Here is the text of a talk I’ll be giving this week at the AMS/SMT Joint Meeting in Vancouver. The paper is part of a panel on Historical Materialism, featuring some friends and people I really admire in the field (Bryan Parkhurst, Stephan Hammel, Sumanth Gopinath, Naomi Waltham-Smith, Eric Drott). So I’m very excited about it. I thought my role for the panel could be to bring popular music studies as a discipline into discussions of historical materialism and music. There is a close relationship between pop studies and HM, one that dates back to the 1970s and the rise of the field itself. I wanted to bring some of that context into the conversation. The paper transformed pretty radically from what I initially proposed. Along the way, it spun out into a paper about Stuart Hall (a social theorist who I engage closely with throughout much of my work); I also fleshed it out with a few examples related to my dissertation. In order to make it a bit more accessible and to provide citations, links, and the like, I thought I’d post it here. Here goes:

Part I: Historical Materialism & Pop Music Studies

It might be said that popular music studies emerges only through the expulsion of historical materialism from the discipline.

My point isn’t that pop studies as a whole is against HM, nor do I even wish to question the value of much pop scholarship that is explicitly anti- or post-materialist. Overthrowing HM has been good for business, a business that I consider very much my own. But this, I think, starts to get at the point.

It is almost standard operating procedure in many classic pop studies texts to open with a disavowal of HM, it’s pretensions to science and reductionism, its orthodoxy and base-superstructure vulgarity. Of course, this has most often occurred not through attacks on Marx , but on Adorno. The late Adam Krims – himself an avowed Marxist and critic of Adorno’s – called the German’s work the “foundational trauma” of popular music studies (Krims 2007, 91). But, Adorno might better be thought of as pop studies’ favorite sparring partner. And, swatting him down is a time-honored pursuit.

The earliest reference to Adorno I’ve come across is in Dave Laing’s 1969 book, The Sound of Our Time. A peer of early classics like The Sound of the City and Mystery Train, Laing’s book is also one of the first to speak about the study of pop music in a reflexive vein. Laing opens his concluding chapter, “Towards a Theoretical Framework,” by chastising Adorno for his reduction of “music to a bizarre sector of the economy” (Laing 1970, 187); he concludes it by suggesting that David Riesman and Roland Barthes surpass Adorno’s contributions.

Unknowingly, Laing inaugurated a long tradition. Echoes of his move are found in Simon Frith’s 1981 Sound Effects, which condemns Adorno and praises Benjamin only insofar as he is the “most interesting (and least orthodox) Marxist” (Frith 1981, 281). And the move is central to the boom of pop studies as an academic discipline in the later eighties and nineties. Take Keith Negus’s Popular Music in Theory, a common starting place for students in colleges and graduate programs. Negus treats Adorno less like a trauma than the first shape of consciousness in the history of popular music studies (Negus 1996, 8–12). Adorno is once again posited as a catalyzing figure. But here, his thought is treated more like something to be superceded by a later and more fully formed subject. First Riesman is introduced as Adorno’s successor (curious because they were almost exact contemporaries); he is then followed by Stuart Hall, then Dick Hebdige… all in a chain that leads up to contemporary pop studies (at least, what was contemporary in 1996).

Seen in this fashion, Adorno resembles less a shadowboxer than a rung on the ladder to a science of popular music. This places materialism in the center of pop studies, albeit in a curious fashion. Materialism is here something to be Aufgehoben, a necessary but insufficient step on the road to pop science. The implication is as if, to bowdlerize that famous passage from Capital: in Adorno, popular music studies is “standing on its head. It must inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell” (Marx 1976, 1:103).

This makes for a curious thought. What does it even mean to stand Marx on his head? Where does it leave us?

