Stefan Szczelkun, ed. (with Anthony Iles), Agit Disco (London: Mute Books, 2012).

As its title suggests, Agit Disco is about politics and recorded music. According to its original mission statement delivered via internet blog, the book is an outgrowth of an ongoing archive project of a special kind. Far from the musty shelves of academia, the archivist is an activist, preserving the musical record of “the formation of an oppositional or radical self.” Necessarily, the archiving is done collaboratively, in dialogue with other archivist/activists. Thus, the bulk of Agit Disco is made up of playlists compiled by 23 different contributors according to two criteria: that the selection should fit on one CD and that it should represent the musics that have had a political impact on the contributors’ lives.

As project originator Stefan Szczelkun makes clear in his brief preface, certain assumptions were made at the outset, namely that “it is the ‘political’ aspects of music that are most often sidelined by the mechanisms of commercial interest and a wider hegemony of good taste. Music can, perhaps, be most potent when it embodies or aligns with our political desires for freedom and social justice.” While such assumptions might be obvious to anyone interested in a book of this nature, it is what Szczelkun has done with that premise that is most provocative. To begin with, is the editors’ assertion that it is not only the lyrical content that makes music ‘political.’ Indeed, music without words can powerfully express radical ideas and, moreover, social context can determine what role music plays as weapon or tool in political struggle. This is an important starting point from which a diverse group of people were drawn together to share their concerns, commitments and record collections.

What is implicit throughout is that we are participating in a conversation based on sharing – in this case music – but sharing as both end and means of collectivity itself. This sharing takes place at a time when the hue and cry over file-sharing, internet piracy and the collapse of the music industry are at fever pitch. Interestingly, there is barely a mention of Intellectual Property anywhere in the book. Yet the very existence of these “mix tapes” or compilation CDs exposes the hoax upon which copyright is based. Music is, after all, made to be shared and even without specifically calling attention to it Agit Disco perfectly illustrates the point. Indeed, illustration and demonstration are this project’s method. Illustrations/artwork are used on each of the 23 CDs that were actually produced, and in one contributor’s case, pictures take the place of words altogether. The selections thereby demonstrate the project’s guiding principle, for while there is ample discussion there is little theorizing.

Each selection is annotated with remarks that situate the contributor’s choices in lived experience. The result is far more discussion of how life and struggle was affected than about the music or lyrics under consideration. This is refreshing on a number of levels. As a musician I find that music criticism or journalism is usually a tedious exercise, its sole function often being to lend prestige to the reviewer or to sell a product. The music industry long ago made pop music journalism an extension of its dominance over music production, distribution and consumption. Agit Disco has the great virtue of enabling informed discussion of music by people who clearly cherish the music they are discussing. The value of music, therefore, is of a different order of magnitude than that of a disposable unit manufactured for financial gain. What comes across is a love of and respect for music, a celebration of music’s timeless role in the life of communities and in their resistance to oppression.

More to the point, Agit Disco is testimony, almost in the juridical sense, since its contributors provide compelling evidence of how with all its diversity of form music plays this role. Reference in several playlists to Paul Robeson, for example, shows how far back into the annals of recorded music and political agitation some were reaching for what inspires them to this day. In others, particularly those dealing with hip hop, the most contemporary recordings are commented upon. An outstanding feature of this book is the broad range of artists, styles and eras, its inclusiveness exemplifying the archival framework on which the project rests. Through the choices made and the reasons given for making them, social history is told. For instance, the emergence of a form of reggae in England as opposed to its country of origin, Jamaica, tells of the post-WWII migration of Jamaicans to England and the conflicts they encountered in the process. This is important for more reasons than one. While any book about music and politics is likely to mention Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson or Bob Dylan – and these artists appear in several playlists – what Agit Disco makes abundantly clear is that the field is much larger and more varied than that narrowly defined as “protest” or “Folk” with a capital F. This is where Agit Disco excels as both a musicological and historical source.

While openly declaring that they were not trying to be encyclopedic – a point to which we’ll return – the editors have assembled ample data to disprove the claims of music industry mouthpieces that what the masses really want is entertainment. The range of artists mentioned extends from internationally celebrated performers to those whose notoriety is confined to one neighborhood or town. And the range of musics includes folk, rock, reggae, hip hop, soul, jazz and experimental or avant-garde. Ultimately, this astonishing array defies classification, at least as ordinarily carried out. When political impact is the defining trait, a completely different set of terms and criteria emerges. Needless to say, the sonic qualities, the special rhythmic, melodic or compositional devices used in any given genre are what define it as such. What Agit Disco calls attention to, however, is the ways music is inspired by and in turn inspires political struggle. For example, one contributor, Tom Jennings, focuses entirely on radical hip hop emanating from the US, while another, Tracey Moberly, spins a tale of a young girl in South Wales using songs running the gamut from Michelle Shocked to Joan Jett as landmarks along her journey. Then there’s Mel Croucher’s list that includes music recorded on wax cylinders in 1901 alongside a recording made in 2007 by the Zimmers – a band whose lead singer is 90 and whose drummer is 100 – of the song “My Generation.” Such fanciful and insightful juxtapositions characterize several of the playlists. (The song recorded in 1901 is a “coon song,” one of a whole genre dedicated to the debasement and humiliation of black people which students of history will note was one of the pillars on which the music industry was built. Leaving aside the obvious duplicity of the music business in this regard, it is an important aspect of music that particularity of form contributes to group identity, especially in the case of embattled and marginalized communities.)

