty in two ways—as an ineradicable component of the social and political situatedness of every aesthetic experience, and through the historical processes whereby musical genres and the conventions that construct them have been racialized. These are really two aspects of the same process—every listener is shaped by racial discourses, every musical sound is shaped by racial discourses. But no necessary consequences follow from this fact. Musicians have creatively played with and fought musical wars with the racialization of sounds for hundreds of years. Race is an instrument, a resource, a tool, and a weapon. One of the key strategies I can think of for the creation of musical beauty is to challenge the existing racialization of musical sounds—in the process perhaps generating a new being-in-common.

BC: You make an excellent point that the racial discourses of that shape listening have no necessary or specified consequences. This point is most clear in Chapter 2 with your discussion of how musical anthems function politically. While you use several anthems from the Civil Rights Movement to demonstrate how music has fostered political community, you also describe a striking complication: “Rather than producing an intimate public, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ most often constructs a docile one, one normalized not by an equality of singing but rather by the consuming equality of spectatorship” (p. 52). I’d like to seize upon this relatively small example to ask a much broader question. What do you identify as the dangers of the musical beauty?

BS: Before I address that powerful last question, I want to specify quickly the context of that quotation about “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It comes from a larger discussion that differentiates between being part of a group failing to sing the song “properly” and being part of a group listening to a virtuoso performance of the song. I was kind of making a classic cultural studies distinction between spectatorship and participation, but in a particular context of anthemic performance. I do believe that when we all sing that song and when we all hear how impossible it is to achieve a full beautiful performance of it, we can sense the utopian nature of the nation’s claims to equality and freedom and experience something of the demand that utopian desire places on all of us. But when we sit back comfortably and listen to a masterful performance by someone else, we find ourselves pacifically expecting someone else to do the work of democracy for us.

That said, yes, the experience of musical beauty is fraught with danger. It can reinforce complicity with all kinds of horrors. It can confirm the inner fascist in each of us. This has nothing to do with the overt content of any lyrics or the social or political stereotypes associated with a genre. It has to do with the way that listening to comfortable music with easy pleasures can comfort us in the rightness of the world as we know it. Musical beauty can confirm in us not only the sense of our belonging in an unjust and oppressive world but also the sense that this is the way the world ought to be. For example, in “On Popular Music,” Adorno (and Simpson) famously say that the meaning of the second theme in Beethoven’s 7th Symphony comes only from its deep contextualization and that nothing like this can happen in popular music. In that statement, they expose their inability to comprehend the full contextual complexity of popular music. Implicitly, they insist that the contextual aspects of which they are ignorant are not important. That’s the bad side of loving Beethoven. On the other hand, the beautiful articulation of all that is horrible in the world can have a critically progressive force. Adorno also says when he is talking about “Late Style in Beethoven,” “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective is the light in which—alone—it glows into life. He [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis…. He tears them apart in time…” That’s the good side of loving Beethoven. These contradictions are not really all that dramatic. They happen all the time.

BC: In my reading, the most daring points of The Political Force of Musical Beauty come when you reevaluate (and reinvigorate) musical concepts that scholars have dismissed in recent decades (including musical beauty). Your academic defense of authenticity at the 2011 EMP Conference has been major influence on my own work and your dedication to the topic here has unsettled the go-to critiques of authenticity. But you are clearly still critical of the gender and race biases that authenticity judgments often enact. What new uses do you see for the concept of authenticity in pop music studies?

BS: The issue of authenticity emerged with the coming of modernity. In The Political Force of Musical Beauty, I trace some of the history of the term relying on the work of scholars like Marshall Berman, Regina Bendix and Karl Hagstrom Miller. Berman provides a pretty clear discussion of the irresolvable contradictions that emerge from the modern habit of self-questioning. Bendix and Miller show how the quest for authenticity has shaped folklore studies and how the paradigm that developed in folklore exerted a determining role on the marketing and reception of popular music in the US, resulting in various forms of essentialism. In that framework, authenticity became a question of the relationship of particular musical sounds to a specific social ground. It quickly became a rigid trap: “Can a blue man play the whites?” and all that. The stakes in that question become more intense when musical sounds enter the marketplace. Pygmy music should only be played by Pygmy peoples; it should not provide the introduction to a Herbie Hancock hit. But such judgments are rarely straightforward. In The Political Force of Musical Beauty, I argue that the judgment of authenticity is important because of music’s power. We want to know if we can trust the feelings that it produces in us. We want to know if our sense of the social and political real generated by a set of sounds will have some extramusical traction. That’s why the judgment of authenticity remains important.

