A Response to Benjamin Roberts
Benjamin Roberts penned an excellent essay for Athwart, arguing that modern pop is the ultimate synthesis of capital with rhythm, a purely neoliberal cultural expression. He concluded that “Neither reaction nor true radicalism will ever be possible as long as Ariana Grande and Sam Smith are on the radio.” Pop must be dismantled if illiberal dreamers are to have any hope. While Ben may or may not be correct, we must first understand what “pop” is.
Theodor Adorno differentiated pop music from serious music with standardization. For Adorno, all pop was standardized, even attempts to break or circumvent this standardization. He further emphasizes that this is not the same sort of standardization as one sees in poetry or classical music, where there are certain metrical or structural patterns that predominate throughout a genre, like sonnets’ fourteen lines or contrapuntal techniques in fugues. Rather, standardization encompasses the entire musical act, where the listener is not even aware of the “whole” and is only delighted by the details of the song. For Adorno, this is a crucial distinction, because pop abstracts and alienates musical details from the whole while serious music (classical, jazz, &c.) allows musical details to “derive its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme.” Pop atomizes as it globalizes.
Intelligibility is crucial to pop. Why? Pop is a fundamentally democratic art form. It derives significance solely from attention, quantified in views, clicks, loops, and plays. Accumulating interactions by the billions, pop aggregates society into easily discernible fanbases. Whether for Lana Del Ray or 5 Seconds of Summer, Beyoncé or Kanye, amalgamations of teenagers spend millions of dollars to consume the ultimate commodity: a person (or group) of substantial musical talent. But these fanbases don’t coalesce around illegible personalities. Intelligibility, the ability to grok, comprehensibility, whatever one wishes to call it, is crucial to the modern pop star. Even K-pop, which feeds off the frenzied energies of Western fans with no knowledge of the Korean language, is pure Western pop, with the same syncopated beats and synchronized dancers of an average Katy Perry set. Understanding at a mass scale, a mass revelation or realization, is only possible with legible pop. The rhythms and simple lyrics combined laboriously within the intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-outro frame of pop create a harmony of continuity that allows us to comprehend John Legend as easily as Mick Jagger.
Plato outlines his case for extensive state control of music in Book III of the Republic. He asserts that “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward place of the soul.” If music resides in the deepest caverns of our being, then it is also reflected in the structure of our regime. Thus, intelligible pop reflects its intelligible regime. The order implied by Adorno’s standardization framework is derived from the order of the liberal regime. When Roberts, referencing Mark Fisher, speaks of a “thumping kaleidoscopic pastiche” we must remember to peel back the layers of “neon sex” to see the rhythm of political ideology.
Liberalism functions, in part, by reducing the human person to a series of desires that can be satisfied by transacting within the market. This is why young men burnish their credentials on the “dating markets” of Hinge and Tinder and young women parley their physical attributes for money and attention, as chronicled by Ashley Mears’ new book. Gen-Z kids, polled as the loneliest generation ever, turn not to traditional forms of community, like family, church groups, or sports teams, but increasingly to amorphous amalgamations of alienated youth posting away on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. “Stan” communities, named after Eminem’s 2000 single about obsessive fans, share videos of their favorite pop stars, obsess over the latest rumors, and engage in targeted campaigns for various purposes (the Trump campaign accused TikTok users of flooding their online registration system for his Tulsa rally, for example). Separated and atomized from the people around them, young people find solace, meaning, and fellowship in the market-based consumption of different pop stars’ content. No longer within Burke’s little platoons, increasing numbers of young people prefer to “enmass” themselves in the adulation of corporate avatars of prosperity, sex, and liberation. Warner executives laugh their way to the bank and liberalism as a political ideology further entrenches itself.
If the modern cults of stan Twitter, gyrating around Nicki Minaj and BTS, are profoundly liberal, then is there any revolutionary music left? How must we define revolutionary music? I propose that we embrace a broad view of revolutionary music as any music that dislodges both the listener and the artist from the demands of market consumption and neoliberal cultural hegemony. Roberts mentions the Soviet Union’s failure to effectively counter pop with Soviet folk and, similarly, the Chinese failure of nationalist pop, seen in acts like the Higher Brothers. But postliberal thinkers cannot content themselves with exploring the failure of anti-liberal totalitarian regimes. Rather, they must consider the revolutionary music of America’s past.
While I can’t address every form of revolutionary American music in this essay, I can give a few songs (representative of larger themes) in support of my thesis. These historical examples serve as both references and exemplars to potential thinkers. I offer three: The Who’s “My Generation”, the Geto Boys’s “F*** a War”, and 100 gecs’s “money machine.”
“Hope I die before I get old.” With these instantly iconic lyrics, The Who staked their claim to musical fame in 1965. The song distills youthful angst into Keith Moon’s ballistic drumming, Roger Daltrey’s delayed, stuttering vocalizations, and John Entwistle’s simple, Fender-voiced bass solo. All together, these unique voices combine to create the archetypal anthem of revolt. While most musical histories of “My Generation” focus on its influence on punk rock and a vague narrative of disaffection, I think we must listen to “My Generation” as a potent denunciation of the good life offered by the triumphal tribunes of the liberal order. Pete Townshend once explained that he was inspired by blues musician Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues”, where the lyrics center around “a young man” who “ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days.” Allison’s perky piano belies a distraught and thoroughly alienated generation that didn’t buy into the prevailing myths of 1960s liberal culture. The tragedy of the blues is transformed by The Who’s cover of the song (a highlight of their legendary Live at Leeds) into a howl of rage.
