Politics of Feminism and Sound

The political changes that have occurred in America during the last 100 years are intimately tied to music, the complex soundscape of our culture reflecting political upheaval and social change . As Jacques Attali said, “music is prophecy” (36), the mechanism through which a society’s fears, angers, and joys are refracted as sonic creation. One incident of music giving voice to a political movement was the connection between late 20th century feminists and the rising girl-rock scene blossoming in the punk underground. These women “made audible the new world” (36) that they wished to live in, a world where women are not only powerful, furious, and strong but understood and accepted as equal emotional and psychological beings. This research embodies the relationship between politics and sound because as a comparative study of the music and theories of feminists in the late 20th century, it illuminates the effect of an evolving sonic community on a crucial political movement.

This Clip of Bikini Kill Live is a prime example of how girl rockers of the punk underground were pioneering the political agenda of third wave feminists of the 80’s and 90’s. You can hear Kathleen Hanna, the band’s lead singer, shout “this is cellulite, this is what it look like…it’s real…you don’t see this on MTV!” before launching into “Don’t Need You”, a song about female autonomy. With words like “we don’t need your protection…does it scare you boys that we don’t need you?”  these women used music, a passionate and direct wire to raw emotion, to empower themselves as free-thinking, radically independent individuals.

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A Connection to Place: The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the City of Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California is a city unlike all others, its uniqueness established by a variety of constituent components: its large size and population, its location between coastline and mountain range, the immense ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, the complicated social and political strife of the past and present, and the multifaceted nature of the activities that take place on a daily basis within its bounds. In the past 50 years, Los Angeles has undergone many changes. After the end of World War II, its populace increased significantly, provoking the expansion of city limits into new geographic regions. Along with this growth came an explosion of artistic ingenuity, manifested especially within the realm of musical creation. Hollywood became a hotspot for the production and recording of new albums, attracting aspiring musicians of divergent styles and backgrounds from the around the city, and more broadly, the entire state and country. When punk rock became a staple of the Los Angeles music scene in the late 1970s, the genre gained rapid popularity across the nation. Despite groups originating in New York City, like The Ramones, or other large urban areas, L.A. was renowned as being at the forefront of the punk rock movement.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers entered the Los Angeles music scene in 1983. Their lineup consisted of vocalist Anthony Kiedis, guitarist Hillel Slovak, bassist Michael Balzary, and drummer Jack Irons. Heavily influenced by the punk epidemic in the city, they released a self-titled album 1984 that presented an unprecedented combination of punk rock and funk. Although the album was a radical release, the band was not satisfied with its overall vibe—the group sought to truly encapsulate the tumult of progressivism within the rapidly changing culture of Los Angeles, as reflected through their own experiences. While embracing the punk scene that surrounded them, the band members wanted to express their creativity through new forms of music by further modifying and perfecting their sound. In recent years, the music of the Chili Peppers no longer aligns with the genre of punk rock. The vibrant, upbeat, and smooth compositions found on albums like Californication and By the Way still have funk-driven undertones, but would be best categorized as light rock. Nonetheless, the group still writes music about the city of Los Angeles and its ever-changing cultural scene.

I intend to study the relationship between the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the cultural trends of Los Angeles from the early 1980s to present day, in order to find out more about the impact of the city’s social and political shifts on the style and genre of the bands productions. Through numerous replaced band members, a constantly changing and evolving sound, and great lyrical diversity, the group has been far from uniform over the years. Likewise, the city of Los Angeles, between the push and push back for civil rights and equality, shifts in governing forces, and variation in its racial diversity, has proven itself to be just as progressive and radical. I believe that the changing music of the Chili Peppers over the past 30 years will mirror the changing cultural dynamic of L.A. in many regards; furthermore, the band’s music may lend a uniquely subjective interpretation of the social turmoil of the city during said era, from the standpoint of a group of individuals experiencing the matter firsthand.

The connection between sound and place is a simplistic, yet revealing, notion that can be examined in an endless number of contexts. Music is a particularly interesting reflection of place in that it contributes the subjective aspect of human experience. Author Steven Feld argues in A Rainforest Acoustemology that the music of the Kaluli people mirrors the soundscape of the natural rainforest environment. He uses an understanding of the connection between sound and place to contend that the industrialization of rainforest areas will cause a shift in the tribe’s music, due to the introduction of a new, harsher, and more discordant soundscape. In Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the concept of music’s reflective nature is taken a step further. Attali makes the case that music has prophetic tendencies regarding the changes to come in a given place or environment. Bearing these examples in mind, the connection between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Los Angeles will be further analyzed with regard to the changing soundscape of Los Angeles, and examined for any possible prophetic relationship between musical composition and cultural shift.

Works Cited:

Feld, Steven. “A Rainforest Acoustemology.” Anthropologies of Sounds. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 223-39. Print.

Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” Sound Studies Reader. New York City: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.

Annotated Bibliography:

Funky Monks. Dir. Gavin Bowden. Perf. Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, Michael Balzary, Chad

Smith, and Rick Rubin. Warner Bros., 1991. DVD.

