Written on 23-24 November 2022.
Music is evolving. That much is clear. Netflix’s ‘The Playlist’ depicts the last era of class and generational warfare in the market of music. On the one hand were the young and the poor, fighting for their rights to consume and produce music without losing out to the winners, the older established interests that dominated the music industry: the record labels, the radio stations, and — to quote The Playlist — ‘Michael F—ing Jackson’. The old musical hegemony was facing a challenge from the new contenders for the throne: streaming platforms like Spotify, upstart musicians like Taylor Swift and Kanye West, and a new audience of young, internet-focused music listeners. Much has changed. Has it?
We now live in a similar era to the 1990s, when music revenues were booming, but the average artist was losing out to the big players. Early in that boom, however, smaller musicians had a chance to ride the wave of bigger musicians’ success. They even had a chance to become big themselves.
It is a paradox. Music, as the prophetic streaming platform Tidal (founded by rapper Jay-Z, mentor of producer and now rapper-musician-entrepreneur-provocateur ‘Ye’, the artist formerly known as Kanye West) suggests, comes in waves. At the beginning of the wave, there is no apparent movement but real movement under the surface — and on the horizon — that the skilled observer may notice. At the end of the wave, there is massive movement that will subdue anyone who is unprepared for the deluge. In the middle of the wave, there is the opportunity for many to ride the wave and feel the benefits of its energy. But to benefit from the climax, you have to be there from close to the beginning. Alternatively, you may begin close to the end of one wave, and hope to benefit from the next wave as well as the old one. With the pivot from record sales to streaming this century, Taylor Swift and Kanye West have been almost unique in earning huge sums of money from both physical and digital releases of their music (beginning with Ye’s Dropout in 2004 — which was delayed due to an internet pirated leak of the album, leading Kanye to polish and perfect the album before final release nearly a year later; Taylor Swift was released in 2006, supported by Taylor’s father’s investment in Big Machine records and her family and friends’ handing out CDs and stuffing envelopes with the CDs as Taylor played guitar and sang her songs live at concerts, leading to eventual radio success of a number of her original country-pop songs). Spotify was founded in early 2006, between the releases of Kanye’s and Taylor’s debut records.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for music to become political. Just as Prince and Michael Jackson were competitors in the 1980s, Kanye West and Taylor Swift have led a sales competition that has acquired a political angle, with accusations of racism and sexism being thrown around from both sides. The dispute has even attracted the attention of heads of state. President Obama called Kanye a ‘jackass’ after he interrupted Taylor, a white woman, to support the music of Beyoncé, a black woman, at the MTV Awards in 2008. It was later decided by many critics that Kanye was not morally wrong to do this — he was just stylistically out of step with established conventions, or socially inappropriate. He was right on substance — not style — in other words. Was he?
More recently Mr. West, after facing widespread accusations of antisemitism for contrasting the situation of black people with that of Jewish people in the U.S. (while simultaneously identifying with Judaism — after angering many black voices by calling slavery ‘a choice’ and wearing Trump’s MAGA hat a few years back), tweeted ‘Shalom’ (the Hebrew word for ‘peace’) and had a reply from the Twitter handle claiming to represent the government of Israel, which claims in turn to represent Jewish identity in some undefined way. The response? ‘We would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.’ This is almost an exact quote of Taylor’s Facebook response to Kanye’s song Famous, which claimed for Kanye responsibility for Taylor’s fame. (It is also a contradiction: If you wish to avoid inclusion to a narrative — which Kanye’s tweet ‘Shalom’ did not effect, since Israel and Judaism are not in any way synonymous [and to believe they are is antisemitic], do not invite inclusion by explicitly claiming exclusion, as this is implicitly claiming inclusion! This is linguistic philosophy 101.) I was a Taylor Swift fan at the time — and a strident critic of Jeremy Corbyn, who I then saw as an ally of antisemites and terrorists (using that word specifically in a family argument, so I have been told). I liked Rihanna’s role on the song. I liked the production on the song (Kanye is a producer). I silently believed the second half of the song was one of the best things I had ever heard, surpassing anything Taylor has ever released, and approximating the greatest pieces of classical music. But I didn’t say any of that. Because I thought Kanye was a bad man. I was afraid of the truth.
I have since learned a number of things, particularly after embarking on a long essay on the history of antisemitism, rated as a first by Cambridge markers, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism — which has led me more recently to consider the writings of the Frankfurt School, whose philosophical members pioneered the critique of imperialism and antisemitism in the early, mid, and late twentieth century. Contrary to antisemitic conspiracy theories, I’ve found that there is no real identity between Israel and Judaism. These are very separate entities, and each are deeply divided and heterogeneous. There is no such thing as homogeneous identity. Every identity is subjective and complex. This is the realisation of critical theory: that outside of the real material workings of the political economy, as theorised by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and outside of the theories of philosophy, from Plato to Kant, there is very little that is objective in the ideas and identities we form in our heads. Most of the time, instead of closely representing real interests, we are telling stories to reassure ourselves that we are OK and we belong — when in reality, we are all just human being trying to make the most of our lives. To quote the foundational poetic critique of antisemitism in modernity, from the mouth of Shakespeare’s fictional Shylock in the Merchant of Venice (which writer Howard Jacobson has noted is not, as some critics have argued, a simply antisemitic play, partly for the following reason):
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,The character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice [a state admired by my favourite modern political philosopher, James Harrington] by William Shakespeare.
