Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound
(Belknap Press, 2021)
“Black women’s musical practices are … revolutionary because they are inextricably linked to the matter of Black life … said practices both forecast and execute the viability and potentiality of Black life.”
Of all the passages that can be quoted from Daphne A. Brooks’s densely quotable book, that is the one that perhaps most clearly states the meaning and importance of her subject. Adored by audiences and critics through the years, Brooks gets behind the pop fandom and the cultural image-making and puts plainly in front of the reader’s gaze how Black women musical artists are, by their very nature, revolutionary cultural figures.
This is a passionate book, written with a vigorous confidence that is a welcome change from the usual academic prose. Brooks’s command of history and her reading are broad and deep, and her critical thinking is fueled by something beyond, and ultimately more important than, an academic argument; her personal values. Right at the start of her extensive, informative introduction (itself a small-scale monograph on the critical history of her subject), she writes that the history of Black women musical artists is “unfolding on other frequencies while the world adores them and yet mishears them … heralds them and simultaneously devalues them.” This is not just interest in a subject, but the kind of care for it that seeks to reinforce that the artists who run through her book, like Mary Lou Williams and Geeshie Wiley, are not just great—in that hearing them gives pleasure and fulfillment and inspires fandom—but important, in that they have something incisive and indelible to say about our culture, that our culture would be impoverished without them, that their often self-made existence is a revolutionary act, and that understanding their importance is a key signpost along the path to social justice and equality.
That passion is instantly recognizable as the stuff of great pop music writing, and by that I don’t just mean the subject of pop (i.e. not self-consciously made in a high art tradition) music, but writing about music of any kind for a general audience of music lovers. Music writing like that is not just about the sounds but the meaning and place of the music in cultural, social, political, and even economic terms, the kind of thing collected in the Library of America’s Shake it Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, or found throughout Bloomsbury’s “33 1/3” series (full disclosure means that I should tell you I have a book in that series). And Brooks’s critical aim on a large scale is to take on how pop music writing both “heralds … and simultaneously devalues” the Black women artists she’s concerned with, how the likes of Rolling Stone magazine on down have loved the Tina Turners of America for the sensations they’ve given the critics, while also missing the more expansive cultural picture. She writes, “Theirs is a history of game-changing art that stands as an affirmation of our past as well as the unrecorded future of sound … the story of how Black women musicians have made the modern world.”
One personal reaction kept nagging at me, and it comes from a desire to advocate for certain critical values, and it was that Brooks’s whole argument deserves a wide audience, a pop music audience, but that she wrote this for an academic audience. That’s not merely indicated by the language—which, in terms of academic writing, balances the power of her learning with an energetic and clear style—but that via references to other academic writing and to real failures of the academy to think critically about pop music in a way that sees just what that music is and who those musicians are, she is talking with and arguing against her academic peers, not the interested and informed pop music fan or even critics who are writing about the music for such a listener. Instinct says there is a large audience that is not only sympathetic to what she has to say but would be charged up by Brooks’s ideas, that would hear in the music what Brooks hears, and would then advocate for those ideas with their own peers. Such is how pop music matters to the world around. Brooks recognizes this, writing, “The point of these sorts of efforts is to … invite a motley bunch of readers … who may not recognize or care about the stakes involved in confronting white male-dominated rock and blues criticism at all—to reassess their presumptions,” but the focus on her peer group is at odds with this gesture toward a mass audience.
That is a conflict running just underneath the surface of the book that feels unresolved. It also seems at times to steer Brooks off-target; she heads down the track, gliding over hurdle after hurdle, but there are times when that track takes a slight turn, while she maintains a straight course, clearing hurdles that are no longer much in her way. This is something everyone writing on pop music faces, advocating for a set of values, and doing that means finding an antagonist, the culture, or some imaginary someone/something that’s not hearing what you would love for them to hear. At it’s best, this is true advocacy and real love, the desire to share something that is good with the world around you, to pay it forward in a way. Brooks’s targets are real, but her knowledge, experience, thinking, and writing are so superior that she dispatches them with ease, and one feels that even after some 450 pages, there is another volume to add, one that explores how, as the song goes, “money changes everything.”
