Words in music


a series of increasingly polemical claims. hope the relevance kicks in (cold medicine make brain no go).

currently a words person navigating this tension after a series of disenchanting experiences re what it means to “write” within a “business”… response specifically angled toward rap, in part due to your enthusiastic response to Mike’s work.

jazz is the archive of 20th century Black genius. rap is its philological arm. most of the best writing in the past twenty years has been rap writing, usually operating on multiple levels of signification completely lost on commentators (MF DOOM). No matter how directly one addresses a topic, one can still be misheard --particularly if one is Black and a significant portion of the market / gatekeepers have a vested interest in mishearing, misrepresenting, or forgetting things you say (remember Crack Music?)

like damn these market snakes really tryna slurp out a poet’s soul, stuff it, and create diagrams mislabeling key anatomical features to parade around classrooms as the simulacrum of a radical politic always-already subsumed by the capitalist agenda. say what you please; others will use it as they please. why draw attention to your own words when the first consequence of that attention is (mis)appropriation?


Very well stated. I’ll try to keep this in my mind to think on for a while.

More broadly, I wonder if we have given ourselves too much latitude when trying to blur the lines between art and politics in a strictly theoretical sense (as opposed to blurring them in practice). Is it a stretch to think “the personal is political” has been transferred over to “the poetic or artistic is political” as a cover to not engage? There are many reasons for music to not be engaged politically (the musician doesn’t really care about politics, isn’t well informed, can’t stand to think about it, can’t find an artistic way to express their political ideas, etc). These reasons are valid- we do absolutely need art that exists outside of politics, but I wonder if this way of thinking allows an excuse to sort of try to have your cake and eat it, too, when it comes to (not) addressing the issues.

Side note, @alanza, you’re probably aware, but Efrim Manuel Menuck has a recently released solo record out. With words! haha

Side side note: Finlay Shakespeare from Future Sound Systems raised this topic on the recent Why We Bleep podcast. I won’t try to paraphrase but appreciated what he had to say.


I wonder if maybe actually it might be more helpful to analyze “apolitical art” as if it had a politics, even if that politics is the politics of appeasement or quietism.


I think what art does best is open up a space prior to politics, a space that functions as a horizon for a new kind of politics. Art at its best is worldbuilding. [And the best worldbuilding always begins with poetry or language; for example inventing a language then inventing a world where this language can speak.]

Yes, art should engage. (As @alanza pointed out, it always does, even if the artist makes no conscious effort to engage.) But what art can potentially most effectively engage is the illumination, not the objects. Engaging only objects merely legitimates the source of illumination that is already present – a kind of illumination in which these objects do not presence. Even worse is the “formalist” stance where one fails to engage objects, and also fails to address illumination – when forms are merely adopted not themselves questioned.

This may be a bit controversial, if only internally so, but I do see our present way of illumination as structured about fundamental dichotomies. Meaning: things only show up for us as they are seen through these dichotomies. These dichotomies or divisions are always in the sense of “divide-and-conquer”; that is, they are power structures. Subject/object, mind/body, man-(culture)/nature, human/animal, and so on seem to be the most basic ones. Those concerning race, gender, class, sexuality are of course much more on the front lines and cause virtually all of the damage, but I feel that in the last instance they are rooted in or at least owe their sustenance to the first set. This feeling does require more justification than I can give right now but the gist is that I see these dichotomies not only as power structures, but as the fundamental structures of power. And I don’t believe in overcoming power with power so much as destroying the very idea of power. In the end power also wields the one who possesses it.

These dichotomies are power structures because there isn’t just a distinction between terms; there is a privileging of the first term over the second. The “second term” hence fails to presence; it is already in the shadow cast by the first term. But there is another failure of presence caused by the split itself: its blind spot. For instance (as discussed in the Richard Devine thread) the phenomena of emotion and body are fundamentally ambiguous and hence in the “blind spot” of the subject/object divide. Not only second terms but third terms get buried in shadow.

The task that art can perform – and is well suited to perform since the poetic disposition ideally lets phenomena be seen from themselves, not from a preconceived idea – consists of a double movement: to posit “third terms”, but to do so as more primordial versions of the “second terms”. This not only overturns the power structure by restoring the status of the second term; it renders the dichotomy itself unthinkable by way of the third term.

I know all of this is very abstract, I’m more or less trying to describe my own way forward; essentially why I felt I was going astray doing “just music” and why I am seeking to root my own activity in the very real stories of “shadow communities” who consist, as I also do, in being the third terms, and how this can lead to a totally new way in which things show up, and perhaps ultimately a politics beyond division or empire or power itself. To create art that is consubstantial with the emergence of these communities is to posit oneself meaningfully as the third term.

