Beyond Culture As Compensatory Politics

vernacular dance and popular music as intellectual history.

X-posted from S-USIH Book Reviews.

  • Christopher J. Smith, Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History
  • Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music

We are living in an era of renewed emphasis on purity, an inflamed return to essentialisms. It is a time of sometimes righteous and sometimes reductionist efforts (and sometimes both) to distinguish who gets to say and do what in the cultural domain. This is true in popular culture. It is also true in historical scholarship about popular culture. In place of an interest in the twisted hybrids, knotted weaves, and multicultural amalgamations of American history, there has been a dramatic turn toward separating out cultural forms, and the people who create them, from each other, so that systems of oppression can be identified and credit and blame can be properly assigned. New wave of scholarship in cultural history seeks to point out abuses of power achieved through the manipulation of symbolic representation rather than bring to the surface buried cross-cultural rebellions and potential alliances. The latter was something cultural historians in particular grew keen to do in the last decades of the twentieth century, following the ideas of social history and cultural studies that first surfaced in the 1960s and 70s. Today that approach, with its curiosity about the subaltern, the transgressive, the resistant, is overshadowed by an urge to document how political and social domination functions culturally. Appropriation has replaced affiliation, cancellation has replaced counterhegemony, call-out culture has replaced an earlier focus on composite culture.

Two recent books, however—Christopher J. Smith’s Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History and Ann Powers’s Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music—are throwbacks to the kind of cultural history that grew popular in the era just before our own. Back then, in the 1980s and 90s, scholars sought to recover the emancipatory possibilities of the polyglot. It seemed like highbrow theories might aid in the uncovering of the political dimensions of seemingly apolitical activities and concealed alliances. The job for the scholar of culture at that time was to master esoteric methods that might enable one to tune in to and translate the politics submerged in the lower frequencies of the historical mix. The scholar could be the one to excavate the values of cultural activities in the bottom realms of the social hierarchy. Or the scholar might be the one to lend explanatory heft to activities bubbling so close to the surface of the everyday in a mass consumer society that their deeper significance was easily missed. Cultural history’s goal, in short, became to elucidate the politics of areas of human life that were previously imagined as apolitical or even reactionary. To be sure, there was lot of hemming and hawing, the noticing of the resiliencies of hierarchy, a fascination with postmodernism’s seemingly apolitical turn, and a recognition of the complexities of cooptation, but mostly scholars wanted to locate the radicality in punk rock, the anti-misogyny in Madonna, the dialectical materialism concealed in Dynasty.

The task of recovering (or is it discovering?) renegade politics in culture has not vanished, but it has been superseded recently. Whereas in the 1980s and 90s, the goal was to shed light on the hidden transcripts of how common people fashioned covert politics through cultural means, today the focus of historical scholarship is increasingly to reveal continued subjugation. Studies have moved from glimpsing powerful countervailing energies in surprising places to pinpointing the unsurprising ways in which ruling political and economic actors reassert their power. In the late twentieth century, much cultural history concentrated on the power of politics when masked and hidden in cultural forms; now attention has shifted to unmasking an insidious politics whenever culture might seem to be covering it up.

Christopher J. Smith’s Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History reads like a long-lost tract from the 1990s, when subcultural and subaltern transgression and resistance were all the rage in American cultural history. Smith, a professor of musicology at Texas Tech University, wants to recover the liberating potential of bodies dancing in akimbo in the streets, on stages, and on screen. “My fundamental premise,” he explains, “is that participatory vernacular dance in the United States, especially dance occurring in public or quasi-public contexts, has been a tool for contesting, constructing, and reinventing social orders” (2). He wants to celebrate the use of noise and motion as political acts compressed into cultural expressiveness. “Drawing on more than four centuries of vernacular dance encounters,” Smith elaborates, “I propose a historical model of street dance as both consciously irruptive and politically representative, while always acknowledging its fraught, racist, and exploitative history” (2). While the latter acknowledgement does not disappear from Dancing Revolution—Smith would never argue that American and global histories are free of suffering—his excitement, sometimes bordering on insistence, is far more about how vernacular dance marks a triumph of political activism. “If we therefore understand ‘akimbo’ motion and ‘rough music’ as representing related, indeed often simultaneous, subaltern defiance,” he writes excitedly, “it becomes possible to see public dance, especially street dance in groups, as likewise a tool of resistance and change” (30).

This argument repeats itself throughout the rest of Smith’s book, to the point that it starts to become rote at times. “For Native Americans subjected to psychological and physical displacement in the early nineteenth century,” Smith believes, “dance became a theological strategy and a revolutionary tactic” (75). “The akimbo nature of bodily motion and facial gesture, which provide a visual counterpoint to the sounding ‘participatory discrepancies’ polyrhythm and syncopation, thus links Baker to a transgressive and rebellious performance tradition,” he argues. “It likewise foreshadows her contributions to the complex oppositional semiotics of the proto-Civil Rights movement” (82). “In the rolling akimbo languages of African American expression,” Smith insists again, “generations of blacks, whites, and creoles, willing or unwilling, welcoming or resisting, have recognized the possibility of previously unimagined renewal. These heightened experiential spaces have also…permitted the possibility for subaltern communities (black, slaves, immigrants, mechanics and apprentices, women, gays, and lesbians), or other populations taking on the temporary mask, to critique, contest, or at the very least complicate dominant paradigms” (108). Smith on the 1960s: “A more nuanced understanding of the meaning of dance within the decade’s social culture, however, entails situating it within political landscapes of liberation: not only the liberation of middle-class white youth—the prototypical baby-boomer hippies—but also that of ethnic minorities, same-sex orientations, and most relevantly, of public spaces” (118).

Smith is so eager to assert the forceful coherency of vernacular dance as revolutionary that his book’s argument can grow a bit brittle, as much of the 1990s cultural history scholarship did in its efforts to convey the power of the powerless, the politics in the pop culture. Nonetheless, Dancing Revolution is filled with wonderful discoveries and potential connections. Over the course of nine chapters, Smith tracks the vernacular dancing body through the “riverine” networks of religion and commerce across the early nineteenth-century Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky and Ohio. He recovers the fascinating transatlantic careers of African-American actors such as Ira Aldridge. He hears the political implications of whistles and shrieks of noisy dance in public spaces. He follows the networks and exchanges of the French-, Afro-, and Celtic/Anglo-Caribbean. We learn about the Shakers and Native American Ghost Dances. Smith uncovers the threat of lower-class and racialized dance movement to class and hierarchy in Abraham James’s 1844 illustration A Grand Jamaica ball! Or the Creolean hop a la muftee; as exhibeted [sic] in Spanish Town. Josephine Baker’s cross-eyed and akimbo dance styles reveal not the fad for exoticism in Europe, but rather Baker’s ability to cut through primitivism with modernist critique by drawing upon Black Diasporic gestural vocabularies. Smith most brilliantly analyzes a striking scene of dance and music in the Marx Brothers’s 1937 film A Day at the Races. At first glance, the scene appears highly racist, but Smith wants to resituate it as a critique of racist norms in America. In his view, the film features virtuosic performances by Harpo Marx, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (probably choreographed by the great Frankie Manning), the Chrinoline Choir, and the jazz singer Ivie Anderson (who performed with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra). For Smith, these performances, set within clever camera work, stagecraft, and imaginative musical composition, delivered the rebelliousness of African-American subcultural styles to the mainstream. Smith takes us through the sequence’s many musical, gestural, theatrical, and cinematic references and implications, helping us see the beautiful, challenging, hopeful energies expressed in this dreamlike vision of a liberated, working-class space, grounded in Black culture, exploding from celluloid in the midst of Popular Front, New Deal, Great Depression America.

