'Humans make music and music makes us human.'
- Cloonan & Frith, A Music Manifesto for Scotland (2011)
Music and Politics (PCPC - Polity Contemporary Political Communication Series) isn't an easy book to rate. On one hand, it's a thorough exploration of the ways in which music and politics affect each other (the author goes as far as to suggest they're extensions of each other). From an academic perspective, this is a five-star book. Yet while the content is hugely educational, John Street's dry, humourless writing style hinders the book's readability. I ploughed through the pages, fully aware that they were laden with valuable knowledge, but - try as I might - I couldn't get enthused about the mode of delivery. It's a safe bet that most books with the word 'politics' in the title will be duller than dishwater, but a great writer can bring even the most boring subject to life; an example that springs to mind is Michael Lewis, whose Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour describes serious events (those that caused the global economic crash) in the style of an unravelling mystery loaded with incisive observational humour. Not so with this book. Street knows his subject inside out: he's professor of politics at the University of East Anglia, so one would expect this to be the case. His writing would greatly benefit, however, from an infusion of humour and literary flair. My experience of reading this book was very much like that of eating cabbage as a child: I knew it was good for me, but I just couldn't enjoy it.
Here's the synopsis:
Chapters 1 and 2 deal with censorship of music, music policy and the idea (as claimed by Lord Redesdale) that live music is a human right.
Chapters 3, 4 and 5 develop the concept of music as a human right, examining how music is used and perceived by citizens, and manifest in the demands they make of the state. Analysis is made of how music can articulate political ideas and organise political action (for example, Live Aid, Live 8, Rock Against Racism). These chapters argue for music as more than a mere soundtrack to politics, but as the very substance of politics. Street argues that music represents and communicates political ideas and identities, as well as mobilising movements in support of such notions.
Chapter 6 looks at how music, by marking key adjuncts in history, informs political ideas and in so doing becomes history.
Chapter 7 traces the connection between musical taste and political values, mapping the interplay between aesthetics and ideology.
Chapter 8 argues that music is not just a matter of taste or entertainment, but also a key to understanding social order. Street contends that music is a form of political experience.
That's it in a nutshell. 'Music and Politics' is a well-written book, but it's not an entertaining one. Had John Street written it as an academic manual for his politics students, its coldly factual tone would have been appropriate. For a book aimed at the mainstream, however, it lacks both warmth and readability. Constructive criticism from a reformed cabbage hater.
John Street is undoubtedly passionate about his subject, but there is little to entertain any reader looking for a rounded examination of the continuing tricky relationship between musicians (and the business) and politics. There are interesting chapters to do with censorship and how the Mercury prize is rigged - there really is no other way of seeing it - and a convoluted section looks at the history of American folk music, including a hefty nod at Greil Marcus. Street's confusing narrative feels uncomfortably close to Marcus's excesses.
I think something more should have been said about rock stars using political charging as a means to massage their egos and further their sense of self-importance. Obvious names are absent from Street's book. While not in favour of muck-raking, I still think that this is an area Street should have covered. He returns too frequently to Bob Geldof, and this becomes tiresome very soon.
I was briefly amused that the rise of the Amazon citizen-reviewer is acknowledged, waving at us to give the impression that we really make a difference! Peculiarly, given this, Street makes no mention of 'Trolling' or the employment of 'reviewers' by record companies or publishers. Both are political acts - one churlish and clumsy, the other insidious - and now all too common. I don't think we Amazon reviewers do what we do as a political act: to quote the PM that should've been, Billie Piper (hit singles at 14! decapitating Daleks!) we do it 'Because we want to, because we want to!'
Sorry, but this really is a dry and difficult read. Still, thanks for the heads up, John!
on 20 April 2012
It goes without saying that music and politics influence eachother...one glaring example of this is the rise of the punk movement in the 1970s against the backdrop of an austere government and the Notting Hill riots of 1976. I chose this book partly because of the recommendation given by Keith Negus, a prominent author of Popular Music books (most notably Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction which was really helpful to me during my time studying Popular Music at university.
This book skirts around certain issues, I guess for fear of reprisal or ostracisation, and instead uses Bob Geldof as an example ad nauseum. I think the idea is a good one, and certainly there is a lack of books discussing the relationship between music and politics, but I felt this book didn't go in-depth enough and as such isn't as good as it could have been. As there are limited resources on this subject matter, though, I would recommend it nonetheless.
I've never seen a book that took such an interesting and dynamic modern topic, and suck all the life out of it in such a way that it becomes barely readable. It's a rather short book yet it's so drab I found it difficult to finish. It has the feel of a thesis being written by somebody who doesn't really care about the subject.
