Book Reviews

Audible Politics





















A Review of The Political Force of Musical Beauty by Barry Shank, andMusic and Capitalism: A History of the Present by Timothy D. Taylor


Mark Abel

School of Humanities, University of Brighton



This is a review of books which address two related issues of interest to musical Marxists: the political nature of music and the relationship between music and capitalism. The review comprises a critique of the Rancièrian framework underpinning Shank’s theorisation of musical beauty and politics, and an assessment of Taylor’s account of the music business in the era of neoliberal globalisation.


music – aesthetics – politics – Rancière – capitalism – world music

Barry Shank, (2014) The Political Force of Musical Beauty, Durham, NC: Duke University Press,

Timothy D. Taylor, (2016) Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

I have long been perturbed by the fact that my musical tastes overlap considerably with those of Kenneth Clarke. Clarke was, until the recent general election, the longest serving MP in the British parliament, having occupied all the major ministerial offices of British government, including those of health and education under Thatcher’s premiership. He has also served as Deputy Chairman of the multinational corporation British American Tobacco. And yet, despite these impeccable establishment credentials, in a series of programmes for BBC radio, he revealed himself to be a perceptive and knowledgeable student of jazz, appreciative of even its more radical and politically conscious practitioners such as Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

          How can this be? How can someone who, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, was responsible for policies designed to protect the interests of corporations and the rich against those of working people, a man who lobbied against stronger health warnings on cigarette packets in order to maintain the profits of the tobacco industry, simultaneously appreciate music born of an oppressed section of society which revolutionised the process of music-making and challenged the established cultural values cherished by society’s elites? The most obvious way of squaring that circle is to deny any connection between music and society, especially politics, either by regarding music as pure entertainment or by isolating it to a hermetically-sealed aesthetic realm. The fact that Clarke and I both appreciate jazz thus becomes no more of a conundrum than, say, our both liking Thai food.

          Barry Shank offers an alternative explanation which does not deny music’s political component. On the contrary, Shank insists on an immanent connection between aesthetics and the world of people and events, between artistic beauty and politics, arguing that the pleasures that derive from musical listening are both aesthetic and political.[1] This is a refreshing view in the context of contemporary writing on music; but how, exactly, is music political? Marxist and Marxism-influenced writers on music, including Adorno, Bloch and Attali, argue that in its sounds and its language music expresses meanings and values which are political by virtue of their social and historical derivation. Shank, by contrast, argues that political meaning is not so much embodied in the music as generated in the moment of listening.[2] Drawing on the postmodernist Lawrence Kramer, he argues that it is precisely music’s non-referentiality, its inability to speak directly about the world, that makes it the object of subjective desire and the repository of extra-musical meaning imparted by those who experience it.[3] Once he moves on to discuss specific music, however, he finds himself unable to stick to that position.

          Shank’s starting-point has the virtue of understanding music, like politics, as a collective and social experience. Though primarily a cultural theorist, he is clearly influenced by the perspective of ethnomusicology in viewing music’s social function as ‘creating shared senses of the world’, the belief that the collective experience of music confirms ‘a commonality that feels right, that announces that this we that we are at this moment is the rightwe, thewe that we are meant to be’.[4] This, not consonance or harmony or symmetry, is, for Shank, what musical beauty consists in.

          But he also identifies a repressive aspect of ethnomusicology’s tendency to ‘reduce music’s political force to an expression of a group’s already existing and stable identity’.[5] On this understanding, music does not change anything, but merely reinforces sets of values which pre-exist it. The group or society in question is understood as a community which is united around shared values, in which no serious divisions or disagreements exist, while the connection between the music and those who make and experience it is not explained, but simply assumed.[6]

          Shank seeks to avoid the implicit conservatism that characterises analyses which essentialise and homogenise the relationship between peoples and cultures. What is required, according to Shank, is a different conception of politics and the relationship of music to it. ‘Political community is not characterised by sameness … [it] does not consist of those who agree on the matters at hand, but instead is made up of those who recognise each other as speaking with legitimate political voices’ – a polis.[7] Politics is a field which is inherently agonistic rather than unified. And because of this, music is uniquely fitted to express it aesthetically because its ‘sonic interweaving of tones and beats, upper harmonics and contrasting timbres … model[s] the experience of belonging to a community not of unity but of difference’.[8]

          This explains my Kenneth Clarke conundrum. ‘Why are we disappointed and frustrated when we discover that we don’t agree … on important things’ with those with whom we have shared a musical experience? Because what we have shared is not agreement on any political position but our collective belonging to a pluralistic political community. Through the beauty of the music, we have jointly experienced a conception of a better future even though we may have very different ideas of what that future might be and how it might be achieved.

