Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan
Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence
(Adlershot: Ashgate 2008)
Review by Carlo Nardi
In his book
The ragas of North India, Walter Kaufmann reports a conversation
he had in 1934 with an eminent classical musician in then Bombay. On the basis
that a rāga performed at a wrong time is inauspicious, the old man expressed his
sense of frustration in these terms: “Do you know that you people in the West will soon experience a most terrible
disaster? And do you know why? […] Because you people in the West abuse music
and perform it at wrong times and occasions! You play funeral marches and sing
dirges when there is no funeral and no cause for sadness, you sing love songs
and spring songs when there is neither love nor spring, you play nocturnes
during the day, wedding music when there is no wedding. How long – he roared –
will the universe tolerate this abuse of music, music, mind you, a most sacred
thing?” (Kaufmann 1968, p. 18).
This passage in enlightening in many respects, as it acknowledges that a wider circulation of music through time and space, often under the umbrella of cultural imperialism, brings about a loss of connection between a community and its music, generating a collapse of meaning in music itself. Anyway the Indian musician doesn’t consider at least one relevant aspect, namely that music is not inherently something good, and the potential violence of music is not confined to its misuses, but is inherent within music itself. Music is not necessarily therapeutic nor pleasant, and what is pleasant to some can be even harmful for others. Moreover, an individual or group may find the same music either pleasant or unpleasant according to the situation. Furthermore, we cannot be even aware that it is music itself causing that feeling of unpleasantness, as we don’t always process consciously the soundscape. If this can appear someway unmistakable for music scholars, the main merit of this book is to help to define the abovementioned situation, also against the common thought, in a comprehensive study – as the title suggests – on the dark side of music.
The first three chapters, written by Bruce Johnson, contextualise the link between music and violence sensorially, historically and in relation to recording, storing, transmitting and reproducing technology. This first part is followed by four sections authored by both contributors and each dedicated to a different modalities of linking music and violence, to conclude with a discussion on issues concerning music policies in contemporary society and, more precisely, in the urban environment.
First of all, in line with the last trend of music studies, the attention is less on music as text than on subjective experience, and hence with the sensorial and cognitive implications of listening to music. Accordingly Johnson, drawing on psychological research, mainly in affect and to a lesser extent in perception, introduces some theories that will uphold the subsequent exposition. The attention is towards those situations in which determined sonic qualities place the hearing subject at variable unease in the environment, like the so-called “ubiquity effect”, which refers to the disorientation following the failure to recognize the source of a sound. The strength of these processes resides in their ability to elicit emotions while bypassing consciousness, so that the first stage of arousal is an involuntary reaction to sounds, followed in its turn by a culturally-mediated response.
Here I see a first fault in this volume, that is a misleading trust on certain psychological theory which results in an essentialist and ethnocentric approach to the senses. It is a pity that Johnson doesn’t refer to the more recent sensorial scholarship and to the production of such scholars as David Howes (1991, 2003, 2005), Constance Classen (1993, 1997), Jim Drobnick (2003) or Jonathan Sterne (2003), production which would help to contextualise these psychological theories, as long as perception, and hence also the very possibility for a stimulus to bring arousal – especially in a soundscape as inconsistent as that of today’s cities, so distant from the laboratory environment –, are most likely mediated by culture. For instance, the idea that “hearing internalizes, and sound projects, a shared experience” (17) cannot be assumed as a universal of culture as it is linked to western organisation, functioning and conceptualisation of the senses, as Jonathan Sterne stresses stigmatising what he calls the audio-visual litany, i.e. an idealisation of hearing as manifestation of pure interiority (Sterne 2003, p. 15). This perspective maybe symbolizes the mainstream discourse on our sensorial abilities, yet it doesn’t explain their practices – and not just in the peoples studies by Steven Feld (1990), Alfred Gell (1995) or Paul Stoller (1989), but not even in the western world.
Moreover, the capacity of vision to enter in contact with objects, so that perception happens both in the body and in the perceived object, has been cleverly exposed by Michelle Serres: the senses are wrapped in a knot, and every kind of tool functions as an extension of our body as full-blown sensing appendixes (in Connor 2005). At any rate, already Aristotle considered sight as a form of contact, and this idea has been revised for instance by Walter Benjamin in his theory of mimesis.
