The times, they are a-changin’ for rock music. The sound of the Cultural Revolution has been criticised from many angles, particularly in popular music studies. Its artistic pretensions were interpreted as a means for musicians and fans to gain respectability and status; its claim to authenticity has been deconstructed; its sexism has been exposed; its racial prejudices laid bare as naïve or structural. In effect, rock music’s political vision to overcome „the system” by transcending all kinds of social divisions in a higher consciousness appears misguided at best or a commercial ploy to sell consumer goods at worst.1
In Tear Down the Walls, musicologist Patrick Burke reopens the case against rock. Focusing on white American and British musicians’ and activists’ engagement with black music and politics, he does not make this reassessment easy for himself. The question whether there is any legitimate way for well-meaning white people to express themselves in black culture has been directed at rock before, and the answer has often been that white bands have not been particularly successful in finding such a way. Burke acknowledges that respective attempts were „often naïve, misguided, or arrogant” (p. 3). In fact, his book contains many examples for this, from the performance of Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick in blackface on the televised Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in November 1968 to the many instances of whites provocatively using racist slur to appear „hip”. However, rather than castigating white musicians and activists with the benefit of hindsight, Burke urges us to give them the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that their attempts to „tear down the walls […] could also reflect genuine engagement with African American music and culture and sincere investment in anti-racist politics” (p. 3).
Burke’s intention is to hold a „middle ground between condemnation and celebration of white performance of Black music” (p. 12). In theoretical terms, he strives for a similar position. While „notoriously difficult if not impossible to prove” (p. 15), intent is in the focus of his analysis, which tries to establish whether the motives of white radicals were „genuine” and „sincere” by interpreting musical texts, performances, historic statements, and in a few cases correspondence. Likewise, while acknowledging the problems of naturalising racial categories, he retains the notion of authenticity that underpins the debate about cultural appropriation.2 In other words, Burke sees the conceptual challenges of tracing „seriousness” in „authentic” expressions but decides to not get involved too deeply in them.
The book proceeds in five chronological chapters, each starting from an episode in which white radicals’ engagement with black culture and politics became an issue. Covering the thirteen months from August 1968 to August 1969, it presents a historic snapshot of the moment when rock music and radical politics were most closely intertwined.
The first chapter zooms out from the MC5’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on 25 August 1968; the second takes the aforementioned performance of the Jefferson Airplane as its point of departure. Both chapters argue that the bands in question, while committing racist blunders, redeemed themselves through the „seriousness” of their engagement with black culture. „(R)eworking it rather than seeking to imitate it outright”, the MC5 „revealed their sincere love for African American music” (p. 44); the Jefferson Airplane’s music „often reflected a respectful and thoughtful effort, not simply to revive or mimic various aspects of Black music, but to creatively synthesize them into new forms of expression” (p. 68).
Chapter three focuses on Jean-Luc Godard’s movie One Plus One, which premiered at the London Film Festival on 29 November 1968. Rather than being another instance where white radicalism oscillated between insensitive appropriation and inspired creation, the film delivers a fundamental critique of authenticity that points both ways. By having the black actors who play black radicals read their lines from books by Eldridge Cleaver and Amiri Baraka while contrasting the Rolling Stones’ whiteness with the blackness of the music they record in a studio session, Godard makes the point that „any political or cultural expression that looks transparently authentic is actually constructed rhetorically” (p. 85).
In chapter four, the Motherfuckers, a group of New York hippies, clash with music entrepreneur Bill Graham at the Fillmore East theatre on 26 December 1968. Graham tried to run the venue as a profitable stage for „progressive” music, while at the same time trying to accommodate hippies who „dug” the sound but had problems with it being commercially produced. That caused tensions over the understanding of what constituted the „rock community”. However, even as these escalated in the violent battle for the Fillmore, Burke detects signs of that community in the „intensity and earnestness” of the arguments on both sides (p. 117).
Chapter five moves to Woodstock on 15-18 August 1969, where white radicalism drifted further apart from both commercial rock music and Black Power. For activists Abbie Hoffman and Leni and John Sinclair (on whose papers the chapter is largely based), the festival turned into a fiasco. Leni had hoped to collect money in support of her imprisoned husband, a poet and jazz critic who had founded the White Panther Party in 1968 and subscribed to rock music as a political weapon. Leni returned from the festival empty-handed and concluded that „,(t)he movement was a myth’” (p. 121). Highly symbolic, Hoffman was whacked over the head with a guitar by Pete Townshend when he stormed the stage during the gig of The Who, demanding solidarity with John Sinclair. Trying to hold the movement together, Hoffman and Sinclair subsequently gave the „Woodstock Nation” a wider and less militant orientation. The White Panthers became the Rainbow People’s Party, which helped itself to new racial inspirations by referencing Native American tribes and “Eastern” spiritualism.
Burke rounds off his „cautionary tale of shattered hopes and lost innocence” (p. 142) with an epilogue that continues the debate about the appropriation of Black culture in the context of contemporary hip hop. It shows that the question whether white artists should simply not bother declaring solidarity with black people through the medium of Black culture or if their silence would make them complicit in those people’s suppression is still hotly contested.
Burke’s book does a great job of unfolding these issues in exemplary, well-researched stories and a clear argument. However, his proposition that white musicians’ „earnest attempts at performing Black music” provide „inspiration and a sense of perspective” to solve them (p. 148) will not convince everyone. On one hand, the performance of authenticity, to which rock was especially committed, is bound to make any political issue conveyed through sound something about the performer rather than the ones whom (mostly) he or (sometimes) she declares to feel solidaric with. The fact that good intentions are not good enough suggests that rock’s assumptions about representational politics are flawed when it comes to expressing solidarity. On the other hand, the attentive reader of the book will notice that black critics of rock music often pointed to economic issues. To these critics, the mere acknowledgement of black artists as inspiration hardly compensated for the fact that the money went to white musicians (pp. 32, 77, 128), who sometimes even underpaid black collaborators (p. 76). A sole focus on cultural appropriation as a symbolic act overlooks the problems of black cultural workers in an industry dominated by whites. Had white radicals – and, by extension, Burke – addressed these economic issues, they would have met the Marx-inspired strand of Black Power halfway.
1 Forceful critiques include Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. An Alternative History of American Popular Music, New York 2009; Eric Weisbard, Top 40 Democracy. The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, Chicago 2014; Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool. Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Chicago 1997.
2 For an insightful critique of popular music’s „authenticity” see Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound. Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, Durham, NC 2010.