Friday, 16 January 2015

Anyone Can Do It: Empowerment, Tradition and the Punk Underground - Interview with Pete Dale

A veteran of the UK’s punk underground, Pete Dale currently lectures in popular music at Manchester Metropolitan University. After reading Communication Studies for a first degree, together with his partner Rachel Holborow between 1992 and 2000 he ran the fiercely independent label/distributor Slampt and played in several indie punk bands. After this period Pete began teaching music and pursued postgraduate study at Newcastle University with Professor Richard Middleton. After taking up an early career fellowship at Oxford Brookes, Pete started to explore how to use of DJ decks and urban music to re-engage disaffected members of deprived communities (something he did with some success in Gateshead). In 2013 he became a Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at Manchester Metropolitan University. Ashgate published his exploration of the ideology of punk, Anyone Can Do It: Empowerment, Tradition and the Punk Underground (2012). The book is very wide-ranging and carefully draws the political ideals of the punk genre into a dialogue with critical theory.

What inspired you to write Anyone Can Do It and how did the project get started?

The book grew fairly directly out of my PhD which, in turn, grew out of my interest in the left/anarchist ‘DiY’ elements of punk which I had been directly involved in for around twenty years by the time the book was published. The original premise for the PhD was the question as to whether punk could perhaps be seen as a folk music. Richard Middleton, who supervised the thesis, thought this was an interesting idea and was a great help to me developing my ideas. Over the years of study, and as I read more and more ‘critical theory,' I became interested moreover in questions of subjectivity, collective agency and ‘justice’ (the last word being taken in the Derridean sense as an ‘impossible’ which, nevertheless, we must maintain as possible – a classic paradox from Derrida with which I attempted to engage).

Punk has been one of the most fully discussed genres in cultural studies (eg. Hebdige, etc). Would it be fair to say that your book significantly breaks with much of that material, or was it a guiding influence?

Hebdige certainly wasn’t a guiding influence: I read Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Dave Laing’s One Chord Wonders in the early 1990s when I was an undergraduate and recognized few of the things about punk which had been attractive to me. Those books are great, actually, but they are orientated towards the late 1970s punk scene in the UK, whereas I grew up in the late 80s as a teenager and thus the field of music which could be labelled as punk was much more aesthetically varied and much more international in origin. But I would say my work breaks with Hebdige also because he is working largely from a structuralist position (hence his employment of Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricoloage) whereas my work is fundamentally post-structuralist in its theoretical basis. One of the reasons I wanted to write about punk as a tradition is because, then and now (but less so now, thankfully), one can often hear people prefacing their statements by saying ‘punk was...,' whereas I’m more interested in what punk is: all over the world (and more and more in the East) new punk bands and punk scenes are arriving, and they often sound and look rather different to the style of 1970s UK punk (although obviously that sartorial and musical style is still copied by some). What does this tell us about this time, and our future possibilities? Why would punk appeal to Indonesian or Chinese or Russian youth at this moment (and believe me, it does – several researchers have proven this to be the case)? Those questions don’t really get tackled in Anyone Can Do It, but I think they are important questions for scholars of punk at present.

To what extent did your experiences playing guitar with Red Monkey inform the book?

To a fair extent, I would say: Red Monkey was a political punk band which wanted to play around with the musical possibilities of punk music, bringing in influences from funk and messing around with time signatures and phrase lengths and dissonance and so forth; so we were already experimenting with what punk could be rather than slavishly adhering to some code (which is one of the worst things which a punk band can do, although many do). I drew directly on experiences I had had in Red Monkey for Anyone Can Do It, but moreover the experience of playing squats and youth centres across the UK and Europe and experiencing the punk/eco/left coalition which existed in the US in the 1990s (and I think still exists today) was mind-blowing for me as a bloke in my late twenties. My years in Red Monkey certainly made me want to explore tricky questions around music and politics, which is what I tried to do in my PhD and my book.

The idea ‘anyone can do it’ appears to democratize art. Is the book about the politics of art or the art of politics, or both, and why?

It isn’t about the art of politics; to some extent the book is about the politics of art, or the political limits of art. I was interested in the limit point where ‘anyone can do it’ becomes an empty slogan: punk isn’t as inclusive as it pretends to be, but to be honest I’m not even convinced it should be. Could we have a social in situation in which it would really be possible for anyone to make art and have it taken seriously by others? Actually I think that is thinkable, but I don’t think it has been fully achieved within the confines of the international punk movement – truth is that most punks are pretty blinkered as regards what music they are prepared to listen to. A full democratization of punk would probably mean that the word punk would have to be jettisoned – which might not be such a bad thing, but there again I still always answer with that word when people ask what kind of music my band plays, and I will admit that I enjoy saying so.

How would you describe the main argument of the book?

I try to define something of what punk is, what it has been and what it could be. I then ask what folk is, and try to offer some definition of that. I then explore the political and performative and ideological similarities between punk and folk, which leads into a discussion of tensions between socialism and anarchism (partly because folk is often associated with the former whilst punk is often associated with the latter). To what extent to these poles of the left need to be opposed? I argue that Derrida’s work has traversed a space between anarchism and Marxism, and I account for his theory of justice. I also raise the question of novelty and ‘the new-sense’ (by which I mean the feeling of newness which can arise even if something is not entirely new). The new-sense is not a necessary event: it is contingent on feelings such as shock and surprise (hence the link to punk). I propose that the new-sense can perhaps kindle a sense of something like the justice of which Derrida speaks. (The emphasis on the ‘perhaps,’ here, is essential because Derrida links justice with aporia.) I then give four case studies of post-1970s punk micro-movements (anarcho-punk, ‘cutie,' riot grrrl and math rock) which I suggest brought something of a new-sense to the larger punk movement. However, I conclude that the new-sense can only take one so far as regards the kindling of revolutionary impetuses: in the end, I feel that punk can only go so far towards ‘smashing the system’ in the fashion of which it would seem to promise to do.

Is it possible for any musical tradition or practice to be truly egalitarian?

I don’t think so – if you sing high and I sing low, are we equal? I think not: you are higher than me. My experience of making music and participating in musical events is that there is always power at play – and that’s fine; I like powerful musical experiences. What’s so good about equality? Personally, I enjoy difference – especially musical difference!

In the book’s introduction you argue that the ‘Anyone can do it’ democratic ethos in music culture is countered by a constant tendency to make value judgments about the aesthetic value of sounds. Another way to see it might be that the phrase reflects a kind of existential-political acknowledgement (everyone matters in music making) rather than a claim of aesthetic equality. Of course, with traditional music genres, anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well. What are your thoughts?

I taught music in schools for ten years, teaching every year group from reception to Year 11 (but mostly teaching teenagers). I absolutely believe, without hesitation, that anyone can make music and that everyone’s music-making should be taken seriously. However, I find that children (and all of us, I think) are drawn to people who can do things well: when I get the guitar out, or I play the piano, or I sing, or I play the drums, and they see that I can do it well, they become interested. If I then say that I am prepared to try to help them in their learning in any way that they request, I don’t see this as a huge problem of hierarchy and power. But, having said that, I see punk bands (and folk bands, and free jazz bands, and so on) and sometimes think ‘that’s crap. Is that a problem? I think not, provided I don’t try to actively prevent them from making their music: when I play music, I generally hope that people will enjoy it, but I want to know what they really think; which means I have to be willing to take the risk of them thinking its crap. That was really the point I was trying to make in the introduction to Anyone Can Do It: we actually want value judgments, we can’t escape them and it would be very foolish to try.

In the first part of the book you systematically compare and contrast punk and folk, demonstrating some interesting connections and separations around things like audience participation, use of the singing voice and perceived amateurism. In your view, are punk and folk really kindred genres, or has the similarity been overplayed?

