The limits of silence as protest in the age of social media
A couple of years ago I chanced upon a curious record while browsing the bargain bins of Austin record shop End of an Ear. The record’s stark cover, containing nothing more than the solitary phrase ‘Dance Hall of Shame’ and a red marker-like smear, unfolded to reveal a short essay on censorship, opening with a Vaclav Havel quote about freedom of speech and ending with a portentous line warning that “if we… overstep our bounds with labelling and censorship, then our unwillingness to accept the risk of freedom leaves only one future to our children: no thinking. No talking. No music.”
Quietly intrigued by such dark portents, and reassured by a glance over the grooves that it must contain some of 1990’s tastiest nuggets of anti-authoritarian something-or-other (not to mention more than won over by its 99¢ price tag), I tucked it into the stack of prog, punk and classical records clasped under my elbow and resumed the afternoon’s crate-digging.
It was only on returning home and offering up the record to my turntable that I fully understood the sonic statement to be found within: the record was silent. Here was a piece of satirical protest, packaged up in the familiar design choices of the early ’90s, all coalescing into a major label’s idea of a musical joke. The message was a serious one of course, especially given the scale of liberal outrage embodied by organisations like the Parents Music Resource Center. The record — apparent brainchild of then Virgin CEO Jeff Ayeroff — certainly had a valid point to make about the dangers of censorship, a thin-end-of-the-wedge that might very well lead to a form of cultural totalitarianism. But thirty years on, the joke seems pretty thin. It is no small irony that a record industry with ample budget to waste on distributing silent, useless records has long been imposing a different kind of silencing upon us: the market-led pursuit of profit — totalitarianism by another name — in which corporate voices decry government intervention at the same time as propagating the sexism, racism and classism that only suppresses the voices for change it claims to champion. And in 2020, for the music industry to concentrate its response to pandemic, police brutality and Black Lives Matter around another collective plea for silence is perhaps the most egregious misappropriation of its raison d’etre yet.
This June, major labels sprang enthusiastically behind #TheShowMustBePaused, a collective sigh of agreement that in the face of society-wide, institutionally embedded racism, There are More Important Things Than Selling Records and We Should All Certainly Acknowledge This. Its principle was a simple one: stop the show, press pause on the music industry machine, take a moment to listen. While this came as a worthy gesture towards reflection and learning, its emphasis on desistance was unfortunate, given how pandemic has already forced so many musicians into a pause entirely against their will, at precisely the time they’re being pushed off a remunerative cliff-edge by the same industry now reaching for performative posturing. How can silence hope to speak effectively to this, when musicians have long been trapped in their own form of silence?
There is, of course, a rich tradition of harnessing silence in the name of musical protest, albeit with mixed results. In 2010 a number of indie/pop musicians gathered in a studio to ‘perform’ a version of John Cage’s infamous piece-without-notes 4’33” in the name of a tongue-in-cheek ‘protest’ against the commodification of pop music in the age of X Factor. Only, guess what: it didn’t work. The final transition of music into vehicle of panoptic mood-moulding happened anyway. Now, we value our singers more for their performed telegenic narrative than the quality of music they can deliver: an irony only compounded by the contrived arcs of supposed ‘music-is-blind’ fare like The Voice, which prove only that contestants’ ability to project the possibility of their telegenicity is in fact a quality entirely discernible by ear. Whether or not music is blind, in this moment it has now certainly become tone deaf.
Campaigns like #TheShowMustBePaused typify the kind of tone-deaf, unsubstantive gesture-making the industry is good at, and it’s all the more telling that it was initially generated from within the major label system, a kind of call from inside the house. As David Turner — writing in his Penny Fractions newsletter — notes, it is a movement “about executive decision-making, not real music worker power” which amounts to “a call to further entrench into communities the very companies accused of exploiting Black people”. It’s easy enough for executives and culture industrialists to reach for the platitudes of the moment without any genuine attempt to reckon with the history of — and indeed ongoing nature of — bias and racism in the music industry: easy to go with optical placeholders instead of confronting corporate complicity. It’s not so easy to for the gatekeepers of the music industry to acknowledge that they’ve subscribed to — even pioneered — the self-same attitudes and technologies of the surveillance state, and all the violence that represents.
That corporations and major technology players line up so enthusiastically behind campaigns of this sort only proves they’re not really about the redistribution of justice or power at all. For the big industry players, a campaign of this sort is attractive because, as Turner points out, it offers “an authentic way to appeal to real grief mediated through the Black capitalist class”. Spotify went as far as including an eight-minute forty-six-second long track of silence into many of its playlists on June 2nd: the length marking the amount of time white cop Derek Chauvin kept his knee against George Floyd’s neck in the latter’s murder. For a music streaming service to utilise a piece of content (let alone the cheapest piece of content of all, no content) in order to represent an actual death, and to use it in any way to promote or insinuate its influence as a brand or listening technology, is an appalling appropriation of human tragedy in the name of corporate power: to do it with the opposite of an active intervention — i.e. a piece of silence — is all the more egregious. It is the ultimate implied response, cynically deployed, a literally empty act which refuses to speak. If we listen hard however, what we might hear in that silence is the war being secretly waged by tech companies and the music industry alike on our privacy and our agency, the true implications only masked by substanceless posturing feebly wafted at the realities of human injustice.
