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"Music can and should belong to all' - An interview with Dave Randall, author of 'Sound System: The Political Power of Music'

 

 

Dave Randall playing at Glastonbury

 

September 27, 2017 
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Barry Healy speaks to Dave Randall, author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music

 

In Sound System you reflect upon the ideas of cultural theorists such as Theodor Adorno, Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdidge. How did you come to read their works? How have they affected your political interaction with music?

 

When I was in my late teens – back in the early nineties – I enrolled in a course titled 'Individual in Society' at a good, but not very prestigious institution called Nottingham Polytechnic. It was in that course I first encountered the cultural theorists.

 

Hebdige and Hall made sense to me – their shared ideas about the symbolic political resistance evident in youth culture. But I thought immediately that Adorno was mistaken in his dismissal of popular music. Popular music, I felt, had already changed my life and opened my eyes to politics.

 

In my book I tell the story of the fourteen year old me hearing a song called 'Free Nelson Mandela' by the Special AKA for the first time at a festival. I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was, but I knew by the end of the first chorus that I wanted him to be free. What's more, the spectacle of thousands of other festival goers hollering the hook to that song gave me a sense, possibly for the first time in my life, that ordinary people like me might be able collectively to have some say about where the world should be heading.

 

So I felt sure that Adorno had got it wrong. In the end I adopted an approach to understanding culture that draws more from the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci than from the cultural theorists. I take from him the idea that all culture is politically contested.

 

That's not to say that the form music takes is unimportant. Certainly some forms of music are harder for rulers or corporations to co-opt and incorporate than others. But form doesn't always have the final say. The cultural impact of every successful piece of music – from Adorno's favourite Arnold Schoenberg to The Clash – will be contested; pulled in different directions; placed in particular contexts, by different groups with different agendas.

 

Those with immense power and wealth can influence this process quite easily since they own much of the media including the big record companies and festivals. They will try to contextualise music and artists in such a way that they are seen to be supporting the ideas and values of the ruling class.

 

But others can use quite simple tricks to subvert things and achieve a different outcome. I give examples of this from across cultures and throughout history and I try to draw out useful conclusions from the examples.

 

You write that the “relationship between economics and culture is complex”. What are some of the linkages that perhaps are not so visible to those of us on the receiving end of the musical-industrial complex?

 

In a broad sense this relates to my disagreement with Adorno. Anyone who thinks that everything produced within the culture industries is bad and everything produced outside the commercial sphere is good (or some other similarly mechanical formulation) miss important details.

 

Marx and Engels were well aware of these complexities and details and warned against crude, deterministic approaches to the relationship between economics and culture. So to give an example, grassroots political movements who organise demonstrations in the streets can influence the world's biggest pop stars, inspiring them to make useful political statements, even at the most corporate of entertainment events.

 

One instance of this I explore in my book is Beyoncé's decision to reference the Black Lives Matter movement during her performance at the SuperBowl last year – a performance seen by an estimated 111 million people.

 

Political movements and organisations matter – what we, ordinary people decide to do, makes a difference – and what we do can become reflected back by the culture industries in surprising ways that can be politically very useful.

 

There was a time when punk rock offered a “do-it-yourself” avenue for youth to create their own culture. How did the music industry react to contain that upsurge and to what extent did that attempt fail? What are the examples of grassroots culture movements today that you have encountered?

 

The most powerful aspect of the punk 'do-it-yourself' ethos was when it became a consciously political act: a rejection of 'top-down' politics in favour of working class self-activity.

 

The context for this was the betrayal of working class voters by a British Labour government, who in 1976 under pressure from the IMF, forced through deep public spending cuts. Failing public services and rising unemployment led to anger and punk became an expression of that anger. However, the anger could easily have been harnessed by right-wing political forces including the far right.

 

Thankfully a group of left-wing political activists responded to rising levels of racism, including from rock stars such as Eric Clapton, by launching Rock Against Racism. It was pivotal moment in British cultural politics. I believe it helped to steer the 'common sense' of the nation towards anti-racism at a time when that was far from inevitable.