          What Shank has done here, under the influence of Laclau and Mouffe, is to push back the status of ‘politics’ from the concreteness of definite struggles around specific demands against identifiable opponents to that of an enabling condition, the terrain which is presupposed by all political claims and goals.

The experience of musical beauty never enforces a particular social attitude or belief. The musically produced common instead establishes the sensibility within which social associations or political positions can be perceptible and, therefore, become a matter for debate.[9]

This formulation of Shank’s might be viewed as going no further than saying that music is social, and at times it appears that he is simply offering a definition of music. For instance, the word ‘political’ in the following sentence is surely superfluous:

The political force of music derives from its capacity to entrain subjects to feel pleasure in particular combinations of auditory difference and to reject other combinations as noise.[10]

But Shank does intend his theory of musical beauty to be politically radical and draws on the work of Jacques Rancière for this purpose. At the heart of Shank’s approach is Rancière’s famous description of both aesthetics and politics as modes of ‘the distribution of the sensible’, the ‘system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it’.[11] The critical element of this conception is the identification of ‘the part that has no part’ in such a distribution and its struggle to achieve political status. Rancière’s conception thus gives a radical edge to what otherwise would be a rather bland notion of what constitutes the political. Political struggle here achieves some concrete content: it is the fight of the excluded for inclusion in the polis. In aesthetic terms it is about are-distribution of the sensible. Shank’s book consists of an attempt to defend this idea with respect to music with reference to a series of musical examples.

          One of the more perceptive and successful chapters focuses on anthems. Shank discusses the secularisation of anthems from their religious origins to expressions of national identity and allegiance. Later, anthems emerge in conjunction with political struggles of various kinds. Shank regards the songs of the American Civil Rights movement as paradigmatic but does not mention their precursors in the trade-union and workers’ movement. Songs (anthems) were a central part of the culture of the Industrial Workers of the World – the Wobblies – for example.

          Standard anthems perform the straightforward function of reinforcing existing communities, first religious, then political. Shank comments that in their tendency to define and celebrate an ‘us’ in the face of a ‘them’, they conform to Carl Schmitt’s conception of the political: the friend–enemy distinction. But Shank’s distinctive argument concerns the way that modern pop anthems, which are often consumed in private and create intimate publics, go beyond this function of collective solidarity and succeed in redistributing the sensible. According to him:

Pop anthems can reinforce already existing political communities, but these anthems can also do more. The social experience of the simultaneous comprehension of relations of timbre, rhythm, and organised waves of tonal exploration and resolution can force a recognition of mutual predicament and mutual pleasure. This recognition can permeate the boundaries of the ordinary, slipping through and across intimate publics and knotting together their distinctive threads of difference, rendering nearly palpable the texture of a new political fabric.[12]

Shank makes some interesting analytical points about elements of a number of songs associated with political movements in America, but the fact that much of his analysis is about the lyrics suggests a retreat from the focus on musical sound which is the book’s aim. Moreover, it is doubtful whether he secures his central claim that pop anthems redistribute the sensible. This is how he sums up the impact of Sam Cooke’s classic, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’:

It is highly doubtful that this song directly changed the attitudes toward civil rights of anyone listening in 1964. But its beauty, once apprehended, did produce in each listener the awareness that the Civil Rights Movement was a political struggle that involved all of them. In so doing, the song produced an intimate public that embraced more people than those who had already known that they belonged as ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ redistributed the sensible.[13]

The power of musical beauty is limited:

It cannot enforce a relation of equality between its listeners. It can only make those listeners aware of that demand while it implicates its auditors as its mutually responsible recipients. This is what a great pop anthem can achieve, and it is no small thing. It shifts the way the world is heard. … These songs do not summon us into subject positions, and they do not force us to agree with any policies the songs support. Ever ambivalent, ever haunted by clichés, these songs work instead, simply and directly, through the power that music has to catch our ear, fix us in place, and get us to listen.[14]

One might think that Shank could say something stronger than this, without breaking from his Rancièrean framework. He could plausibly have claimed that Cooke’s anthem, by breaking through to a mass audience, played a role in winning support for ‘the part that has no part’, black Americans in the Southern states, for the goal of full inclusion in the polis. There is a sense in which all struggles from below are at least in part about the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously and included, making those struggles whose goal is democratic and concern civil rights most amenable to a Rancièrean reading. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ may show that music’s political power exceeds merely ‘shifting the way that the world is heard’, andwas capable in 1964 of winning adherents to the concrete political cause of the Civil Rights movement.