“My Generation” and its predecessor “Young Man Blues” give us the first clue to modern forms of non-liberal music; it involves rejection and rage. But what does that have to do with Southern gangsta rap?
Houston’s namesake may have been a noted compromiser in the Senate, but Houston’s musicians, like many Texans, have a revolutionary streak. Specifically, the Geto Boys (Bushwick Bill, Scarface, and Willie D) wrote devastating lyrics challenging the sensibilities of label execs, Tipper Gore, and the American public. While vulgarity is not a prerequisite of revolution, it’s certainly notable in the context of the moral panic of the Nineties, with Congressional committees debating warning labels and police forces refusing to protect N.W.A concerts, that the central focus was the puerile, violent, and shocking lyrics and antics from artists outside of the mainstream.
On their iconic album We Can’t Be Stopped (illustrated with the classic photo of the trio throwing up signs in a hospital ward after Bushwick Bill accidentally shot himself in the eye), we find the song “F*** A War.” It’s a remarkable song primarily for the incisive political commentary offered in the midst of the profanity. Opening with a call from a military recruiter, Bushwick Bill proceeds to explain exactly why he doesn’t have any desire to fight for the United States. He decries “fightin’ behind…goddamn oil”, the “wasted lives”, and of course, “Bush’s old ass on TV playin’ golf.” Bushwick Bill isn’t exactly a peacenik, however. In the third verse, he floats pushing the (nuclear) button in order to lower gas prices. But the revolutionary character of Bushwick’s rhymes is clear. The American liberal project requires a volunteer army and, more broadly, buy-in from the populace. The Geto Boys reject this. In the raw energy, negation, and humor of the four-minute track, Bushwick Bill and Willie D manage to convey a flippant dismissal of the American war machine and, more broadly, the liberalism that underpins it.
We now have established rejection, rage, and humor as key elements of revolutionary music. But both songs I’ve chosen as examples are old—“My Generation” came out in 1965 and “F*** A War” is from 1991. Postliberals must also keep up with the revolutionary music of the present.
100 gecs is a strange, dazzling musical act. Cobbling together chiptune, dubstep, and intimate bedroom pop, Laura Les and Dylan Brady don’t follow the rules. Their song titles are inscrutable and random (e.g., “xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx,” “hand crushed by a mallet,” and “25 bands and a geccco”). And yet, despite the initial confusion most listeners have when hearing a 100 gecs track, they are wildly popular with Generation Z music aficionados. What’s so appealing? We’ll look at their most popular song, “money machine,” for clues.
An ode to large trucks, feeling clean, and dissing one’s enemies, “money machine” appears, on the surface to be nothing more than a throwaway pop song. 100 gecs has reached the fringe of stardom because their bizarrely playful amalgamations of pop trends point to a larger incoherence in the media consumption of young people. Listening to a gecs album is roughly analogous to scrolling through the darker corners of TikTok, an algorithmically generated mass of sound and fury, signifying nothing and everything all at once. Intelligibility breaks down, and the squeaking chiptune synths, mimetic references, and posturing aggression sounds like the atomization of all that makes pop interesting. 100 gecs deconstructs and reassembles pop into a disturbingly incoherent Frankenstein that indirectly critiques the regime that produced it.
The three examples just discussed can’t serve as a comprehensive collection of revolutionary,postliberal, or nonliberal music. Rather, they are chosen as ports of departure, a location within the history of American music to begin our exploration of the counterculture.
Roberts tells us that the increasing entwinement of capital and music has given us the decadent pop of the modern day. Yet artists continue to produce music that’s subversive to varying degrees. One need only tilt an ear toward the hazily debauched cloud rap of Bladee, the megafauna-appreciating country shoegaze crooner Orville Peck, or Deb Never’s grunge-trap confessional songs. Many of these artists are signed to big labels, and Roberts would have us believe that the marriage of capital with radicalism that entails converts their output into liberal pop. Indeed, getting signed by Sub Pop or Sony Music is an effective revolutionary pressure release. Yet music is much older than liberalism, and the history of the American counterculture demonstrates, if nothing else, that musicians will continue to challenge the dominant political and moral hierarchies of their day.
Postliberal thinkers decry, rightly so, the homogenized hedonism of 21st-century globalized pop. In order to challenge the perfectly atomized, legible, and consumable pop consensus, they ought to return to the tradition of nonconformity, the tradition of shock, and the tradition of play. St. Paul told the Corinthians that he had “become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) Postliberalism is not the Gospel. But those who preach it might learn from the sainted epistolarian and dive into the subversive and challenging music of the past and present. Out of the three elements above, perhaps the most essential quality of revolutionary music is the sense of play it embodies. The carefree, youthful energy of music unbound from political piety is infectious, and is, I think, one reason for the enduring significance of the revolutionary anthems of the past and present. Thinking beyond the frame of liberalism requires a simultaneous recovery of old, forgotten traditions, the boundless confidence of a radical, and a truly playful spirit, ready to convert the masses through joyous song.
Adorno, “On Popular Music” http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/On_popular_music_1.shtml#Note01 ↩︎
Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit by Ashley Mears. ↩︎
Featured Image: The Who perform in Toronto in Photo (1980) by Jean-Luc Ourlin via Wikimedia Commons.
Max Bodach is a senior at Ave Maria University. He is an AEI Initiative on Faith and Public Life Young Scholar and Röpke-Wojtyła Fellow at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at CUA. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.