Pete Dale (2016), Popular Music and the Politics of Novelty, London, Bloomsbury Academic
225pp., ISBN: 978-1-5013-0704 (hardback), 978-1-5013-0703-4 (paperback)
Craig Robertson, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds
Pete Dale, like other authors, links popular music to social movements such as the human rights movements in the 1960s. Unlike many others, however, Dale takes a fresh approach by investigating the role of novelty in popular music and its influence on social and political agency. Dale suggests that the popular assumption that new approaches to popular music are intrinsically linked to political agency is just not supported when examined musically or socially. Furthermore, he suggests that neoliberal capitalism co-opts much of the potential political agency novel popular music might have through commodification. This is a well-researched book that uses musical and social analyses in order to better understand music's potential role in social change and social justice.
The book is an enjoyable read for students of applied musicology, popular music studies or communication studies or even the general public who are interested in the field of music and politics. The text deconstructs the main concepts in the title, popular music and novelty, examines how these concepts have been engaged with historically, and looks at whether and how they have influenced social and political agency. Dale suggests that the popular music linked to social movements – such as rock music and human rights in the 1960s, and punk music and working class empowerment in the 1970s – did not, in fact, afford political agency anywhere near what is popularly believed. This echoes what other scholars have discovered when examining just what occurs in and with musical experiences and social change. Tia DeNora, Arild Bergh and Craig Robertson have all noted elsewhere how a belief in the power of music is far more prevalent than evidence to support just what this power might be.
DeNora notes in Music and Everyday Life that listening to music affords an attitudinal and attentive shift, at least for as long as the musical experience lasts. What a listener then actually does is not directly linked to the music, however, but rather to the beliefs that the listener holds about the music. Bergh's research in music and conflict transformation found little or no evidence to support the notion that music was any better at affording social change or justice than any other social activity. Robertson codified these observations by suggesting that belief drives behaviour, which is in turn why certain music becomes associated with social movements. Dale makes an important contribution to this understanding how why we believe music as the power to enact social change despite there being a lack of evidence to support it.
In the second half of the book, Dale applies the novelty theories of Alain Badiou to the context of popular music, novelty and political engagement. Badiou, like Theador Adorno, does not have much time for popular music. Dale first builds upon the trajectory of modernism and postmodernism in relation to popular music, suggesting that there is something to be learned from the modernist novel disruption and the postmodern repetition and diversity. The main point he highlights here is one that Raymond Williams makes when he says that 'new descriptions [of the artist's new language] will become a new general way of seeing' only if the novel becomes a new common experience.
Dale's exploration of Badiou's theory of novelty is useful as it further unpacks Williams's assertion, even if Badiou largely ignored the need for common repetition in order to create any real social or political change. Badiou also ignores the sensual and embodied knowledge, which, like Adorno, is one reason why he derided popular music. Dale argues that Badiou's 'novel event' is an important realisation about possibilities outside of the norm, but that this will be meaningless to the majority of people without repeated exposure to such ideas. So Badiou's dismissal of popular music for its repetition of old ideas is actually its potential strength, since it reaches a great number of potential political and social actors. This is largely in line with Robertson's theory of music and social change, where extraordinary events draw attention to an issue, but change only occurs when an extraordinary event is repeated to the point of ordinariness. Furthermore, Dale effectively argues that Badiou's insistence that novelty arrives 'from the void' is indefensible. Like the emergence of classical music from Baroque music, novelty is an evolution of ideas rather than spontaneous rejection of the past.
Dale begins to wrap up his final chapter by suggesting that those who lack the means of production would not cease to desire social change just because they lacked novel aesthetic elements in their preferred style of music. It appears there is a balancing act to be performed between music that is popular enough to reach a sufficiently large audience, and that is novel enough to suggest new possibilities of social organisation. There have been hints of this throughout history, from music hall songs giving a voice to the industrial proletariat to 1960s folk protest songs and the punk movement. All of these showed some promise of mobilising political and social change through a combination of continuity and novelty in popular music, yet all of them fell short of instigating much lasting change due to the co-option of the music and the emotions that it elicited by capitalist marketing forces.
Dale ends without really satisfactorily answering the question of how popular music might help to create lasting social change or just how novel or familiar it would need to be in order to do this. He does warn about conflating popular music and politics, noting how they are simply not the same and should not be judged in the same manner. He agrees with Noam Chomsky that social change of a public requires a joining in with that public, which suggests that popular music, being very much a public art form, can play a role in this, even if novelty does not. Dale and those works he explores focus on the novelty of the musical material itself, but another way to think about novelty is in terms of the relationships between the musical material and a social group's experience of it, the emotions and memories associated with it and how that fits into the worldview or beliefs that group holds about the world at that time. This procedural matrix of meaning-making is ever changing and a novel configuration can lead to noticeable behavioural changes. This could be seen in the Egyptian song 'Bilady Bilady Bilady' (My Country, My Country, My Country), written by Sayed Darwish nearly one hundred years ago as an anti-British independence song. This was later adopted as the national anthem by the dictator Hosni Mubarek in order to dampen the revolutionary spirit of the song, only to be reclaimed by the Egyptian public in the events of the 'Arab Spring' in Tahrir Square. In this case, the musical material remained the same, yet the meaning became novel at different times and in different contexts, and this is where the importance of novelty lies.
Genevieve Trinh, Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University
Pete Dale delves satisfyingly deeply into the complex interdependence between three key spheres: the historical evolution of popular music; political and social movements; and the concept of 'novel' music, thereby demonstrating the extent to which the interplay between these spheres impacts social and political change. A major literary challenge is organising the text in a structured form given the nature of the subject (musical novelty influences sociological change, and, in turn, sociological change influences musical novelty). Thus a notable success of the book is that it offers a nuanced and detailed navigation of the interrelationship between the three spheres while maintaining a logical and cogent flow of ideas.
The main emphasis of the text is the concept of novelty for the sake of novelty (an underlying and ubiquitous theme throughout the book). It does well to unpack the nebulous and subjective definition of 'novelty'. Is 'newness' an objective aesthetic change? What happens to 'new' music (i.e. punk) when it ceases to be 'new'? In examining 'popular', 'punk' and other genres of music as case studies, the text contends that to determine the fundamental character of 'popular' or 'new' music, one must look to the context of the times. In the fifth chapter, where 'novelty' is explored from a deeply philosophical perspective, Dale consciously and comprehensively justifies his critique of French philosopher Badiou's 'truth event' concept. In the process, he expounds and evaluates the contributions of scholars such as Peter Hallward, Charles Rosen, Sam Gillespie and others in his quest to define the imprecise and philosophically ambiguous notion of 'novelty'.
From a sociological perspective, Dale is diligent in capturing all major influences of the 1960s and subsequent eras (race, class stratification, gender issues, civil rights, individual freedoms); and of the political and social movements (capitalism, corporations and others) that affect, and are affected by, the aesthetic evolution of music. Dale comprehensively applies facts and examples to support the thesis statement, especially in the detail of the analysis of the 'sixties', 'punk' and other genres explored in the first four chapters. Musically, Dale provides an exploration of the extent to which novelty has historically achieved change. This is achieved by examining the reformative function of music as a vehicle of empowerment for enacting social change in the revolution against established authorities and institutions (corporations, capitalism etc.).
Despite the complex multifaceted nature of the subjects, the text is composed with great clarity and organisation. The first four chapters each explore a different era (1899; 'The Sixties'; 1977; postmodernism) by expounding upon the defining sociological, political and musical occurrences of each epoch. This forms the basis for deep discussion in the last two chapters of novelty in relation to radical aesthetic change, and the implications of novelty on the future of popular music. The text flows with great facility and is well signposted. Where a topic is mentioned in one chapter but explored in greater depth in another, consistent use of cross-references directs the reader to the appropriate chapter. This renders the text a practical tool for students and scholars.
Dale engages in a high level of detail when grappling with the issues of each era (race, capitalism etc.) and thus a functional quality of the text is the specificity of the examples provided. It is similarly successful in conceiving a broader picture by piecing together a comparative analysis of the political and social movements across all historical eras. It adds another layer of nuance in considering an ahistorical perspective, allowing the reader a chance to evaluate (somewhat) objectively whether or not aesthetic musical 'newness' is capable of affecting sociological change. In addition, the text comparatively evaluates subjective perceived social sentiments, and supplies commentary as to whether they have been undervalued, or given undue credit, weight, or significance by other scholars. Yet another layer of nuance that permeates the book is the subtheme of the function of 'novel' music in elucidating, expounding and disseminating counterculture, particularly 'new left' ideologies of the (oft marginalised) groups revolting against or resisting the establishment.
The intellectually fulfilling appeal of Dale's work is in its ability to offer not only a detailed and thorough historical analysis, but also provide forward-looking perspective by applying the implications of said precedent to the status quo. In doing so, Dale convincingly propounds that popular music can indeed affect social and political change under the status quo without necessarily offering radical 'newness'.