The Politics of Music Don Byron and Dave Douglas
EVERYONE KNOWS HOW Plato mistrusted the politics of music. And some may remember that Theodor Adorno saw pop music, in particular, as an insidious form of brainwashing. That current runs through philosophy and theology worldwide, reminding us to be grateful we don't live in Plato's Republic or fundamentalist theocracies. In 2002, the return of music to Radio Afghanistan became an instant symbol of castoff oppression. In this context, Nietzsche was rare in his praise of music's historical and social functions, an embrace that let him appropriate its textures and effects into his sensibility and prose.
It's clear that music, even popular music, which includes jazz, has some power that frightens philosophers and politicians, enough so that they try to harness it when they're not censoring or disparaging it. The figure of the bard, the Orphic seer whose power can penetrate the world's veils and change its bent, still exerts a powerful, if largely subliminal, pull on the imaginations of artists and audiences alike.
And why shouldn't it? Homo ludens, whom the artist represents at his best, is fundamental to our nature, and a wondrous and compelling thing to behold, whether it's Michelangelo brooding on his scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel or Derek Jeter dancing at shortstop at Yankee Stadium. As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science: “Every great human being has a retroactive force: all history is again placed in the scales for his sake, and a thousand secrets of the past crawl out of their hideouts—into HIS sun. There is no way of telling what may yet become history some day. Perhaps the past is still essentially undiscovered! So many retroactive forces are still required!”
But unlike the forces in Newtonian physics, these never operate in a social vacuum. Both left and right nurture a disdain for and suspicion of popular culture, unless it's nostalgic or carefully defined and hence safe. Today in America, art swims in a near-all-encompassing commercialism that functions, at times, as gatekeeper and censor. Under Stalin, Lenin, and the tsars, the governing powers made sure art was molded and censored and suppressed. As a Russian expatriate professor-friend once remarked