Pop Music, Politics, and Reproductive Labor

Western political imaginaries tend to be governed by a zero-sum logic in which the only way to fix an injustice is to get rid of it and replace it with something else. For example, there’s a common assumption across both political philosophy and activist politics that, as Keguro Macharia puts it, “insist[s] that the entire world must be remade and, in the process, void[s] the quotidian practices that we want to multiply and intensify.” From this perspective, fixing political problems works a lot like Descartes’ attempt to fix the epistemological problems of 17th-century European philosophy: tear everything down to the foundations and start rebuilding from the ground up. As Macharia emphasizes, this fetishization of revolution devalues and ignores the existing practices of care that oppressed people have performed–often for centuries–to survive and thrive within unjust institutions. Such practices “loo[k] for available resources” to “build and inhabit the worlds”(Macharia) one crafts in one’s quotidian relations with other people. Thinking with Audre Lorde, Macharia argues that “sharing joy builds and sustains worlds.” Creating everyday pleasures, especially the joy of pleasures shared with others, is a way oppressed peoples carve out smaller, habitable worlds in a universe whose current structure requires their physical, social, and/or civil death. These everyday pleasures are a lot easier to accomplish than, say, fixing sexism. We can do them now while we work on that bigger, longer-term fix.

Macharia cites cute animal videos and twitter hashtags for flower pictures as examples of such practices. Popular music is also one of these quotidian practices of sharing joy to build and sustain worlds. The pleasure we experience in making it,  listening to it, and sharing our fandom with others is political to the extent that it helps those of us who are disadvantaged by white supremacist cishetero patriarchal capitalism create relationships, practices, and even structures and institutions built by different rules, rules that prioritize our personhood and our lives. Pop’s ability to make people feel good in a shared and communal context does far more political work than any overtly “political” lyrics, posturing, or attention to representation can even hope to accomplish. For example, the black feminist politics in Beyonce’s Lemonade aren’t so much in the lyrics or on the screen as they are in the joy it brought black women fans and the kinds of relationships it created (e.g., the news cycle was dominated, for a little while at least, by black women’s writing).

Thinking about politics as pleasure also helps us avoid thinking about it as work in the capitalist sense. Mainstream Western concepts of politics frame it as work–politics ought to be productive of something in the same way work is. Often, that thing is personhood, which Western political philosophy understands as a kind of private property. That’s why politics is work: it produces private property in the form of personhood (e.g., civil rights movements fight for the personhood of people historically excluded from full civil and moral personhood). The problem with this is it ignores reproductive concerns, such as the need to feed and shelter people. Politics-as-work has eclipsed politics-as-care. The Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program is an example of politics-as-care.

As L.H. Stalilngs has argued, focusing on the aesthetic dimensions of artworks can reveal how these artworks use aesthetic pleasure to perform politics-as-care: “antiwork ethics make pleasure and sensation function as a strategy of decolonizing the spirit” (Stallings FtE 223). This practice of politics-as-care attends to the reproductive labor of building and sharing worlds. One way artworks do this is by “providing a reorganization of the senses” (Stallings FtE 10) that helps us perceive dimensions of reality obscured by the lenses we have to use–and have thus become habituated to using–to navigate reality organized by white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalism. Artworks can help us perceive and feel differently, to perceive and feel the reality we want, not the shitty reality we’ve been given. But they can only do that when we approach them not as, erm, “works,” but as what Macharia calls “pleasantries,” or the sharing of pleasurable things. B-52s member Keith Strickland approach to the band’s hit song “Loveshack” illustrates one way to treat pop songs as pleasurable things instead of as work or works. In an interview in The Pitchfork Review, Strickland says

I was out riding my bike one night and I heard ‘Love Shack’ somewhere off in the distance. I knew it wasn’t our recording of it…I found that it was coming from this karaoke bar. All the windows were open and I could see five or six women on stage singing the song, and everyone else in the bar was also singing it. I was across the street on my bike, observing it, and it just totally blew me away. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is their song now. It was beautiful. To have people out there singing your songs with their friends–that’s a cool legacy, regardless of what anybody else thinks’.”

Instead of thinking of it as his–the product of his work, his labor–Strickland understands the song as belonging to the, well, almost the milieu. In the context of this karaoke performance, the singing of the song is what brings people together in about four minutes of fun. In those four minutes, that karaoke bar is a pocket universe where the crappiness of our main universe is suspended for a minute. These pocket universes and the work of building and caring for them constitute a kind of politics. That work doesn’t register as Politics-capital-P because it is reproductive labor; its products–sociality, pleasure, etc.–vanish in the consumption of them, and it is dedicated to the maintenance of life rather than the accumulation of private property.

How does the making and experience of art function as a kind of reproductive labor? Is the devaluing of pop music and skepticism about its Political potential due to the fact that pop’s political labor is mainly reproductive (about the maintenance of life in these pocket universes, about care and sociality)? What about times when this little-p-politics part of pop music is used to reinforce white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalism?