The Liberation of Groove

Below are the first four paragraphs of a review I had published at Marx & Philosophy Review of Books yesterday. I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. Radical debates over popular music vs. the avant-garde so often end up either talking past each other or just degenerating into people defending their subjective tastes. This book presents an alternative model for approaching the question for Marxists and other radicals that actually understands music and culture as dynamic rather than staid and static. I'd say above all else it provides a framework that centralizes the possibility of a "popular avant-garde." You can read the rest of the review at the site itself, and I would really encourage readers to pick up a copy of the book. The hardcover version from Brill is prohibitively expensive, but a far more affordable paperback version is being released next month by Haymarket Books.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote precious little on the subject of popular music. This wasn’t necessarily because they were insouciant toward it, but rather because – the advent of Tin Pan Alley half a world away notwithstanding – their lives pre-dated popular music as we understand it today. Edison’s phonograph was patented only six years before Marx’s death, and Engels passed away just as mass produced records were becoming widely available to the public. Neither could have had much notion of what we now call popular music, at least not in the context of a highly technological consumer capitalism. Anything they could have written would, by necessity, be quite far flung from the final word.
Perhaps this is why debates have raged for so many decades over how Marxists should approach popular music. At issue are always the same questions. If ideas and ideologies are bound to show up in a song – be they through its lyrics or how it actually sounds – then how are we to understand it in relation contemporary society? If mass production under capitalism is inherently undemocratic, then can there be anything redemptive in songs that ape the rhythm of the system? Is there something of a genuine yearning for freedom to be found in the annals of folk, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, funk, reggae, punk, hip-hop or dance music? Or is it all just far too shaped by the dreaded culture industry, too swayed by ideas meant to buttress the present order for anything to be salvaged? Thoughtful, well-informed answers to these queries have ranged from an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to a vociferous ‘no’ and everywhere in between.
Mark Abel’s Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time is a book that meticulously plots out the mode, history and ontology of popular music in such a way that it is no longer cordoned off from possibilities of the critical or the avant-garde. Abel is primarily concerned with dialectically understanding ‘groove music’ at its most elemental, deliberately skirting the kind of moralistic appeals into which discussions around popular music can so often devolve. This is certainly a reason for choosing a more specific designation for his subject than just ‘the popular’ and instead opting to describe the music by the common characteristics shared across the myriad divisions of genre and style.
Music, as Abel reminds us repeatedly, is an aestheticization of time. It is the author’s contention that if we can understand music as such, then we begin to hear in its best examples ‘a modernist, non-narrative, collective response to the experience of life dominated by abstract time, one capable of figuring a liberated temporality beyond the reified temporal structures of contemporary capitalism. Groove’s political charge lies in its ability to turn measured time against itself.’

Read the rest here.