Lately I’ve been thinking harder and harder about the justifications for using my energy (and that of others) on musical aesthetics in times like these. Writing thousands of words explaining the exotic appeals of underground pop’s next best thing doesn’t come out as an obvious priority when vigorous collective opposition to the government’s horrifying attacks on social equality is urgently needed. Even expansive commentary on the politics of musical creativity and the musical imagination seems a little too much like an indulgence next to the tasks of raising awareness, organisation and action. As I gesticulate in front of people, ‘no, no, music really is an important part of our political lives,’ I suspect that I’m appearing a bit naïve at best.
While there’s a certain immediate practical truth to this concern, it’s also the case that to divide political action and art / aesthetics into wheat and chaff respectively is very close to the sort of reasoning currently being employed to eviscerate higher education in this country. The splitting of art from life in general is an arrangement that has suited capitalism’s commodification of the former very well. In this arrangement Art is that glorious winged escape from life into the meaningless heavens of emotion, fantasy and madness, a journey that can become the property of every sanctified individual for only 79p at the iTunes store. Or art can have ‘political themes’: messages preferably conveyed through a set of easily denotive elements (such as lyrics or images) while the mode of production remains essentially the same. In other words, Art may address and enhance life, but as a luxury or specialist commodity it stays at a remove from its practical concerns and present meanings.
This is exactly the ideology behind the government’s proposed destruction of arts and humanities in higher education, of course. Now not just art itself, but even learning about art – thought itself – becomes a luxury or else a pre-2008-crisis-style investment in a future career. It’s certainly not a natural entitlement any more. Individuals benefit, so individuals must pay for it. And when it’s all reduced to monetary value, an arts or humanities degree emerges as a relatively poor investment compared to engineering, economics or business studies, or even no degree at all. But hey, at least these people will eventually acquire the disposable income to buy whatever it is that the iTunes store recommends and listen to it after work. And in the meagre instances where artistic meaning gets a look in at universities, it may well resemble something like this.In turn the elite professionalisation of music-making (and the musical disempowering of the majority that goes along with it) will grow even worse as all forms of instrumental tuition come to be seen as a career investment, especially after secondary school. This won’t just apply to classical musicians, but in the coming decades it could have a powerful effect on the growing disciplines of music technology and popular music performance.
My own field, however, is music as a humanity. This often goes by the name ‘musicology’, but this term is often held to describe just one of a number of related discourses. I’ve just started a course of PhD research on the so-called ‘lo-fi’ aesthetics of popular music’s outsiders – those who swim against the prevailing current of musical professionalisation and the music industry – and my ability to do this is entirely reliant on funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who may be looking at cuts of well over 50%. My research is unlikely to be decisively threatened by the cuts, but the future of research like mine is in severe peril. Having become aware of the value of my education and the opportunity of my research in a way that future generations of students may never be makes me all the more determined to protest.
It’s not just research itself that’s threatened, of course, but the benefits of learning that further education brings to individuals, society and social discourse as a whole. Take the idea that there is more to the meaning of music than its marginalised role in Western capitalist society, for example. When musicology was still a young discipline, many musicologists unconsciously towed the Western capitalist line that music had little to do with life, that it was meaningless but luxurious. Since then, the discipline has gotten wise and taken a more critical turn, becoming conscious of a deeply political sociology in music-making. It is just this sort of insight, this consciousness, this ability of future generations of students to imagine a subversion of the dominant social ideology and step outside of it to view society and humanity with a more critical eye that is so threatened by the rise in tuition fees and the cuts to higher education. Without it, society cannot improve, but can only suffer ever greater injustices ever more gladly.