However Johnson is keen to recognise that the border between somatic and cognitive domains is uncertain:
The next step undertaken is a brief historical excursion on the connection between the two poles under discussion. Rather than representing an attempt to build a history of violence, aim of this chapter is to present some significant, though someway disconnected, instances in different times and spaces, in order to stress the complicity of music and violence:
If the industrial revolution brings about an exponential increase in the level of sound and in its technological mediation (50), according to Johnson, it is the First Wold War that irrevocably transforms the sonic imagination (55):
Considering the pervasiveness of music brought about by new technology, Johnson states that “recorded music requires no symbolic mediation: anyone may hear it directly” (58) – which in my opinion once again essentialises hearing: not only listening to music involves a symbolic mediation, but even the act of being able to hear cannot be taken for granted, as perception is the result of cultural construction. Anyway I agree with him when he underscores the imbalance hidden within this pervasiveness: “The sound recording thus made music potentially an instrument of global imperialism, particularly as the global industry was largely controlled by the US” (58).
The next four chapters, written in partnership by Johnson and Cloonan, build a taxonomy based on four different modalities of relationship and causality between music and violence: music accompanying violence, music and incitement to violence, music and arousal to violence, music as violence. The first of the four opens with the premise that asserting a causality between the two poles is a difficult matter that requires a cautious examination. This statement is followed by an attempt to indicate some historical events that present an evident association between violence and popular music (the authors sometimes use the periphrasis “pop music”, but I assume they mean with that a contraction of “popular music”); the association is illustrated through a heterogeneous record of music representing violence, shifting quite abruptly from murder ballads in eighteenth-century England to Kurt Weill in Weimar Germany. If music has been employed also to reproduce violence through sonic anaphones, it is in its association with the moving image that its potentiality has been further explored both in its overt and its ambiguous side: “Film music has become a particularly useful vehicle for the problematization and differentiation of forms of violence and the moral schemata it occupies” (70); the authors suggest in particular that “a fascination with and fashion for mainstream representations of violence has become more widespread” (71).
If the connection between violence in the movies can be vague if not even concealed, history provides us with evidence supporting this connection, as in the case of music performed by prisoners for their guards and for the other detainees in Nazi camps. Yet someone considers music a site for resistance, even against the testimonies of the prisoners forced to listen to the Nazi repertoire of marches and popular songs. The point is that the nexus between music and violence needs to be contextualised: “At one end of a spectrum this connection can be apparently fortuitous – just a coincidence – at the other, the music and violence are in a form of collaboration” (74).
The use of music to arouse the crowds during gatherings, sport events, military events is associated with violence directed towards someone else, there are also cases in which violence is self-inflicted. Among the latter, the authors are keen to champion the mosh-pit’s harmlessness, on the ground that participants emphasise its catharsis and the chance it offers to engage with emotions denied in daily life; the authors concur that “the mosh-pit is normally a place of harmonized – if robust – interdependencies” (80).
This theme is tackled again in a case study regarding Woodstock 1999, which commemorates the original festival. Here the rioting behaviour of the audience seems to challenge this hypothesis on mosh-pits; nevertheless, as the authors warn, the reason for this outbreak of violence has to be found on the size and audience profile (92) and, most of all, on the contradiction embedded in the festival, which originally symbolised rebellion and now represents the mainstream (87). More in general, this contradiction lies in the heart of mass-mediated popular music:
Overall, concerning the question if popular music can incite violence, the authors don’t have any doubt about it (122), yet they leave open the issue if this incitement actually arouses audiences to violent action, which brings us to the next chapter.
