Music & politics

Last fall I was teaching a big class surveying the humanities. At some point we came to the topic of democracy, and I wanted to express the idea that democracy can be something more than merely the notion of “majority rules.”

“How many of you listen to jazz?” I asked. Two or three hands went up, and I was dismayed. It’s the greatest American contribution to culture, I said. And what’s more, I told them, if you don’t listen to jazz, you don’t understand democracy.

Jazz, of course, is all about improvisation. But you have to listen carefully to how it works. It’s not just a line-up-and-play competition, where each musician has an empty slot to play whatever the hell they want while everyone else waits for their turn.  When someone plays a solo, the other musicians listen carefully, and sometimes throw in a little something to support the soloist’s theme, or give them something further to work with. And when the next soloist plays, he or she needs to respond in some way to the previous solo, so that it is really a dialogue and not just a showcase of talent.

Real jazz is about building a community through dialogue. Everyone works so that individuals can discover what it is they want to say, and then say it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does the whole ends up being more than the sum of the parts. The group achieves more than the individuals would have if they had stayed in separate studios and just emailed in their parts.

Okay, think of that in terms of community dialogue and politics. Real democracy isn’t just about individuals saying what they please while the rest of us are forced to merely tolerate it. We are supposed to be actively interested and engaged with others’ voices, making sure that individuals get our background support for them having their say (even – and especially – if we disagree with them). It is an active collaboration, not a passive endurance. And when it works, the whole ends up being better than anything a single individual could have devised.

Sorry to go back to Philosophy 2.0 again, but this is what the ethos of the wiki is supposed to be about. Concerned individuals want the best product from their efforts. So a Wikipedia article ends up not being just a list of assorted and conflicting comments, but an integrated work reflecting various opinions. I know, it doesn’t always work, and sometimes I yearn for just the voice of a single expert who can put the whole thing into a coherent perspective. Similarly, sometimes I yearn for a benevolent dictatorship. But when it does work, you end up with something like what got old Hegel all excited – reason coming to know itself through the efforts of community.

Okay, back to jazz. Jazz reflects the noblest aspects of the great American experiment. At its heart is the confidence that a broad populace can work together to produce something strong and just and good. That’s only the intent, of course, and often not the actuality. But what an intent! If you listen to Coltrane, and think Jefferson, you will emerge a true blue patriot.

It is no accident that jazz emerged just as a group of people were transitioning themselves from slavery to democracy. Now they could make their voices heard, and they had some stories to tell. Democracy meant a lot to African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, and anyone who takes democracy for granted would do well to listen to their music.

But time marches on. Jazz is pretty much dead today. Ken Burns’ series on it, like his series on baseball and the civil war, just confirms that it is something that belongs in a museum. So what does today’s music tell us about the ideas we are engaged with? My sense is that most of the cutting-edge music of today (to the small extent I know it) reflects fast-paced commercial development. Each group is trying to find the new sound, or sometimes the new gimmick, that will capture the market. The music isn’t driven by a group trying to find their voices; it’s about a group trying to find an audience. And, true to Web 2.0, the group wants to engage the audience, and gain their input and cooperation. It is music born of the energy of a dynamic marketplace, where democracy (in my blown-up sense) isn’t as important as marketshare.

I’m not whining. Like I said, time marches on. Music is the sound of the politico-economic engines of a society, and when that society changes, its sound does too.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Music & politics

  1. ganselmi says:

    I tend to be really skeptical about intersubjective conceptions of aesthetics mainly because they tend to impose corny and didactic socio-political demands that are external to art on the artist: a lot of art can meet the criteria of reflecting an interactive spirit in form or content by soliciting, for example, input from the audience. As you’ve correctly stated, this process may indeed involve “cooperation” between the two parties, but it need not foster formal rigor/innovation or the emergence of unique voices. The latter is driven and cultivated, if anything, by esoteric “auteurism” (to use a term from film theory).

    All that wonderful postmodern “cross-fertilization” between forms, cultures, and media has mostly led to the dumbing down of the solid modernist forms developed through most of the 20th century if you ask me precisely because most audiences have bad taste. They can’t be expected to challenge and ennoble themselves – that was the artist’s duty after all.

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  2. ganselmi says:

    (With apologies for sounding like an elitist crank.)

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  3. Huenemann says:

    Good point: Miles Davis cooperating with Bill Evans leads to something, while Sheryl Crow cooperating with her audience leads to pretty much nothing.

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