Surrealpolitik

The Music Industrial Complex

Updated: January 6, 2016 12:47:47 PM

By John Schoneboom

I recently read The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is the entertaining and often hilarious tale of how most of the music we hear on the radio is written by the same small cadre of middle-aged Scandinavian men named Dagge. It occurred to me about halfway through that what we were talking about was a Music-Industrial Complex. It was a short step from there to noticing certain similarities between that MIC and its better-known cousin, the Military-Industrial Complex.

We already knew music was a business, but it is initially jarring to realize that the art of pop has now been largely reduced to a science. The formula has been perfected by ruthless professional clinicians working in Swedish laboratories, and the stakes are too high to entrust anything to the performers. The "artists" we associate with the songs are in these cases just pitching the product, although they are not always as entirely malleable as their professional handlers would like. For a specialist in surrealpolitik, this is loosely yet distinctly reminiscent of intelligence agency sponsorship of rogue paramilitary groups and other aspects of military-industrial gamesmanship.

Consider, if you will, my little list of parallel notions:

  1. In both MICs, the visible, public faces you know are just puppets manipulated behind the scenes by power players in the shadows. The product being sold to the public is hyperreality -- an image -- and it's all played to media that have little interest in looking behind the curtain.
  2. Sometimes the artists start to believe their own hype, get carried away with themselves, and insist on creative control -- often with disastrous results. This can lead to terrible albums and unauthorized bombings.
  3. The master manipulators work both sides of the game, e.g., the same star-makers that created Backstreet Boys created N'Sync; not entirely unlike how the US supplied and funded both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, or created its own enemies by working the hype machine.
  4. The post-9/11 music industry returned to the "comfort music" of pure pop after its forays into alt rock and grunge, but 21st century comfort pop was served up with heaps of Simon Cowell mean-spiritedness. Comfort paired with intimidation is also essentially the recipe for Homeland Security, with its arsenal of implicit threats making us think twice about expressing dissent.
  5. Hit-making, like covert operations, is highly compartmentalized, with different specialists responsible for discrete aspects of a project -- whether it's melody/beat/hooks or arms/transport/banks -- with nobody truly accountable for the whole.
  6. In both MICs it's easy to get carried away, to give in to paranoid excess and exaggerate the omnipotence and control of the behind-the-scenes drivers of events. In reality, actual songwriter-performers can still (occasionally) succeed, and victories can be won against power elites.

I don't want to over-work this jolly little analogy or, worse, take it too seriously. Still: if it's only to be expected that, with hundreds of millions of music dollars at stake, the world of artistic expression would eventually be transformed by mercenaries into a simulacrum, it's worth a tiny ponder what we can expect of human impulses when we're talking about an industry where the stakes are in the trillions.

Mind you, it may ultimately be a good thing. After all, a song is still a song is still a song. Our clear-eyed post-disillusionment spirits can still soar to those money-perfect hooks; why not? We can have the catharsis without the celebrity worship, which is arguably a substantial improvement. Furthermore we can still think Rihanna is fabulous. As for the empty, simulated institutions of democracy, perhaps we might be able to harness those in a similar way, insisting on their nominal functions and refusing to rely on the corrupted figureheads. That would of course require an active, participatory form of democracy, which would be another improvement, and one which would similarly do nothing to compromise our appreciation of the style and energy of Rihanna.

As Baudrillard has observed: "Contrary to what is said about it (the real is what resists, what all hypotheses run up against), reality is not very solid and seems predisposed, rather, to retreat in disorder." But perhaps in a post about music we should give the last word to a musician. How about Leonard Cohen: "There is a war / Between the ones who say there is a war / And the ones who say that there isn't."

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I am a sociologist and I dabble in the surreal arts.

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mrwilby
January 7, 2016 04:59:19 PM
An astute and snappy reflection! How is talent and beauty defined and rewarded/punished in each realm?
I am a sociologist and I dabble in the surreal arts.

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I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
January 7, 2016 07:03:56 PM; updated January 7, 2016 07:13:25 PM
A comment! There's been a comment! Thank you Abby, erm, I mean mrwilby!