If that is a criticism, it is only in the sense that one wants to hear more from Brooks, to enjoy more of her invigorating thinking, insights such as, “Think, then, of Black women musicians as the invisible media … through which the West experiences itself as ‘new’ and constantly … becoming.” Or the beautiful statement that Black women’s music is “the subterranean secret of Black culture—that which has been perpetually co-opted and commodified and yet also repeatedly finds ways of disturbing (if not always unseating) its own market exchange.”
She nails the market exchange in a way that could serve as an introduction for the follow-up volume one imagines:
For much of the last century, pop music writers and the latter-day institutions that support and promote their claims have been anything but kind to Black women musicians. Plenty of people would argue otherwise—citing, for instance, the long-running tendency of pop music writers to think in hagiographic terms about the … ‘queens’ (so many queens!) … who have dazzled and destroyed audiences from one generation to the next and who have belted out their soundtrack to our interior lives as we’ve face the uncertainty, the volatility, the exhilaration as well as the sorrows of modern times.
Through this, she experiences a combination of fascination and loathing for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as she strolls through its corridors, but also lightly skips over the fundamental commercial aspect of the place. Like the Oscars, the Hall of Fame is first and foremost about selling units and maintaining an establishment consensus about taste, and only then, often by accident, does it honor actual artistic achievement and importance. She points out:
The for-profit, media-driven Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s years-long slog toward admitting epoch-altering artists like Rosetta Tharpe and Nina Simone into its pop pantheon in 2018 is simply the most high-profile example of the unsurprisingly chronic and widespread marginalization and often wholesale negation of Black women’s aesthetic work in the historical imaginary
This, I think, is an indisputable point and the qualifier, “high-profile,” is wise and well-chosen. It also opens up implicit contexts of pop culture that have to do with the business of pop culture. Pop culture is mass media and mass media is, bottom-line, business, not art. As Brooks points out, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a for-profit institution, a pantheon of pop fandom that honors success—sales—first, and artistic importance second, or maybe even third if one considers that rock is supposed to be fun and thrilling, and the second criteria for entry may be satisfaction. To set this in relief by looking at no-brainer white male musicians; Elvis, who learned rock from Black musicians and made it safe for white parents, was among the first inductees, while Kraftwerk, one of the most important and influential bands in the entire history of rock, was not inducted until this very year (but then Kraftwerk are an important pillar in the foundation of hip hop, and a presence in Black music culture is the kind of thing that, on its face, has rubbed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the wrong way over the years, and so we’re back to Brooks bearing witness).
This is the business side of the culture business, and it is indeed a business, and it affects everything. Rolling Stone began with a countercultural imprimatur, but it was, from its very first issue, a business, for-profit, with a cover price, and through the years has become mostly a National Geographic for aging cultural nostalgists, while making the occasional stab at relevance by featuring Black women hip hop stars of the moment on the cover (Brooks calls it “The T-Rex of rock music criticism and worshipful sonic patriarchy”). In a very clear, and powerful way, this reinforces Brooks’s point, but also reveals the important exploration for how the money game—that bottom line—determines how the criticism business sees Black women artists, and even if that business can see them. The immediate next question is whether they are seen for their artistic worth, their sheer revolutionary presence of being creative Black women artists inside American culture, or as business successes, selling units and making money. Inside that is the larger issue of whether the criticism business even sees, comprehends, and can address, in critical terms, creativity, art, meaning, legacy, etc. With rare exceptions over the last 100 years, the answer is an obvious, complete, irrefutable, and enduring “no.”
Brooks explores some of those exceptions, and she is an illuminating and insightful reader of Rosetta Reitz, Ellen Willis, and Lorraine Hansberry, and her chapter on the latter two spins out a single encounter between the writers into a fascinating cultural “what might have been.” There is a pull in the reader to respond to these passages with a lament, even some bitterness, and certainly the sensation of being in any way anticapitalist, of caring for non-commercial and material things in late-capitalist America, is alienating. Brooks may take capitalists somewhat for granted in this book, but the wisdom there is in her stories of what might have been, in the end, makes them feel like instruction manuals for what still could be. The revolution perhaps yet awaits.