Perhaps it's a generational thing but I couldn't believe that things like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 (i.e. rave culture versus the Government) didn't even get a mention, while the voting system behind the Mercury Music Prize warrants practically a whole chapter to itself. You'd think from this book that Bob Geldof and Bono are the only two musicians who have ever said anything political, and that Live 8 is the only live music event to have happened in the last 20 years.
It is far too expressly the sole opinion of John Street, a live music reviewer for The Times. The flow of it is ruined in almost every sentence by endless and often needless citations, to other works which I'm sure will turn out to be much more interesting than this one.
I rarely give one-star reviews but I couldn't find any redeeming features in this.
I have to agree with other reviewers here and say `Music and Politics' sounds like it should be a fascinating book exploring the relationship between the two topics, but sadly it missed the mark this time round.
Maybe it is because this is based on an assortment of articles and they don't seem to gel together in one book, or maybe it is due to the rather dry academic style of writing, but something is lacking. I like a non-fiction book to well researched and referenced, but I hate it when it is extensively referenced in the actual body of the text. For example it would say "quote" [Joe Bloggs, 65] and then the rest of the sentence. This really broke up the flow of the book and quickly frustrated me. I don't know why it couldn't have just been numbered to refer you to a sources section at the back of the book.
It also lacked some key musical/political events and key players that I was hoping to read more about. Instead, it used the same examples to make numerous points and whilst they were perfectly valid, it got quite tiresome.
By the third chapter I found this a slog and that is coming from someone who reads non-fiction, political and academic books extensively and I also run a music website. This struggled to keep my attention and I like both topics.
If you are willing to persevere with this book it does have some interesting ideas to offer, but I was relieved when I finished it and it isn't one I would to recommend in a hurry.
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This subject is one close to me. I've always said that no-one changes their political views starting from a position of logical argument. We start with our hearts and not our heads. Thus political arts and music in particular seems to me to be of enormous importance; one only needs to think of Vicor Jara, Sylvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or indeed it doesn't take much further thought to come up with Wagner and Shostakovitch.
Having written that pre-amble and explained introduced my interest in the subject matter I have to say that this is a book very much for the head rather than the heart. It is deeply academic, and always scrupulously examines every angle to a question, and asks what has been argued before. The trouble is that it often doesn't seem to get anywhere; it doesn't make up its mind. Rather than producing evidence to support a well argued position, it seems to get stuck at the point of assembling evidence. It's not that there is an absence of interesting facts; there is a wealth of interesting information to absorb here, but oh dear! it's hard work.
Any negative element in my experience of this book will be due will be my lack of appreciation of how academic this book is. I haven't studied politics, but this sounded interesting so I chose it as a holiday read. I did enjoy it as it is relatively accessible, but it was not quite what I was expecting. Reluctantly, I have dropped a star as I didn't actually understand about 10% of it (read the words but the concepts didn't quite click).
There is a lot of `meat' in Music & Politics, and it talks about: overt political control of music; how musicians come to represent people; how people participate and interact with music; how music helps make/shape history; the dynamics of the big music prizes; music as a way of experiencing political movements. There is also quite a bit about how we evaluate music, which got a bit philosophical and slightly beyond my comfort zone (this was most of the 10% I couldn't quite process).
The big thing I took away from this book was the sense that music and politics are basic human attributes, so we shouldn't be too surprised that both deeply effect the other. It also reminded me that music isn't just another form of communication, there is a bit of magic about some of it that works on a different, deeper, level.
On reflection, I think I'd expected more reference to protest music and songs hi-jacked by advertisements etc. While there was some reference this wasn't the main thrust.
...and I'm certainly not prepared to admit that Bruce Springsteen on the cover swayed my choice. Oh whoops, I've said it!
on 15 May 2012
Being a lover of both music and politics, the title of this book seemed to promise a marriage made in heaven. So did it deliver? Well yes and no, and with more misses rather than hits unfortunately.
To be fair this is a huge subject area and one has to commend John Street for even trying to tackle it, aside from anything else. And it has to be pointed out that this is, from the outset, an academic book. It's well researched, thoroughly referenced, and in certain sections clearly more of a `core study' book for certain parts of whatever social science courses musicologists do these days. People looking for a lively discussion of the politics and social actions of a range of top rock and pop stars [Springsteen appears temptingly on the cover], are, frankly, in for a disappointment.
And this in some ways is a shame. I couldn't help feeling whilst reading this book, that too often it wasn't sure exactly what sort of a book it should be. I found it a little disorganised and far too dry in too many places. For example the second chapter- an academic study of music policy throughout contemporary history and across varying governments in the world- was quite frankly extremely boring and although perhaps full of good hard information for the research student, I feel it happened way, way too early in the books structure to keep the curious, `leisure-time' reader on board, which I feel this book will attract.