More or less: back in idealism. I would argue that Adorno’s – already sometimes hazy – commitments to Value with a capital V have been displaced in the name of little v value. The turn toward ideology, subjective interpretations, meanings, and so on has shifted the focus away from music industry to a private and personal valuation of musical things. This is explicit for Frith, who argued for rigorously dividing music’s sociological character from its aesthetic. In Sound Effects, Frith argues that this second aspect affords music its own autonomous domain of value. He writes, “music can never be just a product (an exchange value), even in its rawest commodity form; the artistic value of records has an unavoidable complicating effect on their production” (Frith 1981, 100).

If this has made musical objects opaque, Anti-materialism pervades in a more obvious way. Ideal history has replaced the history of class struggle. I think of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train as a representative early example. His book is a phenomenology of rock and roll’s spirit, a mythology chronicling the passing of rock’s classical age into a new musical romanticism for the 1970s (Spätstil Elvis?). While a specter of Marcus haunts pop studies today, culture has even transcended its modest home in rock criticism and the British New Left. Today it is a truism that we live in culture. “Kale Culture,” “Kick Culture” (like, shoes), an “irony obsessed, meme driven culture” and a “culture of extreme parsimony towards public spending” [see bibliography]… These are reminders that we live in a world where little V value lords over our lives.

Part II: Stuart Hall

Curiously enough, this is an understanding of culture that would seem strange to its earliest champions. Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams did not think kale or Nikes conjured up their own ideological worlds, however much they thought we should attend to everyday life. Hall himself is interesting as a pivotal figure in the uneven academic reception of historical materialism more generally. Though he is obviously a reference point for cultural studies as a whole, he has had a fraught critical history. And just like pop studies, much of it has been defined by efforts to drag him out Marx’s shadow. Take James Procter’s generally good Routledge Critical Thinkers entry. It repeatedly engages with materialism, largely toward the end of emphasizing Hall’s breaks with Marx (Procter 2004). Procter speak of base-superstructure binaries, vulgar Marxisms, and Marx’s own “reductive notion of culture” (16). Once again, Marx provides a negative model for a thinker who ultimately ceased to be a “pure Marxist” (44).

Certainly, Hall’s work is omnivorous. He read a lot, comfortably engaging Marxists alongside semioticians and poststructuralists and critical race theorists. Hall also gladly challenged Marxism where he found it wanting. While I would accept that Hall wasn’t a “pure Marxist,” whatever that might mean, it isn’t hard to call him an orthodox Marxist. As Lukács wrote,

Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx's individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious 'orthodox' Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx's theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the 'belief' in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a 'sacred' book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders (Lukács 1972, 1).

That is to say then, that Hall’s work took its cue from the problematics of historical materialism, and remained committed to them through his life. He put this emphatically in a 2008 interview, where he lamented cultural studies’ erasure of its Marxian roots: “Important gains were made which enabled us to understand culture, cultural discourse, the place, the relationship of the ideological to the cultural… [But in] that interim period, cultural studies lost its way.” (I got this quote from Jayna Brown, who gave a great short talk on Hall and Marx at a 2014 IASPM-US panel on Hall).

Hall’s materialist commitments come through even more emphatically in his earlier work (eg. the ‘70s and ‘80s). Take Hall’s 1973 essay on the Grundrisse, a product of a series of seminars on that book, first published in 1974 in the CCCS house journal Working Papers in Cultural Studies. Forget orthodoxy: it is as pure of an endorsement of historical materialism as can be found. (it’s essentially a parallel to Althusser’s arguments in For Marx, also insisting on cordoning Marx off from philosophy proper) (Althusser 2006).

This account forms a backdrop for Hall’s work, including his formulation of culture and the popular itself. Hall is emphatic that both should be understood in relationship to the material conditions of social life. Culture is most thoroughly defined in “Subcultures, Cultures, and Class,” the lengthy opening essay of the 1976 collection Resistance Through Rituals. (this is a co-authored piece also first published in the Working Papers; it essentially functions as a manifesto for cultural studies). Hall and co. emphasized that culture should be thought of in terms of its material and practical dimensions. They wrote, “‘Culture’ is the practice which realises or objectivates group-life in meaningful shape and form. ‘As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce’… [And cultures] are not simply carried around in the head: they are objectivated in the patterns of social organization and relationship through which the individual becomes a ‘social individual’” (Clarke et al. 2006, 4).

