Punk and Free Jazz Meet at the Crossroads

By Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In a recent ConX posting, Professor Sean Rule, one of COCC’s esteemed mathematicians who freelances during off hours as the drummer for the local punk band Hands on Throat, reflected on the various meanings attributed to punk and its practices.  As Rule stated, it is a form of music often misunderstood by those who do not know its history and purpose.   This is due to many factors, including  punk’s utter disregard of the culture industry including  the organizations, artist and repertoire (A&R) folks who determine what’s hot and what’s not.

The recording industry produces music that meets the industry conditioned desires of the audience.  The industry makes it.  The audience accepts it.  The industry produces more.  Then the audience comes to desire it.  With new organizational strategies and technologies, such as iTunes, the industry becomes increasingly involved in directing listeners to the new artists of the day, artists who are mostly reproductions of the artists who have been chewed up, lost nutritional (market) values and spit out.  Because of its economic imperatives and influence on behavioral conditioning, the industry is not responding to audience demands but rather identifies and reconfigures the demands in ways that best accomplish the industry’s mission.  In the words of Theodor Adorno, a social philosopher and ardent critic of the culture industry, “the culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them.”

While I think George Ritzer’s term McDonaldization is often overused, the concept has certain and valid applications to the production of music.  McDonaldization refers to the fact that an increasing number of life areas follow the organizational principles of the fast-food chain.  The principles include predictability, uniformity, control through automation, and calculability.  The mass production of music follows these principles and, as result, we get exposed to an extremely limited range of music.

Aside from the pressures to conform to industry demands, Professor Rule addresses another core component of understanding punk.  This is the desire to have a voice that is otherwise silenced by dominate society.  The reaction against the corporatization of music is not only about the desire to exercise artistic freedom; it is a symptom of a larger social reality where institutions disregard the voice of people and will only hear that voice if it is presented in a particular manner determined by the industry itself. 

Punk’s development as a medium to air grievances has common ground with the origins and purpose of the Free Jazz movement of the 1950s/1960s.  During this time of advancing democratic ideals of equality for all and an increased consciousness of structured racial inequality, African American artists, from all arts, turned towards the “black aesthetic,” art developed, produced, and performed by and for African Americans.  It was political and truly free.  It was also misunderstood by dominate culture.  But unlike punk, there were no twenty second songs.  Instead, Free Jazz artists performed songs that lasted twenty, thirty, and forty minutes.  Try putting THAT on a record, Columbia and RCA!

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One Response to Punk and Free Jazz Meet at the Crossroads

  1. Sean says:

    “…and how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? We need a new noise.”

    -refused, “New Noise”

    Tomas, your astute commentary makes me smile. And I just totally dig Keith David’s voice overs, cat.

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