I want to talk about the idea that single instantiations of “political” music are able to induce the kind of “consciousness raising” that could bring about political change. I don’t think this is actually possible. Then again, as Franco “Bifo” Berardi argues, maybe politics itself isn’t capable of political change so long as it’s beholden to the sort of myopic accountancy logic that defines neoliberalism, but I digress. I do think artistic works are politically and even ethically important, but it’s never 1:1. A song about poverty does not end poverty. It has to be part of a climate that makes change possible, because culture is not single pieces, or even the totality of art, but actually the interactions of these things with people and the mind numbing minutiae that makes up our lives.
Without social and psychological support, the righteous anger you may well experience when watching The Wire won’t get you to the drug law reform protest after work. This is because so much of our culture reinforces the apparent “naturalness” of the status quo and deflates any feeling that you could have an impact, or do anything positive (so much so that you could be forgiven for thinking it was the plan). It is the wrong climate for encouraging change. This is not to say that we need more “political music,” although that would be fine, but rather that we need to find a way to interact with culture as something other than an anaesthetic.
There are two things that I think will help me talk about this more clearly. The first is the recent rise of commentary in the mainstream British press about the British band Sleaford Mods. The second is Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism and Neoliberalism, a recent book by the philosopher and musicologist Robin James.
Sleaford Mods is a two-piece low-fi spokenish word electronic punk band from Nottingham, made up of Jason Williamson (vocals) and Andrew Fearn (beats/backing track). Live, Williamson aggressively projects his lyrics (commenting on and denouncing the general and unrelenting horror of life at or near the bottom of the British class system), while Fearn, having pressed play on his laptop, bobs along to premade looped bass and beats.
The perspective that Williamson offers in his lyrics is built into a whole aesthetic statement with Fearn’s low-fi beats and personae. In the song “Jobseeker,” Williamson’s character offers a retort to the advisor’s question of what he has done to find gainful employment since he last signed on:
I’ve been sat around the house wanking
And I want to know why you don’t serve coffee here
My signing on time is supposed to be ten past eleven
It’s now twelve o’clock
And some of you smelly bastards need executing
I took this from Genius, the lyric website where enthusiastic amateurs can sign up for accounts to annotate lyrics. The responses to this song, and to this verse in particular, are interesting. The verse is a fantasy response for those jumping through the hoops of the welfare state for the meager amount you can receive in order to not die while unemployed in the UK. One annotator cites the humiliation inherent in the interaction and the pointlessness of pursuing work in the low-wage economy, as other benefits subsidize low-paying jobs, allowing you to, borrowing a phrase popularized by Owen Jones, “earn your poverty.” At least in unemployment you can engage in some self-administered pleasure online.
This being a website in the time of Web 2.0, however, annotations themselves become something to be annotated, and this comment led to another saying that being asked such a question was not demeaning but, in fact, the only way to make sure the feckless unemployed were not scamming the system, and that it should be obvious why one would look for gainful employment, so as to not be a scrounger (as if the two were mutually exclusive). I don’t think this commenter is an arch-right-winger, but rather someone who is familiar and perhaps comfortable with what Mark Fisher terms capitalist realism, and thus not able to grasp that, far from the moral terms it is often presented in, unemployment is actually caught up in a way bigger global system, on which your application forms have little impact.
Of course, music itself is also caught up in these systems, as Robin James examines in her recent book Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism and Neoliberalism. In the book, James offers a convincing analysis of the appropriation of what has previously been considered resistant artistic practice into the ideological mechanisms of Neoliberalism. James argues that, just as your private or personal life is transformed into human capital, resistance — characterized by James as the scream against repression — is transformed, through the axiomatic nature of neoliberalism, into resilience. Resilience discourse, James argues, can be clearly understood in relation to feminist art and popular music practices. Whereas previously (perhaps in music movements such as riot grrrl) the noisy, angry denunciation of lived oppression was a transgressive response to the passive ideal of femininity, it has now been incorporated into the ideal. However, far from ending oppression, this transgression was transformed into a discourse of overcoming oppression, of resilience.
The most readily available meme that exemplifies this is the so-called “Lean In” school of feminism (or perhaps more accurately postfeminism) stemming from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name. For James, this school is built on the overcoming of suffering and thus needs to perpetuate the same suffering throughout society to maintain its power structures and ideological narrative. This is the inevitable result of resilience discourse. You are no longer part of an oppressed group but rather an individual who is capable (or not) of personally overcoming the oppression that is naturally in the world. You no longer seek to change the world but instead to wear the scars of resilience as proof of having earned the cultural capital of overcoming.