One of the things that irks about technological invocations of silence of this kind is how they are implied as a ‘disruption’ of our modern modes of living. We’re so plugged in, eternally stimulated by images and information, goes the logic, that there can be nothing so radical as an enforced hiatus of silence, a revolutionary cessation of the digital buzz in our brains. But like most of the self-delusion that inhabits tech thinking, what such gestures obscure are the real inequalities of outcome, both for listeners in terms of imposed modes of listening and data-harvesting, and in how current revenue models entirely fail to fairly remunerate artists.
But worse than this, what the music industry really wants to obscure is its long-established culture of silencing, editing and moderating diverse voices. The history of pop music is necessarily a history of Black culture’s exclusion, co-optation and sanitisation. We know this from the age-old story of the blues and rock ’n’ roll. We see it in the racial and ideological make-up of the biggest labels’ executives, and in business models that continue to exploit the most vulnerable artists. We see it when a radio conglomerate like Global swallows up Choice FM, repurposing it as an ‘urban’ station and in one fell swoop erasing an institution of Black British identity. We recognise it when record labels offer unpaid internships as their CEOs insulate themselves from pandemic danger on $200 million dollar yachts. We see again its potential upon Black bodies when music platforms partner with tech giants to exploit personal data, using algorithms that entrench and build on racist and sexist biases, not to mention whose technologies they share in common with agencies of state violence. No amount of performative posturing from the industry can hide these truths. And plenty of artists, Black or otherwise, can see this.
Amidst all this talk of performativity it’s helpful to consider Judith Butler’s understanding of it in her discussion of the social construction of gender. For Butler, it is the performance of gender that reifies it as a reality, at the same time pointing to how it can therefore be dismantled. Performativity in expressions of social media, however, do the opposite: they have the effect of replacing a statement of belief with something suggesting the shape of a belief in conformist terms (I also “do” this/ we too “believe” this), without having to actually do or believe anything. What does it really mean when your favourite band posts on social media that it is “taking time out to listen” about issues of race or gender?
It’s a kind of “vapid pageantry” that doesn’t amount to anything, and in fact I think it amounts to less than nothing: it is subjugation to the idea that social media is in itself performance and on some level it is more effective to make such a gesture than, say, write a song. It’s exactly this privileging of the performed statement over the tangible act of creation that mirrors the music industry’s increasing instinct towards empty ‘content’ over actual substantive music. This, you might say, is the real ‘Dance Hall of Shame’. Silence may come in many forms, but a silence pregnant with intent that never comes to term is a silence entirely stripped of agency.
Silence has long had its role in protest of course, but its positioning necessarily opens up a gap into which we can pour our own interpretation of its efficacy. When Rage Against the Machine took the stage at the Philadelphia date of Lollapalooza in 1993, naked save for gaffer tape over their mouths and the letters PMRC scrawled across their chests, it for a moment did spark a collective holler of recognition, a glimpse of reclaiming power back from overreaching handwringers like Tipper Gore. Whether or not using up the entirety of their 15-minute set for such a stunt had any impact upon the prospects for the Parents Music Resource Center, it’s worth noting that particular protest — despite being free from the usual rap-rock ruckus of the band’s music — was anything but silent, consisting as it did of the growling, swirling feedback of the band’s guitars left to ring out against their amps; and ultimately, the boos, jeers and splintering beer bottles discharged by a crowd aghast at being denied a quarter of an hour of rollicking funk-rap.
The call in this moment therefore should not be for a pause, to put a shushing finger to the mouth of our work — which may as well be the act of putting two fingers in our ears. The call should be for more noise than ever, for in fact, a redoubled effort of noise-making. We must be louder than ever, to endanger and horrify the gatekeepers of culture with a cacophony of protest. Even more than this, we should be looking to innovate and embrace the difficulty of the new, disavowing re-runs of yesteryear, the reverent replications of the old and established. To be caught in an obsession with music’s past is to prohibit its future: we should eschew its jingoist tropes and jaded forms. We can denounce and combat music’s racist past first by refuting it and starting over.
Of course we can’t learn to change anything without reflecting on the lessons that are to be learned from the past. But we have to want to destroy the past, not revere it, to create most powerfully. Our past becomes our silence, and it’s this silence that equates with death. What activists want in this moment is a reckoning: a reckoning with the truth, with the realities of the past, with the realities of racist bias in contemporary society. But the reckoning is not supposed to be an end in itself. The reckoning is part of the journey towards justice and fairness, a journey that can never be silent.
The least dispensable thing we have in this moment is music itself, our ability to generate impact through sound. It can and should be part of a solution — part of a conscious response and resistance to the way things are. The last thing we should be is silent: we should be making the most dissonant volley of discordant noise we can summon up. Only by cancelling out silence can we start upon the noise of justice.