Hall’s “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular” – an essay that appeared in the 1981 anthology People’s History and Socialist Theory – was even more emphatic about his materialist commitments (Hall 1981). Hall challenged the weakness of what he saw as the two dominant theories of popular culture: 1) the mass culture account (231) – eg. the Adornian/anti-Adornian account of music industry as a source of “containment/resistance” (228); and 2) the anthropological “all the things that ‘the people’ do or have done… customs and folkways” account (234). For Hall, both accounts were too narrow. One relied to heavily on the music industry – the music business rather than capitalism as such – and another dwelled on a vague opposition between the people and whatever their opposite might be.

Hall proposed a new definition. Popular culture constituted those “forms and activities which have their roots in the social and material conditions of particular classes” (235). Incidentally, he concludes this essay with perhaps his most famous quotation. Hall often gets read as a Foucauldian of sorts, owing to his well-known line: “Popular culture is one of the sites where [the] struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged.” But the quotation continues with two sentences that often get omitted by later commentators: “It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture – already fully formed – might simply be ‘expressed.’ But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why ‘popular culture’ matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it” (239). (Barry Shank’s 2014 IASPM keynote abstract, for example, has an ellipsis running over the messy socialist bit).

The goal of saying this isn’t to insist, “haha he’s on our side!” Rather, I want to recognize the insightfulness of his work, both as a means of expanding beyond much in prior Marxist theory and of building a unique, historical materialist theory of culture. What is most interesting about this to me isn’t that Hall espoused a materialist viewpoint, but how he worked with it.

Hall wanted to shoot down idealism in a very conventional Marxist fashion. But he did so toward an end that I think is potentially helpful for how to think about music. Hall also affords culture a degree of autonomy that gives it some ideological flexibility. He clarifies in “Notes” essay that partially why he rejects anthropological culture is its focus on our “ways of life,” rather than our “ways of struggling.” For Hall, culture constituted a “battlefield,” one shifting frequently with the contours of history and society and always tethered to capitalism, but a battlefield nonetheless.

This inflected culture with not only a semi-autonomous character, but an oppositional one. This was true in a traditional and obvious Marxian sort of way. Resistance Through Rituals spells out a theory of the opposition between the culture of the working class and a dominant culture. That is to say, of course, culture conforms to a struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie. Much of Hall’s interest in Gramsci and hegemony is exactly toward the end of theorizing ideology. Hall also does this in a lengthy essay on Althusser (Hall 1985). So the story told in the CCCS volume is one about the tension between a dominant bourgeois culture and an opposed working class social project.

Equally important is the account of subculture, which amounts less to a theory about safety pins in noses and dyed hair (at least for Hall), than a theory of tensions within social groups. The “Notes” essay is emphatic that a dialectical relationship also functions within the views of the working class. Hall cautioned that, though culture was classed, it did not evenly reflect two neatly bounded worldviews. Rather, culture was coalitional: popular culture more accurately referred to an “alliance,” one standing at odds with “that other alliance of classes, and strata and social forces which constitute what is not ‘the people’… the culture of the power-bloc” (238).

This account forms the backdrop of what is perhaps Hall’s most widely read essay, “Encoding/Decoding,” written in 1973 and first published in 1980 (Hall 1980). (it’s widely read because it’s one of the texts that talks more about language, semiotics, etc.). Written around the same time as the Grundrisse essay, Hall aims to develop a theory of communication that parallels the trajectory of Capital: linguistic and media communication, Hall writes, conforms to “a skeleton of commodity production… [of] production-distribution-production” (128).