          The ultimate test of a theory like Shank’s is whether it allows new claims to be made about the political import or effect of different musics or kinds of music; that is, to assess whether (to use terms that Shanks does not) certain music is politically progressive or regressive. Such claims could never be definitive and would always be open to challenge, just as Adorno’s endorsement of Schoenberg and Berg and his critiques of Stravinsky and popular music are challengeable. However, Adorno’s arguments are comprehensible and coherent, and constitute a distinctive way of conceiving the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Shank’s discussion of pop anthems passes this test, but it is arguable whether his Rancièrean framework contributes anything novel or distinctive. His approach takes us no further than those who read the progressive nature of songs such as ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ from their direct connection with a progressive social movement and assess their impact from record sales and radio-play statistics.[15]

          The same might be argued in relation to some of the other conclusions that Shank comes to in the book. In a chapter on the confrontation between Japanese and Western musical aesthetics in a performance in America of November Steps by Japanese composer Takemitsu Toro, Shank reads the insertion of non-Western instruments and musical techniques into an orchestral context as a challenge to ‘the hegemonic understanding of the political community (the polis) and those who stand outside it (the demos)’.[16] He concludes,

The incorporation into music of sounds previously considered to be noise represents a rethinking of the boundaries of the political. By emphasising the noise, the Otherness, of the biwa and the shakuhachi,[17]November Steps directs its listeners’ attention to the musico-political boundaries between East and West … [and] establish[es] the aural aesthetic possibility of a more open polis.[18]

The first issue that this raises is the extent to which this position is simply a species of the well-worn modernist argument that political radicalism in art flows directly from aesthetic experimentation, that is, from challenges to the established artistic language of any given period. This was the understanding of the revolutionary artistic movements of the early years of the twentieth century, which in music produced, among other innovations, atonality, Sprechgesang[19] (e.g. Schoenberg), and experiments with noise and other non-traditional sounds (e.g. Russolo).[20] Shank is aware that Rancière’s call for a redistribution of the sensible is a version of this position, and expresses the concern that to follow him too far in this direction might lead one to be ‘trapped in the classic avant-gardist dead-end’.[21] But he explains neither why it is a dead-end nor how his own invocation of Rancière’s concept of ‘dissensus’ avoids such a fate. Indeed, Shank goes on to make the same modernist argument in relation to the Velvet Underground’s incorporation of a drone into the rock idiom in the following chapter:

Taken out of the avant-garde and inserted into the heart of a pop song … that drone focused the listener’s attention on the impossible redemption of the promises that kept the audiences coming back for more. This became the political effect of the beauty of [the song] ‘Heroin’. … A redistribution of the sensible occurred.[22]

This is an interesting analysis, but simply conflating the aesthetic and the political with the phrase ‘distribution of the sensible’ does not prove that artistic experimentation produces concrete political effects. Still less does it guarantee that any such effects are progressive. Many of Russolo’s colleagues in the Futurist movement went on to support fascism.

          A second issue concerns the relationship between East and West. Shank claims that one of the ways in which Takemitsu challenged established political assumptions was by turning ‘orientalist’ conceptions of Japan, often symbolised in the West by musical stereotypes, back onto the Western audience. But he fails to consider the wider political significance of the musical event itself, a series of performances in 1967–8 by the New York Philharmonic orchestra of works commissioned from twelve American composers plus one each from Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany, the USSR and Japan (Takemitsu’s November Steps). Shank comments that ‘the goal of the project was to demonstrate the global mastery of the orchestra’ without considering that such a goal inevitably also implied the global mastery of the West. This musical venture was clearly part of the US’s postwar tactic of enlisting its modernist artists in a projection of ‘soft power’ as part of its strategy of cementing its hegemony over the non-Soviet world.[23] The inclusion of one Russian work in the series does not suffice to disguise the political nature of this exercise, which, in the case of the Takemitsu work, has a powerful and obvious symbolic value. Just as the defeated Japanese empire had been subordinated to US power and incorporated into ‘the West’, so Japanese musical culture is hegemonised under the dominant figure of the Western symphony orchestra. Any Rancièrean aesthetic dissensus pales into insignificance besides this overt demonstration of American global power.