Arousing is different than incitement in that the first is in the music and the second in the listener (94). Here the emphasis is on the stimulation of the autonomic nervous system and hence on measurable, physiological symptoms, as long as instead “emotions cannot be assumed to be unambiguous and homogeneous, and indeed they are often conflicting” (124). The theoretical grounding in psychology of music is expressly recalled, with reference to the work of Emery Schubert, who differentiates between an external and an internal locus of emotion, where emotion expressed through music falls in the first category and the emotion felt by the listener in the second; a corollary of this splitting is that what music expresses doesn’t necessarily correspond to what is aroused: “That primary ‘quick and dirty channel’ […] is opened not by something as cognitively mediated as the verbal content of the lyrics, but by sound itself” (125). I frankly find naïve the statement that lyrics are cognitively mediated and sound not. Most likely the cognitive process of hearing a sound is not entirely conscious – and as a matter of fact neither is the process of hearing lyrics (assuming that the listener is able to understand them at all, and most popular music listeners probably don’t) – and yet both processes are culturally informed. I stumble on the same apparent essentialism later on: “We do not have to be taught to move our bodies to music; on the contrary, as we get older in western society, we are ‘taught’ not to” (129) – as if music would induce movement naturally and immediately. What I feel is missing, is a theory that links the effects of sound on the individual, recordable through psychological and neurological procedures, and the equally evident regulating function of sociocultural structures. At any rate, the existence of a link is acknowledged.
Certain features of sound, like the register, can elicit particular emotions, and it is precisely sound that generates our first affective response (140); this emotional potential is inscribed in music genre or style (are they to be considered synonyms?), which operates as an “affective platform”:
I can’t help noticing that the concept of violence is too narrowly defined as “any response that is either unequivocal pleasure nor indifference, or which induces physical or symbolic violation”, but nothing is said about what is to be considered a violation – in other words: attacking a defenceless individual is the same as self-defence from a unilateral attack? If not, what is the difference? Can we disregard this difference and wrap both social facts under the same label? With this I am not implying that psychology should be disregarded, but rather that a more comprehensive perspective is necessary, one that considers the social and political description and implications of violence, the more when the subject under scrutiny is a cultural phenomenon like music. Not that a cultural perspective is lacking in this book: the relevance accorded for instance to power relations in triggering violence through music shows an awareness of social dynamics, yet it disregards previous foundational writings on the subject, like Donald Black’s theory on the direct relationship between social distance and violence (Black 1993) or, even more blatantly, the works of Randall Collins (1974) and Johan Galtung (1996) – not to mention their eminent predecessors, like Georges Sorel, Max Weber, Walter Benjamin (who is quoted in the epigraph but unfortunately never acknowledged later on), Theodor W. Adorno, Michel Foucault – just to name a few thinkers, and omitting the vast production within social and general psychology. To conclude this parenthesis, perhaps it is not by chance that moral panic borrows its theoretical instruments from psychology or psychiatry rather than from social sciences; in fact moral panic, by focusing on individual rather than collective or structural responsibilities, and by manipulating the causal connection between a musical (or lyrical) stimulus and violent behaviour, finds a fertile ground in the methodology of psychological and psychiatric disciplines.
Going back to the chapter on music and arousal to violence, in the course of the more than legitimate refutation of the moral panic practice, I have the impression that the authors spend too many efforts in an attempt to defend specifically heavy metal from the charges against it. If most of the argumentation follows a lucid method of exposure of the inner contradiction of moral panic preachers – not last the remark that “the attribution of causality in specific cases of violence associated with music always follows rather than precedes the event” (116) – elsewhere the reasons adducted don’t appear pertinent. I refer in particular to those sections where, in order to discharge the violent potential of music, reference is made to the private life of musicians, as if this would make a relevant difference at the level of reception – especially when this information is not available to the fans.
Instances of this objectionable attitude emerge in relation to the persona of Alice Cooper, who is portrayed as a playful and god-fearing fellow that enjoys playing golf (134), or that of Kimi Kärki of the Finnish doom metal band Reverend Bizarre, who is described as a family man and a light-hearted lecturer in sharp contrast with violence offered by his lyrics: “What do you think, when you lie there at the altar/Waiting for some ugly jerk to rape you/As a sacrificial fuck?” (135).