To make it more concrete though, for all of the reasons mentioned, actually requires doing the art and even beyond art, engaging on the ground level in building communities. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Things are in shadow because they really are in shadow. Naming them without also bringing forth the illumination in which they can be seen simply leaves them in shadow. [however, I can think of a recent experience where a kind of “naming” has been perhaps not so bad… which is why I removed my swipe at “the media” from the previous post… still kinda emotional and trying to process everything so far…]

I think, while we are discussing very different “specifics”, this point as I understand it is very well-expressed by @yams :

Even as something is named, it is immediately twisted or misappropriated as the thing that it is not. Which is to say, it remains or even hides deeper within the shadows of power.


I don’t disagree.

Yet I also noticed communities getting on with speaking their truth (to the powerful, to the powerless, and everybody doing a third thing). Sure, they’re misunderstood, appropriated, abused, and maligned. Sure, they may lack solid philosophical underpinnings for their expression.

But they aren’t cowards and they aren’t stopping.

Me, I’m just trying to get over my own cowardice.


printing and framing


For me, the reason to overcome cowardice is not only to speak truth.

It is to exist at all.

To show up for people at all.

It is to set up and project a world in which one may be seen – not with a thousand masks, each representing one of the readymade discourses into which one has been interpellated – but simply as who one is.

I say this in full awareness that I have also not overcome my cowardice.

Sure, there is a form of getting-on. But it remains in shadow. Then one grows complacent; one learns to see in the shadows. The shadows have a way of adjusting one’s sight, so one begins to distrust others who try to draw us out. One learns to distrust kindness, and the more so, the greater measures of kindness and solicitude are shown.

Then too, we look at global fascism, mass incarceration, climate change, technological singularization etc. and begin also to distrust ourselves – what right indeed do we have to assert ourselves when the world itself is in crisis? When even in shadow we are not immune to the workings of privilege and our own complicity in this mess? Lacking intelligibility and appearing not “overtly” threatening but perhaps rather trivial to most, do we then internalize this appearance? Do we thus fail to show up for ourselves? Is this the true meaning of “seeing in shadows” – that it is not “seeing” at all?

When one’s bare existence threatens fundamental dichotomies one begins to be aware of these dichotomies and how they function more generally. It’s not about intellectual curiosity – it’s about survival. But one also can’t help but notice how the dichotomies sustain the very power structures that give rise to the crises that challenge us and make us doubt the need to tell our stories.

Philosophy sheds light on the dichotomies and general strategies for overturning them. But it cannot by itself provide the ground for expression. Discourse, art, poetry are what set up and project a world, and what make such expression possible in ways that matter. Unlike philosophy, they do not totalize or condition their object. Their role is not to explain. There’s instead an openness – a call of inspiration; a response of bringing-forth. They do not explain away the object - they foreground the object – they allow that object to be seen from itself, on its own terms.

A world that allows us to be seen from ourselves is a world in which we can exist. I may not be fighting on the same fronts, but I need nonetheless to fight, even if the methods and the motivations do not yet show up for people. For me that’s what overcoming cowardice would look like.


I want to go back to these quotes also because they really touch on something. Indeed, to write an anti-Nazi song does almost nothing but feed the type of self-satisfied complacency that says, oh, we’re different from them, it can’t happen with us, there’s nothing to worry about.

Almost better to be provocative – to humanize or expose what is attractive about fascism while at the same time undermining that attraction with shock, and to present this as an ambiguity that cannot be resolved in the work.

This move implicates listener and artist alike. It performs the idea: we too can be caught up in this, there’s the potential the very next day that we could turn fascist, or that such fascism has existed all along, latent in our everyday structures. I see this a lot in the early industrial music or in Fassbinder’s films. Putting forth the provocative idea that in the postwar context, nothing had really changed, fascism just got transposed into the “everyday fascism” of personal relations – and presenting this all in a stylistic context that borrowed heavily from 1930’s Nazi/UFA melodramas was the basic concept behind virtually all of Fassbinder’s films, especially the later ones. It was controversial and provocative, and still is.

Unfortunately, what was effective in the climate of the late 1970’s when memories were still very fresh simply doesn’t work today. Shock is impossible and irony itself no longer has a meaning. The alt-right has demonstrated this; they simply weaponize irony as a mask of plausible deniability in which they then promote authentically fascist ideas.

If neither critique or irony work, then what does?

Sincerity, perhaps. Radical sincerity. Sincerity in the guise of innocence and purity and the struggle to maintain these in the face of anything that comes. Innocence as the “innocence of trees” – to be completely nonwilling, and yet to withstand any challenge, to simply root oneself and grow, imperceptibly slowly for hundreds of years.