It should not be fetishized, however. Adorno had a lot of fun ripping into the existentialist hypostatization of authenticity. But in The Jargon of Authenticity, he was critiquing the misuse of the concept, not the concept itself. Misused, authenticity is an almost nostalgic longing for a previous hegemony, “an allegedly hale life…far from all social considerations.” But with music, we care deeply about the social considerations. No popular music genre holds the title to authenticity; every musical sound can be used to lie. All performers have to be able to fake it. No listener’s pleasure should be limited to the sounds they grew up with. But the concept of authenticity remains important insofar as it functions as a judgment about the relationship between the musical and the extramusical. Here’s how I put it in that 2011 Pop Con paper: “The judgment of authenticity is simply the effort to identify music that feels real, that seems grounded in something more significant than the vibrations from which it is shaped, so that the feelings that are articulated in and through musical performance can be trusted.” We even judge the slickest most sophisticated pop performers in terms of this relationship to the real. That’s what authenticity is; that’s why it matters.

BC: A relatively small, but well-made, point in your chapter about the Velvet Underground about “fun” implies that the enjoyment of music-making can be both a way out of avant-garde seriousness and the commercial trappings of pop. With all of the recent attention on affect, have you considered further work on the feeling of musical fun?

BS: However native to the field of popular music it is, the concept of fun is not a simple one. Fun is not the answer to why we have a relationship of enjoyment to particular sounds. It is simply a statement of the problem to be analyzed. Where there is fun, the popular music scholar must ask why this set of people finds fun in this set of sounds. Fun implies a certain intensity of enjoyment that feels like it is natural. In fun, one has lost (for only a little moment) that self-questioning self-doubting tenor that has become an intimate aspect of daily life. Which means that in fun, the problematics of social contradiction have been momentarily forgotten. And that means that a social and political problem has found an imaginary solution. (The bibliography for the answer to this question comes mostly from Fred Jameson—The Political Unconscious and “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.”) Because the solutions are imaginary, they are lacking an important connection to the real. But when fun feels authentic, then it has some connection—the solutions that generate fun are never totally false. There is a utopian moment of possibility hidden inside all popular music. In a post I wrote for Sounding Out! a year and a half ago, I talked about the fun that is embedded in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” There I called it “the demand for purposeless pleasure,” which now sounds to me to be disturbingly similar to Kant’s purposeless purpose. But just like Kant’s disinterestedness really hides the interests that are reproduced and reaffirmed in every moment of beauty, the purposeless pleasure of fun contains a kernel of connection to a desired for image of the real. When Psy dances in all the places where he officially does not belong, he is dancing for the erasure of those official boundaries. When we dance along, we imagine something of the same disappearance and the same freedom.

BC: Your analysis of rock imperfections and “participatory discrepancies” made me wonder how your model of musical politics relates to structuralism. You are very careful to warn that your readings depend upon contexts and are not simply inherent to the music. As you planned each of these chapters, how important was the ability to analyze musical structure for your arguments?

BS: I assume that you are referring to the “readings” I produce of songs like “Heroin,” or “Gloria.” I want PFMB to contribute to a project of developing a specific popular musicology. I’m committed to detailed careful listening to popular music. Because close listening enables the auditor to hear subtle patterns of interaction that generate moments of musical beauty that then crystallize a sens for extramusical relations. My goal in my discussion of these songs and others is to lead listeners through the sounds that are the constitutive elements of those moments of beauty. In the process, I hope to demonstrate their aesthetic complexity and show how moments in the experience of that complexity generate a sensibility that shapes an orientation towards the extramusical. When traditional musicologists talk about musical structure, they often leave out what are the most important components of popular music. The terms of their analyses do not fit. Don’t get me wrong: melodies matter; harmonies matter. But what matters more are the textures of the sounds, the ways that sounds wash over each other, the force that rhythms exert on skin cells and blood vessels, the spaces that are conjured by slightly out of tune guitar strings, scattered handclaps and splashing cymbals. Embracing the structure of permanent desire and temporary release produced by the tangle of guitars, the throbbing of the kick drum, and the shriek-drone of the viola in “Heroin” forces the listener to recognize the commodity desire at the heart of the popular. Listening carefully to the interplay of piano, guitars, drums and voice in “Gloria” reveals an opportunity to experience a wide-focused longing, an invitation to join that experience and to revel in its delayed satisfaction. I want my readers to hear how the beauty of these songs is produced and feel how that beauty shapes their world.

BC: To follow-up on the issue of musical structure, I am fascinated by how you approach musical structures and their ability to affect those other important components of popular music: the ways sounds wash over each other, the force that rhythms exert on skin cells and blood vessels, and so forth. For example, your analysis of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” describes how John Cale’s viola provides a uniquely forefronted drone, in contrast to the tension and release repetition of Sterling Morrison’s guitar and Maureen Tucker’s drums. As you demonstrate, Cale’s drone does not provide consistent sameness, but rather a continuous “oscillation of difference” (p. 141). In your conclusion to Chapter 4, you state,

“In ‘Heroin’ a droning viola captured the sense that something lay just out of reach…The fans of this music experienced that sense of beauty equally as the felt sense of rightness of these formal relations: simplicity amid monotony, freedom amid tight generic constraints, beauty above all created out of the sheer intelligent manipulation of limited resources, and, finally, over and over the aching echoing understanding that the human production of value escapes every effort to coin it, every effort to concretize it. Thus, a redistribution of the sensible occurred” (p. 145-6).