In Dancing Revolution, we also learn about perceptions of Black dance as proto-revolutionary in texts such as Malcolm X’s autobiography or films such Spike Lee’s underappreciated Bamboozled. Civil rights marches, hippie dance in the counterculture, Stonewall’s queer chorus line protests, punk rock mosh pits, and hip hop’s b-boy dancers follow, each demonstrating further iterations of protest expressed in gestural, cultural form. Smith ends with more recent moments of dance as politics: protesters tangoing against authoritarianism in Turkey’s Gezi Park and an appearance by Sir Mix-a-Lot along with a diverse group of women dancing to his hit song “Baby Got Back” at a Seattle Symphony “Sonic Encounter.” Recent cultural historians would likely point out that the tangoers were ultimately crushed by the ruling Turkish regime—so much for revolutionary dancing. And they might dismiss the latter event with Sir Mix-a-Lot as clear evidence of offensive appropriation or problematic cooptation. By contrast, Smith chooses to interpret these stories as dazzling instances of incipient revolution, moments when dance gestures forged during the injustices of the past resurfaced as challenges to undemocratic control by governments or bourgeois norms of decorum.

How does Smith get there? Throughout Dancing Revolution, we hear much about “body creolization,” “subaltern expression” (66, I counted at least twenty uses of the term in the book), “syncretic movement expression” (150), “nonnormative, potentially transgressive” dance (108), and Michel de Certeau’s concept of “the space of a tactic” as the “space of the other” (56-57). Smith brings together an impressive array of theoretical methods, ranging from his own training in musicology and ethnomusicology to approaches drawn from visual studies, semiotics, literary studies, and history. Perhaps most of all, he wishes to track long sweeps of gestural continuity across time and place in the Americas (with a bit of transatlantic attention). There’s that arm gesture again. There is that use of the torso. There is that syncopation. Here’s the harlequin trickster manifesting again as a blackface minstrel. There once again is that sacred use of the body, whether in a Protestant Great Awakening or Catholic or Diasporic African context. Here is that circle of street corner or dancefloor communal formation known in various guises as the crowd, the U, or the cypher.

Numerous close readings of source material are profoundly illuminating, but Smith does miss one promising theoretical point that he might have brought to the surface in Dancing Revolution. In arguing that both dance and music were, as de Certeau evocatively wrote, “the space of a tactic,” Smith might have made more of the etymological links between tactics and the tactile. Both dance and music are bodily forms of expression, giving physical, vibratory form to abstract ideas. Dance and music lend voice, muscle, and bone to the intellect. By restricting his focus, as much late twentieth-century cultural history did, to the politics of culture, Smith misses an opportunity to map out the broader significance of dance. This would mean not merely noting when people engage in dancing revolution, but more expansively when they use dancing and music for thinking. Eager to frame culture as a compensatory form of politics, Smith goes down what perhaps became a dead end for cultural history. His book contains traces of cultural studies doyen Stuart Hall’s infamous put down. “Popular culture,” Hall wrote, “is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. That is why ‘popular culture’ matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it” (Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (Boston: Routledge, 1981), 239). Smith would not go as far as Hall. In Dancing Revolution, he still gives a damn about vernacular dance in of itself. But he most of all insists that there is a potent politics to be recovered from sources that today are more often interpreted merely as expressing hateful denigration or patronizing appropriation. If you can just harness the right theories and methods to see and hear the emancipatory politics within the culture, Smith believes, the larger dance of revolution might commence from the many smaller acts of dancing revolution. The question remains: will it? Or is studying culture as compensatory politics merely another act of constraining its full whirl of significance?

Ann Powers, music critic at National Public Radio, is up to similar aims as Smith in her book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, but she wants not only to notice the politics of dance and music, but also track the fraught and sweeping history of the erotic in American life and culture, as expressed in its popular music and dance. “Taking the turn-on seriously,” she contends, “is the point.” For Powers, “every moment’s pleasure illuminates whole worlds of need, conflict, and possibility, and in its own way, sets the stage for the next” (xxv). In her approach to cultural history, “Music allows people—players, dancers, observers—to ride the storm that arises when desire encounters the roadblocks of prejudice, moral judgment, or cruel circumstance.” Although “American eroticism wants to be easy,” Powers emphasizes how “for most of history, American life has been hard. Our music grinds pleasure from hardship. It creates whirlwinds but also provides a means to manage them” (xxv). By expanding from music and dance culture as merely compensatory politics to treating them as modes of exploring the erotic in American life, Powers offers a potential pathway forward for the cultural historical methods of the 1980s and 90s. Hers is an explicitly feminist perspective that troubles the distinctions between the private and the public. This is a boundary that Smith seems oddly keen to maintain, contending that vernacular dance is most political only when taking place in public settings or with explicit public intentions. With the second-wave feminism trope that “the personal is political” guiding her work, Powers cracks open the distinction.