The point is that the consistency between the intention of the musicians and the meaning that a musical piece assumes for the listener are two different matters, and this for many reasons, some of them quite obvious, which I’ll try to synthesize in a few remarks. First of all, the musician is only one of the many contributors of music production, which can be better described as a collective process; as a result, the process of music-making involves many mediations, each with different motivations, aims and functions – a process that is organised hierarchically so that not each participant holds the same power or grade of control. Moreover the intentions of each participant are not fully aware, including the musicians’; in this regard, some theory of social action should be borrowed. At any rate, because of ideological biases, we cannot base our understanding of a musician’s intentions on their statements. Due to these multiple contributions, each in its turn being part of multiple networks of factual and symbolic relations, the musical text – assuming that, at least abstractly, it is possible to isolate it – is polysemic, so that it may convey even apparently incompatible messages. Therefore the reception of a musical event is informed not just by all these mediations, but also by the cultural framework which belongs to the receiver – and to which s/he belongs. Last but not least, even golf is violent, not so much as it involves hitting a ball with different weighted clubs, but because it excludes huge amounts of territory from a public use and hence imposes the comforts of a very restricted few over the necessities and leisure of a larger though weaker population.
On a similar ground, I find myself in partial disagreement with the conclusion that certain isolated situations, involving role play, are not dangerous for its participants or for people or groups adjacent to them, in that I find it too generalised. More precisely, the authors write:
The next chapter on music as violence is perhaps the most convincing, notwithstanding the topicality and delicacy of the theme approached, or possibly just because of that. Johnson and Cloonan here focus on how music can become “both the site and agent of violence” (147). This particular deployment of music or, more in general, of sound, is aimed at humiliating, disturbing, disorienting or torturing and, as that, is inherently political (ib.).
In any case, the choice of music, rather than being incidental, rests upon what Johnson names “affective platforms”, that is “particular forms of sonority and musical genres which can function for specific categories of emotion [and which] may be experienced as culturally aggressive by detainees unfamiliar with such sounds. However, familiar sounds may also be used in a way that disorients detainees” (153). The role of technology here is pivotal, as nowadays “it is in anyone’s power to mount a sonic assault, through imposed music, voice theft, and sonic violence” (160).
The impositional potential of music, especially in relation to the possibilities brought about by technology, takes us to the next and last chapter on the thorny question of how to regulate music:
On the one hand I cannot refrain from sympathising with this taunt, if not in the hope that it will stimulate further debate. On the other hand, not only it must be said that this volume ignores much of the recent engagement with the “dark side” within popular music studies (to name a few, Franco Fabbri, the already mentioned Jonathan Sterne, Anahid Kassabian or Ola Stockfeld), but most of all it cannot be overlooked that it presents a blatant bias in favour of books written in English and by English speaking authors, even when it deals with events taking place outside the English-speaking world – which would consequently and by itself neutralise the accusation against popular music scholars in toto.
Among the many problems carried by interpreting sociocultural phenomena under the umbrella of a (hegemonic) language and the (hegemonic) culture attached to it, there features the risk of miscomprehension of translated texts, the more when the latter consist of such ephemeral sources as web articles and the printed press, written too in a hurry to be expected to be accurate.
It is true that the authors apologise from the start about this lack, someway related to the topic; I also give credit that each reference is carefully detailed, so that it is generally possible to double-check the source. Nevertheless, round the corner there is always the risk of falling flat and mimicking the approximate speculations of moral panic, like in the case of the reference to the so called Beasts of Satan, who are described as a music band (77 et seq., 188), but that as a matter of fact were simply a group of people who, during self-managed black masses, listened to the music they liked the best; here a British journalist of the Guardian (or the compiler of the Beasts of Satan’s Wikipedia entry: I cannot say who came first) was perhaps mislead by the Italian word “group”, which means also (but only in the second place) music band. The journalist, on some inscrutable ground, opted for this restricted acceptation and added some evocative details which spread over the web rising up to a scientific publication.
For what it is worth, I have already expressed both my reserves and endorsements regarding this volume, then I won’t repeat myself. Then, to conclude briefly this review, I express once again my satisfaction for the publication of such a broad investigation on topics too often eschewed by popular music scholarship – not to mention non-popular music scholarship. This essay, accounting for the complexity of the relationships between violence and music, represents in any case one of the first attempts in this direction, in the hope that others might take further, meaningful steps in enlightening the dark side of music.
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