The director—bassist Michael Balzary’s brother-in-law—was an amateur filmmaker who sought to document the creative processes involved in the production of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fifth studio album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The target audience primarily consisted of Chili Peppers fans who desired to learn more about the group, and also those with general interest regarding the creation of music. The film lends a perspective unlike other cited sources, in that it provides unique and candid insight into the interactions between band members during the processes of writing, collaboration, and recording. Analyzing the musical tendencies of the group during the creation of Blood Sugar Sex Magik from the film facilitates the understanding of the relationship between the sound of the album and the location of its recording, Los Angeles.

Kiedis, Anthony, and Larry Sloman. Scar Tissue. New York: Hyperion, 2004. Print.

Primary author and singer Anthony Kiedis wrote this autobiography as an intimate description of his life from birth to 2004 (the year of publication), including his experience with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The intended audience was comprised of fans of the band and those who wished to know the story behind such a talented and enigmatic vocalist. The book provides an interesting first-person perspective into the group dynamic of the four Chili Peppers, revealing many profound and previously undisclosed details that the other cited sources never touch on. Kiedis delves into the significance of the city of Los Angeles throughout his life, which can be used to understand the different stages of musical career with the band.

Modarres, Ali. “New York & Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture—A Comparative View.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94.3 (2004): 678-80. Print.

Modarres is a professor of geosciences and environment and at California State University, Los Angeles, where he also serves as the chair of his department. His intended audience includes college students and adults interested in the sociological analysis and comparison of Los Angeles and New York City. His work provides a notably intellectual viewpoint of the cultural trends of L.A. in recent times, diverging from other cited sources due to the complexity of Modarres’ thought and insight. This article provides information regarding the unique societal qualities of Los Angeles, as contrasted with those of an eastern city like New York; this can be used to better understand its relationship to the unusual and distinct music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Herbert, Steve. “The Normative Ordering of Police Territoriality: Making and Marking Space with the Los Angeles Police Department.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86.3 (1996): 567-82. Print.

Herbert is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University. His intended audience is comprised of young adults and adults seeking information regarding the cultural relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the L.A.P.D., or more broadly those who wish to examine the sociological impact of law enforcement. This work, unlike other cited pieces, delves specifically into the struggle between chaos and order within the city, and the resultant impact on the cultural trends of Los Angeles. His writing can be used to give light to the darker side of the city’s dynamic, which is relevant to many components of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music.

Splitter, Henry W. “Music in Los Angeles.” Ed. Gustave O. Arlt. The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 38.4 (1956): 307-44. Print.

Splitter, an author and journalist, wrote primarily about the topics of music and nature, and their relationship to one another. His target audience for Music in Los Angeles consisted of intellectuals intrigued by the historical progression of music in L.A. and its surrounding areas. Unlike other sources, Splitter’s writing examines the musical past of the city, and how its musical scene came to be what it was in the 1950s. This piece can be used to analyze the differences between Los Angeles music in the mid-twentieth century and late twentieth century, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers were most prevalent. Understanding the musical divergence of the two eras can facilitate an understanding of the concurrent cultural shift that occurred.

The Role of Sound in Confucianism: Morality through Music

“The Master said, ‘Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites, and be perfected by music’”(Analects 8:8). 

“He stands to benefit who takes pleasure in three kinds of things…To take pleasure in the correct regulation of the rites and music, in singing the praises of other men’s goodness and in having a large number of excellent men as friends is to benefit” (Analects 16:5).

            Music is extraordinarily vital to Confucianism. Without it, Confucius believes that we cannot achieve jen, or general benevolence. Achieving jen is the ultimate goal of Confucianism; it is similar to reaching Enlightenment in Buddhism or creating general happiness in Utilitarianism. What it means is that everything a person does is in the name of humanity for all people; it is the way in which we should consider our actions and the absolute virtue to follow in living our lives. Almost as important is the concept of li, stating that there is a right way to achieve jen. This correct path is defined by Confucius as well as by Chinese society. For instance, there are strict guidelines for beginning a meal, approaching a place of worship, the role one should play in a relationship, etc. In many ways, it is simply the ceremonies or the repeated actions that we follow, even if they refer to something seemingly unimportant in our day-to-day lives.

Confucians also believe that these two principles are tightly bound to morality; li and jen are both virtues, and we must adhere to them. A main part of this morality is respect for music. In ancient (and modern) China there was a distinct reverence for music, and it was integral to ceremonial practices. According to Confucius, the music is as important as the ceremony itself; without it, the ceremony would not be whole. For this reason, the rites (or li/ceremony/morality) go hand in hand with music throughout Confucius’s Analects. Because of morality through ceremony and benevolence, music holds extreme importance in Confucianism.

