BRIEF THOUGHT ON THE HIGH/LOW DISTINCTION

Brief thought: most cultural studies scholars, perhaps excepting those coming from a more rigid, Frankfurt-school perspective, accept that the modernist distinction between high and low art has completely collapsed.

Question: is this collapse so forceful as to have inverted the equation?

Follow up: particularly with the question of radical politics, it now seems that the avant-garde is precisely the genre of music that is incapable of mounting any sustained critique. It is, by contrast, the successful commercial genres that articulate and mobilize social justice and even (at times) anti-capitalist positions. This would appear to be the mirror inversion of the outwardly stated political goals of the avant-garde and popular genres of the modernist period.

Alternative question: we can still identify, aurally, those musical genres that identify themselves as avant-garde. But what do these genres generally stand for in 2019?

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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?

M/Bake Yourself

People say that baking is scientific, but I don’t think that’s an accurate way to describe baking bread. Baking bread is improvisatory, in that it requires knowing the process well enough to be able to respond when circumstances change.

The state of your starter, the temperature outdoors and in, the time you have available, and other such variables set certain parameters within which to work. You can guess and do alright, but to really consistently perform the way you want to, you have to have practiced enough times so that your muscle memory and intuition can take over. How the dough looks, smells, and feels will tell you if it needs to ferment for a few more hours, or if you need to change the ambient temperature. Even though the process is a continuous, daily practice, it’s never quite the same from time to time.

One of the most significant reasons why I am attracted to activities like this is that they are impossible to do without developing a sustained relationship with the process. There is a kind of intimacy between one’s instrument and one’s self, where, after you’ve spent enough time with each other, you know what it is going to do before you hear it done (and it knows what you are going to do, as well). This is one of the places where our membranes as subjects is the thinnest, when we are most prepared to let things in, to blur the distinction between ourselves and the outside world, which is inside us as we are in it. People can cause this boundary crossing (is there really a boundary?), but so can objects: when you are playing music, you are yourself but also your instrument (as it, by sounding is partially you).

There is no such thing as a single unitary individual; we are incomprehensibly multiple, but there are at least some parts of us that we can know about and reflect on. Choosing what objects to use and what activities to perform with them–very much like choosing which people we spend time with–is a way to intentionally alter some of the multiples that constitute us as humans in the world. Even as I work on my future self by learning how to bake, I am partially becoming my past self each time I eat what I have baked and am made to remember this or that event, or any number of conversations where bread was present, tying itself to my mind.

Allowing other people to experience this as well is one reason to bake two loaves.