 

It was effective because it encouraged ordinary people up and down the country to get involved – to put on their own RAR gigs and fight against racism wherever they were.

 

These days we see some similarities in the Black Lives Matter movement and the broader campaign for social and economic justice in the US. It too has been effective because of the emphasis on the grassroots – on change 'from below'.

 

In Britain we have a slightly different situation because for the first time in my memory the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, is a left-winger who has vowed to break with neoliberal orthodoxy and redistribute wealth. He has become hugely popular with ordinary voters as a result and looks likely to win the next election if one is called anytime soon. In my view we should support him at the ballot box but also build the broader progressive movement in the streets and workplaces.

 

That movement will be crucial in defending Corbyn against the inevitable attacks that will rain down on him from the right-wing of his own party, the rest of the political establishment, the mainstream media, the financial sector bosses and so on.

 

Ultimately all progressive change comes 'from below'. We must do it for ourselves – to quote Marx 'the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class'. I think that remains true.

 

To return to the topic of music, that's why my penultimate chapter, 'Rebel Music Manifesto', begins by talking about the importance of music in our communities and of being active participants in culture, rather than just passive recipients.

 

The music industry seems intent on slotting rock stars into quite clearly delimited parameters. They are erected above the adoring masses as super-people who can sweep whole arenas full of crowds into frenzy.

 

Yes – in the book I draw the distinction between music 'by-us-for-us' which tends to enhance feelings of community and music commissioned 'by-them-for-us' which tends to reinforce social hierarchy. This distinction has existed for thousands of years – probably in all class societies.

 

I give one example from twelfth century Europe where a nervous establishment placed severe restrictions on music in an attempt to encourage quiet spiritual contemplation, rather than the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. The restrictions were largely ignored by ordinary people. I also trace the roots of the 'pop star' phenomenon back to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the wake of the French Revolution.

 

It seems that for a very long time rulers have wanted to us to gaze upward in awe rather than celebrate one another and take action to improve our collective lot in life. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, perhaps we're still in the gutter because we're distracted by the stars.

 

The ideal seems to be that stars create their music as lone individuals and then reveal it to the consumers. It is an example of Adam Smith’s atomistic thinking about production that the neo-liberals adore - Robinson Crusoe satisfying his own needs.

 

Marx in the Grundrisse says: “Whenever we speak of production…what is meant is always…production by social individuals.” How “social” is the production of music? What are the social and the personal effects of the illusion of the individually creative musician – both on the audience and the musician? Do Marx’s terms “reification” and “fetishisation” apply here?

 

Yes. It seems to me that corporate capitalism wants to produce music in its own image. The example I give in Sound System is TV talent shows such as X Factor, Pop Idol and The Voice.

 

The format of these shows is revealing. They all fetishise competition, in a sphere where I believe that is particularly inappropriate and unhelpful. They operate a pseudo-democracy: viewers can vote, but who gets to enter the competition in the first place and how those entrants are perceived is determined by an unelected panel of 'experts'. And whoever wins the same huge companies get richer, since a condition for entry is signing exclusive deals with those companies. This is culture in a corporate head-lock – culture mirroring the worst aspects of the capitalist system as a whole.

 

The production and consumption of music can be among the most profoundly social and therefore wonderful experiences in life. That's why we should all have access to music.

 

Lots of people abstain from having a go at making music because they are intimidated by how specialised that skill seems to be. I think that's a great shame and a relatively new problem.

 

Certainly there are many high-achievers in music – the Beethovens, Bowies, Beyoncés and so on – and we should be grateful for the art they have created. But music can and should belong to all of us – should be at the centre of our communities and lives.

 

There are lots of initiatives we can take to move culture in that direction – defending local music venues and music education funding and so on. But ultimately, culture will only be truly free when society moves beyond capitalism to a deeply democratic and more equitable system. Only then will human individuality and creativity really flourish. So for now we should defend music in our communities but we must also think carefully about the ways in which it can contribute to the broader political struggle for a better world. Sound System: The Political Power of Music is my attempt to do that.

 

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