Great question. Not sure. I think they are similar, in many ways, I tried to show: but I think that some people’s claims to a similarity between punk and folk are a bit clumsy. The big difference, as I tried to show, is that punk bands tend to search hard for novelty whereas folk musicians obviously don’t (as a rule, at least). On balance, I think the similarity is overplayed, yes.

Is it fair to say that punk is a contemporary form of folk music?

I don’t think so; but I think there are similarities.

To what extent does theorizing itself idealize punk?

Well, theoretical work is different from practice: but that doesn’t mean we can’t theorise about, say, pugilism; but theory isnt pugilism, and I’m a scholar of punk, not a punk scholar. I certainly tried not to ‘idealize’ the punk scene(s): I tried to be honest about them.

Would it be fair to say that you paint a picture of punk as hypocritically espousing inclusivity, anarchism and amateurism while actually pursuing commercial professionalism?

No, although some punk bands are obviously very hypocritical and Im not afraid to say so. I guess I tried to paint a picture of punks reaching for inclusivity, anarchism and amateurism and then I tried to point out that there are limits to how far punk has gone and how far it could go in those directions. I mean, I can shout ‘I AM AN INDIVIDUAL, but what is the condition of that individuality? How do I or you know that I am an individual – is the shouting itself the guarantee of that status? Obviously not, I would say. By the same token, the punk claim to, say, inclusivity is a bit questionable – and I say this after receiving unfavourable responses from audiences because the music my band has played is not sufficiently ‘punk’. But I don’t think ‘commercial professionalism’ is what we have to accept if we decide that full attainment of inclusivity/anarchism/amateurism is impossible: where I mention commercial factors, it is largely just because I don’t accept that it is possible to entirely escape ‘commercial’ factors when one lives in a capitalist system (whereas some punk idealists tend to act as if selling records cheap and so forth means that capitalism has been locally defeated).

Was Bob Dylan the unacknowledged godfather of punk? Why chose to discuss him over, say, Phil Ochs or John Lennon?

Not sure – I guess he just looms large, doesn’t he?

In brief, how would you describe Marxist ideas in relationship to the egalitarian ethos of punk?

I think punk is often more Marxist than it thinks it is. I also think that many Marxists are more anarchistic than they realise they are!

Richard Middleton’s scholars are often dedicated to discussing popular music in relation to critical theory. You have used philosophy and linguistics to address the aims and ideals of a music genre. In what ways to you find philosophers like Derrida useful and inspiring?

I find Derrida’s ideas very inspiring and very useful, but I appreciate that many people find him difficult to understand or frustrating in his theoretical purity: I feel those feelings too, but I think I get the bulk of his gist and, yes, I do find his thinking inspiring. As to Richard Middleton, I am aware that not every scholar of popular music has found his Lacanian turn to be entirely satisfactory – for my money, though, Voicing the Popular is a great book. There are many ways to study music, and I think critical theory works well in a lot of ways for a lot of music – but not all music at all times, doubtless!

So is it fair to call your book a “deconstruction” of punk ideology?

Er, yeah! I would say that’s exactly what it is, come to think of it…

Anyone Can Do It came out in the middle of 2012. How has your research developed since then and to what extent has the book informed that development?

I am now working on a book entitled Popular Music and the Politics of the Novelty. The key similarity is that I am querying whether popular music needs to be aesthetically novel/radical in order to be politically radical. I got a bit fed up with people introducing me as someone who writes about punk (which is not even one quarter of my record collection), so I cover all kinds of popular music in the book including a fair chunk from the 19th century as well as lots of 21st century stuff. I think the key theme of the book does grow out of a key strand of Anyone Can Do It, namely the theory of the new-sense, but here I am much more critical of vulgar modernist aspirations. I also spend a lengthy chapter critiquing the ideas of Alain Badiou, whose dismissive comments about popular music I personally find outrageous. After that, I’m doing a book about popular music in education for Routledge, but that will take a while I think!