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
This realisation of complexity has led me to appreciate music, politics, history, science, and society in a whole new way. I have entertained very unusual positions like Marxian socialism, Burkean conservatism, and Hayekian libertarianism as all being potentially true. Previously I was hostage to the belief system of my parents, whose views and teachings I deeply respect. But I was young — I knew no better. I still don’t, at least not necessarily (I will leave by statements on probable opinion, which Russell defines as knowledge, to another day and a more lengthy essay). But my mind has opened — and it will not close again. I have every position and every inspiration I have ever encountered, and every person I have ever met, to thank for that.
But back to the musical foundations of political views. The market of music is changing. In 2015 I said the 1989 Taylor Swift tour was the ‘best thing I have seen or heard in 15 years’ (or words to that effect) on Facebook. Now I have very different views on what qualifies as good music. But I still think Taylor has changed the music industry — and that some of her music from 2012-17 is nothing less than superb. Some of her music since then has been intriguing. But where does it come from?
I have previously argued technique is the foundation of artistry. And that is true. But technique arises from commerce, and the stringent demands of trade for technological perfection. Art arises from the other side of technology — not techne, or skill, but logos, or logic, knowledge, wisdom, or speech. In the beginning was the word — logos. What creates good art if not the market itself?
There is a tragedy to the following answer, and it gives me no pleasure to say: War. Only war creates true artistry by creating the conditions for contemplation, or philosophy. How? War eviscerates private property which is diluted in the waters of state power. The state has to invest in technology at multiple levels, including the intellectual level. In my first-rated university essay on the history of antisemitism, I found that happened when the ancient state of Judaea was in conflict with other states in the ancient Near East. Kings invested in their Platonic salvation: philosophy. The language of Hebrew developed in this time.
Similarly in ancient Greece. The languages of ancient Mycenaean civilisation are lost in the sands of time, largely due to the fact that trade did not develop far enough to lead to its dialectical opposite and historical effect: war. Without a clear class structure, trade led to more trade, and the modern state never formed, in the absence of bureaucratic centralisation.
But Greece after that point did centralise. Centuries after the Bronze Age Collapse, city-states formed that competing for profits from trade and power through war with Persia. The Pelopponesian Wars preceded the rise of philosophy with teachings of Socrates, who had befriended one of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ (Critias) who emerged as the wars concluded. Then democracy reemerged in Athens, and Socrates was executed at a show trial which accused him of ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. This martyrdom allowed Plato to canonise Socrates in the history of philosophy, leading to the modern fusion of Greek ideas, Hebrew ideals, and Latin institutions after the collapse of the Roman Empire, which led to the universalisation of a cult around a Jewish preacher named Joshua, who later became known as Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua, who spoke Aramaic) and even later as Jesus Christ. The Christianisation of Rome preserved the Abrahamic tradition in the fabric of western civilisation, while Plato’s influence through his student Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great have been preserved in medieval theology and modern politics alike.
But modernity subverted ancient ideals for new purposes. The universalisation of the market echoes the expansion of Hellenistic culture through Alexander’s pre-Roman conquests of the known world, from Egypt to the edge of India (catalysed the formation of the Mauryan Empire and the political emancipation of Buddhism). And with this empire of trade, supported by the political hegemonies of Britain and now America, has come new religions, such as liberalism and its critics.
Music bridges between economics and culture, like politics. It takes technical input and produces artistic output, to put the process of music-making crudely. Music is true when it performs this task; it is false when it fails. But music can never succeed perfectly. There will always be unevenness. Sometimes a little technique produces a lot of artistry. Sometimes a lot of technique produces little artistry. Occasionally, little technique produces little artistry. Rarely, a lot of technique produces a lot of artistry.
But in today’s age of rising mediocrity, it is also true that only a countervailing hegemony of philosophy and poetry can undermine established norms and prevailing opinion, subverting normal tyranny with extraordinary freedom. We live in a new totalitarianism, in music and society, where monopolies compete for profits and power. But what if this imbalance could be reigned in? What if we can have a new beginning? What if a new era of history follows a new genre of music, which may be made new again, as if for the first time? Only time will tell if this new beginning, or hypocritical act of beginning-again, can become an honest reflection of the reality we are building. I think, at least, it is worth a try.
… Shall we begin?
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?