Politics & music

Politics, which we might casually define as using social relationships to achieve a personally desired outcome, is virtually inseparable from human behavior, and music can no more hope to escape its grasp than any other discipline. This is true whether one considers forces within the arena of music, or music's interaction with other endeavors. Indeed, any perceived boundary between music and not-music serves as a reflection for political realities within and without, a microcosm of social interaction at large or a battleground whose results go on to affect larger issues. Whether one thinks of sports or education or the Internet, any sufficiently broad arena will fit this permeable-boundary dichotomy in roughly similar fashion. Even the boundaries of nations cannot fully insulate internal politics from external politics, as foreign and domestic policy have a habit of impinging on each other. Music is wholly typical in this regard, whether as an opportunity to earn a livelihood, as artistic expression per se, or as a social activity requiring external sustenance.

In light of current social priorities and consequent economic realities, music — or at least classical music — is marginalized relative to the larger political arena. Unlike sports or the Internet, microcosms in ascendence, music cannot push back with dictatorial force on society at large. Music (or art) can, perhaps, influence society subtly, but it does not have the political stature it had most recently from the Victorian era into the early twentieth century. Music, especially when it comes to fusion, has been forced to subjugate artistic goals for larger political agendas. This has been true to some extent in areas of medieval & related music as well, although here the inherent quality of the surviving material serves to work against depressing artistry. Moreover, as things are likely to swing back, the subjugation of expression to politics (whether "fairness," or alliances with the new corporate imperialism, or something else) can end up slipping out from under the agendas which drive it, perhaps even subverting them. The new constituencies available to e.g. fusion music can be awakened to the realities which raw expression represents, and in the sheer physicality of many of the forms, this young constituency (which marketing often seeks to dominate) can find exactly what is perhaps its most effective route to freedom of thought.

What I might broadly term "political uses of music" have taken a rather new turn in this era. Whereas patriotic songs have a natural history in marching to battle, today it is commercialism and corporate marketing which finds a ready use for music meant to influence. Rather than some loftier purposes, aggressive music is designed to titillate, perhaps even euphemistically, as it interacts with indulgent sexual imagery permeating most public space. This is the animal appeal at the base of most advertising today, something designed to encourage indiscriminate consumption, but also something the strategy of which can diminish its own returns. Widespread nudity and aggressive sexual gratification have their own transcendent qualities, qualities & related techniques known to fringe sects since ancient times. Indulgence can lead to a clearing of the mind, and while it might not be mainstream classical balance, it is a route to transcendence which music can encourage, in what could end up being a grand political statement. A culture of consumption relies, in my view, on human isolation, and it is isolation which rampant sexual gratification — taken beyond the misdirection of image — can readily conquer. This is a different sort of discussion than usually appears in these pages, and a political end to which medieval music per se is not inherently suited.

Internal to the music industry, a politics of indulgence sparks treacherous scenarios, not least of which is the increasingly unscrupulous behavior of people on the Internet. There is a vast sense of entitlement arising from petty indulgence (i.e. I would suggest, as per above, that it involves indulgence which does not go far enough to scare them), expressed as a casual attitude toward persistent theft. It is already presenting a problem for some in music who were struggling to make a living in the first place. For others, even within music, it yields a new sense of freedom. The politics of interpretation likewise divides sharply within the industry, reflecting broader social debates on originality. What the political tensions within music serve to do, beyond making the division between classical and popular relatively larger than it needs to be and generally inhibiting cooperation, is make musical success more subservient to democratic ideas on uniformity. Divergences are expressed in artificial market niches rather than a lack of sonic uniformity, creating a push toward a classical mainstream of unarticulated sound, whether vocal or otherwise. This is one force to which medieval music has been brutally subjected, a force which I submit arises from political marginalization.

When it comes to the public arena, especially in the development of "fandom" and related transformations of composers into idols, the choice of a favorite composer can become highly political, even if subconsciously so. It serves to identify one with a particular group, and it produces a "center" from which to view other music in corresponding ways. Musical appreciation can lead to particular political stances associated with a composer as a person, artistic output aside. Similar comments apply to those who are "fans" of particular performers. Personal, emotional involvement can go a long way toward self-identification and in turn with political development, in reaction to what would otherwise be a uniform sameness. This is the point at which music's interaction with the public corresponds again to those of sports or clothing, as musical choices can both condition one's politics and serve as an emblem of it. The nature of politics within music can be much more trying, as certain views are institutionalized, often for no good reason. The battles can also have a pettiness which comes from marginalization, another universal political phenomenon. Politics in music can be more difficult to apprehend, because it is often expressed so obliquely, but it manifests itself very definitely in what is put before the public, whether interpretation or repertory. In early music today, that usually means more of the same music performed in the same manner, a rut which can be difficult to escape due to the personal stakes involved.

Administrivia: Vacation time. Next column in 4 weeks.

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Todd M. McComb