Well, you pose an excellent question, one that gives me the uncomfortable feeling that I'll want to keep improving my answer multiple times over the next few months. I would tentatively venture the proposition that in both realms there is a ruthless quality to the talent and beauty involved. Since the levels of ambition are extremely high for all parties on all sides of the equations (yet another parallel), the rewards and punishments tend to be extreme.

You've got the goods, or you're no use at all. If you can't get the job done, you're out, whether that means back to the high school talent show or hanging off some bridge in Italy (I'll leave it ambiguous as to which result goes with which realm). Conversely, if you have got the goods that are sought, the rewards are various and lavish.

Is there coldness in the eyes of the beautiful pop diva? Beauty in the supremely well-managed coup d'etat?
I am a sociologist and I dabble in the surreal arts.

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I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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mephistop
January 11, 2016 03:35:20 PM
Indeed, I wonder whether an aesthetics the musical MIC can help us to understand the potential for challenge and resistance within the military-industrial one. How is the alternative foreclosed or opened up? Under what circumstances can an alternative be forged and how does the notion of surrealpolitik play into this?
I am a sociologist and I dabble in the surreal arts.

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I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
January 11, 2016 06:41:57 PM
That's another good question. I think I've tried to suggest a positive aspect in the midst of the cynical calculations of both MICs, which is that once we get used to the idea of betrayal, we can see better our own responsibilities. Another way of saying it is that disillusionment is good. It means getting rid of illusions. While illusions can of course be pleasant, it's also a bit terrifying and vulnerable to lose our connection to reality, so ultimately unless we really want to sever our connections it's probably best to see things as best we can for what they are.

And in that vein, I think what we lose in our estimation of our pop stars we can gain back in a sort of increased sophistication of the way we enjoy both the music and the celebrities. Instead of being starry eyed fans kneeling down before an altar, we're savvy pop connoisseurs, canny men and women of the world who know a thing or two about how things work, so to speak. Which makes us critical thinkers, evaluating a bit more than we used to, somehow putting the focus on ourselves and our interpretations more than on the hype that we're fed.

And -- this is all sort of ridiculous of course but hey -- something similar applies to a better understanding of how the military-industrial system works, how their hype works, how their politicians work. So if there's a lesson it must have something to do with putting the focus on ourselves and our responsibilities to be active citizens, not just lever-pullers or partisan boosters, but critical watchdogs with expectations and demands. People who know how to see through the hype.

If anything is foreclosed, it's the expectation that the system will change without us. Which opens up whole new worlds of possibility. That's also what surrealpolitik is all about, separating the hype (or the hyper) from the real, expanding the discourse of possibility.

That's how I see it anyway. How about you?
I am a sociologist and I dabble in the surreal arts.

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I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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Malu
February 18, 2016 01:53:27 PM
Very nice and insightful!

I left this window opened for weeks now, I'm overwhelmed, forgive the delay.

I think you opened a can of worms :D a lot of considerations, and its relationship to democracy, individual will and critical thinking. My daughter is and wishes to continue with music, she play and composes, she's very unique and I feel for her, I want her to do what she loves, and make a living, just be happy. We don't enhance the fame factor in fact, we discourage it, we tell her how to be a small venue player is far better than loosing her grip on things.

It's tough though, how is one to become renowned/well reputed to some extent and keep one's authenticity? Interested to see what you do with your friends remarks in the future! :D Cheers!
I am a sociologist and I dabble in the surreal arts.

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I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
February 18, 2016 08:18:29 PM
Hi Malu, nice to see you! All I know is, regardless of what's going on in the larger culture and various money-related pressures, it's good to make music and more generally to pursue what you love doing. The happiest people I know, and who for whatever reason seem to be if not the richest, then the most comfortable with their material circumstances, are the ones who did not abandon their loves entirely to pursue some sensible dreary career they had essentially no real interest in. Nobody wants to be insecure and struggling all the time, but one of the best ways to be insecure and struggle a lot is to put money front and center as a value. Keep expenses low and be the person you want to be. Life's too short for anything else right?

I also don't think there's anything wrong with making extremely commercial and wildly popular music -- it's nice work if you can get it!

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