There's also an uneven attention to particular subject areas. The chapter on Rock Against Racism and the ANL starts off informative and interesting, but in the end rambles on for too long. In another chapter, discursive analysis of Live Aid and Live 8 has been done elsewhere ad infinitum; it didn't really need any further picking over here, yet of course it has it's obligatory- over long- chapter.
There is also an over emphasis on Rock music, which even then, doesn't really seem to get tackled with any great passion. Jazz, Soul and Folk are mentioned and analysed to a certain extent, but it only feels as if in passing. Towards the end, the book touches on Rave and the wider Dance music phenomenon, but ends up going nowhere on what personally I think, is one of the most significant socio-political music phenomena of the past thirty years, and not including a more detailed discussion of this is a huge missed opportunity.
Street does offer an extremely interesting take on Britpop and the guitar-laden/US pseudo-punk rock, white-boy-rock movement of the past twenty years though, describing it as being exceedingly reactionary in its backward looking conservatism. When you look at the posturing of the Gallagher brothers et al, you can see how on the mark this observation is and it is when Street enters socio-political terrain like this, he is at his best.
Which is why it is such a shame this book ultimately disappoints, because I can't help feel John Street is holding back a great book that is really dying to get out. There is no reason why this subject should be so heavily dry and academic; in other areas, such as economics, some great, insightful books are being published that are both accessible and cutting edge. It doesn't need to be passionless and flat to be intellectually `acceptable.'
I really would have rather read about John Street's thoughts on soul, punk, rave and stadium rock, rather than have to plough through what too often- with its heavy handed referencing- reads more like a review of The Literature than a real, intellectual study of the shaping and use of politics in contemporary music.
There are some high points; the study of the star-rating system [and its inherent consumerist conservatism] is thought provoking, and Street's position that politics itself is an aesthetic process, a fashioning of self and wider beliefs that both reflect and represent the culture of a society's wider population, is wonderfully spot on, and why of course music can be such an important, integral element in the process of societal politics.
I just wish there'd been more insights like that, and this book had had more John Street in it, rather than a raft of references to other thinkers. That's a shame. Maybe next time.
on 21 September 2012
When reading this book, a did so from the point of view of the slightly geeky music fan that I am, knowing probably far too much about artists and genres that I don't actually like or listen to, so many of the events and situations covered in this book weren't news to me, but I was hoping to gain some new insight into their meaning within a political context.
Never let it be said that the author of this book merely regurgitates the status-quo (possibly an unfortunate turn of phrase here but never mind) and his opinions and findings are refreshing if not revelatory. No-one needs to be told about Blair's use of 'Cool Britannia' and the 'Britpop' stars he attatched to himself (possibly the most calculated yet revealing stunt in those early New Labour days of power), but this book puts an interesting slant on it, and demolishes some common myths.
It's not quite as boring as it should be, in fact I certainly didn't have any trouble finishing it, but certainly not a mass market or crossover crowd pleaser. I think anyone with an interest in politics, rather than music should read this book, but then if you're really into your music, the politics will surely follow.
This really isn't a book suited to the general or casual reader; I`ve read a few political science and sociology books in my time, so I thought I`d be well primed for this, but I admit I rather struggled through it, which is a pity.
Street does make many interesting points, there is a lot of in-depth analysis on each of the inter-related topics he highlights and his book is split into reasonably short, digestible chapters; he's clearly passionate about music, but the overall feeling is of reading a textbook.
What was missing for me was anything about the experience of making music, from a musician's point of view and of how different musicians relate to the idea of the political; Street does - commendably - note the difference between lyric-based musical forms, like pop music, folk, etc., and pure instrumental music and its power to express or embody abstract ideas that can be seen as ideological or subversive, but much of the book is taken up with historical socio-political events and groups like Rock Against Racism, Band -Aid, Woodstock et al.
It seemed to me that although Street references a wide range of music throughout the book, his main focus in each chapter is really rather narrow, rarely deviating from the dominating pop music culture, which left me feeling that there was less exploration of wider aspects of the cultural and business politics that creates this domination.
Perhaps my expectations of this book were unrealistic and for that reason I don`t want to give a low rating just because I didn`t engage with it; this is a book written by a political scientist and it reads as exactly that; I`m probably not amongst the readership its aimed at - for me, most of the material presented here was too dry and academic; it is probably of most use to a student of politics with a passing interest in music, rather than a musician interested in cultural politics.