But radical sincerity is not the comfortable sincerity of the detached observer/critic – it’s a highly uncomfortable act, one of tearing off all the masks, one of making oneself naked and vulnerable and positing something new. Which may simply be oneself. But in this there is the hope of positing the thing that renders fascism no longer thinkable.

We see more of this in politics with Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum etc. They didn’t win but they came close (or would have won if it had not been for voter suppression), it was a combination of standing one’s ground, but also sincerely positing a real vision for the future, not just letting it be enough that they were different from Trump. But what I’m talking about is prior to politics and far beyond politics.

Which indeed is already on the path to sincerity, if not sincerity itself.

Radical sincerity, radical innocence, radical purity, love, acceptance, and friendship are perhaps that which are most shocking and destabilizing to the powers that be.

Sincerity and the poetic disposition – perhaps they are the same thing – are our key weapons in our struggle to save the world from its crises and to live as ourselves. We need to put our trust in these; then the words will come. But if not words, there are still so many other ways we can bring forth the new.




This seems more like a thread about politics in music than specifically words in music so I feel it amiss to not include This Heat here.

I’m just going to lay this one down here.


Hey thanks for that! I get very worked up over mining history. Have been known to start sobbing over this one…


One of my favorite songs of all time and a huge inspiration.


Lyrics are funny–too much context and you’ve an airy history lesson that assumes an uneducated audience that ends up saying nothing at all. Too little context and you’re saying just as much (maybe a bit less presumptuously).

I think the trick is to not try so hard and have confidence that as a human you’re relatable in some way to other humans, and not be conceited enough to be concerned with the extent of that. I think this gets harder with age, force-feeding our experience to whomever will listen.


Most so-called “protest music” or “political music” is similar to the majority of “Christian rock” in my mind - there is a lot of didacticism, evangelizing, preaching to the choir, and a cloud of self-satisfaction that fills up all the air and obscures anything compelling going on. In the first place, I get the sense that I already know what you’re going for before I even start listening, that I already have a scope of the thematic content, boundaries, and depth. Both protest music and Christian rock have their uses, mind you - primarily as rallying anthems for bringing a group of like-minded people closer together, to give them a glue of purpose and sustained passion when interests flag or things get tough. (Y.G.'s “Fuck Donald Trump” is quite shallow lyrically but was really great for this at just about every protest I’ve attended around Oakland, lending a cathartic party energy and release to very justifiably angry people.) But with a few exceptions, I hardly ever hear anything approaching genuine incisive perspective on either of their chosen subjects.

The real value I’m seeking in our current era of rising global nationalism/fascism/autocracy is music that explores the psychological effects of those things on people, what it’s like to live under it day to day, the insidious ways in which it inoculates itself and makes you accept as banal things which are inexcusable and inhumane. How people struggle to get out of those psychological traps. Challenging and implicating establishment liberalism / neoliberalism and its damaging effects, which always gets a free pass when the other side presents itself as cartoon villiainy. The ways silence, reservedness, and passiveness do the work of the outspoken, bold terrorizers. The ways we justify unjustifiable things to ourselves. Etc. There’s a huge amount of not-overtly-political music that can slide in between the spaces and disorients, reorients, reframes, shifts windows, worms its way into your thoughts and makes a home somewhere.

Compare the films of someone like Michael Moore (didactic, prosaic, essayistic, bludgeoning) to someone like Agnieszka Holland, who never overtly alludes to anything in contemporary politics but presents very nuanced and incisive snapshots of the psychological frameworks of people going through, e.g., historical autocracies in a way that ends up extremely relevant, even if you have to do the hard work of drawing out connections on your own. (I recently saw her television miniseries Burning Bush and highly recommend it if you’re interested)


And yes, we do need poets. The problem is that when things get bad, all the poets think they need to stop speaking in personal code and stop burrowing into their hermetic landscapes and built-up decades of drilling down ever further into their obsessive interior languages, and instead feel the responsibility to shout directly and plainly with megaphones, and so all the poetry is taken out of the poetry and in some key way the terrorists win.



This https://youtu.be/5r6A2NexF88


From the back of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air This is some hippie stuff (“more like poli-tricks amiright? hyuck hyuck”) that would’ve drove me nuts at earlier points in my life but I now crave and admire. Favorite bit is the end:

National flags were sown together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten


First time I read that I admit I was most interested in the fact “organic” in the sense of “organic vegetables” already existed at the end of the 60s. :slight_smile: For some reason I thought it was a much more recent thing.


Trigger Warning: Song begins with sample of Police Violence