Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory
Thomas Swiss, John Sloop, Andrew Herman eds.
Reviewed by John Brady
Sunday, November 01 1998, 2:13 AM
Space is sexy. Not outer space, although that's quite popular. No, the space that's 'in' at the moment is the space we move through in everyday life: the urban space we travel through on the way to work, the public space that is the stage for our political protests and the space of cultural consumption we inhabit every time we get new vinyl in our hot little hands. Such space has increasingly become the object of political and academic activity. Political activists, for example, struggle to preserve public spaces like parks from the ravenous encroachment of private corporations, while cultural activists fight to carve out spaces for new sounds and new art. Not to be left behind, academics have started to think more and more about such political and cultural activity, pondering the critical and democratic potential of this politics of space.
The contributors to the new collection of essays on rock, punk and popular music, Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory also find space appealing, specifically the space that music occupies in our daily lives. In the book's fifteen essays, the contributors map the different "locations of and routes for the creation of popular music and the spaces they open for transformation and flight." This mapping results in a fairly eclectic mix of essays ranging from a consideration of repetition in hip-hop, to an analysis of the queer punk politics of bands like Tribe 8 and Pansy Division, to a look at the legal wrangling surrounding Negativland's The Letter 'U' and the Numeral '2.' At times deliciously entertaining and extremely insightful, these essays are also occasionally filled with too much academic blah-blah-blah and useless, pretentious jargon. Such avoidable faults aside, Mapping the Beat is indeed a thought provoking volume and is valuable for anyone interested in applying the tools of cutting edge social and political theory to popular music.
One of the more thought provoking aspects of the book is how the essays explore music as a form of communication. As the editors note in their introductory essay, we all know that 'everything in the world of pop music is a commodity,' but this knowledge doesn't tell us how individuals use music and the power of noise to produce meaning in their lives and communicate this to others. Along this line, the essays in Mapping the Beat analyze how bands and their listeners deploy music to create identities, engage in cultural resistance and attempt to form communities of sound. To their credit, the essays don't just look at the positive ways that music operates in daily life, they also look at the way it can be used to marginalize and exclude certain groups of people. In this respect, Norma Coates's essay "Can't We Just Talk About Music? Rock and Gender on the Internet" is exemplary. In a sarcastic, biting piece she takes rock and roll culture to task for systematically trivializing or simply ignoring the contributions of women to the world of rock.
There are, of course, dangers in examining popular music as a form of communication. One hazard is exaggerating the power of music to affect significant social change and fight the powers that be. Almost all of the essays in Mapping the Beat fall into this trap at one time or another. Music certainly can be powerful. But what exactly is the nature of its power? When music does contribute to political change, how long lasting are the changes? Questions like these are not systematically addressed by the authors and as a result their assessments of the political power of rock tend to be overly optimistic and somewhat naive.
The second danger in reading music as communication is the uncritical acceptance of the message in the medium. The essays revel in music's ability to produce new, hybrid forms of community, but all too often they leave the exact nature of these communities unexamined. Steve Waksman's essay "Kick Out the Jams!: The MC5 and the Politics of Noise," is an example of where a more critical stance toward the subject matter is needed. In an entertaining essay that presents a sophisticated portrait of Detroit's late 60's music scene, Waksman traces the role the MC5 played in the city's rock and roll subculture. Cultural revolutionaries, the 5's challenged the prevailing order with, in Waksman's view, the 'restless noise of youth.' Waksman sees in Rob Tyner's screams of 'Kick out the Jams, Motherfucker!' an impulse toward a new 'sensual politics,' one that would "rid the body of its civilized trappings and return it to a purity of sensation that had long been lost."
Exciting stuff. But we shouldn't take such a sensual politics at face value and accept it as something desirable and positive, a move that Waksman makes. There isn't anything necessarily positive about calling for a return to a purer state of existence after the walls of civilization have been torn down. Indeed, such calls have been regular tools in the rhetorical repertoire of radical right-wing movements in modern politics. This isn't to suggest that the MC5 were fascists, because they weren't. It is only to suggest that we need to take a more critical stance toward the types of communities and political projects rock bands contribute to with their music.
Perhaps the most interesting essays in the book are those that don't deal directly with music, but instead concentrate on how the production and communication of cultural meaning in rock is organized by corporations, the market and the state. The essays by David Sanjek and Holly Kruse stand out. In their respective analyses, the authors focus on the role played by corporate strategies and state policy in the world of popular music. They demonstrate that democratizing the media and popular culture can't be achieved just by starting up new labels, but must involve significant legal reform and new directions in state policy. By analyzing the structures of power and profit that influence what the public sees and hears, Sanjek and Kruse provide a useful counterpoint to the book's other essays that explore how people use music 'in the streets.'
Ultimately, I think it is the combination of these two types of essays that makes Mapping the Beat a worthwhile book. By featuring essays that examine both how people use music in their daily lives and how people in positions of cultural and political power attempt to direct such use, Mapping the Beat reminds us that we have to look at both sides of the culture industry equation. We must explore how corporations mnaufacture and distribute popular music. But if we are to fully grasp popular music's place in society, we must understand how people who consume rock and roll attempt, for better or worse, to live the music and map the beat in everyday life.
Malden: Blackwell, 1998. 322 pages. $22.95 paper