Agit Disco performs a service that is sorely needed since it simultaneously celebrates the community-forming function of music while demonstrating the universality of this function for all oppressed people. While several contributors note that there can be an exclusionary aspect to music – separating a defiant subaltern group from mainstream society – and that this can lead to contentious debate over what best serves the struggle, there is nonetheless the overriding expectation or demand made of music that it does serve the struggle. Again, the diversity is so great that it forms a virtual compendium of forces arrayed over the last half century (and earlier), focused mainly in the UK but with international ramifications as well. Thus certain contributors concentrate on the struggles of the disabled, of women or the gay rights movement as well as specific battles such as those of the miners or against the Poll Tax during the Thatcher era. Others are excavations such as the aforementioned playlist focusing on early English reggae. Of special note is the contribution of Luca Paci which features music of Italy, particularly that of anti-authoritarian youth from the 1990s.

What forms an important subtext, therefore, is the way in which music played its role as a rallying point for many popular movements – sometimes known only as “scenes,” inevitably temporary and mobile – that permeate the decades following the end of the tumultuous Sixties. There are too many to detail here, but suffice it to say that in the UK alone there were literally dozens and they continue to proliferate to this day. This leads us back to the point made by editor Stefan Szczelkun in his preface, that no effort was made here to be exhaustive or encyclopedic. Rather, Agit Disco opens an almost limitless horizon of discussion and debate, addressing problems inherent to its theme that will not be resolved by any one book.

Yet, if we are to understand where Agit Disco fits into the voluminous literature about music and politics, we have to examine how this literature evolved, at least since the advent of recorded music at the dawn of the 20th century. This can be divided into distinct periods the first of which, broadly speaking, lies between the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. This period is characterized by the rise of Fascism on the one hand, and the Popular Front, mobilized to oppose it on the other. It continued through the first decade of contention between the United States and the Soviet Union that followed WWII. A second period is defined by the neoliberal restoration of Reagan and Thatcher continuing through the “collapse of communism” down to the present day. Separating the two is of course the world revolution of 1968 or what is more generally known as the Sixties, which undoubtedly mark a sharp break between the first and second periods, wherein music in particular gained extraordinary significance.

There are two crucial markers for the pre-Sixties period and they can be named: Theodor W. Adorno and Raymond Williams. Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment (written with Max Horkheimer) contained a now famous chapter, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,’ whose withering critique left no doubt that every manifestation of popular creativity ended up coopted by the very targets of its revolt. Jazz in particular was singled out as a stunning example of how a music arising spontaneously from among an oppressed people could easily be turned into a commodity sold back to these very people, ensuring their ideological servitude to the system that profited from the sale. Williams, writing a few years later, was no less radical in his critique of capitalism, but his conclusions were decidedly less dismal when it came to the role of popular culture. He argued that culture is ordinary, is made by ordinary people, and when these people rise in revolt against their oppressors there will necessarily be a cultural dimension to their struggle. Furthermore, while revolution is, by definition, the most radical rupture in political terms, popular culture also maintained continuity with a past whose main feature was the nurturing of resistance.

Adorno and Williams are key forerunners of the field of cultural studies. But it was through the revolutions of the Sixties that this field really took off. During the Sixties, the work of Adorno’s Frankfurt School colleague, Herbert Marcuse, played a pivotal role. This was also when Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was published, initially gaining a wider influence than Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s earlier work. But as the revolution of 1968 was forced into retreat, cultural critics such as Simon Frith began taking a hard look at rock music in particular and popular music more generally. Frith’s seminal Sociology of Rock took apart the apparatus of rock music’s construction and arrived at conclusions similar to Adorno’s. Subsequently, much of the discourse in academic circles revolved around techniques of critical theory developed first by the Frankfurt School, later by Derrida’s deconstruction and later still by Foucault’s penetrating critique of power and its institutional expression, especially when applied to cultural institutions. In so doing, cultural studies ended up in a kind of schizophrenia: overloaded with academic jargon, oscillating between negativity and affirmation, at once upholding a critique of capitalism while condemning as inauthentic or inevitably compromised any artistic expression of opposition to capitalism.

While maintaining a Gramscian anti-hegemonic posture, cultural studies was thus severed from its origins in communist internationalism and materialist dialectics, the net result being surrender to the very powers it was founded to overthrow. This inevitably left popular music vulnerable to the pop music journalist. There can be no better example of the strategy of that species of parasite than Rolling Stone‘s publication of The One Hundred Greatest Artists of All Time. This list, in contrast to Agit Disco’s 23 lists, is as ridiculous in conception as it is pompous in execution. (Ranking art and artists is questionable in any case, but Rolling Stone‘s claim is ridiculous since its list excludes every artist outside the milieu of rock music while announcing that time has stopped forever since no artist that follows could be as great.) I mention it here simply to illustrate the twin incubi with which music, musicians and the editors of Agit Disco must contend – on the one hand, theorists who with perhaps the best intentions dismiss the living, dialectical interplay of music and politics, and on the other, pop journalists who cynically usurp music’s affirmative function to ensure obedience to their master’s voice.

The task Agit Disco sets out to accomplish, therefore, bears a superficial resemblance to both cultural studies and pop music journalism while on a more profound level making a critique of both. That this critique comes in the form of a praxis as opposed to a conventional polemic is actually part of the critique – targeting self-proclaimed or institutionally sanctioned “experts” who in addition to passing judgment on what is good music and its proper relationship with politics, rule out the intelligence and creativity of working-class or other supposedly less qualified people. The point, therefore, is not to accept or reject the contributor’s choices or even their being organized in the particular way they are in Agit Disco. Rather, it is to join in the project as an equal and bring to the discussion those examples of music that have inspired one’s own political engagement.

Reviewed by Mat Callahan
Author, The Trouble with Music

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