The Politics of Guitar

If you're like me, you love new transcriptions, lessons, and interviews. The last thing we want to find in our favorite magazine, or at our favorite virtual guitar community, is a bunch of political talk or coverage of polarizing social issues. These things are important but, hey, surely there are plenty of other places for things like that. And besides, a lot of us enjoy the guitar precisely because it allows us to escape from everyday problems and hot-button topics. However, it is clear to me that this sentiment can be carried too far.

Compartmentalizing human conduct can be a great thing when you want to be exposed to a maximum quantity of one subject like rock music or the guitar. But maximizing quantity can sometimes lead us to neglect relevant aspects of a given activity and could even significantly dehumanize the subject. In a nutshell, the present mode of discussing guitar life overlooks a very important fact: playing guitar is a social activity and the act of playing intersects with other facets of human relations, even the political aspects.

When we think of the concept "political" we typically think in terms of general elections and State Department maneuvers. But the political is all around us. Classrooms, families, offices, and churches, etc., are pregnant with authority relations and power dynamics; power relations are the norm in nearly every durable and recurring interaction. Even when you go to the store to buy bread and milk you are participating in and recreating relations of power. After all, money is more than paper; money is a way of collectively acting, thinking, and feeling that is obligatory and deadly if you do not obey the rules that money imposes on us.

Guitar and the music industries are no exception and authority is the name of the game.

Even if you are relegated to a solo gig in your den, with an occasional audience comprised of a cat and a goldfish, you are still participating in something profoundly social. Giant firms that mass-produce the instruments you own are characterized by contentious shop-floor struggles over the labor process, pay, hours, and benefits. The songs you play are situated in deep commercial and cultural traditions that you are not free to mess with if you are concerned at all with public recognition and livelihood. Your musical style, taste, and even the techniques you use, place you into categories of membership that you may or may not embrace.

These categories are always political to some extent or another. And earning a living by playing music will definitely bring you into contact with people who would rather share your money than your enthusiasm for music, and who, in their zeal to liberate you from the burden of financial well-being, will try to control you and your way of life. Upon reflection, we might conclude that playing guitar has many unseen social and political implications all revolving around different aspects of authority the authority of style, brand recognition, and market logic, etc.

Why are these dimensions unrecognized or typically overlooked by people when they talk about the guitar? We don't hear much about the power concept or of "authority" because of power itself. Power is reproduced when it is allowed to stay hidden or go unrecognized. How many guitar magazines have the courage to write about such issues (for example, the poor treatment of workers at the Cort plant in South Korea) and then ask manufacturers to advertise in their pages? Hence, politics is not on the agenda even though it pervades everything associated with the guitar. Remember this: every time you chose to buy guitar and music gear, as with any purchase, you also make a political choice, whether you like to know about it or not; buying shitty guitars means, quite literally, the consumption of shit, in more ways than one.

In his recent The Birth of Bebop, Scott DeVeaux says " a music industry designed to funnel profits to the owners of copyrights, improvisers have found themselves in an anomalous and frustrating position. The history of jazz can be read, in part, as an attempt by determined musicians to close the gap between artistic ambition and economic reward." Like any other industry, the record and music industries exists to make money first and foremost. Putting people to work in managed environments and selling the products of their efforts generates corporate profits. The recording industry is no exception.

Musicians like to think of themselves as artists rather than workers and there are some good reasons to think of them as distinct from the traditional working class. But when musicians engage in making records for corporations they certainly are workers first and artists second -- from the corporate perspective anyway. Musicians can be treated as means by which firms realize profits and, as means to another end, they can be subjected to forms of control.

DeVeaux put it well in regard to the early 20th century music scene: "...while recording (and radio) helped to make some performers famous, it did not necessarily make them rich...economic power remained stubbornly in the grip of music publishers [and] ...composers."

And this brings us right back to the idea of praxis. In short, concerns for the "bottom line" lead musicians into relations that restrict their freedom to play and think in ways that deviate from the demands of mass marketing and formats. How many musicians have been sent packing because their label did not know what to "do" with them categorically or because their idea of music deviated from current fashions?

A classic form of corporate control is the deskilling of workers or the separation of conceptualization and execution: the dissolution of praxis; for more on praxis read my article "Improvisation in an Anti-Improvisational World" and my piece, "History is Horseshit."

You can see the dissolution of praxis at work in fancy technologies that increasingly require less knowledge on the part of employees. I can guarantee you that recording engineers are not too happy when reviewers of digital modeling technology claim that software (I have in mind the "Amp Farm" by Line 6) is capable of results equivalent to those created by expert engineers. Well who needs expert engineers then? Even seemingly harmless things like job descriptions are attempts by firms to acquire employee knowledge and place it in the hands of management.

While musicians do not literally provide job descriptions they are nonetheless susceptible to the same general forces. And while I think that real live guitarists will be found in abundance in the recording studios of the future, it takes only a cursory examination of new digital technologies to realize that the means are becoming available to partially dispense with musicians. I guess some people think it is better to have a programmable machine rather than a person: machines don't have ego trips, substance abuse problems, or the desire to materialize a beautiful and self-generated idea that fails to conform to the expectations of the producer. Machines don't take lunch breaks, don't get ill, don't talk back, don't ask questions, and so on.  And while we can all complain that machines can never sound or feel human, engineers are fast at work improving technology that approximates the "feel" associated with human performers.  Even if living guitarists are not left out in the cold, it is clear that these same technologies allow for a lowering of the bar, so to speak, so that cheaper, less-skilled musicians or fewer musicians can be utilized via sampling, digital editing, pitch correction, harmonization, etc.

Again, the point I want to make here is that whether you realize it or not the world of music is a political arena and playing the guitar is not only a musical action but a social and political one as well. The real question is how do we align ourselves with the reality of political power? Do we uncritically accept things as they are? Or do we question our institutions and seek to rectify things that contradict or deepest cultural, political, and moral values like freedom, democracy, and justice? We can choose to be passive or we can stand up to our potential as human beings with the one thing that separates us from animals: critical self-consciousness and reason.

Whether you choose passivity or activity, you still participate in ongoing struggles; passivity only means that you consent to the status quo and, consequently, affirm its legitimacy. To ignore it is to ignorantly support it.

In the final analysis, no scholar has, or ever will conclude their survey of American or world political history with this statement: "jazz therefore democracy." But jazz and other forms of improvisational music are far from irrelevant. Routinely we go to work, school, church, and raise families, etc. In the perfect world we would be free to design and produce things in a rational way. We would be free to learn the things we wanted or needed to know. We would be taught knowledge that enhanced personal and collective autonomy.

However, in the real world, things are a bit more complicated. For most people, work is synonymous with obedience and irrationality and many young people experience education as repressive and twisted toward discipline at the expense of knowledge. I don't think that jazz or other forms of music will put an end to social contradictions. In fact, it may have no impact at all on large-scale social problems. It may in fact only be a way to make a living and something fun to do. However, it is at least plausible that it can do more. But before that can happen we must transform our idea of what it means to be guitar players and musicians.