Book Review: The Trouble with Music

Maximum Rocknroll
265, June 2005

The Trouble With Music
Mat Callahan
AK Press

They say you learn more reading authors with whom you disagree than those with whom you agree. By that conventional wisdom, I should’ve learned a lot from Mat Callahan’s The Trouble With Music. What’s weird, though, is that I generally agree with his premises: he is pro-live-music, pro-downloading, pro-dance, pro-DIY and anti-pop-star, anti-music-industry, anti-muzak. But his tone, verbosity, and, most importantly, bizarre historical consciousness had me writing in the margins in red pen. Callahan is a stripe of Marxist I’ve never encountered before: whether he knows it or not, he has replaced the historical subject or agent—the proletariat—with music. Sure every uprising from the Paris Commune to May ’68 had its human actors, he implies, but their revolutions wouldn’t have been much without music. This argument could make for an interesting historical study of the specific role of particular songs, like The Internationale, but Callahan never gets to that academic level. It’s not his intention to be academic, though; he wants to change the world.

For punk rockers, a lot of what he says about the evils of corporations and soulless music will be old hat. That doesn’t mean that punk rockers don’t still fall for the empty promises of the music industry, but for the most part, we have a fairly strong grasp of the reasons for being DIY and our everyday practice is better confirmation of the correctness of DIY than reading about it. But I would say that the average disaffected teenager, the kind who go to coffee shops, play guitar, and read Bukowski, could have his or her entire worldview changed by this book. It has the feel of wisdom passed down from a knowledgeable, grizzled old radical, who was in the thick of it in the ‘60s and hasn’t sold out.

Callahan spends a lot of time setting up distinctions, between power and Power, popular music and pop music, music and politics, and above all, between music and anti-music. The latter distinction is the most abstract and has the strongest “You know it when you hear it” feeling to it, but that doesn’t detract from it. The problem is that its criteria end up allowing anyone who applies it to say, “What I like is music and what I don’t like is anti-music.” Callahan is slightly more specific, but since he hates pop music and loves world music, for example, and he defines anti-music as the insipid crap we hear playing over loudspeakers in public places, it follows that world music, which we almost never hear in the elevator cannot be anti-music. It’s not that he wants to replace Kenny G with Bob Marley, because that would make no difference, it’s that he wants pop music to be returned to the popular, to the masses. Abstractly speaking, this seems like a great idea, but if we look at the present moment, we see a polis which cannot abide participation outside consumption.

Callahan seems certain that the masses actually don’t want to listen to The Backstreet Boys even though the billions of dollars spent on them might indicate otherwise. Instead, the masses, with the right consciousness catalyzed, would make their own music, perform it for each other, and destroy the industry and its star system. Sounds great. Where do I buy the book that tells me how? Callahan knows what he’s talking about up to a point. It is perhaps his intent to create a diatribe accessible to the masses (so they’ll rise up, download, dance, and overthrow the present social structures, especially those which numb our minds through relentless bad music) that limits him because he talks about Adorno (mostly his analysis of the “Culture Industry”) and other Frankfurt School philosophers an awful lot for a book intending to be accessible. To this end, he glosses over some of the more rigorous distinctions of sophisticated philosophical concepts. That doesn’t bother me too much. I’m bothered more by his use of Adorno at all. Basically, Adorno was writing about a historical moment that has passed. The situation today is far worse than he could’ve ever imagined. A more current analysis is necessary. I don’t want to say that Callahan could’ve done a better job because he fulfills what I believe to be his intentions. But I wish the book’s organization had been more transparent and logical. I also wish the book hadn’t been so general. “Music” is just too huge a subject, especially since he goes from the noises and dances of babies to John Cage and makes local stops at George Clinton, James Brown, Fela Kuti, and the Sex Pistols in between. If he had written about rocknroll only, he might’ve been able actually to cover more. But more deeply, I wish his analysis had dropped Adorno and used Guy Debord instead. The concept of “spectacle,” though articulated for the visual, seems much more applicable to the falsity of the today’s music and the social relationship it engenders. Spectacle, as Debord famously says, is capital accumulated to the point it becomes image. It is also capital accumulated to the point it no longer has use for critical faculties and hence produces no music worth listening to.

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