Popular music in particular cuts across the line between the private and the public, the personal and the political. Over the course of eight chapters and with a critic’s touch for turning a phrase, Powers takes us through how it has done so in different settings, with different figures, in different contexts. She begins with the fraught, racialized sexual interactions of ballrooms in antebellum New Orleans. Then she moves to the smoky clubs of shimmying, shaking bodies in the early twentieth century. She probes negotiations of the erotic in the sacred-secular dynamics of gospel music. In a particularly brilliant chapter, she identifies the embrace of doo-wopian nonsense—”dip dip dip dip dip”—as a means for making sense of adolescent sexuality in postwar America. Powers investigates the search for sexual liberation in the counterculture and the subsequent systemization and routinization of countercultural energies in the groupie system of 1970s rock and the synthetic beats of disco. She notes the musical response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and the rise of a more masturbatory “self-pleasuring power” realm of fantasy in Madonna’s music video fame (272) as well as Prince’s cultivation of a “Reagan-era safe-sex outrageousness” (275). Powers ends with an exploration of the digital and cyborgian enactments of the erotic by Britney Spears, Beyoncé Knowles, and other more recent pop stars.

It is not that these topics are apolitical to Powers, but rather that they represent specific instances of music serving as a medium for thinking as well as protesting. This shift makes her book a promising model for future historical inquiry. Good Booty is neither obsessed only with recovering hidden political agencies, nor focused merely on condemning the continued domination of marginalized peoples. Instead, it listens and looks to music and dance as mediums through which Americans have navigated both the politics and the intellectual dimensions of the erotic. The very name of the book points to this tantalizing approach. Good Booty takes its name from the original, but ultimately excised, lyrics to Little Richard’s breakthrough hit, “Tutti Frutti.” The original phrase was a ribald allusion to anal sex that the rock and roll architect and his musical collaborators chose to remove from the recorded version of the song. This allowed the tune to circulate more widely than just through the nightclub circuit of the South in which Little Richard first made his name. As the song migrated in recorded form to radio, and as it was covered by white performers such as Pat Boone, “Tutti Frutti” became a vaguer, but also a more potent celebration not merely of the libidinal, but of the more capaciously physical experience of joy and energetic release, including the demand for liberation and mysterious but forceful call for fulfillment and satisfaction. The song’s turn to nonsense—”a wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!”—encompassed and intensified its sensory impact and its expressive but elusive semantic sense.

At the same time, as Powers points out, in disappearing from the recorded version of the song, the phrase “good booty” also reminds us of the shadow story of popular music’s celebrations of the erotic: its economic context. Little Richard’s celebration of the erotic, she evocatively writes, emerged in “the realm of commerce and plunder, of booty earned and stolen” (xxiv). And in doing so, the music produced vexations alongside its pleasures. To consider the “good booty” in popular music means also noticing how it has always arrived within the processes of a racialized and misogynist capitalism. This is true from the earliest days of Atlantic World colonialism and forced human bondage to more recent examples of Atlantic Records (or in Richard’s case, Specialty Records) copyright expropriation. Who gets to cash in on music’s erotic touch is a major issue. Nonetheless, for Powers it is less the contestation over the commercialization of pop music than it is the underlying physical and intellectual explorations of the erotic that is most central, most worth cultural history’s attention. “What Watson encountered,” she writes of Methodist layman preacher John F. Watson, who in 1819 was troubled by expressions of ecstatic religious fervor during the Second Great Awakening, “was an erotic exchange that’s at the heart of American popular music” (xvii). For Powers this exchange is not merely about sexual arousal, but a more expansive understanding of anima, of the “animating spirits, the ineffable mobilizing forces that make people feel alive” (xvi). “This method,” Powers continues, “of sharing and communicating the most personal, difficult to articulate, and indeed intimate aspects of the human experience has been taken up by every kind of American as a conduit for both joy and pain” (xvii). To Powers, this “taking up” is not just narrowly political in nature, but all-encompassingly social. It is not just about dancing revolution, but about thinking through the dilemmas and possibilities of human lives, from their most profane levels to their most sacred aspirations. “From the beginning,” she contends, “music’s ability to open people to each other also made it an avenue for exploitation, and a kind of theater where Americans acted out the ways they violated and oppressed one another and dreamed up ways they might heal those wounds” (xvii). This is a bigger story, more difficult to track and explicate than just focusing on political resistance in cultural form. Politics is part of it, but, as Powers points out, “the erotic as a force in music is rarely discussed in these more complicated terms. Instead, it’s the subject that makes people squirm” (xvii).

