SMALL MUSIC (?)

Right now I’m thinking a lot about music that doesn’t reach many people.

For many music scholars, one of the key reasons that music is important to study is in how it contributes to the battle over hegemony or the contestation over meaning. Music articulates what we might call its “meanings” (but which are complex combinations of vibrational/culturally coded affects) in many ways simultaneously: historically, musically, formally, semiotically, stylistically, and so on. In the weird bundle of forces that constitutes a piece of music, a cultural articulation is sounded into a discourse, a field, or a space where others can be affected by it. In reaching people, in forming intimate publics 1 music creates a shared sense of the world among certain groups of listeners. That shared sense can become the precondition that leads to action (political, say) or not; it can create or disallow possibility, or neither.

But what happens when the music that we are talking about doesn’t reach a lot of people? It’s obvious, for example, that Beyoncé’s music is having an impact on society, an impact that we can analyze through various lenses (critical race, feminist, and so on) even as we track its political economy. But what about music that we might similarly read as feminist, but which not many people know about or hear? If it doesn’t contribute to the broader cultural landscape, what is the significance of this small music?

Ethnographers will document the impacts that music has on people’s everyday lives and the contributions it makes to people’s sense of their own subjectivity. But as a methodological question, does a music’s limited or non-existent impact (culturally, broadly) mean that we can’t read it in the affective/semiological way that we can read truly popular music? What if a group’s reach is too small to actually create an intimate public? Beyond individuals who may nevertheless listen to this small music and may indeed be affected by it, what can we say is significant about it on a cultural scale? Is there a certain threshold of popularity required for a cultural phenomenon to form an intimate public? Put another way: of course we can still read small music for its meanings and affects. But the question is, do these meanings and affects matter or function in the same way as music that can be considered widely popular? Is there value in popular music scholars studying music that isn’t all that popular? Or is music’s very popularity its main indication that it has something significant to say about how our culture(s) construct and reflect meaning, to others and to ourselves?

One reason that I’m thinking about this is because there seems to be a ton of excellent indie-rock happening right now, specifically indie rock with women at the center. I’m wondering if one of the very reasons that this music seems to be flourishing right now is because “rock” as a genre (the white male rock of rockism) is no longer the world’s dominant popular music. Is there something about the diffuse and localized scene that indie-rock has become that is allowing certain kinds of musical and social possibilities to emerge?


1. I am referencing here Lauren Berlant’s well-known elaboration of “intimate publics” as “affect worlds” in which “one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 226. What interests me here in particular is the way in which the notion of an intimate public is caught up in a certain level of visibility. Berlant writes, “You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral impact.” [Ibid.] And again just later, “But [participants] do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.” [Berlant, 227.] My question about small music is this, fundamentally: because it is not broadly popular, does it require a different level of participation in order to create a shared sense of public-ness, however small? Can participants afford to be passive if their passivity results in the dissolution of the sphere itself? Or, on the other hand, if a given band/song/scene corresponds with a much broader genre space that exists independently of that given band/song/scene (e.g. “girl bands” or “feminist rock”), is the intimate public maintained in any case, so long as the genre exists? Can a participant still afford to be passive if the genre will maintain itself irrespective of any particularly performed acts of fandom and belonging? Can you access an intimate public through any number of entry points?
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