The Political Force of Musical Beauty

The Political Force of Musical Beauty

Refiguring American Music

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Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 15 illustrations Published: April 2014

Author: Barry Shank

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Music

In The Political Force of Musical Beauty, Barry Shank shows how musical acts and performances generate their own aesthetic and political force, creating, however fleetingly, a shared sense of the world among otherwise diverse listeners. Rather than focusing on the ways in which music enables the circulation of political messages, he argues that communities grounded in the act and experience of listening can give rise to new political ideas and expression. Analyzing a wide range of "beautiful music" within popular and avant-garde genres—including the Japanese traditions in the music of Takemitsu Toru and Yoko Ono, the drone of the Velvet Underground, and the insistence of hardcore punk and Riot grrrl post-punk—Shank finds that when it fulfills the promise of combining sonic and lyrical differences into a cohesive whole, musical beauty has the power to reorganize the basis of social relations and produce communities that recognize meaningful difference.


"Summer is the season for foreground music, when our desire for melodic accompaniment is on spectacular display. It cradles the widely held conviction, astutely explored by Barry Shank in The Political Force of Musical Beauty, that the word song does rotten justice to certain units of musical experience. As, for instance, when some tune, in the process of unfolding itself, appears at once to exist for us alone and to matter beyond measure. It can happen in a club or a car or a chair. Such an experience’s apparent privacy can make its 'political force'—Shank’s apposite term—difficult to capture. Shank draws these effects, and insights into the kinds of collectivity they suggest, from an impressive range of musical forms."   — Darby English, Artforum

“While few people reading this magazine would object to the idea that new musical experiences can be radically transformative on an individual level, the conviction that music can influence broader political change is more problematic. Quickly clarifying that his book isn’t about how music can be a vehicle for sharing pre-existing political sentiments, Barry Shank instead provides examples of music that has created new shared senses of the world and revealed the political significance of sounds previously heard as noise.” — Jon Marshall, The Wire

“[T]his book is very well researched and abounds with fresh ideas. . . . Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.”  — T. R. Harrison, Choice

“Shank has produced a very engaging, learned, and wide-ranging book on popular music in itself and especially as it slides in one direction or another to the likes of avant-garde music or art or performance.” — Ian Balfour, Journal of Popular Music Studies

“This is an important contribution to the debate about music’s relationship to politics, one that takes seriously and treats subtly the contribution of musical sounds and experiences. It takes risks and issues challenges, and we are indebted to Barry Shank for this (and much more) in his fine book.” — John Street, Popular Music

“[A]n admirable effort to probe the social and political stakes of music. . . . Shank is most persuasive in his long, interpretive musical descriptions. . . . Shank helps us see that music’s embrace of difference, combined with its ability to create shared experiences of the world, can make us more aware of inequality; this, in turn, can motivate us from within to express ourselves collectively.” — Alice Miller Cotter, Notes

"Shank’s work provides an important contribution to the study of music and its political potential. His close analysis of vastly different works through the lens of the political power of musical beauty will prove an invaluable contribution to the study of music writ large." — Kara Attrep, American Studies

"In this ambitious, original, and compelling book, Barry Shank addresses the relation of music to politics. In the process, he makes a significant contribution to aesthetic theory. It is beautifully written, nuanced yet accessible. Its central theme, on the political agency of music, is refreshing and Shank's close readings and formal analyses of musical examples are both richly rewarding and entertaining." — Bernard Gendron, author of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde

"Treating noise as the recalibration of our sensibility settings and a vision for building community on difference, Barry Shank makes a politics of thorny sound. Even better, when this formerLong Ryders member, turned chair of Comparative Studies, takes on Moby’s half-borrowed 'Natural Blues,' Yoko Ono’s obstacle course art, the Velvet Underground’s 'Heroin' drone, then Patti Smith, Bad Brains, Bikini Kill, and TV on the Radio with Tinariwen, we get something amazingly long in arriving: an exploration of college radio music by a passionate college professor." — Eric Weisbard, editor of Pop When the World Falls Apart: Music in the Shadow of Doubt


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Barry Shank is Professor of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He is the author of Dissonant Identities: The Rock 'n' Roll Scene in Austin, Texas, and A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture, and a coeditor of American Studies: An Anthology and The Popular Music Studies Reader.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction. A Prelude 1

1. Listening to the Political 10

2. The Anthem and the Condensation of Context 38

3. Turning Inward, Inside Out: Two Japanese Musicians Confront the Limits of Tradition 72

4. "Heroin"; or, The Droning of the Commodity 108

5. The Conundrum of Authenticity and the Limits of Rock 147

6. 1969; or, The Performance of Political Melancholy 201

Coda. Listening through the Aural Imaginary 244

Notes 263

Bibliography 301

Discography 317

Index 319
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5658-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5646-2
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