The way through this that James sees is to update Freud’s notion of melancholy, from the inability to move toward some sort of personal completeness to the inefficient or inappropriate valorization of human capital. This is convincingly argued in relation to the critical reception of Rihanna’s (as a popular culture construction rather than an actual person) 2012 album Unapologetic, specifically as it was considered in the aftermath of what we have been lead by the media to understand was an abusive relationship with singer Chris Brown. Critics denounced Rihanna for not producing some sort of work of clear overcoming, a contemporary “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” One critic even described Rihanna’s failure to overcome the relationship, as exemplified on songs like “Diamonds,” as “post ethics.” More specifically, Rihanna fails, according to this view, to denounce the aggression of a racist cultural construction of “black masculinity,” typified in Brown’s abusive actions. Indeed, in the song and video for “Pour It Up,” she appears to identify with them. (An analysis of Rihanna’s recent controversial release “Bitch Better Have My Money” in these terms would be fascinating.) Basically, in James’s reading, Rihanna is neither the un-investible noise of resistance nor the efficient investment of resilience, but rather the inefficiency of melancholy. Especially in the context of remaining within a frame identifying with “non-bourgeois black masculinity,” which is understood to be unprofitable.
When I think about these things together, I end up feeling that there is a flaw in the discursive layer of all of this, and I feel the need to reiterate Deleuze and Guattari’s adage that capitalism is “profoundly illiterate.” I can certainly see how James’s analysis of Rihanna’s album works at the level of discourse. But for me the notion that this “non-bourgeois” identification is unprofitable doesn’t hold up when you are referring to a brand like Rihanna (as opposed to the person). No matter how many white male music critics write ridiculously myopic or regressive reviews, the album sold over 4 million units worldwide in an age when music is not bought as albums. Discourse is certainly important, and resilience discourse is an important idea, but the odd thing about neoliberalism is how many blows its discourse can suffer while appearing and actually remaining unfazed. But this is why it is important to remember that resilience discourse is perhaps present not only in the artifacts produced but also in our capacity to interact or ignore what’s produced.
Sleaford Mods’ articulation of the disaffected British white working-class experience is almost too accurate a portrayal of its bleak everyday suffering. While the work is shot through with Williamson’s gallows humour, we are still very much on the gallows. This is an important place to be, an important experience to document and express, but it is only important to you if you are already interested enough to listen. If not, all you hear is an angry man shouting over loops. This perhaps is the relational level of resilience discourse: To the uninitiated, the ideas and mode of expression that the Sleaford Mods articulate are simply more depressing obstacles to be overcome. Which might also be a good description of this article.
1. I think this is a brilliant extension of their audio aesthetics. The murky dreary loops under rants recorded a little too hot and mixed to be on top and conspicuous. As Fearn nods to the beats (as can be seen in the footage from this year’s Glastonbury festival) it’s as if it strips back the veneer of the rapidly ossifying narrative of post-1960s popular music; the narrative of emancipation artistic expression. It’s like the onstage performance of the kind of menial tasks (or as David Graeber refers to them, “bullshit jobs”) that have come to dominate most economic activity in the West, now presented for your entertainment. But of course it only does that if that is what you are looking for.
2. The word gainful is key here. It would be gainful employment to work for a tax-avoiding corporation, yet it would still be scrounging, as the company would use infrastructure/services/education/law enforcement that it wasn’t paying for. Whereas to be unemployed and volunteer at an old people home could save the state a great deal of money, but you would still be considered a scrounger. The perception that the unemployed are bad for the economy or a drain is something that capitalism purports to be true but actually is not by its own terms. According to Lazzarato, the effect the unemployed have in keeping wages down allows capitalists to make more money, so in the terms of the “trickle down” dogma of neoliberalism, the wealth is going to the right places.
3. While this has arguably been expanded, one need only watch a show like Mad Men to realize that the personal life has long held value as human capital for straight white men.
4. To fully to get into this I should note that James uses a conceptual frame to describe the particular sort of oppression that neoliberalism seeks to maintain. James, building on the analysis of others, calls this Multi-Racial, White Supremacist Patriarchy (MRWaSP), which is basically the idea that representatives from any racial group or gender can become part of the elite, as long as they do so to further oppression. In this frame, while particular individuals of certain groups can, through their resilience, gain acceptance, one group has to remain outside; namely black males, or more precisely what is culturally understood as black masculinity.
5. James adds an interesting complexifying element to this in relating the figure of the “hustler” of “black masculinity” to the MRWaSP-approved neoliberal entrepreneur.
6. This is actually her lowest sales since 2009’s Rated R. But I’m not confident (and nor do I think James would be) putting this down to the discomfort of our internalized hegemony of resilience with the sparse melancholy of Unapologetic.