The Ancient Problem of Unruly Music–more from Jenn Lena on music and the election

This week, sociologist Jennifer Lena was kind enough to provide Election 101 with a third and final installment to her series of posts on music in presidential campaigns. Check out her new book, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music and her conversation with the philosopher and expert on both music and law, Jonathan Neufeld, on why the relationship between musicians and politicians is so fraught with difficulty:


The Ancient Problem of Unruly Music

Jennifer Lena


In my last two posts, I’ve detailed the ways in which politicians (and campaign staff) secure music for use on the campaign trail, and some of the controversies that have resulted when they did not secure permission to use those songs. Along the way, I’ve illuminated two other pathways for the match of politicians and musicians. First, political parties could make greater efforts to include musicians as active participants and contributors. It should particularly be the case that political actors working outside the mainstream—in small districts, in local politics, in radical or third party politics—should share many things in common with local musicians, including a point of view. Second, I’ve suggested that politicians engage in smarter strategic action around issues of intellectual property, by seeking approval for using copyrighted works, and finding fair use opportunities (like Obama’s Spotify playlist) to employ the power of music in their campaigns. In this final post, I sought out a colleague whom I thought might be able to shed some light on why the relationship between musicians and politicians is so fraught with difficulty.


Jonathan A. Neufeld is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at College of Charleston and an expert in both music and law. In his forthcoming book, Music in Public: How Performances Shape Democracy (Oxford UP), Neufeld tackles the connections between musical and political deliberation. Here is an excerpt from our conversation about politics and music:


JL: Are the questions I’m asking at all relevant to philosophers of aesthetics?


JN: Yes, your posts touch on an ancient problem. “[T]he modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions,” Plato writes in the Republic. Aristotle devotes a hefty chunk of his Politics to a discussion of music education; the conflict about what music is appropriately played in church was a hot topic of debate and political maneuvering in the Catholic church stretching back to Augustine. It is easy to multiply examples of music and politics colliding, and philosophers trying to find some way of making sense of it. In most of these cases, philosophers end up focusing on the emotional and sensuous potential of music–we are moved by music. You would think this would be good news for politics! “We are in the business of moving people, too!” But toward what exactly, does music move us? In the ancient controversies, a lot of ink was spilled over the untrustworthiness of music and musicians. Music can make us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do (dance like idiots, sing lyrics joyously that we might completely disagree with, etc.), and musicians seem to revel in this. Artists were seen to be without a moral core, rudderless.


JL: This seems to differ from how we think about artists in contemporary society: I can think of a number of examples when we revere musical artists as the most principled people. In sociology, we often describe these artists as “disinterested” or “autonomous,” meaning that they do not allow other people (politicians, audiences, producers) to dictate the art (or music) they create.


JN: That’s right. We often characterize artists as being interested in art for art’s sake. Insofar as they focus on particular political messages, they are often accused of doing something other than art. The thought that a consistent message would dictate artistic expression (Plato’s dream!) sits uncomfortably with a modern picture of artistic creativity.  The political demand to stay on message, then, seems to be a violation of the artistic autonomy at the heart of the art for art’s sake norm. Staying on political message is to allow a preset message to dictate what goes into the work. Moreover, when it comes to a campaign, it is to allow the campaign’s message to dictate the work. [And] even if the artist shaped the message, the demand to stay on message seems to be an imposition on the artist’s autonomous creativity. That the artist imposes it on herself doesn’t matter. What matters is the imposition of the wrong kind of norm–an extra-artistic norm–on artistic creativity.


JL: So, do you see an inevitable conflict between the logic of music (the value placed on autonomy) and the logic of democracy?


JN: No. The opposition is not between democracy and music, or even between music with messages and music without. Take Woody Guthrie, the Asian Dub Foundation, or Public Enemy, for example. Here we have artists whose songs are shaped by a message. But is this what it is to be on message in a way that would be compatible with the branding of a campaign? It seems to me not. There is an unruliness at the heart of artistic creation (or, if you prefer, there is a systematic expectation that artistic creation be unruly) that would make any disciplined campaigner nervous.  So the problem for artists is not the politics or the democracy, it’s the on-message requirement of contemporary campaigns. While obeying this requirement might not be an in-principle problem for contemporary politicians, I wonder if it shouldn’t be. Democratic discourse just is unruly–this was Plato’s deep worry about it. I wonder if the artist’s unruly resistance to staying on message could be seen as democratic impulse we might wish contemporary candidates shared.


I really like Jonathan’s last point—that the “unruliness” of musicians might be a better model for democracy than the slavish fidelity to a brand message. It was Benjamin Disraeli who claimed that “The world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.” Let me add more to the arsenal of reasons that politicians and musicians should take long-term collaborations more seriously:


1.Given the enormously large number of un- and under-employed artists in America, and rallying cries for job-creators on both sides of the aisle, why don’t presidential campaigns hire or contract with more artists? A recent survey by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (full disclosure: I am a Research Fellow on the project) reveals that 51% of art school graduates who intended to become an artist did not do so because work was not available.


2. Furthermore, given the enormous need for paid work, why aren’t more musicians approaching campaigns to write original material? Billboard Magazine reports that Obama’s 10-second performance of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” sent sales of the singer’s album through the roof (a 490% weekly sales increase). Logic dictates that many struggling artists would benefit from the national attention garnered through association with a candidate, so why isn’t it more common?


3. Democrats and Republicans rely on an extremely small set of performers to provide campaign songs. What would presidential candidates do without Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty? Why aren’t we seeing more pandering to the large and growing Hispanic vote, or to women? And most shocking of all: why are Republican candidates overlooking the massive market power of contemporary Christian rock? According to Neilsen, Christian/Gospel accounted for 9.5 million album sales in 2011, a nearly 7% increase from the year before. The Republican base, particularly the younger generation, consumes a lot of Christian rock, and the songs are on-issue for most of the GOP candidates.


I hope I’ve convinced you that long-term collaborations between musicians and politicians are possible, potentially mutually beneficial and could potentially spark a more vibrant and diverse set of arguments in the public sphere.


Jennifer C. Lena is visiting assistant professor of sociology at Barnard College.


  1. […] last but certainly not least, in the arts the Princeton University Press Blog is featuring its final post in a series about music and the way itinfluences elections, while The […]