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Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flacks, Playing For Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements.

Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flacks, Playing For Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers 2012)

Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flacks' Playing For Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements is a fascinating study that examines how music can serve social movements in significant ways. Unlike materialists who are interested in understanding social movements as frameworks for altering material realities and producing culture, Rosenthal and Flacks are concerned with how music affects movements and the social context of its creation and reception. These scholars contend that popular music, while neither inherently regressive nor inherently liberatory, retains the possibility to achieve either of those ends under particular conditions. In order to demonstrate how this nexus has developed, Rosenthal and Flacks provide readers with a range of music-movement examples that include, but are not limited to, popular music's engagement with black liberation, labour, feminism, student and anti-war movements.

Rosenthal and Flacks argue that music has been, and continues to be, a formidable weapon for social movements, even while it can be at times, unpredictable and inaccurate. The music-movement nexus, defined by a range of complicated uses, functions, and effects, is one where music has helped create, sustain, and alter social reality as well as reflect it, sometimes in a single act. Therefore, it is particularly valuable to understand this nexus as a dialectical one. In Playing For Change, Rosenthal and Flacks aim to catalogue and assess the many uses of music claimed or suggested by analysts, performers, and movement members, in order to contend that it is possible to determine how music's functions and effects vary depending on social and historical contexts.

Rosenthal and Flacks' greatest contribution is their insistence upon the theoretical triad "transmission-reception-context." They argue that scholars must first examine "transmission," which entails how an artist expresses their message lyrically, musically, aesthetically, and through various other modes of performance and identity. Second, it is necessary to explore "reception," which explores how audience members receive and understand the genre, artist and content disseminated. Finally, scholars must account for context, as well as factors and processes that frame the interaction between artist and audience. These factors can include who controls music, the conditions under which the music is played, and what social and political events inform the performance and messages conveyed. In tracing these three factors, Rosenthal and Flacks convincingly contend that scholars would be wise to analyze the music-movement nexus using this theoretical triad given that they otherwise risk conceiving of culture too narrowly and categorizing its effects and processes into neat boxes in order to serve scholarly theories.

Divided into three parts, Rosenthal and Flacks' study is a welcomed intervention within the current historiography of popular music studies given its intention to complicate theoretical approaches and understandings of how music can be liberatory. With the help of interviews of artists and political activists, social movement literature, and college student surveys, Rosenthal and Flacks have demonstrated that the extent to which music shapes the direction of culture and social movements is the result of an extremely complex process. In Part I, an introduction to the music-movement link, Rosenthal and Flacks detail the schools of thought that have informed scholarly engagement with the music-movement nexus. They highlight the work of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, the "Interactionists," Social Movement Studies, and the Birmingham School, in order to highlight how their own work contributes to and engages with the historiography of popular culture. Part II, an exploration of the meaning of music, is a detailed discussion of the images, sounds, and lyrical messages artists deliver through the culture industry, the setting and audience base that serves as a starting point for interpretation and reception, and the importance of context (time and space) in music's meaning making. Finally, Part in is a nuanced undertaking that aims to explore how musicking functions within, and in service of, social movements. Rosenthal and Flacks detail how musicians create art intended to serve activists, as well as to recruit, educate, and convert potential members and nonmembers in order to mobilize concrete support and disarm opponents. Rosenthal and Flacks contend that while musicking has the capacity to act in service of a movement, it is also necessary to explore the ways in which musicking might detrimentally harm the sustainability and credibility of a movement.

Playing For Change is also unique in that it works against a body of scholarship that has been exclusively consumed with establishing the music-movement nexus by pursuing an understanding of the artist's intent. Rosenthal and Flacks remind readers that too often scholarly analysis of music as politics narrowly draws attention to lyrics to establish this link. In writing against this tradition, Rosenthal and Flacks demonstrate that lyrics are only one element in conveying meaning and establishing a music-movement link. Moreover, they illustrate that while it is important to understand art as politics from the artist's perspective, it tells academics very little about the material's impact on those listening. As such, their greatest scholarly contribution is their desire to understand the role of audience reception given that, as they contend, it importantly frames the music's ability to act as politics. In focusing on audience and reception, Rosenthal and Flacks valuably establish that whether intended or not, the political nature of a musical experience very often arises in one or more dimensions, whether it be the events and environment that has determined artist-audience relation or has been collaboratively created by participants where there is not an artist-audience distinction.

While Rosenthal and Flacks are clever to point to a complex music-movement nexus process, their study could have additionally benefitted from an acknowledgement and exploration of the ways in which this dynamic link is often framed, and in some cases, conditioned by industry, media and even state discourse. Throughout music history, the prevalence of popular culture paternalism among a vast body of gatekeeping elites has powerfully determined, ostracized, narrowly confined, and coercively exploited various music-movement possibilities in an effort to uphold and preserve the social, political, economic, and cultural interests of those in power. To have included a detailed discussion of the ways in which these cultural paternalists aid to or detract from the development of any music-movement link would have further nuanced and strengthened their overall contention.

Nonetheless, Playing For Change is a thorough and focused study that will no doubt help shift the music-movement nexus conversation and offer a far more nuanced analysis of the ways in which this link has matured and shifted across time and space. Rosenthal and Flacks usefully demonstrate that the conscious and unconscious functions of musicking for social movements, whether realized in that historical moment or not, can help popular culture scholars better understand how cultural artefacts can be a resource for sustaining commitment to social justice and collective activity. In contesting the notion that music is a fixed piece of culture, or that it is simply a tool that serves a pre-established ideology, Rosenthal and Flacks establish that music's meaning, one that is constantly created, recreated, and negotiated, must be envisioned in the broadest range of possibilities to avoid stultifying its multidimensional functions.


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Author:D'Amico, Francesca
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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