Feminist Perspectives on Music as Performative and Political

Related to my previous post on the philosophy of music, I want to say a few words about feminist perspectives of music, which like Adorno’s and Attali’s accounts are also attuned to the social and political dimensions of music. In particular, feminist musicologists such as Susan McClary and Ruth A. Solie seek to unearth the various ways that patriarchal narratives and practices have shaped our views of music. Keeping with certain shared feminist philosophical and political concerns, feminist theorists promote a diverse, multiple, inclusive view of music and are suspicious of theories limiting what counts as “genuine” music. Highlighting that such narrowly defined accounts have tended to portray Western, male-dominated, European (classical) music as the norm or ideal form of music, feminist theorists show how female composers and performers have been systematically excluded from making significant contributions to this musical “canon.” Rather than stress static, homogeneous, ideal musical forms, feminist musicologists emphasize diverse musical styles and dynamic musical practices—practices arising from particular historical periods and addressing specific socio-political concerns. As with other cultural practices, music too informs our views of “gender.” As a social force, music can help both to solidify and to subvert “gender” stereotypes.

Although unified with respect to their common goal of liberating women from all forms of patriarchal oppression, feminist music theorists employ diverse and, at times, conflicting philosophies and strategies. For example, some feminists appeal to an alleged “feminine essence” rooted in biological differences between the sexes. Consequently, those working in this vein of feminist thought argue for a distinctly female or matriarchal art, characterized by “natural” feminine traits—traits or characteristics often set in opposition to “natural” male traits. Perceiving dangers in the gender essentialism underlying the concept of matriarchal art, other feminist theorists articulate a social constructivist account of “gender,” applying constructivist theoretical principles to their analysis of music. That is, just as “gender” is constructed via socio-political practices, institutions, cultural narratives, and the like, so too our understanding of what “true” music is, who counts as a “master,” and what counts as an ideal musical work or performance is shaped by our views of “gender.” Thus, music, like “gender,” is performative and political, taking shape through embodied practices and emancipatory struggles.

Adorno and Attali on Music as a Sociopolitical Force

I am currently working on a small but fascinating writing project, sketching various dimensions and expressions of the philosophy of music. Two twentieth-century theorists, Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali, have captivated my imagination, as both foreground the socio-political dimensions of music. Theorists in this vein raise questions concerning the essence and value of music as limited to the realm of musical art. That is, if the nature of music involves something beyond the sphere of musical art itself—and is by nature implicated in socio-political activities and in shaping the cultural consciousness—then by what criteria do we establish the strictly musical versus the strictly social aspects, which count as purely musical and which political, and does music’s value somehow become obscured or diminished by emphasizing social and political dimensions as essential features of music?

For Adorno, music possesses a unique ability to awaken our soporific social consciousness. Music must resist commodification in order to be a powerful force for socio-political change; thus, Adorno lays stress upon unconstrained, unique, autonomous musical structures—structures that evidence originality and highlight individuality, which is the exact opposite of mass produced, commodified music. Likewise, Adorno’s position recognizes that musical compositions, unlike traditional philosophical texts, can impact and occasion social change by performative and other means wholly unavailable to philosophy construed as a “purely” rational enterprise. For instance, atonal music such as twelve-tone serialism calls into question the naturalness of music and thus argues that music’s form, content, harmonic structures, scales, and so forth are conventional; they are non-absolute human practices that change over time and differ within a society, as well as across social, cultural, and historical boundaries. Similar to the way that innovative musical structures and contents can create extreme dissonance and unsettle a listener bodily, music’s socio-critical function can likewise unsettle our cultural complacencies and dulled moral sensitivities. His strong stance on the objectivity of musical value, which has been highly criticized, does not sit well with his insistence on music’s conventional and progressive nature.

For Attali, the relation between music and power is brought front and center. Music is a site of struggle in which voices are always fighting to be heard. The mass production of music—its commodification—slowly eradicates the human elements of music. Paradoxically, the excess of musical products and the resultant repetition and “sameness” of commodified music both silences music and deafens society. Consequently, Attali calls for a return to the humanity of music, to its communal, personal, and difference affirming origins. Likewise, we must recover the activity of attentive listening, of hearing the complex timbres and tones of the world and the other. If we would but listen, music has much to say about how to establish harmonious, difference-affirming relations between individuals and collectives, freedom and constraint—themes central to social and political theory and practice.

Douglass as the Quintessential Public Intellectual or How to Make Plaintive Lament Preach

Undeniably, the United States has come a long way from the days of chattel slavery, and we can be encouraged by the positive strides made in racial relations and equality; yet, it is important to remember whence we came in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and so that we might become critically alert to new manifestations of racism and racial bias.[1] Here we would do well to heed the words of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Having accepted an invitation to speak to a predominately white audience in celebration of Independence Day, Douglass, as master orator and rhetorician, turns to a Psalm of lamentation—a passage with which his audience was thoroughly familiar—and interprets it as analogous to the situation of American slaves.

Douglass begins with the following lines:  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song.”[2] The captors, having accomplished their mission, now command their Jewish captives, whose eyes still tear up when they recall Zion, to sing one of their native songs. To this obtuse, insensitive demand, Douglass, speaking the “plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people,”[3] asks, “[h]ow can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem […] let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[4] Always poised and ready, like Socrates of old, to turn his public speaking invitations into opportunities to provoke and to challenge the ethico-political status quo, Douglass condemns his fellow citizens’ superficial “national, tumultuous joy” in celebration of America’s so-called “freedom” and independence. In fact, earlier in his speech, Douglass emphasizes the great “disparity” and “distance” separating him and his fellow citizens. The good fortune and “blessings” celebrated on this day do not apply to those of a darker hue. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”[5] Beyond the surface civility, the fanfare, and the laudatory refrains, Douglass remembers, Douglass hears “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”[6]

With this example of what Foucault calls “reverse discourse,” Douglass uses the familiar words of Scripture and says in effect, just as the Jews were taken captive by their oppressors, forced to dwell in a land not their own, similarly African American slaves find themselves as strangers in a strange land where they have been constructed as the savage, as the intellectually-inferior other in need of the white man’s culture, “superior” reasoning abilities, and “moral” direction. Like the Jews exiled in Babylon, the most suitable song, the song corresponding to the violent, unjust, degraded existence of an African American slave is not a song of triumphalist jubilation, but a song of sorrowful lament. For Douglass to gloss over this all-too-recent contemptible American history because he is no longer in chains would be to turn a deaf ear to the “mournful wail of millions” and to once again allow the white, hegemonic culture to write the black story. Moreover, Douglass reminds his audience—who, after all, function as analogues to the captors of God’s people of old—that God’s heart bleeds for the weak, the humble, the downtrodden. Though a merciful and forgiving God, divine justice unlike human justice will not, in the end, be mocked.


[1]  Race, race-baiting, race relations in the United States, and the media’s role in constructing racial identities continue as significant socio-political problems that must be engaged.  These issues are in no way resolved or behind us simply because Barack Obama holds the highest public office in America. See, for example, Frank Rich’s assessment of the Sherrod incident in his New York Times editorial, “There’s a Battle Outside and It is Still Ragin’.” The New York Times, July 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/opinion/25rich.html?_r=1 (accessed  7/26/10).

[2] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 431–32.

[3] Ibid., 431.

[4] Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, 432. The psalm on which Douglass improvises is Psalm 137.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid.