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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The Power of Orality

Deaf culture has become increasingly prevalent within the United States and abroad, empowering those hard of hearing or completely without it to stop viewing the loss of a sense as an impediment in life. As Kathryn Woodcock writes in Cochlear Implants vs. Deaf Culture?, “The “Deaf World” is where I find my friends, my recreation, and my only true sense of belonging. I appreciate (and exploit) the employment and commercial opportunities that the hearing world provides for me”. The earliest recorded people to educate the deaf were the Ancient Greeks. Ironically, the Greeks also viewed the loss of hearing as a loss of ability to serve the state, something that the city-state Athens viewed as reason to be put to death.

Although it seems a harsh punishment for something so supported comparatively in modern times, deafness was not something that could be culturally understood by the Greeks. The society of Ancient Greece was born out of an oral tradition, one that resisted the introduction of writing and highly valued oratorical skills.

In studying this oral tradition of Ancient Greek culture, I hope to find an understanding as to how the Greeks viewed sound, the preservation of knowledge purely through speech, and the use of speech throughout their culture. To do this, I will examine articles by scholars relating to the subject and look at translated primary sources from the philosophers themselves.

The strongest examples of the Greek’s incredible ability to preserve knowledge through time come from the Homeric epics, which, despite their length and specificity, passed down from one generation to the next completely orally for centuries until writing had spread throughout the region.

Although the Greeks wrote very little intentionally describing how they practiced keeping such a massive library memorized, some inscriptions survive to tell of the intense responsibilities and training of their law keepers. Keeping with oral tradition, these scribes of law (although not enforcers of it) were expected to have the entire code memorized and ready to be recited even after writing became widespread in the ancient world. The job was highly respected, as these men were in charge of ensuring that the general populace was informed of the current laws and did so by reciting the entire code without aids.

The techniques of such individuals are also described in descriptions of their training. Although this reveals the use of devices that were well practiced during the oral era, other techniques the Greeks may not have necessarily been aware of have been uncovered by intensely analyzing the ancient works of poets such as Homer. Comparing the oral tradition of Ancient Greece with that of modern, surviving oral traditions, certain techniques vital to the society become easier to observe. The proposed method of ‘spatial memory’ seems to be widely used in epic poetry, in which the verses are not only kept track of chronologically but also spatially. Looking at how a story progresses from point A to B gives an insight to a technique that allowed both the performer and the audience to keep track of the story with relative ease, even without training.

Although writing would become common throughout Greece, the transitional period between a purely oral society and that which used and relied heavily upon writing brought about many thoughtful works from the Greek philosophers of the time that evaluated both forms of expressing and storing knowledge. For the most part, these works all criticize the use of writing as a tool for recording knowledge, often through displaying a disappointment of the gods.

For all of their criticism and resentment for the increasing prevalence of writing within the society, however, almost all of the philosophers resorted to writing their ideas down to preserve their ideas and distribute them to the population. Amazingly, only Socrates is recorded as staying true to his opinions on writing, although it was his student Plato who wrote the records down.

The transition towards writing also showed profoundly within the community of Greek orators. These individuals were highly praised for their ability to move and influence the citizens with their speeches and were incredibly effective in the ancient courthouse. Usually chosen elite individuals, they were specially trained in oratorical skills and had to be able to project their voice. During the transition into writing, however, these orators and important figures struggled to find a balance of external knowledge and power in speeches. As recorded by philosophers of the time, many who resorted to writing down speeches, whether it was to have a copy of a speech being given or to aid in memory for giving a speech, found the results were incredibly less powerful.

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All You Need is…Music? Music and Changing Societies: How Do They Interact?

It is undeniable that popular culture, especially music, and societal feelings and opinions are two topics that are connected in some way. Whether this relationship is intimate or distant, or if changes in one affect the other, is a contested topic amongst historians and musical researchers alike, as well as, perhaps, a curious college student. The connection between these two critical parts of any culture is interesting to examine, as they can play off of each other in complex and subtle ways. Do controversial lyrics in music trigger a change in public opinions, or does the music reflect already existent and prominent ideas, simply giving the supporters an anthem or a boost in moral? Though this may seem like an endless cycle of questioning, similar to the “which came first, the chicken or the egg” debate, upon further examination, attention to details, and the investigation of the past, we can possibly begin to discern some patterns, or at least some more concrete theories of what this relationship actually entails.

A hotbed for observance of this mystery was the 1960s. A whirlwind of social and political controversies and changes, the sixties were a prime example of the playoff between popular music and societal opinions and actions. Surrounded by rising feminism, civil rights, and the Vietnam War, musicians threw their ideas out for the public to hear in the form of powerful lyrics and sentimental melodies. The Beatles, for example, wrote several obviously anti-war songs, such as Revolution and All You Need is Love, expressing the useless and destructive nature of war. Bob Dylan, too, expressed his discontent with society during the 1960s, as did many other revolutionary artists.

The question often asked once these observations are made is which sparked the other, similar to what Jaques Attali asks in his book Noise about whether music echoes or ignites political changes. This is an important issue to address, as if music can, in fact, shape public opinions, it could be used in powerful ways to manipulate society, for bad or good. For instance, if artists consistently wrote songs about the danger of global warming, perhaps the public would be influenced to believe more strongly that global warming must be addressed and then possibly take action to do so. It is imperative to explore this relationship between music and culture to discover how they interact because our current world is obviously full of controversy and struggling. If we can discover how music can be used to improve a society, we could take advantage of that opportunity now to better our state of affairs, as well as potential issues in the future. However, this may not be the case. It could very well be that songs written about modern societal issues are simply reflections of already-expressed discontent within the people in society. Although this answer is much less exciting and revolutionary than the first, it still would provide researchers with an explanation as to how these two aspects of culture interact.

