Friday, 6 June 2014

Can't we just talk about the music?

By Andrew Whelan, University of Wollongong
Contact Andrew at:

Music is thoroughly embedded in many contexts and practices of contemporary society. It is ubiquitous across social spaces and media environments, and is arguably the dominant form of mediated popular-cultural expression.
As such, music is very important to people. Talk about music is therefore encountered everywhere. Talking about music, however, is also a way of talking about other things: a vehicle or resource for getting other kinds of social and cultural positioning negotiated. Talking about the music we like – and perhaps especially the music we do not like – is a way to express who we are in relation to each other, and thereby a way to produce and exhibit our respective positions in relation to regimes of aesthetic and cultural value. Talk about music involves evaluation, and this kind of evaluation has moral attributes.

This is evident if we think of how ideas around social identity – ethnicity, class, gender, and other forms of social differentiation – are expressed through talk about music. Consider how conversations about, say, Michael Jackson, or Miley Cyrus, utilise the music and performance of these artists to ‘do work’ around sexuality, the politics of race and representation and so on.
There is also a fantastic quantity of academic research about music: in classical musicology, popular musicology, cultural studies, media studies, ethnomusicology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology. Of course, it is commonly through writing that we most thoroughly engage with this research. Nonetheless, it is not too much of a stretch to say that these perspectives also involve ‘talk’ about music, at least in the senses mentioned above.

One of the central features of these ways of talking, ‘vernacular’ or ‘specialised’, is that they can be understood as taking music as something located in the social world, in such a way as to tell us about other things concerning that world. Or rather, they can be understood in such a way as to enable us to tell these other things. This is arguably especially the case for those ways of talking which insist on being ‘just about the music’, thereby indicating a view of the world involving ‘art’ as an autonomous realm, separate from the everyday. At the very foundation of this way of talking about music, is an insistence that such talk can delineate music as a social practice abstracted from the context of its production, and yet simultaneously furnishing ground on which artistic comment can be made on that context.

This particular way of talking about music is surprisingly common, although we might not commonly think of it in this way. Music figures here as a sign of something good, in and of itself. Conversely, it is possible to talk about the degraded state of music (and especially ‘pop’ music) as sign and symptom of our own social degradation. Bad music is a bad sign, a sign of bad things in the world, a sign of a bad world (or at least, one which is getting worse). This draws on very longstanding ways of thinking about moral value with respect to music. We can conceptualise this drawing on Bourdieu. But we can also contextualise it in relation to anxieties about the corrupting effects of music stretching back at least to Plato.
This, then, is a way of talking about music as a ‘problem’. Some (most likely recent) music is deemed problematic, sometimes through juxtaposition with some other, possibly non-problematic or even edifying music (most likely not recent). In academic and in vernacular discourses, and across the political spectrum, these ways of talking also serve as ways of imagining social orders. Notably, they imagine how music contributes to the constitution of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subjectivities for the social order we have or might want or prefer. Music comes to be posited as ‘doing things’ to people. Selves, moral systems, and social orders are invoked and interlinked – in conversations about music.

Here is a philosophical example, drawing on aesthetics and ethics, arguing that ‘singing along’ to gangsta rap could be morally bad for you. Here is another, from psychology, suggesting that ‘problem music’ is linked with ‘delinquent’ or ‘anti-social behaviour’. The genres of music deemed problematic are predictable, but very similar lines of argument can be shown in sociological work, sympathetic to the political left, which addresses popular music. In this work, it is the ‘poppier’ mainstream which is spoken of as troubling. The intellectual lineage here is customarily traced through Adorno, and these sorts of perspectives are very well known. Vernacular versions can be seen in authenticity discussions among fans – what is ‘true’ black metal, has that rapper sold out, is this band still ‘underground’ and so on. A good contemporary ethnomusicological iteration describes music colonized by the forces of neoliberal hegemony: genres of music become brands.
Despite apparently important differences in political persuasion (in what the desired subjectivities, moral orders, and social forms are), these ways of talking share at least one important feature: they invite the listener/reader to join the proponent of the argument in directing opprobrium at the ‘problem music’ and the social order for which it finds itself serving as a proxy. Whether the relationship is reader-writer or co-conversational, alignment is solicited, and a right-thinking ‘we’ who can make sense of this music is proposed and developed.

It is productive to think about these conversations and the work they get done in this way for a number of reasons. It is not so much that the arguments involved are more or less right or wrong, or tell us more or less successfully what we need to know about music. It is rather that these ways of talking and thinking are objects of inquiry in their own right, which go towards the production of the field that is ‘music’ and how it is understood. Music is a topic or resource for talk, and for the production and display of academic disciplinary orientations. It is therefore an important interactional and discursive means of getting sociality done, and of getting conceptions of the world and how it should be into view. Considering how these conversations and discourses work helps us to understand how ‘music’ is made sensible, and made a sensible and informative feature of the social world. It can also help us to understand thereby some of the means by which we talk that world up into a moral shape.
This piece is based on an article published by Sociological Research Online in May. The article can be found here.


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