This quote brings us back to your earlier point about the relationship between musical form and social/political form. With “Heroin,” listeners are able to reshape their world according to principles that can be culled from musical structure. Thus, the link between musical structure and politics is, as you say, through listening. Does a politicized experience of musical beauty imply a specific type of listening, though? In other words, does the listener understand this redistribution of the sensible as a conscious experience of musical form?

BS: Wow, another great question. Whenever one embarks on a project like the one I pursue in The Political Force of Musical Beauty, one risks the implication that all “real listening” is the listening that I do. You, all of you, must listen in the way that I do, in the way that college professors and intense music fans do. I hope that I do not insist on that. Instead, I think I am showing how close listening can reveal the ways that the music works as music in the production of its beauty. I had a lot of fun writing those long interpretive descriptions of individual songs. I believe that in that writing lie some truthful comments about those songs and the connections they concretize between musical beauty and extra-musical form. I do not think that every listener is aware of these connections in the moment of listening fun. Nor do I think that every listener should. I think I should be aware of this. It is my job. I hope that I have done that job well and that readers who listen along with me are convinced by what I wrote. If that is true, if readers agree with my interpretations, then I think that I have shown something important about those songs and the political force of their musical beauty. In the particular case of “Heroin,” one central point of my argument is that in the classic recording of this song, the Velvets force us to re-feel the meaning of a commodity, the unceasing demand for more, and the possibility of reimagining a place outside that demand—while remaining inside the system that continually reproduces that demand. The Velvets wanted a hit. They thought “Heroin” would be a hit. On the radio. When I listen to it and hear that desire, I hear the impossibility of substance being contained within the commodity form and the musical beauty produced by the form’s evacuation. If you think that too, after reading what I wrote about it, then I will be a very happy boy.

BC: Finally, I was especially intrigued by your analyses that argue for the experience of musical beauty as locally world-changing. How literally or materially do you take interpret the political force of musical beauty, and what would you hope to see in future scholarship about music and politics?

BS: The political force of musical beauty derives from music’s ability to make us feel the rightness of particular combinations of relations. The orientation towards the world that results from this sense of rightness finds its extramusical expression through subtle transformations in the ways that sounds and textures and gestures and inflections move from strangeness to familiarity, from frighteningly other to engagingly and differently common. Your world is changed by the aesthetic experience of musical beauty. When you interact with differences that reverberate disturbances you don’t quite understand but whose sense you can feel, you recognize those inflections, gestures, textures, and sounds as intentional and politically meaningful—they are the sounds and gestures that constitute a political community of difference. I intend all of this quite literally, quite materially. The commons that is constructed through musical beauty (and countless other types of aesthetic affect) sets the terms of possibility for political action. The political organization of humans can only take place when a felt understanding of the commons exists. Extending the reach of our ability to experience musical beauty extends the complex of relations that can be experienced as a shared world. All of these sounds, textures, gestures and inflections come with extramusical associations. They are never “purely musical.” In fact, the purely musical does not exist. I would like to see a lot more work that confronts the reality of the need for an aesthetically constructed commons as a condition of possibility for any traditional political action to take place.

That said, I feel like I must repeat some of the caveats that are stated fully in The Political Force of Musical Beauty. The political force of musical beauty is a limited one. It establishes the possibility for a shared felt sense of the world. This shared felt sense does not directly determine any political actions or beliefs. There are no direct connections between musical taste and political positions. A shared sense of musical beauty is an index of a shared orientation towards the world, which enables a political community to emerge. This political community is not a community of right-thinking progressives. It has no necessary politics in that sense. What it does have is an ability to comprehend the differences that are included within it and through that comprehension carry on the real work of politics. New political communities can be formed when new experiences of musical beauty are shared. The political force of musical beauty is limited, but it is also fundamental.

Barry Shank is professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University where he teaches courses in interdisciplinary methods, cultural theory, and popular culture. A founding member of the Long Ryders, he is also past president of IASPM-US and the author of Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Wesleyan 1994), A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (Columbia, 2004), and The Political Force of Musical Beauty (Duke, 2014), as well as numerous essays on cultural theory, American studies, and popular music.

Benjamin Court is PhD candidate in Musicology at UCLA. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Not Knowing: Musical Amateurism in the 1970s,” studies constructions of musical knowledge, specifically how and why punk and experimental musicians during the 1970s framed themselves as amateurs by purporting a lack of musical knowledge. He is the current graduate student representative of IASPM-US and has presented scholarship at EMP/IASPM-US, the AMS Pacific-Southwest Chapter Meeting, and several graduate student conferences.


Previous post:

Next post: