Revolution is a Feeling
BRAIN TUBA: Revolution is a Feeling
"Shopping is a feeling," David Byrne once said, and so is revolution. Real or perceived, it doesn’t matter: there is a fun in doing something that seems subversive. The difference between the two is, of course, surprisingly little and always shifting. But there’s no arguing with the fact that it’s a mighty good hook. According to Theodor Adorno, nothing having to do with the consumption of popular music can actually be revolutionary, the culture industries being an opiate for the masses, yadda, yadda, yadda.
And, to some extent, of course, he’s totally right, at least in the sense that instead of listening to music and being absorbed in this culture I could probably devote more time to, I dunno, torching Starbucks or reading Marx’s complete correspondence or writing essays about the evils of the culture industries, but Adorno probably never listened to the Beatles, either, so fuck him. But we’re not talking about the revolution itself. We’re talking about feeling.
Accepting the premise that music is a wonderful thing, one also accepts certain basic assumptions, the most basic of which is that there is, in fact, something called music. That, in turn, is the culmination of an infinite series of other rules about what does or doesn’t constitute music: tempo, melody, lyric. The sky might look blue, but there are a lot of gases. Anything can be music, of course. For Frank Zappa, it was all about the frame. Brian Eno once listened to a field recording of street sounds over and over until his brain perceived it as an ordered sequence of events. But this isn’t a place for that debate. We’re all here, we’re all on the same page: music is cool, we find meaning in it, but that meaning comes from rules, some of which we aware of, some of which we aren’t.
One place that music begins to make meaning is in its literal medium. The Sex Pistols were banned from the British charts because, well, they were the Sex Pistols — and that transgression was certainly no small part of their appeal. In the past year, we’ve seen three other artists banned from the charts for various infractions, two in England, one in the States: Radiohead, for selling In Rainbows through their pay-what-you-will plan and Beck, for giving away sheets of stickers to create alternate covers for 2006’s The Information. Prince did it twice: in the US in 2004 for giving away copies of Musicology with concert tickets, in the UK for giving away last year’s Planet Earth to readers of the Guardian.
They all had their reasons, but really the goal was to not only get their music into as many people’s hands as possible, but to create an experience outside the norm of how they usually receive music. When it comes down to it (as Eno proved) anything can be music. What’s important isn’t always how good the music is, but convincing listeners that it is a good idea to listen long enough until they can sing along with the songs, to absorb the album. That’s the hook, right there, the revolution. What makes it feel different?
There are changes in popular music, sure, measurable changes like the introduction of multi-track recording and such, but not as many as one would think, and certainly never as many are as hyped. What most musicians do — even very, very good musicians who make classic albums — is rarely completely or even partially new. Or "new." Or whatever. But so what? Even novelty is mostly illusory, a trick to get somebody to listen to the total package. I’m gonna go put on In Rainbows again.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com