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19 May 2008

The Political Economy Of A Rock Concert


Last week Allison and I went to see Wilco play outside in downtown Lawrence. We met her brother and sister in law there with a couple of their friends and spent the evening with them. It was a nice night and we had a good time, but I wasn't very engaged in the music. Instead I was looking around through my anthropological goggles, making some very interesting observations.
It seems obvious to us, I suppose, that the band should be raised up, bathed in light and projecting outward while the audience is lowered, immersed in darkness and focused inward toward the band. Ostensibly it's a matter of practicality - after all, the people came to see the band not the rest of the audience. But what is merely practical on the outside obscures a deeper relationship that is far more dynamic. The way I see it the physical structure of the concert belies the inequality that exists between the two groups - "the band" and "the audience."
The band is at the top of an hierarchical social system with proximity to the band determining an individual's status. That means that friends of the band members are given a high status while those who just heard of the group are given almost none. Also, the band, because of it's position is able to demand more from the audience than it is expected to give in return. But the question in my mind is, why do we want to see the band anyway? Why do we pay so much money? Why are they put above the rest of us? Why are they in the light while we remain anonymous in the dark?
Lewis Mumford, a brilliant historian, speculates, with a great deal of accuracy I believe, that in small scale cultures that have existed and continue to exist outside of civilization, everyone is called upon to participate in the various rituals and celebrations (like rock concerts). Somewhere along the way this changed so that the spectator and the spectacle became separated and the performers of the spectacle became more powerful than the spectators. Originally, Mumford speculates, this gave rise to organized religious rituals and the priestly class, but I'd suggest that it also gave rise to professional entertainers who have been granted varying levels of status in different periods. This relationship has been handed down to us in several forms, one of which is the rock concert as I described it above another is the spectator sport and yet another is politics.
However, the urge to take part in the rituals continues to persist. In the rock concert any audience demands some degree of participation or they won't find it entertaining. Also we see various other forms of participation springing up around any band including groupies, tapers, fans, etc. each doing different activities to feel as if they are part of the event.
It should be remembered that this rock concert culture is embedded within a larger cultural system. Importantly, this system involves a high degree of labor specialization. As a result, for its members the band is just another job, while the audience is made up of people who have their own jobs (though with significantly less power in many cases) during the day. This kind of specialization feeds the hierarchy and justifies the power of those on top.
I should say that I'm not saying anything against Wilco in particular or rock concerts in general. I like them both, and will continue to attend because they're fun and I don't really begrudge the musicians their influence. All I'm trying to do is offer a different perspective on the relationship. It also points to one tool that we have for bringing down the dominant power structure (not bands playing music at concerts, but the system of exploitation and destruction that currently controls the world) - that is, conviviality. More on this later perhaps, but for now... it's time for bed. Good Night!

4 comments:

btmc said...

This is a subject I find interesting. we have a book called "rise up singing", it is a collection of folk songs from several different traditions, with guitar chords so we can play and sing them ourselves. I was playing with that today, playing some woody guthrie songs, his songs and many traditional folk songs were written so simply, and replayed and changed by so many other people who found a guitar in their hands that the songs really do become communally owned. likewise, a party with several guitar players or singers or other instrument players will inevitably bring about a stronger feeling of community than your basic rock concert. is the music just as good? who knows? all I'm saying is it is more convivial.
so pick up an instrument, or learn to sing a song, i say. it's time we take back this gift of music.
Hey Jeremy check out my friend Viola's blog, her latest project is partly concerned with the pop music experience. viola-yesiltac.blogspot.com

Jeremy Trombley said...

Addendum: When I was in my youth (8-10 years ago), I used to travel around to see this band that I liked called The String Cheese Incident. Participation was a big thing in that scene; there were tapers, musicians, vendors, people who helped with promotions, artists, and many other different people involved in the various activities surrounding this band. Several times a year (New Years, solstices, or other random events) the band would put on a concert that involved some kind of grand ritual where anybody was allowed to join in. They would have grand processions, magical rituals, poetry readings, and a lot of other things. The band even started charity organization that was completely staffed by volunteers from its fan base.
I had a friend in this crowd who suggested to me that this was an example of a non-hierarchical movement, and reminiscent of tribal living. Aside from the fact that the whole thing was embedded within the system of global capitalism without which it could not have existed, I was never quite happy with this description. I always felt the presence of the band as a connecting force and as the driving force for everything we did, and I felt this sense of hierarchy radiating outward from the band. It wasn't genuine participation on equal footing - it was highly centralized and highly differentiated. As hard as they tried they were never able to escape that.
I like the idea of a convivial gathering of creativity. I thoroughly enjoyed Brendan's music social, but I also enjoy good music and I'm afraid there was very little of it going on there (no offense Brendan, I had a great time and would definitely go again - it's good for something else, not necessarily making quality music). I think those two ideas can coexist, and they often do in venues outside of the rock concert.
As for myself, I would love to be able to pick up an instrument and go out with some friends to the park and just play. Unfortunately, I can't play anything very well at all, and I don't have the time to learn. Part of this has to do with the system of specialized labor in which we're stuck. You've got to be able to earn a living off of something that you spend that much time learning or else it merely fades into the background when you get a 'real job.' In my case, I'm often too busy thinking, reading, and coming up with interesting blog posts that nobody reads. :)

emmett said...

Though I highly agree that the hierarchy resubstantiates our capitalist concepts, and I would prefer to be on the same footing as Shane MacGowan singing the Sick Bed of Cuchullain, than fifty feet away from him surrounded by lovable, sweaty irishmen, I find it generally a wonderful experience to be the worshipper/spectator, and depending on the spectacle, they are sometimes people with such wisdom and wonder that perhaps they deserve the worship. Continuing my example with the lead singer of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan, I have just completed his autobiography, and throughout the last chapter he writes of a few very important things concerning the music business. One is that its existence as a business is what screws so many people that go through it up. He likened it to a meat grinder, and those that it has eaten up, such as Kurt Cobain and Lean Nyro to a harp. If you throw a harp into a meat grinder it won't look to nice once it comes out again. My main point concerning MacGowan's rambles on the music business is that he stated that, If a musician is out to make money, he won't make good music, and if he is entirely out to make good music, doesn't care about the money, and won't compromise with a record label for something they think will sell better, he won't make money, and will live destitute, or get a 'real job.' MacGowan also describes exceptions to these rules, the people that don't compromise, and don't treat music as a job, but simply want to make wonderful music that actually make it work and still survive without a 'real job'; Nick Cave and Van Morisson are the men he describes as such. They make beautiful music, don't compromise, don't make as much money as Britney Spears or the Rolling Stones, but with his wife's coaching he comes to the conclusion that they still live well enough, even if not in mansions paved with cocaine.
Personally, I love music, and I always will, even if I'm a in a position below the musician, and would really love to learn the electric guitar and acoustic violin, because though I would not fuse them, two of my favorite types of music are heavy metal, and celtic/country with fiddle. I would learn these for the right to both play and love with those around me, I would also like to be on the stage, and be worshipped.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Hey Emmett, Thanks for your wonderful comments. As I said in the post, I'm not particularly opposed to rock concerts, and I thoroughly enjoy them too. I was just saying what I saw, and what it says about our culture at large.
I liked your comments on MacGowan and his views on the business of music. I didn't even get into that, but I agree that it's an unfortunate thing. The fact that nothing can exist in our culture without being a business, without involving an exchange of money, is very problematic. All of our experience is now mediated through this exchange so that we are continually denied pure experience and genuine relationships.
Take care, Emmett, and when you learn to play the guitar and the fiddle I'll come to worship you. :)

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