I also plan to explore the less apparent messages songs can express through their instrumentation or melodic feel. Here is where my Eyerman/Jamison source will come into play, as it references how James Brown made no direct references to the civil rights movement in his music, he still managed to bring about new appreciation for black culture through his songs.

Another point of interest that I would like to bring up is how packed full of meaning and expression these songs were in order to convey messages about society and cultural problems of the 1960s, as opposed to how mindless today’s music is. The youth of today should recognize this and take action to improve modern music by appreciating the deep meanings writers have tried to convey in the past with their lyrics and musicality, as opposed to modern music, which consists of artists having songs written for them about boyfriends and pretty girls and then autotuning their voices and calling it their music. Perhaps the sad excuse for music nowadays can be connected to the deteriorating state of our world and societal values.

There is likely no definite answer to which aspect of culture, music or societal feelings, affects the other first. However, through research and looking at this interaction in a historical context, we might be able to gain a greater understanding of how we can use this relationship to benefit various cultures and the world as a whole. Maybe music is much more than something we blast into our ears while we run, or crank up while we dance at parties. There is a possibility that music is a tool, one that has yet to be tapped into that can do so much more for us than we ever imagined.

1. Barkhorn, Eleanor. “How Bob Dylan Changed the 60s, and American Culture.” Atlantic. 09 09 2010: Print.

“…all sorts of things were happening all around the world in the late 1960s, throughout the 1960s. And Dylan was very much a part of that. And his music was very much a part of that. It expressed what he wanted to express, but people caught onto it as an expression of what they were feeling, what they were thinking.”

Barkhorn, a journalist, obviously writes for the general public. She focuses on Bob Dylan’s contributions to societal changes in the 1960s, which has been untouched by the other sources. I enjoy her point in her article about how people, if they have an idea and hear said idea echoed in the lyrics of a popular song, can begin to believe in the idea even more strongly than they did originally, because now it is a part of popular culture, which proves to people that they are not the only ones with their ideas.

2. Eyerman, Ron, and Andrew Jamison. “Social Movements and Cultural Transformation: Popular Music in the 1960s.” Media Culture & Society. (1995): Print.

“…or it can be less obvious, as in James Brown’s musical revolution which, while not containing any direct references to the civil rights movement, helped bring about a whole new appreciation of black history and culture in conjunction with that movement.”

The two authors of this article search to explain how cultures change and what role music plays in making those changes that shape culture, especially in the 1960s. It is likely that these authors are aiming to convince historians or anthropologists that music and popular culture does indeed assist in causing some of these changes. This narrows the investigation of this influence down to the 1960s specifically, unlike some of my other sources. Seeing as my paper will focus on how the popular music of the 1960s worked with society to instigate changes in opinions or feelings, this source will help bolster that argument.

3. Neiger, Motti, Oren Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. “Tuned to the Nation’s Mood: Popular Music as a Mnemonic Cultural Object.” Media Culture & Society. (2011): 974. Print.

“Popular music plays a significant role in the shaping of collective memory as well as in the establishment of national culture.”

These authors, all of whom are from Israel, focus on the songs played on the radio during the Holocaust, and how they were used to shape public feelings towards current events. They use this knowledge to deliver a message to those interested in music’s effects on societal feelings and how it can be used in certain situations to manipulate emotions and help to cause certain feelings to arise. Compared to my other sources, this quotation is interesting because it suggests that music plays a key role in the causation of change in a culture, whereas the others suggest that society and music play off of one another to cause change. I think this will provide another interesting view for me to explore in my paper.

4. Ramkissoon, Nikita. “All You Need is the Beatles.” Trespass Magazine. 12 02 2010: Print.

“When asked why his group, the Beatles, had not recorded any anti-war songs, John Lennon responded, “All our songs are anti-war.” His statement suggested that through their messages of peace, love and understanding, the Beatles were taking a stand against war in more general terms, which was much more appealing to mainstream culture.”

“They were, along with other bands of the time, active in anti-war efforts and this is echoed in their music being used as a basis for many revolutionary speeches, movies and plays…”

Ramkissoon, a writer for Trespass magazine, digs into the specifics of the Beatles’ influence on cultural opinions in the 1960s. She writes in a historical context, as she wrote the article in 2010. Her article appeals to a general musical audience with interest in her topic. This source focuses on the Beatles, which is a personally interesting aspect of my topic to me, as I have grown up listening to the Beatles and have learned extensively of their history from my father. I think including their messages in my paper, as well as these quotations which illustrate how powerful their messages were heard amongst the anti-war groups in the 60s, will add a strong argument for how influential music can really be on people’s feelings about a passionate topic.

5. Rosenthal, Rob. “Teaching a Course on ‘Music and Social Movements’.” Radical Teacher. 52 (1998): 16. Print.

“…much of the class becomes a debate over whether music can do anything beyond buoying the spirits of the converted…”

Rosenthal is a teacher who teaches a class concerning the effects of music on social movements. He writes for the general public to inform them about his class and what his goals are in exploring such a difficult-to-prove topic. Although it does not specifically concern the 1960s like some of my other sources, I think that this excerpt from his journal provides an interesting contrast for my paper in exploring whether or not music can really cause change, or if it just exaggerates opinions that already exist.