Saturday, January 27, 2007

Unplugged vs. Plugged In--Part 2

Last week, I posited a definition for the difference between "plugged in" and "unplugged." This week, I'd like to apply the Marxist idea that everything is political, and think about the political implications of my definitions. I would assert that to be "unplugged" implies a politics of the self, an essentially anarchic ideology, while the "plugged in" implies a politics of community.

I'm particularly fascinated in the application of these political definitions to music. Acoustic ("unplugged") music is generally rooted in an ideology of isolationism. The history of the blues is the history of political evolution of oppressed people in America. Cutting and pasting from Wikipedia:

According to Lawrence Levine,[24] "there was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington's teachings, and the rise of the blues."
Obviously, the early bluesmen had no choice but to play acoustic. However, it is noteworthy that the "Great Migration" of Mississippi bluesmen to Chicago resulted in a transformation of the genre from acoustic to electric, at about the same time that Washington's ideology was being supplanted as the dominant ideology of black intellectuals by DuBois's. The bluesmen of the "Great Migration" obviously had a choice about whether to remain unplugged, and their decision to plug in flew in the face of white musical purists who believed they were sacrificing authenticity. In fact, the degree to which black blues players in the pre-War era resisted white expectations is somewhat comically documented in Marybeth Hamilton's recent book "In Search of the Blues." White folklorists would "discover" a bluesmen, bring him north, then watch in dismay as he abandoned a repertoire of "authentic" songs in favor of playing country or folk hits. While the folklorists saw such a move as an abandonment of authentic identity, I see it as an embracing of an authentic political identity. In short, it was a rejection of marginalization.

So what of the white folk singers? Why didn't Tin Pan Alley undergo the sort of transformation that occurred to the blues scene in Chicago? First, they didn't need to work at constructing a viable collective identity. Second, though they may have supported collective economic strategies, they were even more concerned with personal political freedom. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar, not "This Machine Unites Workers of the World."

Of course, on the surface, Bob Dylan represents the ultimate challenge to my thesis. He supposedly "plugged in" at the same time that he moved away from a politics of community to politics of self. After all, when he played acoustic guitar he wrote Civil Rights and Anti-War songs, and when he plugged in he wrote abstract surrealism. I'd have to write an entirely new essay to explain this paradox, but suffice it to say that my reading of the situation is that for Dylan, the abstract and the surreal represented the truly universal--as it did to the Beat poets and other emerging members of the mid to late 60s rock intelligentsia.

The Grateful Dead help to illustrate this point. Based on musical antecedents, by all rights, the Dead should have been an acoustic band (and notably, Jerry Garcia did a lot of solo acoustic work). Yet not only were they electric, but they pioneered a technologically advanced "wall of sound" in concerts. Of course, one doesn't need to be a Deadhead to know the degree to which collectivity was celebrated by this outfit.

Electric music is obviously the dominant template today, so I think it is significant whenever a band gravitates toward acoustic material. I think this says something about the band's likelihood to remain a band. Bands that are interested in "unplugging" are probably comprised of members who want to go solo and explore a politics of individuality. The Beatles were doing a great deal of acoustic experimentation during the "Let It Be" sessions, and Nirvana and Alice in Chains had acoustic swan songs.

How does all of this fit into last week's conversation regarding punk and metal? If metal is a politics of the self, why isn't metal unplugged? I would argue that metal is symbolically unplugged. I think the rite of the "power ballad" is the return of the repressed acoustic spirit of metal. And while I spoke of the "plugged in" nature of first wave American punk, I believe that much early British punk was actually "unplugged." We see Woody Guthrie's anti-fascism re-emerge in Johnny Rotten, explicitly stated in "God Save the Queen." "Anarchy in the U.K." espouses the ultimate in ideology of self. Yet it is not Rotten, despite his perverse charisma, who has emerged as the historic face of the band. It is Sid Vicious, who in many gigs, would bring his electric bass on stage. However, due to Sid's lack of talent, the bass would usually be...unplugged.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Azor, Good post but I think you're missing something. As far as the blues go you've got to put it in context. It doesn't matter what kind of guitar they use, the blues are written to produce emotion not thought. And as far as metal what about Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down? They are very political bands, that could be considered "politics of community.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Tee said...

Quite an interesting point. I am struggling with the idea though. I think that performing unplugged has become a trend. A sound that performers liked and audiences adore.

I'll tell you what Im struggling with... Do we have to conclude that because a performer or a band (Eagles) decides to perform unplugged that they are selfish in a way or not involved or thinking about the rest of the world? Or that they are interested in becoming solo...which IS what happened to the Eagles. I'm trying to thing of a better example, but can't think of a band off the top of my head.

I totally get what you are saying... or I think I do, but I'm I'm not so sure I'm buying it.

I'm interested in your theory and wondering if I'm analyzing this correctly.


10:07 PM  
Anonymous nWo 4 life said...

Hey yo,

The Kiss reunion of the 90's started with their appearance on MTV's Unplugged (which reminds me of the 80's/early 90's when mtv was good). Then they went on tour and took the world by storm once again with their entertaining shows in which they didn't tell the audience to donate money to the democratic party or world hunger or whatever U2 and bruce springsteen do. Smoke it.

Nobody...messes...with Scott Hall
nWo 4 life

5:38 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Anon--My commentary has nothing to do with the aesthetics of the blues. Even if it is cathartic music, there can still be a political awareness and consciousness underneath. The bands you cite I would classify as "hard rock" as opposed to "metal."

Tee, the Eagles are a perfect example of a band that started out as "plugged in" to the Laurel Canyon scene, then gradually became unplugged. I don't at all mean to imply that going unplugged is necessarily a bad thing (though I don't have a lot of good to say about the Eagles :-) )

NWO: I think Kiss's unplugged show represented the apex of their long period of pursuing individual agendas (the start of which can be dated with their decision to remove the make-up). The subsequent reunion involved a return to their roots and a re-connection with the Kiss Army, a form of communalism.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous tiffany Kleymeyer said...

i dont understand why music has to be catagorized....why cant musicans play and we listen? i understand there is a history behind every piece...i think that the artist should play and express that history and not submit a defined title i.e. blues, rap, etc.
-tiffany Kleymeyer

10:07 PM  

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