The Riot as Pop Music (1)

‘It was true that the more I hated people the more I loved cats.
Then people started to surprise me.
Often this involved fire or Coca-Cola
bottles with petrol which amounts to the same thing.
Once fire is the form of the spectacle the problem
becomes how to set fire to fire.
Some friends were prepared to help with this which
Michael Jackson having died and then Whitney Houston
was the new pop music. Without an understanding
of the world system and the underlying truth of land
as the place of politics and the sea as the space of commerce
it is hard to integrate that other
most important fact of our era. Pirates. My friends
and pirates and cats—it comes down
to comrades known and elsewhere.’
– Joshua Clover, “My Life in the New Millennium”

Riot as pop music. It is precisely this notion that I’ve been haphazardly trying to sketch out in my compositions and essays over the past year or so. The cluster of meanings compressed into this phrase is fucking ridiculous, so I’ll just try to touch on a few here.

1. ‘Pop music’ came to exist in the 20th century by virtue of mechanical reproduction. It refers not so much to a style of music as it does to a series of technopolitical procedures for producing listening publics. The musical performance that is recorded is only a small part of large and interconnected network of machines: the recording equipment, the manufacturing of records/CDs/cassettes, the machines that could play the recordings, the international shipping and distribution channels. Mass culture only comes into being when the technological conditions allow for the production of cultural goods on a hitherto impossibly large scale.

As Jacques Attali notes in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, this newfound capacity to create musical copies necessitated the ‘production of demand,’ (Attali, 103) by those who manufactured records. Producing a market through several different distribution channels (print advertising, radio broadcasting, concerts, eventually television) became one of the primary functions of the record industry. ‘Pop music’ names a series of social, technical and sonic processes through which a mass market of listeners is produced.

The listening public it sought to produce was fundamentally racist, colonial and heteronormative in form as well as content. I could note that many of the first commercially successful records were by white musicians appropriating black musical styles (e.g. Benny Goodman). Or that black performers at the dawn of the recording industry were typically paid by the song when recording and retained none of the copyrights to their compositions or their reproduction. Or that record players were marketed in the postwar period as an essential piece of furniture in the white nuclear-family suburban home (Marie Thompson has a great piece on this). But this is for another time and another piece. For now, saying that ‘pop music’ was and still is in a very different way interested in creating and binding listening publics along particular lines of identity and belonging will have to do.

2. To say the riot is pop music is to say that the riot works to create new kinds of publics. It is to say that spaces of anti-capitalist protest strive to engineer new ways of belonging, new ways of relating, outside the logic of contemporary capitalism. It is to say that the desire to ‘set fire’ to the spectacle is to reject the social relations undergirding the musical commodity. ‘Set fire’ not purely metaphorically, not purely in the realm of signs, but to set fire to the material infrastructure of spectacular society. The activity of the riot, which Clover brings up repeatedly throughout ‘Red Epic,’ negates this commodification through a material-symbolic annihilation of it (the breaking of, say, a bank window, or the act of moving collectively through the space of the street) and affirms, in its place, these spaces of resistance as productive of a new kind of public. It is to say that ‘by moving together we invent a new form of mobility, which is that of the speed of our collective body seizing the city,’ (precarias a la derive) a new rhythm of movement that is collective and multiple. A new way of relating, outside the nihilist logic of capitalist exchange.

To say the riot is pop music is to say that social movements are aesthetic and possess novel forms of expression. It is to say that that they possess rhythms, a warped kind of tonality, processes for inducing sonic change, and creatively interacting with the built environment to produce novel sonic events. It is a kind of aleatory, decentralized and collective form of composition that is pluralist in its harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, textural and dynamic structure.

3. I am interested in this question of the riot as pop music because I record soundscapes of struggle and use the sounds generated from these moments in my compositions. I wonder how doing so changes what we think music is and if it might help us to think composition as the intertwining of sonic and social processes.

What happens when, through recording, one incorporates the sounds of struggle into pop music? Three things, off the top of my head. First, it opens up music beyond the normatively ‘musical.’ The distinction between ‘noise’ and ‘music’ collapses, thereby widening the field of composition to sonic processes that cannot be subordinated to the development of ‘musical’ ideas within a prescribed territory of harmony and melody.
Second, it politicizes composition. The modernist fantasy of aesthetics as a realm autonomous from politics and everyday life disintegrates into its own petty irrelevance. It recognizes that the production of pop music is inherently political and indelibly social. It thinks of the political and economic conditions of its own possibility as terrains of experimentation proper to the practice of composing. It seeks to participate in the disruption of the reproduction of the social, record these small moments of refusal, and to use the sounds of these ruptures as the basis of further inquiry.

Third, it notes the radical insufficiency of music as a revolutionary practice.
Organizing sound, in and of itself, will never be revolutionary because that which must be overturned is not simply an understanding of the world, a paradigm, but rather a material organization of life. A distribution of food, shelter, healthcare; the circulation of food, toys, dump-trucks, laborers in a globalized circuit; where you work, how you have a boss, how you and your co-workers don’t own or have any real say in how your work runs. You can undermine the ways in which capitalism places a straitjacket on the musical imagination, you can resist the relations of power and domination that structure musical discourse into racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableist, transphobic shapes; but this will never be sufficient in itself to re-organize the ways we live together. That is to say that oppression is not purely ideological, not purely cultural; and to treat art-as-resistance as a revolutionary practice in itself is to think that cultural means are sufficient in themselves for material transformation. ‘Music’ must be connected to’ extra-musical’ processes of resistance in order to become a revolutionary praxis.

More tomorrow hopefully.


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