This is why I took part in the demonstration in central London last Wednesday. With the minor damaging and occupation of the Millbank buildings housing the Conservative Party headquarters, it became a very significant, even historical event. There has been a huge wave of responses on the internet, among them:
Nina Power in the Guardian - 'Student Protest: We Are All In This Together'
Laurie Penny in New Statesmen - 'Inside the Millbank Tower Riots'
Laurie Penny in New Statesmen - 'The Power of the Broken Pane'
University of London Union Clare Solomon's high-octane debate with Tory MP Roger Gale on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show
Richard Seymour at Lenin's Tomb - 'Just the Beginning'
Neil Roberts in Londonist - 'Student Fees Protest: A View From the Front'
Paul Sagar at Bad Conscience - 'In Praise of Riots'
... and its follow-up - 'Seconds Out, Round Two'
Liberal Conspiracy - 'The Occupation of Millbank: What the Press Missed'
London Evening Standard Editorial: 'Expect More Rage if the Rich and Poor Divide Gets Bigger'
History is Made at Night - 'The Battle of Millbank' (includes footage)
A must-read in a more satirical vein - Trifling Offence - 'National Day of Mourning for Windows of Millbank Tower'
... its follow-up - 'We Are All Windows Now'
... and the Facebook group - 'Become a Window'
And the next outing - Guardian: 'Student Protests Planned on a National Scale on 24 November'
That day music stepped out of the record collection paradigm and played a role in raising morale, coordinating chants, and most importantly cohering and drawing attention to ourselves as an organised collective. Just south of Trafalgar Square as the march was starting I was near the back and still stationary, tightly packed in and shivering with hundreds of strangers from dozens of different universities. Eventually a sound system started up and boomed out Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’, a powerfully catchy, upbeat song and a perfect choice at that moment.
Recognising the sentiment we all turned, smiled, and started dancing and singing along, our eyes meeting with a strong and implicit sense of mutual understanding and agreement. There were performers on instruments too. The music of drummers and samba bands contributed to the sense of a shared mood. Outside the Houses of Parliament a student brass band were playing a characteristically old-fashioned and very English sort of music, and yet it only enhanced the atmosphere of diverse voices contributing in every unique way to one cause. By the time I arrived at the Millbank buildings, sound-systems were playing techno, dub, and if I’m not mistaken, Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’. Together with our reasons for being there, the sense of collectivity that music instilled that day was ten times as strong as that whipped up at the very best of raves, and I’ll never forget it.
But of course it wasn’t the disrespectful, insubordinate swearing of our singing ‘Fuck You’ or the sonic warfare of Aphex Twin that outraged most of the mainstream media. It was the ‘Battle of Millbank’, encapsulated in that one image of someone kickboxing a window on the ground floor of the Conservative Party headquarters. The photograph has swiftly reached iconic status. Shame to say it, but over 50,000 young people standing together in central London are relatively easy for the public and the powerful to ignore, especially in an ideological climate stoked by the propaganda of taking the bitter pill. But some broken windows, some graffiti and thousands of young voters chanting ‘Nick Clegg, shame on you for turning blue’ and ‘Tory scum’ and all the clear symbolism that goes with it cannot be so easily ignored. So the protest had to become something else in order for it to be ignored. It had to cross a threshold of excess in which it becomes different in kind. The moment windows were broken, a valid protest was transmuted, ‘highjacked’ into ‘mindless violence’, perpetrated by (take your pick) criminal anarchist yobs or arrogant, selfish kids as threathened commentators attempt to claw back the power to ignore and blot out the protest.
But every aspect of the protest – both the acceptable banner-waving at the march and the anger on Millbank – were continuous within the same historical moment and cannot be divided. Just as music and aesthetics isn’t outside of life, the literal and symbolic destruction of government property was not outside of the protest. The apparently unbearable truth is that it is only a tiny and natural step from giving anger a voice and giving it more material consequences. The two are not different in kind. The only difference is that this ‘violence’ is bolder and less readily ignored. The real anxiety underneath the outraged reaction to the Battle of Millbank isn’t the rationalizing lie of ‘shame on this mindless, invalidating violence’ but ‘how dare you take the step of trying to stop us from ignoring you’.
As so many have already pointed out, the destruction of a sumptuous lobby is nothing compared to the infinitely more serious violence about to be inflicted on society’s ability to think and imagine. Music can be a part of that fight, a way of cohering and celebrating it with a single passionate voice. If you are angry, make music using whatever you have, music strange and unique to this historical moment. Plug it into an amplifier. And be heard.
Just don’t randomly throw fire extinguishers.