I’ve already written here a bit on how The Beatles carry a thin, largely fictitious politics through music history and, at Cypher & Syllable, how The Clash might offer another kind of politics of music. Now this piece by David Shumway – apparently a precis of sorts for his forthcoming book on (rock) music icons – brings the issue back with another question: what has happened to music stars as culture and politics makers? And so I’m brought back to my question: how did this whole myth of political rock stars get started, and how does it continue to be read as true?
To be fair, Shumway’s concern seems to be with a larger cultural movement away from albums and away from the radio. This means, Shumway claims, that music has become largely private enjoyment. The iPod (perhaps predictably) is the icon of this shift. Playlists and private headphones send music into another place. The private. And so we as listeners – then as participants in the kind of popular culture engendered by popular music – are sent away from the public realm. Or at least miss our chance to find our way back to that realm through music.
That’s an interesting observation. I’m not sure the iPod can claim so much social-formation gravitas, but that’s another question. What I find so interesting is that the exulted (or even just constantly present) privacy Shumway bemoans is exactly the politics of the sixties to which he appeals in referring to Elvis, The Beatles, and others. These folks were stars and also, for Shumway, people with real cultural currency. If they had that currency, one might be just a wee-bit suspicious that this bemoaned culture is the production of the very people held in contrast.
What, then, is the difference between past popular music stars and today’s music celebrities? Shumway:
James Brown, like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and the Grateful Dead, was and remains a cultural icon. Those performers and others of their era had broad cultural currency; they had meaning for people who did not like or even listen to their music. Is there any figure who has emerged recently in popular music of whom that can be said?… [M]y point is that the cultural position of popular music and its stars has diminished.
Interesting and bold claim, of course. I am frankly baffled by it, given the ways in which hip-hop has overtaken nearly everything about young people’s culture – from elementary school kids to college students, from clothes to speech and posture to, well, the very sound of most music today. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The diminishing place of popular music stars – which he awkwardly tries to distinguish from celebrities in a generationally and racially specific appeal to early movie stars – would seem to leave music without broad appeal. there is no more pop music as larger cultural currency. There is rather “niche” music. “Vast popularity,” apparently, has been replaced by a dis-unified market. Niche music. Evaporating politics.
But niche music is one of those eye-of-the-beholder things. Sure, I understand what Shumway means when he says that The Beatles had mass appeal, were stars and all that. I’m that white middle-class guy too. But, was Sgt. Pepper’s really everyone’s music? Or was it niche music – much as James Brown was, as Shumway seems to say (though he doesn’t use the word) – for young white people? That’s the funny thing about mass appeal. We use it all the time. It usually means appeal to you and the kind of people you see everyday. That’s why it was James Brown and the folks at Stax, not Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, playing a concert to address the pain after King, Jr.’s assassination. At that moment, one man’s mass appeal becomes another man’s niche music. In my world, Derrida and Heidegger have mass appeal. Glissant is a niche market. But I know better than to actually compute this out into the world. Shumway, like so many writers these past months about the “summer of love” anniversary, doesn’t have that restraint. Whatever the absurdity of my analogy, you get the point. We all come from somewhere. Not from nowhere or everywhere.
And just what were the politics of the “sixties” music “generation”? Was that generation’s “movement” politics really so radical? The standard list Shumway trots out – Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Elvis – embodied very little beyond a shift in the aesthetics of personal freedom. Sure, it made parents mad. That’s as old as literature itself, that kids piss off their parents. The point here is that that generation has turned into yet another self-centered, personally concerned, social justice neglectful generation. Remember, they’re the ones running the country now. Turns out, they like lower taxes, broken education systems, and big fat militaries as much as their once despised parents. My claim would be that you hear that already in the music. It’s all just so typically American, the laments. Leave me alone. I should be able to do what I want. Don’t tread on me. I just want to be happy the way I want to be happy.
I’ll say it again: where were all these “political” music makers and “stars” when King, Jr. was on The Poor People’s Campaign? You know, the movement with real bite, the one that called for real economic transformation. All those people were free loving, getting high – that is, getting their Americanism on. Big time. Stars, leaders – for their niche. The Poor People’s Campaign would have mean getting your Americanism off and getting your for-the-Other on. Stars disappeared into their niches. Our real social problems as a nation stayed around.
So, are we really missing so much without great star leaders like those? Are we politically poorer for it? Well, I think Shumway has it wrong about this supposed shift. Folks like Jay-Z are in fact huge stars and have enormous “political” force in our world. Turns out, that force is played out in exactly the same way it was in the sixties, the alleged highpoint of star-driven, pop music politics: aesthetics of personal freedom. It is important to tell your story. Sure, it was all a lot more familiar for “generational commentators” when Dylan asked “how does it feel?” or The Beatles talked about getting by and high with a little help from your friends – if that was your niche. Hip-hop asks those same questions from and for a different niche, one I’d wager is further reaching across class and race lines than rock ever was or will be. Whatever the reach, though, it’s still about telling your story and the story about and for your people.
In the end, this is just what is classically meant by politics – the polis, the totality of ways in which we relate to one another. It’s also what isn’t meant by those same “polis” politics, how, from the context of the U.S., such a vision of politics sounds just so utopian. The polis is niche-y out here in the U.S. You know, we’ve always had a hard time with the whole “national” thing, which is why I shudder a bit when I read Shumway talking about the “national” consciousness touched by Elvis, Dylan, or The Beatles. Who is this nation? Who is this “us” that Todd Gitlin – without a hint of restraint or self-consciousness – says was “named” as a generation by rock ‘n roll?
I say we learn to love the niche. Or at least see that it structures how we tell stories about eras and periods and “movements.” For all the pretension in academic circles about having moved “beyond” postmodernism, I’m getting a real hunger for it about now. The star, the movement, the name of a generation, and so on – can we get a check on this bloated self-narrative? Can we let the master-narrative go and begin listening to all the smaller stories folks tell? It just might change how we – more specifically, Shumway and similarly concerned writers – talk about this funny word in pop music: pop.