This is one of the texts that introduces Hall’s account of articulation. There, Hall argues that there is no purely “denotive representation” within culture (133). He pushes for a kind of interpretive dimension, both in the production and consumption of texts – articulation advances a standpoint about something, not a neutral description. Hall does caution against a potential misreading of his essay, claiming that articulation is never “an individualized and private matter” (135). He is unequivocal: capitalism constitutes a horizon for meaning. This is not only true because codes are potentially warped by hegemonic ideology. Rather, it is because articulations themselves have a practical dimension. Articulations are theorizations of the world, ones shaped by class, hegemony, the standpoint of the people. But they are articulations precisely because they fall within the confines of practical struggle. Hall dotingly cites Valentin Voloshinov, the Soviet semiotician who was a constant source for his linguistic theory. Debates over meaning, Hall concluded, were renderings of “class struggle in language” (133).

Part III: Punk

This offers a suggestive model for taking seriously the diversity of aesthetic practice – not only because of the seeming arbitrariness of music vis-à-vis its outside, but also because of the multiplicity of forms such visions take. Hall calls for thinking of aesthetic practices as articulations, ones that present particular views of the world. But he also maintains: those views should be understood in relationship to social practice (not private, random, or colloquially subcultural designations). The particular form that social practice takes, Hall clarifies, is one organized by the capitalist mode of production.

From here, I want to shift gears to punk. Punk was a privileged example of both early pop studies and cultural studies. Dave Laing wrote explicitly as a Marxist before shifting to a less political and semiotics-driven perspective (Cf. Laing 1978 and Laing and Smith 2015). Hebdige applied a (de-Marxed) version of cultural studies to understand punk’s visual style (Hebdige 1979). And, Simon Frith developed his autonomy story explicitly for the purpose of refuting cultural studies (eg. Frith 1997).

Because of this, punk studies has paralleled the contours of academia’s uneven materialism. This has been on two fronts. In its link to the more classic mode of production kinds of questions, there has been a tendency toward a strain of formalism. Take Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces – effectively a sequel to Mystery Train; it presents punk as the farce to Elvis’s tragic rock and roll (Marcus 2009). Meanwhile, a second emphasis on punk as a kind of ethos, an attitude, has rendered accounts of punk’s musical material opaque. For example, see Steven Blush’s brand new book, New York Rock, which has an entire chapter dedicated to diagnosing the New York “Attitude” (Blush 2016). Punk is doubled idealism, formalist without form.

This starts to explain why the question of genre has been so troubled. Punk has a seeming self-evidence – its status as three chord rock, leather jackets, bad dye jobs and bad ‘tudes. On the other hand, something beyond such clichés has proven to be quite elusive. Even just in New York during the 1970s (the period I primarily work on), punk is an odd designator. Its history is fuzzy, so much so that it is difficult to say what counts as pre-/post-/or during the time. Musically too, punk evades. Though seemingly straightforward, Blondie, Patti Smith, Suicide, and the Ramones make for a curious grouping.

Hall’s materialism offers a theory about why they do. I’ll beg the mode of production question, which is actually pretty easy for this period. You much just need to copy right out of the pages of Harvey, Mandel, and so on (Harvey 2007; Mandel 1975). (Even Fredric Jameson, generally silent on music, has cited punk as the great sonic example of the new “logic of late capitalism” (Jameson 1992). Hall’s account is potentially most useful for discovering the multi-valenced nature of punk as a genre. It would take seriously punk’s diversity as a set of articulations of the nature of social life under late capitalism. This, incidentally, would comfortably allow for the cultural stuff, a story of rock history, of rock’s institutionalization, expansion, abdication of various social functions, etc.

One might think of Patti Smith Group’s ambitious rock reformation as a bohemian and so emphatically subcultural response (that is, one that contents itself with avant-gardism at the price of its peripheral status). Or alternatively, the catastrophically deconstructed retro rock of Suicide, one without any illusions of hope for a better, rock-based future.