It is known that ancient Chinese society was based on many Confucian beliefs; Confucius is still highly respected, and he played a large part in both the social and political evolution of the Chinese people (Chan 2.4.13). This raises the question of how music reflects the moral rules of a society; is it possible to use said rules as a parameter with which to measure the actions of the society? In this case, can we examine the Confucian ideas of proper music and see them reflected in the Chinese people? This is clearly true in an idealized Confucian world; everything is supposedly dictated by the propriety of a person and the goal of goodness to humanity, thus a respect for music would inevitably be found in all people. As a result, this attention to music is of utmost importance. However, this could only be stated without further investigation if everyone in the society strictly followed Confucianism.

As authors such as Jacques Attali have argued, we can learn much from a society’s music. According to Attali, music reflects the culture of the people and the way in which that group is moving. It can also be used to detect evidence of future events, whether that is a social, political, or economic change. Again, this seems to mirror what we would hypothetically see in a Confucian world. As I have mentioned, Confucius believes that his society must stick to a certain way, and that way can be orchestrated through respect for music. In the literature of both Confucius and Attali, we see this same relationship between music and the actions of people.

The problem I propose is to analyze the role of music within Confucianism in order to determine the effect of his stress on music and ceremony on ancient Chinese society. According to Jacques Attali, there will be a clear relationship between the two, but only if Confucianism had enough of an effect on the people.  Similarly, Confucius indicates his belief that this will be true for people trying to achieve jen, but says nothing about society as a general rule. Thus, I propose an examination of both the music and ceremony in Confucianism, along with the role of Confucianism in ancient Chinese society. From this, we can determine the role of music as well as the attention to Confucian morality in this society. This will not only tell us about ancient and modern Chinese society, but also about the role of politics and religion on music in general. Furthermore, we can examine the backing of Attali’s claims in Eastern societies and find a standard with which we can measure the role of music in other cultures.



Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” The Sound Studies Reader. By Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.


Chan, Sin Yee. “Confucius: Li as Ceremonies.” PHIL 121: Ancient Chinese Philosophy. Hills 234, Burlington. 4 Feb. 2013. Lecture.

Addressing Confucius in my ancient Chinese philosophy class has been the most useful source of information. Throughout many of our lectures, we have frequently touched on the role of Confucianism in Chinese society and the role of music in each. In this particular lecture, our main focus was the importance of ceremony in Confucianism as well as in Chinese society, especially in contrasting it with the much smaller role it plays in American society. This strongly relates to the theme of my research, again showing another dynamic of the importance of this analyzation.


“Confucianism and Music.” Confucianism and Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. .

Confucius, and D. C. Lau. The Analects (Lun Yü). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

This is the most important source that one can use in any examination of Confucianism; it is typical for Chinese philosophers to write an account of their beliefs, and Confucius has done just this. As we can see above, he frequently outlines this belief system of li and music going hand in hand. He also argues throughout the Analects that these are extraordinarily vital. This is also closely related to many of the lectures from my Chinese philosophy class; we have also read this work in that class and go over many of the doctrines that have been recorded.


Mencius, and D. C. Lau. Mencius. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1970. Print.

Mencius is known as the second most important Confucian after Confucius himself, as indicated by his Latinized name. Much like I have outlined about the Analects, Mencius has written a detailed account of his own belief system. As predicted by his designation as a Confucian, he also is a huge advocate for music. In this sense he shares the same beliefs as Confucius, and he similarly holds the same regard for music and li. Since he lived roughly 200 years after Confucius, Mencius also shows a very useful view of the Chinese society in which he lived. Additionally, his is very interesting in that he actually says that both popular and classical music should be revered. This gives a parameter with which to compare the lasting effect of Confucianism and see if ceremony still plays a large part in Chinese society.


Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

Harvard University’s Benjamin Schwartz is one of the premier scholars on Chinese philosophy. Throughout this piece, he examines the role of music in Confucianism, as well as compares this role to the ideas in other schools of thought in Ancient China. Like many scholars, he holds the idea that Confucius had a very large influence on the Chinese society, and also outlines the reception of Confucius and opposing philosophers by the people. Predictably, the Analects is one of the main pieces he analyzes, but he also mentions Mencius and later Confucian philosophers. Again, this gives a parameter to compare the evolution of Chinese society with the evolution of Confucianism and see if there is the proposed reflection.


Wang, Keping. “Mozi Versus Xunzi on Music.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2009): 653-65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2013.

One of Confucius’s largest opponents is Mo Tzu (Mozi). He advocates for the abandonment of music, since it supposedly wastes resources which could be used to improve the lifestyle of the people. However, Xunzi, another important Confucian, holds the traditional belief that music improves a person’s character through its relationship to morality in li and jen. Keping Wang, another commonly cited source in philosophy, shows their opposing arguments, as well as Xunzi’s extension of Mencius’s belief that popular music is equally important to classical music. Wang concludes that Xunzi (and thus Confucianism) is a stronger view, because Mo Tzu does not consider the intellectual needs of humans, only the physical needs. This is a concept which we are very familiar with in today’s world. Similarly, this illustrates many of the real-world applications to the Confucian realm of thought and why it was so effective in Chinese society. This source was provided to my by my philosophy professor, Sin Yee Chan.