I will be a part of this roundtable on Pop Music and Politics with Ali Colleen Neff, Barry Shank, Christine Bacareza Balance, Maria Elena Buszek, Nadine Hubbs, and Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.
Music and politics. These are both highly contested terms, difficult to define despite the fact that we use them constantly. To place them in relation to each other is to destabilize them even more, and to intensify the issues they raise. This panel interrogates the common-sense understandings of these keywords to locate the politics that inhabit hidden spaces, affective exchanges, aesthetics, postures, and embodiments. Beyond the notion that musical politics are something we know when we see them—or, rather, hear them, we are, following the movements and skeptics subcategory of the CFP, interested in amplifying politics beyond particular artists’ “strategic choices of mannerism, vocality, sound, and style.”
Much scholarly and fan concern with the union of music and politics is centered on social movements. The long Civil Rights Movement is the iconic example of the significance of music’s embrace of politics and politics’ return of that gesture. Photos of open-mouthed, arm-crossed, hand-holding singers like Bernice Johnson and Joan Baez focus the gaze of our cultural memory, representing for many misty-eyed hopes of popular music standing on the side of justice. These are the “Big-P” politics of civic transformation: politics at their most legible. But what of the “little-p” politics that determine how people relate to each other, their social worlds, their ecologies?
Here, we examine the cases in which the positive political effect of music is not so clear-cut; interrogating the assumption that song authorship is the primary space for political work, and emphasizing the fact that the intersection of music and politics is not always hopeful or good. Music has been used as an instrument of torture. Sometimes it sounds political stasis, against popular liberation.
Skepticism is not cynicism, however, and our roundtable embraces the positive critical aspect of that skepticism by asking foundational questions—What do we mean by politics? How do we recognize the presence of politics in music? Is it reducible to the songs sung in support of social movements? Must it refer to the music that inspires previously ignored or ridiculed peoples to stand up and proclaim the beauty and power of their identities, or the plaints that articulate the injustices of state policies or the destructions caused by warring states. Must the intersection of politics and music be based in identity categories? Must the political use of music always have a specific aim in mind? Might love songs have their political ramifications?
This roundtable will approach these questions with no firm answers in mind. Participants come from a series of backgrounds and approaches, from songwriting, to ethnography, to critical theory.