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  • The Political Force of Musical Beauty by Barry Shank
  • Alice Miller Cotter
The Political Force of Musical Beauty. By Barry Shank. (Refiguring American Music.) Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. [ix, 330 p. ISBN 9780822356462 (hardcover), $94.95; ISBN 9780822356585 (paperback), $25.95; (e-book), various.] Illustrations, bibliography, discography, index.

In this meditation on the relationships between experiences of music and feelings of political belonging (or non-belonging), Barry Shank argues that music is a site where powerful political and aesthetic forces transpire. He locates an example of this concept in the rhythmic latitude Patti Smith brings to her cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” a rendering that challenges the “masculine” conventions of rock and produces a musical experience that is as much aesthetic as it is political. A shared sense of community among listeners can result, and this feeling of “we,” if fleeting, creates possibilities for new political communities to emerge. Shank calls this phenomenon “the political force of musical beauty.” He explains how it works through close listening and cultural theory. Here, “theory” means the philosophical corpus of writing emerging primarily from France (Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Rancière), but also Germany (Theodor Adorno), that attempts to grasp the mutable interactions connecting aesthetics and politics. The book is thus a hybrid creature—part intensive valuation of theory, part heartfelt discussion of the author’s own listening experiences, with case studies of songs by artists ranging from Moby and the Velvet Underground to Tōru Takemitsu and Alarm Will Sound. But it is coherent and complete, an admirable effort to probe the social and political stakes of music.

Throughout, Shank works hard to find a common vocabulary for describing the political–aesthetic exchanges that take place within a song. He identifies a political community as one “not characterized by sameness,” but rather one that includes “the existence of meaningful difference among its members” (p. 3). Shank borrows Rancière’s notion of “the distribution of the sensible” (p. 3), the joining of the aesthetic and political in a way that broadens the scope of a community to include otherwise silent or marginalized voices. Nancy’s theory of sens, “a longing for shared meaning” (p. 20), and clinamen, “a leaning toward others” (p. 24), further gives the author a vocabulary for discussing the elusive gap between what we hear in music and what it means. In an effort to understand how our persistent confrontation with popular culture shapes our relationship to the political, he at once relies on and critiques Bourdieu’s concept of the interplay between culture and power. Shank observes a theoretical breach in Bourdieu’s theory, a theory that accommodates the relations among cultural producers but not the relations between, in this case, musical objects and listeners’ attempts to create meaning out of those objects (p. 145). This gap, the author asserts, can be closed by probing a series of aesthetic questions surrounding the “experience of musical beauty,” an experience that is not necessarily about consonance or musical resolution, but rather one that produces a “sonic image of right relations” (p. 4), however disjointed or unpleasant. He likens the experience to the one that prompted Adorno to spend years searching for an adequate metaphor to describe the power of Beethoven’s music. It is a comparison whose implications are skated over, but one that nonetheless draws attention to Shank’s endeavor to navigate terrain that has traditionally been the domain of philosophy and aesthetic theory.

Shank is most persuasive in his long, interpretive musical descriptions. His acknowledgment at the outset that his analyses are based on his own impassioned experiences is neither limiting nor off-putting; rather his personal approach is, in fact, the book’s greatest strength. Chapter 1, “Listening to the Political,” dissects the cultural symbolism of and racial coding within Moby’s “Natural Blues” (1999), which samples a 1959 recording made by Alan Lomax of Vera Hall singing the African American spiritual “Trouble So Hard.” Shank punctures the inflated tendency to link music and the politics of exploitation within the [End Page 544] limits of fixed racial identities. He locates Moby’s treatment, specifically Moby’s silencing of the...


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