          In other chapters of the book Shank discusses alternative rock from Patti Smith to Bad Brains, and a concert of music from 1969 by Alarm Will Sound. He has thoughtful and interesting things to say about all of these, and is particularly insightful about the aesthetics of rock. However, there are two occasions where Shank draws unsustainable conclusions about encounters between the Western music industry and ‘folk’ or non-Western musicians. The first occurs in a discussion of Moby’s ‘Natural Blues’,[24] which reworks a recording made by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1937 of a black Alabaman, Vera Hall, singing a blues called ‘Trouble So Hard’. Shank traces the paternalism and unacknowledged privilege behind Lomax’s lifelong project of collecting black and other folk music, but nonetheless exonerates Moby’s setting of the recording of Hall’s voice to an accompaniment of synthesised sounds from any charge of ‘musical deracination or theft of one people’s tradition by another’.[25] The ‘political force’ of this song, the highlight of Moby’s set, ‘cannot be cancelled by claims of appropriation, no matter how historically accurate these claims might be’, he argues.[26]

          Similarly, Shank regards the collaboration between the Tuareg group Tinariwen and the American band TV on the Radio which produced the song ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’[27] as a musical ‘encounter’ whose positive outcomes easily outweigh the problems of inequality between the participants. Shank seeks to trump a warning by Jayna Brown about the utopian fantasies involved in such encounters, in which social inequalities are (wilfully?) misread as purely aesthetic ‘differences’, with a quotation from Paul Gilroy:

Where world music ceased to be a marketing label and became an ethically infused aspiration, it can also help to identify a uniquely cosmopolitan space where musicians from all sorts of places and backgrounds could begin – once again in opposition to the hierarchies of race and logics of empire – to meet one another as equals. In that utopian location, they could imagine what it might mean to create together on the singular foundation of common human creativity – in real time and face to face.[28]

The inconsistency in the tenses is slightly confusing, but does not obscure the conditional premise of Gilroy’s position: if musicians from different musical cultures manage to meet on an equal footing, then their creative interaction can be genuinely cosmopolitan. Without that precondition, the encounter between Tinariwen and TV on the Radio is far from the ‘meeting of equals who recognise each other in the act of musicking’ that Shank claims,[29] and any redistribution of the sensible that results from it is tainted by the unequal power relations at its heart.

          Shank’s failure to recognise this, in the end, is not simply a political and theoretical one, the outcome of an abstract and empty conception of the political. It also has an aesthetic component. Irrespective of any issue of appropriation or exploitation, Moby’s ‘Natural Blues’ is an unimpressive piece of music. Its primitive and pedestrian harmonic arrangement compares very unfavourably with, say, Gavin Bryars’s ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, another arrangement of a previously-recorded vocal.[30] Moby completely obliterates the ‘blue third’ (pitched between the major and minor third) which Shank himself identifies in Hall’s vocal, by harmonising it throughout with a minor tonic chord, thereby undermining the distinctive ‘bluesiness’ of the original song which constitutes much of its meaning.

          In the case of Tinariwen, Shank notes that, compared with their earlier work, ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’ is unusual in featuring a bridge. Actually, this is better described as a chorus, whose purpose is to bring the song into line with the standardised structure of Western pop and to act as the ‘hook’ deemed necessary for maximising a song’s commercial potential. The fact that the chorus is sung in English by the lead singer of the American band serves to displace the Tuareg musicians from the centre of the performance and attenuate the unfamiliarity to Western ears of the idiom in which they normally perform.

          Although a book with a very different focus, Timothy D. Taylor’s Music and Capitalism features a much stronger analysis of the phenomenon of ‘world music’. Addressing trends in the music industry in the era of neoliberalism, the book’s best chapter is on globalisation. Taylor describes the rise of ‘world music’ as the main ‘musical signifier of globalisation’, which has involved a process of imposing Western systems of cultural production and consumption on the rest of the globe.[31] Key among these mechanisms is ‘genrefication’, the branding of artists and styles under genre headings, which in the case of non-Western musics means lumping disparate musical traditions together under the single heading ‘world music’, a category which now occupies the niche once filled by ‘classical’ in the Western market.

          Taylor analyses the shifting tropes of ‘authenticity’ on which ‘world music’ trades, and traces the rise to the status of acceptably authentic during the 1990s of the kinds of collaborations with Western artists that ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’ represents.[32] Because of his focus on how the music industry operates, Taylor does not suffer from Shank’s illusion that these are encounters of equality between the partners. He writes, ‘[t]he dominant ideology and discourse are that non-Western musics are a kind of natural resource that is available for the taking’,[33] and quotes from album-liner notes written by the likes of Paul Simon, Stewart Copeland, and Ry Cooder peppered with a quasi-colonial language of exploration, discovery, and even ‘cultural mining’. For these musicians, collaborating with non-Western musicians has become an exercise similar to curating exhibitions of objects brought from far-flung places in the heyday of empires.