Squirming occurs because of sexuality; so too, Americans squirm when trying to reckon with the racism that is shot through the nation’s history. Because what Powers calls “African fundamentals” were absorbed into “the very core of American cultural expression,” then appropriated by white Americans, popular music registers the fraught nature of America’s racist death drive alongside its erotic life force (xxiii). This has allowed music and dance to serve as openings for subaltern politics, as Smith would contend, but in Powers’s framework, music also becomes a far more wide-ranging vehicle for capacious thinking. The temporary resistances of the subaltern become potentially permanent critiques. “In every era,” Powers concludes, “expressing the erotic through music has required Americans to confront the ways in which this culture is grounded in exploitation and violation as well as democratic openness and liberty.” In “the sex scenes of American music,” Powers wants us to hear and see “the most intimate cruelties we have wrought upon each other, alongside the pleasures and kindnesses” (xxiii).

In sum, both authors ask us to go back to the cultural history methods that emerged just before our own time, when a more Gramscian mode of reading counterhegemony in culture took hold than what now predominates, which is noticing domination everywhere you look and listen for it. Both books ask us to consider what might be lost in the shift away from the cultural historical approach of a few decades ago. Their books diverge, however, in how they address this task. Smith seeks to excavate a compensatory class and race politics from subaltern cultural expression. He uses abstract theories of how culture works to do so. For him, politics occurs by cultural means when normative avenues for political action are blocked. If you can’t pass laws in the halls of Congress, you can at least dance in the streets. Dancing revolution occurs when people cannot enact it by more conventional political means. Smith uses a robust set of interdisciplinary scholarly analytic tools to map out this recurring theme: here, there, and everywhere across vastly different historical settings and moments are bodies responding rebelliously to efforts at control of them. Under pressure and constraint, terror and domination, they move vigorously and defiantly, they noisily refuse to be subdued, they thrust out limbs, gyrate torsos, shimmy shoulders, let their backbones slip, pump their pelvises, and shake their asses. Sometimes their efforts appear in religious fervor, other times behind the mask of commercial blackface minstrelsy. Sometimes they gesture to revolution on the dance floor, other times directly in the streets. While they may not be able to overthrow the powers that be, Smith wants to honor their dancing as a mode of politics-by-another-means, a weapon of the weak—the return not of the repressed, but rather of the irrepressible.

It is Powers’s approach, however, that is ultimately the more intriguing. She reorients the study of culture from a form compensatory politics to the more far-reaching, and deeply felt, question of the erotic. Addressing popular music not only as politics by another means, but also as an investigation of the erotic that, crucially, includes intellectual activity, Powers pays attention to how music has served as a way for people not just to resist, but more generally to think. This allows her to broaden her story from how politics gets displaced into culture to a more important tale of how individual bodies and the body politic collide in popular music and dance. In doing so, they confound the very boundaries between the personal and the political, the private and the public. Powers proposes that a fuller sense of the past involves treating culture not merely as another lever of domination, nor only as an embodiment of resistance, but instead as erotically intellectual inquiry. And by imagining intellectual inquiry as a part of erotic life rather than something removed from it, her book suggests that acts of movement and sound-making are nothing less than the sources from which both the cultural and the political emanate.

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