To spell out one such vision a bit more thoroughly: I hear the Ramones as a form of what I call punk kitsch. They identify positively with mass culture in a certain way. But it’s a specific sector of it, one that emphatically foregoes all claims toward the high. They neither sing of the romance of the Lower East Side nor the pristine vacuum cleaners and ’57 Chevy’s Ernst Mandel described as the signature products of post-war affluence. Their segment of mass culture is kitsch – comic books and slasher movies, boredom and apathy, the debased and weird underside of rock and roll’s golden oldies. Think of a song like “Chainsaw,” which essentially summarizes the plot of the 1974 film Texas Chainsaw Massacre; or take the Ramones’ endless affection for “Surfin’ Bird,” the Beethoven 9 of musical kitsch. This is matched in musical form; their songs pile up like an endless accumulation of (throwaway) commodities rolling off the assembly line. In a way, it’s still music about the world of the Chevy Bell Air. But its one where those ‘fifties models are rusting in the abandoned lots of seventies New York City.

Heard in this way, punk names less a set of necessary stylistic conditions or an attitude, but a set of practices attempting to articulate the fate of rock, of mass culture, and of capitalist social life more generally. Varyingly, it sounds a hope for a permanent, vanguardist rock bohème; the fear that rock persists only as a tattered, faded photocopy of its former self; the endless boredom of a musical left wholly without a future.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. 2006. For Marx. Translated by Ben Brewster. New York: Verso.

Blush, Steven. 2016. New York Rock: From the Rise of The Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Brooks, Bonny. 2015. “If #AllLivesMatter, Maybe It’s Time to Stop Laughing at North Korea.” The Huffington Post. November 24.

Buhler, James. 2006. “Frankfurt School Blues : Rethinking Adorno’s Critique of Jazz.” In Apparitions: New Perspectives on Adorno and Twentieth Century Music, edited by Berthold Hoeckner, 103–30. Routledge.

Clarke, John, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson, and Brian Roberts. 2006. “Subcultures, Cultures, and Class.” In Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, Second Edition, 3–59. New York: Routledge.

Denning, Michael. 2015. Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Frith, Simon. 1981. Sound Effects. New York: Pantheon.

Gillett, Charlie. 1996. The Sound Of The City: The Rise Of Rock And Roll. Second Edition. New York: Da Capo Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. “Encoding/Decoding.” In Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79, 128–38. London: Hutchinson.

———. 1981. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular.’” In People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by Raphael Samuel, 229–41. London: Routledge.

———. 2003. “Marx’s Notes on Method: A ‘Reading’ of the ‘1857 Introduction.’” Cultural Studies 17 (2).

Harvey, David. 2007a. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2007b. “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610 (1): 21–44.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Jameson, Fredric. 1992. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

“Kick Culture.” 2016. Kick Culture.

Krims, Adam. 2007. Music and Urban Geography. New York: Routledge.

Laing, Dave. 1970. The Sound of Our Time. American Edition. Quadrangle Books.

———. 1978. “Interpreting Punk Rock.” Marxism Today, April, 123–28.

Laing, Dave, and T. V. Smith. 2015. One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock. PM Press.

Longhurst, Brian. 2007. Popular Music and Society. Second Edition. Malden, MA: Polity.

Lukács, Georg. 1972. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Mandel, Ernest. 1975. Late Capitalism. Translated by Joris De Bres. London: New Left Books.

Marcus, Greil. 2009. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Second Edition. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.

———. 2015. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock “N” Roll Music. Sixth Edition. New York: Plume.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Vol. 1. New York: Penguin Books.

Middleton, Richard. 1990. Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Negus, Keith. 1996. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Procter, James. 2004. Stuart Hall. Routledge Critical Thinkers. New York: Routledge.

“Rejecting Austerity, Greece Squares Off with Its Creditors & Risks Future in Eurozone.” 2015. Democracy Now! February 18.

Scherzinger, Martin. 2005. “Music, Corporate Power, and Unending War.” Cultural Critique, no. 60 (Spring): 23–67.

“To Be Honest, I Haven’t Fully Bought into Kale Culture.” 2014. Unhappy Hipsters. September 5.