Music in a capitalist culture

Midterm paper for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

Max Weber locates the roots of capitalism in vestigial puritanical Protestantism. Émile Durkheim, in turn, gives a theory of how that Protestantism arose in the first place. In this paper, I ask two questions. First: can Weber’s and Durkheim’s theories of religion be extended to explain culture generally? Second, and more specifically: can their theories explain music?

Music is a valuable lens for examining cultures, because while every world culture includes it, the particular form and function varies considerably from one culture to another. Contemporary America contains a variety of musical subcultures and countercultures that overlap and conflict with one another. We might follow Weber’s example and say that America’s culture has capitalism as its single defining feature. And we might say that America’s commercial pop mainstream defines our musical culture. But those two generalizations conceal roiling masses of unresolved conflict.

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The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

Our first reading was Ta-Nehisi Coates. The second one is Max Weber. The transition between their prose styles is like gliding downhill on a bike into a brick wall. Nick Seaver calls it “the 1-2 relatable-canonical punch.”

Max Weber

David Foster Wallace likes to tell this parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

In America, the water is capitalism. A capitalist enterprise has two necessary ingredients: a disciplined labor force, and an owner class that re-invests its capital. These things are so familiar to us in modern America that it’s startling to be reminded how culturally specific they are.

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Between The World And Me

I’m taking a sociology class called Learning Of Culture with Lisa Stulberg. It could just as easily be called Culture Of Learning, since it views school as just one cultural setting among many. Our first assignment was to read Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Toni Morrison’s cover blurb.

Between The World And Me

After reading just the first few pages, I couldn’t help but adopt Coates’ prose style. It’s infectious.

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Prepping my rap and rock class at Montclair State

This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.

Rap and Rock

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Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s beliefs about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis advocates for  jazz as “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, Wynton’s definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. He thinks that jazz history ended in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– have bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight. His effect on jazz culture has thus been profound, but problematic. On the one hand, he’s been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also got burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the rest of the culture, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

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Please stop saying “consuming music”

In the wake of David Bowie’s death, I went on iTunes and bought a couple of his tracks, including the majestic “Blackstar.” In economic terms, I “consumed” this song. I am a “music consumer.” I made an emotional connection to a dying man who has been a creative inspiration of mine for more than twenty years, via “consumption.” That does not feel like the right word, at all. When did we even start saying “music consumers”? Why did we start? It makes my skin crawl.

Barbara Kruger, "Untitled"

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the verb “to consume” descends from Latin consumere, which means “to use up, eat, waste.” That last sense of the word speaks volumes about America, our values, and specifically, our pathological relationship with music.

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Resisting imperialism through secular devotion

I have struggled for years to articulate why I like the music descending from Africa so much better than the music descending from Europe. I’m a typical American in this respect. Every genre that the mainstream enjoys takes its rhythms and loop structures from the African diaspora: rock, hip-hop, and EDM, of course, but country too, and pop, which blends together all of the above. The music academy remains firmly rooted in the Western European classical tradition, but even in Europe, popular music is dominated by loops of heavy percussion. Why?

Timothy Brennan gives a compelling answer in his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz. White dudes like me are attracted to the music of the African diaspora because it’s a way for us to unconsciously enact traditional African religious practices. And why would we want to do enact African religious practice? Because it helps us resist Judeo-Christian morality and industrial capitalism.

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