Dangerous music

An editor who has since quit PopMatters once posed the question, Is music still dangerous? Convinced music has never been dangerous, except in the brainwashing, mind-numbing sense that pop is dangerous, I wrote a response, and I figured I’d post it here since it will probably never see the light of day there.

To answer this question, one must first define “danger.” Will music burn your house down? No. Will music send your children to war? No. Can music topple the heads of state and usher in a pacifist utopia? Despite what some folk singers seem to have believed, no. Some think it’s dangerous when music is terminally boring, as is the case with contemporary rock music and all jazz made since 1969, but it’s probably wrong to mistake disappointment for danger. Presumably, when we talk about music being dangerous, we mean that it is dangerous to the peace of mind of those comfortably ensconced in the status quo, that it challenges the existing order and its values, that it threatens those parents who want to control what messages their children are exposed to.

We need to specify what kind of music we mean as well. There’s social music, whether its the national anthem or dance-club pabulum, and there’s bedroom music, for private consolation or intimate mood-setting. Theoretically, there are different potential dangers latent in each: one might consider any music that reinforces a listener’s depression or glamorizes social withdrawal during sullen private listening sessions to be dangerous. Plenty of music can make one feel suicidal (e.g. Nico’s The Marble Index, Joy Division’s Closer, and most notoriously, Judas Priest’s Stained Class, which was once alleged to contain suicidal subliminal messages). Is this the real dangerous music? And the monotonous, hypnotic rhythms of social music are known to induce a state of high suggestibility, which is why they are often employed by cults to dissolve the individual will of its followers. Such music can be used to excite and incite a group to violence: the scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 which details the songs soldiers like to kill to chillingly illustrates this, and pre-modern armies didn’t have drum and fife corps just out of pageantry. The music children learn to play at the prompting of (often lecherous) elementary-school instructors and marching-band leaders is a useful tool to inculcate discipline, and may be considered dangerous from the child’s point of view. The music created more or less spontaneously by teenagers or groups of friends, even if its covers of current radio hits or tired garage-rock standards may seem harmless enough in its content, but constitutes a grave danger to the music business, which has a vested interest in its customers not entertaining themselves. Prerecorded music has never constituted a challenge the existing order, whose primary function, after all, is to circulate commodities with blatant disregard of their specific use, regardless of whether its doilies, diapers, or dildos. The same goes for records. Tipper Gore famously found Prince’s Purple Rain to be extremely dangerous, but certainly the staid record executives at Warner Bros. saw no harm in its sales figures.

So we must consider this also: dangerous to whom? If prerecorded music is a danger to anyone, it’s to those who consume it in pursuit of some revolutionary quotient or in hope of securing some kind of subcultural identity. These people are likely living a lie, believing that somehow they are expressing their unique individuality through their consumption choices rather than seeing how that individuality has been entirely contained, stifled. Mass-market music continues to be what has always been: a pleasing distraction, conjuring up a false set of issues (usually strictly personal, along the lines of “I’m in love” or “My parents don’t understand me”) seeming to offer an opportunity for rebellion while instilling a higher form of obedience to the consumer culture. This is especially true of music that stands as a testament to once vigorous countercultural movements. The moment music captures social unrest, it also reifies and supplants it, pacifying it through a spurious expression that fundamentally alters nothing about existing power relations. You could have listened to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and felt your solidarity to anti-war protesters without actually protesting anything. You could have bought the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams to show how you wanted to stick it to the man, even as you were paying him for the privilege. As inspirational as it might be to have cultural icons as ubiquitous as John Lennon espousing radical causes, such artists do as much damage to their pet political projects by oversimplifying them and trivializing them to the level of celebrity ephemera while distracting us from the compelling moral logic that should form the basis of the ideas’ gradual acceptance. And nothing is more damaging to leftist politics than the mediocre punk bands who adopt these positions and make them seem loutish and moronic.

When a particular genre of music promises danger, it’s safe to assume that the danger is purely metaphoric. What’s actually threatened is a teenager’s wallet, and perhaps, his self-esteem. This is especially true of rock and roll, whose history epitomizes the machinations of the mass market. After World War II, the federal government systematically offered breaks and benefits designed to stimulate private consumption, and the post-war economy boomed, with many jobs opening up for teenagers. Suddenly flush with spending money, and prompted to believe that personal acquisitions are the surest route to self-satisfaction, teenagers dying to buy something but with nothing particularly suited to them. To fill the breech, rock and roll emerged from Southern ghettos — it was alien enough to threaten adults and thus be embraced by teenagers looking to for special recognition, and yet for all its miscegenated origins and its primal rhythms and its explicit fascination with sex, it was essentially tame, reinforcing the most important values of mainstream culture: hedonistic individualism and obsessional consumerism. (Has there ever been a pop music form that hasn’t dictated a uniform to its fans?) Any differences we might detect in pop music is ultimately a consequence of our being able to imagine different audiences for different songs — this is pop music’s primary purpose, to segment the mass market while spreading the illusion of individuality. With its quasi-rebellious content, rock and roll flattered the young for its iconoclasm while actually standardizing their culture and narrowly circumscribing their possibilities for self-expression, reducing it ultimately to alternating positions on the fashion merry-go-round. As Adorno notes in “Perennial Fashion—Jazz,” that while music listeners “may play the non-conformist, in truth they are less and less themselves.” And unfortunately, according to Adorno, even if an audience begins to sense it’s being had, “it feels itself impelled to intensify its enthusiasm in order to convince itself that its ignominy is its good fortune.” The more the music industry co-opts our subversive impulses, the more rock cheats us, the more we’ll sing its praises and laud its artists for their profundity. No one is more guilty of this than music critics, whose fussy connoisseurship only serves to perpetuate the illusion that something legitimate and essential is at stake in music, that one’s choices about it matter in some transcendent way. But this is an alibi for the true significance of these choices, which, like all consumption choices, are about assigning social rank.

In The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman points out that “preferences in consumption are not viewed as a development of the human ability to relate oneself discriminatingly to cultural objects.” That is, one doesn’t learn about music to appreciate it more. The more you listen to pop music, the more your responses to it stay essentially the same. One learns about it to talk about it with others, to relate to others, to rank oneself against other consumers, but one doesn’t learn something that the music itself expresses. As Reisman puts it, “tunes mean people: roads to people, remembrances of them.” The music’s intrinsic quality is almost always a mirage, at best superfluous even if it could ever be established by any credibly objective point of view. Music is only important insofar as it makes others think certain things about you. When listening, the listener experiences a relation with a peer, not a relation to the music itself or the musician or the musician’s message, dangerous or otherwise.

What is truly dangerous, though, is how personal, how intimate our feelings about music can be, even as the music is embodying nothing but our own sense of ourselves and our place in social reality. This intense connection seems like a response to the music itself and what it evokes in us, and it’s nearly impossible to believe otherwise about the music we treasure most, music we would defend to our last breath as containing a emotional richness and a pure beauty. But in mounting such a defense, we are really defending some cherished notion of ourselves that has been displaced into the songs, a self-concept over which we’ve lost control long ago and of which we can only hear hints in the music that’s sold back to us — in this Beatles song, in that Patsy Cline ballad, in this Dylan lyric.

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