In one of the darker years of the Nicaraguan Revolution, with the US-backed Contras bearing down on the Sandinistas, people in Managua took to blasting, of all songs, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” What was originally little more than a stereotypical disco song about going out on a Saturday night was transformed into a radical anthem of survival.
The anecdote may be little more than revolutionary lore, but it highlights something very real.
A more concrete example: in 1969, Nina Simone recorded her own version of the Beatles’s “Revolution.” The original screaming rock and roll was transmuted into a swaggering soul missive. While John Lennon and company’s song waffled on the question, Simone’s was resolute in its celebration of Black Power and the need for a fundamentally different order:
Singin’ about a revolution
Because were talkin’ about a change
Its more than just evolution
Well you know you got to clean your brain
The only way that we can stand in fact
Is when you get your foot off our back
What both stories tug at is that the creative process — the interpretations, reinterpretations, and cultural syntheses — don’t stop when the work of art is “finished.” It may be difficult to conceptualize this today, when every song, every tune, and every lyric is “owned” by someone, and far too often not by the person who wrote it.
Music, like every art form, is treated as fixed and frozen in our time, rather than as an ever-evolving entity, something that springs from and interacts with the world we live in. Picturing it this way is not an easy thing to do.
Case in point: the idiosyncratic question recently answered by Bhaskar Sunkara. Would socialists take away your Kenny Loggins records? More specifically, would we commandeer all property, leaving everyone to live drab, gray little lives, prevented from experiencing anything not also experienced by the collective? The Stalinist hangover of forced collectivization looms large, as does the propaganda opportunity it handed to conservatives.
Sunkara’s answer rightfully rooted working people’s lot in life in their systematic exploitation, hitting the major bullet points and confirming socialism as a system of shared abundance, not deprivation. Or, more straightforwardly: “socialists are not interested in collectivizing your music.”
Too true, nobody will be taking your Loggins albums, your Lauryn Hill playlist, your meticulously curated CD collection painstakingly alphabetized from the Abyssinians to Frank Zappa.
But in a certain sense, one built on the fundamentals of workers’ right to culture, we most certainly are interested in collectivizing your music. In fact, without the kind of voluntary collectivization we aspire to, we don’t believe that music can ever truly be “yours” or “ours.”
If any of Kenny Loggins’s fans were to look at the back of his albums, they would likely find the logo of Columbia Records, the oldest still-operating recording imprint in the world, now under the ownership of Sony, one of the “Big Three” labels, home to such diverse artists as Beyoncé, J. Cole, Daft Punk, Adele, and Earl Sweatshirt.
Without getting into a discussion about Loggins’s musical abilities, it is difficult to imagine him racking up four Platinum and three Gold albums without the backing of a label that has a virtually bottomless bank account.
Labels like Columbia pour an untold amount of money every year into promoting their artists through the cult of celebrity, painting them as possessing of some ineffable genius qualities we all desire but will never have.
For that reason, when we buy the album, we are intended to listen passively. Our money has already been spent, so there is no need for us to do anything more. Unless we are saddled with the dubious label of “cultural critic” then our opinion, our engagement with the work of art, is of little consequence.
It’s one of the most deceptive attributes of the commodity: the presumption that it is both finite and timeless. That it came from somewhere beyond our grasp, when in fact it is only through real and concrete human relations that it came to exist. In other words, we make it, but we don’t own it, don’t control it, don’t have any input over it, and ultimately are limited in the ways we can enjoy it.
All of this is very much intertwined with the daily reality of exploitation. But would our relationship to art or music be that substantially changed under socialism? Yes, and in more ways than one. Sunkara writes of socialism “help[ing] each individual reach their fullest potential,” or “the possibility of deciding to work less with no loss in compensation so you could go to school or take up a hobby.”
The wrinkle here is that a hobby — be it learning guitar, playing basketball, or building birdhouses — is itself a form of work. They may not feel like it as much, but that is primarily because we are in control of the terms in which we perform them and are not simply doing them to survive. Those of us lucky enough to have time and energy to devote to these passions can pour endless hours of physical effort into them, slowly honing our skills and putting them to use.
What would it be like if we weren’t forced to divide our energies between that which we enjoy and that which we have to do to stay alive? How much better might we become at what we love, and how might that benefit the world at large?
This gets at the root of the character of labor under capitalism. When Karl Marx wrote that “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently all charm for the workman,” this was what he was referring to.
The “division of labor” has taken place in many ways and forms over the past three centuries. But perhaps the most insidious is the division of the process from the artful and creative. This is not to idealize the labor of pre-capitalist societies — existence in these times was hardscrabble — but because products were not for the most part sold on the market, there was a certain degree to which a limited amount of creativity was not just allowed but required.
This historical imperative — the healing of an artificial gap between “work” and “art” — is far too often neglected in contemporary discussion of the socialist vision. To “un-alienate” both work and that which we produce, redistributing the massive surplus of society into the hands of working people, would for the first time in modern history break down the artificial barrier between “artist” and “audience.”
Liberating the vast material and cultural resources of Columbia, Sony, EMI, Verizon, Viacom, Sotheby’s, Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs, Martin-fucking-Shkreli, and the rest, and expropriating them back into the hands of those who actually made them would not just provide the time but transform the cultural landscape.
No more would “great art” simply be the purview of a lucky, transcendentally gifted few, but something symphonically integrated into our everyday lives. Socialism will be the first absolute unleashing of creativity in human history, in which the entirety of each individual’s imagination, talents, and mental and physical capacities would be allowed to blossom.
In this way and only in this way can we ever really hope for music to be “yours,” or, for that matter, “ours.” Not just something to listen to and passively consume but something to critically engage with, to evolve through our varied myriad interventions, to shape, reshape, and repurpose as is seen fit.
And while it is hard for any music fan to imagine a world where albums (in one form or another) are a thing of the past, what would find its way into the dustbin of history is that atomizing, humiliating feeling pushed down our throats by so many tastemakers and cultural gatekeepers: that we are of little consequence to history’s greatest creations.
Radical upheavals frequently bring a kernel of this with them. From the re-appropriation of a Beatles song into a declaration of war against the system to the way in which designers in the Russian Revolution re-conceptualized fashion, flatware, and public-service announcements. From the mass chants of poetry on the streets of Tahrir to the way the Paris Commune inspired an artistic approach even to the most lowly of trades.
A liberated society would allow this to flourish, making a reality out of the slogan scrawled on the Paris walls during the uprisings of 1968: “All power to the imagination!”
In other words, socialism is where the Danger Zone becomes reality, grasped collectively as we drive full-speed down history’s highway. Perhaps Comrade Kenny will come along for the ride too.