          Elsewhere in the book, Taylor uses interviews with professional musicians to examine the effects of digital technologies and neoliberal employment practices on their working lives. Not surprisingly, the trend has been towards the deterioration of working conditions, often accompanied by the degradation of the quality of the music produced, especially music commissioned for film and television, in the process. Taylor writes, ‘[d]igital technologies are potent new productive powers in neoliberal capitalism as tools but also as Trojan horses that frequently induce users to work longer and harder’, but his analysis of what exactly is driving change in the culture industries, and who benefits from it, is insufficiently rigorous.

          This is because, although Taylor makes various nods to Marx throughout the book, he declares himself more of a Weberian than a Marxist and makes unsystematic use of a disparate selection of theoretical frameworks, including Bourdieu, Foucault, Gramsci and Adorno, at various points in the book. This leads him to argue that capitalism is primarily a cultural or symbolic system,[34] that it involves multiple ‘regimes of value’, not just economic value,[35] that it is now driven by consumption rather than production[36] and that only tangible objects can be commodities, so digital music downloads are not.[37] As a result, although there is plenty of useful information and data in this book, its theorisation of the dynamics of music production under contemporary capitalism is patchy and inconsistent. Moreover, Taylor barely considers the political aspects of the relationship between music and capitalism, or makes any systematic connection between the way music is produced and the way it sounds.

          Which brings us back to the value of Shank’s book. I have concentrated on aspects of Shank’s argument which I feel are weak or deserve criticism, but this should not override what is positive about the book. By insisting that music is, as a result of its aesthetic nature, intrinsically political, Shank has made an important contribution to a discussion of music with which Marxists can engage. Beyond an abstract commitment to the ultimately political nature of art and culture, the Marxist tradition has not developed a consistent understanding of the politics of music, often substituting various proxies for the music itself when making assessments of works and genres. An engagement with interventions from other traditions can help to move that project forward. However, Marxists cannot accept the abstract, empty, and ultimately liberal, conception of politics that Shank adopts from post-Marxism.

          This means that my Kenneth Clarke problem remains unresolved. Perhaps the explanation is simply that, like the political rebels of earlier periods, even the most scandalous music and the most revolutionary musicians become safe for appropriation by the ruling class with the passing of sufficient time.


Barnhisel, Greg 2015, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Bryars, Gavin 1975, ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, in The Sinking of the Titanic, London: Obscure, available at: <>.

Gilroy, Paul 2010, Darker Than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Moby 2000, ‘Natural Blues’, in Play, London: Mute, available at: <>.

Rancière, Jacques 2004, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, translated by Gabriel Rockhill, London: Continuum.

Saunders, Francis Stonor 2000, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London: Granta.

Shank, Barry 2014, The Political Force of Musical Beauty, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Taylor, Timothy D. 2016, Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinariwen feat. Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe 2011, ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’, in Tassili, Los Angeles: Anti- Records, available at: <>.

Werner, Craig Hansen 1998, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, London: Payback Press.



[1] Shank 2014, p. 1.

[2] Shank 2014, p. 4.

[3] Shank 2014, p. 19.

[4] Shank 2014, p. 2.

[5] Shank 2014, p. 14.

[6] Shank 2014, p. 13.

[7] Shank 2014, p. 3.

[8] Shank 2014, p. 1.

[9] Shank 2014, p. 27.

[10] Shank 2014, p. 17.

[11] Rancière 2004, p. 12.

[12] Shank 2014, p. 40.

[13] Shank 2014, p. 70.

[14] Shank 2014, pp. 70–1.

[15] For example, Werner 1998.

[16] Shank 2014, pp. 97–8.

[17] Japanese lute and flute, respectively.

[18] Shank 2014, p. 98.

[19] A vocal technique between singing and speaking famously used by Schoenberg in his Pierrot Lunaire of 1912.

[20] As outlined in Luigi Russolo’s manifesto, The Art of Noises of 1913, for example.

[21] Shank 2014, p. 98.

[22] Shank 2014, pp. 142, 146.

[23] See Saunders 2000 and Barnhisel 2015.

[24] Moby 2000.

[25] Shank 2014, p. 36.

[26] Shank 2014, p. 37.

[27] Tinariwen 2011.

[28] Shank 2014, p. 256, citing Gilroy 2010, p. 94; quotation corrected.

[29] Shank 2014, p. 258.

[30] Bryars 1975.

[31]Taylor 2016, p. 89.

[32]Taylor 2016, p. 91.

[33]Taylor 2016, pp. 98–9.

[34]Taylor 2016, p. 14.

[35]Taylor 2016, p. 10.

[36]Taylor 2016, p. 66.

[37]Taylor 2016, pp. 145–6.