Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels
Benjamin Teitelbaum’s study of Nordic nationalist music could not be any more timely.
Gramsci diverged from classic Marxism when he argued that shifts in the cultural sphere create the conditions for political or economic change, rather than the other way around. Since Swedish nationalists do not have enough majority appeal for electoral politics, they see better prospects in the social diffusion of ideas and cultural values, i.e. “metapolitics.”
White nationalists who want to perform Gramscian culture jamming are right to look to the success at black music in softening the ground for black political advancement. In Tom Sugrue’s seminar on the history of the African-American freedom struggle, the readings frequently reference the role that music played in building emotional support for the movement, particularly in its early stages. Samuel Adams’ 1947 study of sharecropper families in the Mississippi Delta found “evidence of growing race consciousness” in their growing taste for songs that ridiculed whites, made subtle protests against segregation, or demonstrated racial pride (22). When SNCC arrived to organize this population, they were tapping into feelings that were already latent.
The problem for Swedish nationalists is that to reach mainstream ears, they must draw on black music’s popularity. There is bottomless irony in British skinheads appropriating their hairstyles and musical influences from West Indian immigrants. Feld (1988) describes American popular music as “a euphemism for Afro-American popular musics” (31), and much the same is true in Western Europe. It is amusing to see nationalists trying to resolve their cognitive dissonance by argue that hip-hop is an extension of sprechstimme, or that metal derives from Viking chants. Teitelbaum describes Swedish nationalists as facing a “double imperative”—on the one hand, the point of the movement is to embrace their particularity and difference. On the other hand, they have an easier time reaching others using shared cultural property, whether that is references to Nazism or the stylings of American pop.
Music is so multiply determined and ambiguous in its meaning that activist musicians should not be surprised to find their messages being misinterpreted, willfully or not. This might be due to the ease with which music can be appropriated or decontextualized, as Dylan Clark argues, or the difficulty inherent in trying to turn a compelling political platform into compelling songs, per Oliver Marchart. (The freedom songs of African-American civil rights activists speak strongly in emotional terms, but tend not to call specifically for stronger federal enforcement of Brown v Board or integration of movie theaters.) Commoditized recorded music is especially likely to take on a cultural life of its own. There are endless examples of American right-wing politicians playing songs by left-leaning musicians at their rallies. When Ronald Reagan appropriated Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as his campaign song, he and his supporters took Springsteen’s ironic invocation of patriotism at face value. Donald Trump’s adoption of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is more difficult to parse. Is he trying to tell his supporters that he is what they need, or is he unconsciously preparing them to be disappointed? Or, as seems more likely, does he not have any specific message in mind?
Teitelbaum’s subjects must engage in some creative ethnomusicology of their own when they try to specify what the national tradition is that they are defending in the first place. Interviewee Mattias Karlsson distinguishes between aristocratic and peasant music, with the implication that mainstream Swedes will identify more with the latter. Alternatively, a once popular music might become “folk” from its association with older and more rural demographics, like Dansband in Sweden or bluegrass in the United States. Is it possible to want to preserve “traditional” aspects of majority culture without embracing reactionary politics? I felt that tension acutely in my life as a country musician, since the desire to preserve white Southern midcentury instrumental textures felt uncomfortably close to nostalgia for Jim Crow.
Teitelbaum’s study raises disturbing methodological problems. We should not limit ethnographic study to populations we admire, but in order to build rapport through Geertzian “deep hanging out,” the ethnographer must have at least some openness to subjects’ ways of thinking. I wondered while reading his study if I would have been able to suspend my disgust. I do need to confront the fact that my own attraction to traditional musics overlaps with nationalists’ desire to resist the homogenizing and isolating effects of modernisms. It is a burden to be disconnected from meaning, to live in a world of strangers. Teitelbaum observes that, “[w]ith its individualization, desacralization, massification, rationalization, and universalization, modernity erases older forms of community life, standardizes behavior and beliefs, and asserts itself as absolute” (40). I spent part of my twenties playing klezmer music, while recognizing that I would probably not have much liked living in my great-grandparents’ Polish shtetl. White nationalists have not found a good solution for the emotional challenges of modernity, but neither have the rest of us.
Adams, S. (1947). The Acculturation of the Delta Negro, Social Forces, 26 (December 1947), p. 203
Feld, S. (1988). Notes on World Beat. Public Culture Bulletin, 1(1), pp. 31–37.
Teitelbaum, B. R. (2017). Lions of the north : sounds of the new Nordic radical nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press.