Why Music Matters

David Hesmondhalgh
Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
ISBN: 978-1-4051-9242-2 (hardcover), 978-1-4051-9241-5 (paperback), 978-1-118-53581-3 (e-book)
RRP: US$ 87.95 (hardcover), US$32.95 (paperback), US$26.99 (e-book)

Kat Nelligan

University of Melbourne (Australia)

I don’t often find myself needing to justify the social value of popular music. Those in my social circle include popular music scholars, songwriters, musicians and gig-goers. The idea that music plays an important role in both individual and collective social life is a commonly held belief amongst my peers. Sometimes, though, I am reminded that many question music’s role and value in society, as this comment which recently appeared in my newsfeed on Facebook indicates: “Uni students who study music or arts need to stop sucking on the taxpayer’s teat and start contributing to society – if you want to be an artist, fund it yourself”. This comment encapsulates an attitude that does not value music or the arts in everyday life. It is a stark reminder that conservative economic values continue to shape current debates around popular music and its importance in society, despite rhetoric that promotes the cultural economy and the value of the creative industries.

The social value of music at the level of both individuals and communities is the central theme of David Hesmondhalgh’s Why Music Matters, and he explores this theme by “offering a critical defense of music” (3). Hesmondhalgh poses the question: “why on earth, you might ask, does music need defending?” (3); the example described above of my own experience provides a justification. The use of the term “critical” is significant here as it signals the way in which Hesmondhalgh engages with the ambivalences of music’s role in everyday life and society. While he celebrates music and its social value, discussing at length how music “has the potential to enrich people’s lives, and enrich societies” (1), the arguments he presents also take into account how music is not free of social forces and social inequalities. His book is therefore not a utopian celebration of music in everyday life, but a critical discussion about the way in which music’s role in society is both liberating and limiting at the level of both individuals and communities.

Hesmondhalgh’s primary objective—to conduct an exploration into the social value of music—is considered throughout the book via “two contrasting yet complementary” ideas: “that music often feels intensely and emotionally linked to the private self” (1), and “that music is often the basis of collective, public experience” (1–2). Chapter One introduces these ideas and explains why a “critical defense of music” is necessary in today’s cultural climate.

Chapter Two focuses on music’s affective capabilities—“emotions, feelings, and moods” (11)—and discusses how, at the level of the individual, it enriches people’s lives by contributing to “human flourishing”, a concept that Hesmondhalgh defines as “living a good life” (17). That popular music resonates emotionally with individuals is his primary point here. He looks to 1970s disco, more specifically Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free”, to examine the way in which music encourages individuals to explore their own emotions and connect with their inner selves. This is followed by a discussion of how dance music enriches people’s lives through the bodily experience of dancing. Dancing, he argues, is a form of self-expression, a way of losing oneself and of achieving “flow” (31). He goes on, however, to discuss the limitations of music’s relationship with the self, arguing that music’s role in self-cultivation and individual identity encourages “competitive individualism” and provides the basis for “status battles” within society (50). He shows how music can be harnessed to perpetuate middle-class snobbery and social exclusion, and he substantiates this claim by drawing on interview material.

Chapter Three provides a historical and chronological account of popular music, from the post-WWII era to twenty-first century pop. Hesmondhalgh explores popular music’s capacity “for enhancing human experiences of love and sex” (58). He traces music’s changing relations to sex and sexuality, discussing themes of love and emotion in post-WWII pop music; notions of sexual freedom and the sexual politics of countercultural rock music; sex and love in relation to dance music and the dance floor; punk music’s rejection of romantic love and its embracing of gay politics; alternative rock’s hyper masculinity; and the sexual explicitness and racialised sexualities of twenty-first century pop and hip-hop. While Hesmondhalgh’s overview of popular music’s relations to sex and sexuality is extensive and informative, his arguments in this chapter are brief, leaving much unsaid about the nuances of such a broad and complex topic. For example, he makes fleeting references to early dance genres, such as disco, house and hi-energy, commenting on the “hedonistic sexuality of queer dance spaces” (68), but his comments are brief, limiting his examples to Frankie Knuckles’ “Baby Wants to Ride” (68) and the O’Jays’ “Love Train” (69). He does not mention the Detroit techno scene or the British acid house scene, both of which would have further illustrated his point. He also defends the sexual explicitness of Shakira’s “She Wolf” music video by arguing that her dance moves are more aligned with “acrobatic dancing” than erotic porn, and so he finds it difficult to view the video as female objectification. However, the video still portrays women in a hypersexualised manner, and what Hesmondhalgh does not consider here is the way in which such videos perpetuate a white ideal of feminine beauty and sexuality, a point that is further complicated, in this particular example, by Shakira’s transnational identity.

Chapters Four and Five focus on notions of collectivity and community to consider how, through music, we might “flourish together” (84, original italics) (an extension of the concept of “human flourishing” explored in Chapter Two). For Hesmondhalgh, the benefits and problems of collective “flourishing” manifest in “sociable publicness”, which refers to gatherings of strangers who share the same experience, for example at festivals, dance clubs, concerts or sporting competitions. Hesmondhalgh further divides this into “co-present” and “mediated” forms (86). In Chapter Four, he discusses music’s relationship with “co-present sociable publicness”, exploring music’s capacity to enhance feelings of solidarity and collectivity through musical participation, more specifically when people “sing together, dance together, and play music together” (8). Here he discusses how public dancing gives rise to positive feelings of community and commonality. He refers specifically to electronic dance music and rave culture, arguing that people gain pleasure from the collective feelings of unity that arise on the dance floor.

In Chapter Five, Hesmondhalgh focuses on “mediated commonality” and “deliberative publicness” whilst addressing the question of “how might musical experience bring people together across different communities, groupings, and places?” (130). He discusses music and the value of aesthetic experience from a philosophical and sociological perspective, surveying and critiquing the work of Immanuel Kant, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Rancisre, Nicholas Garnham and Simon Frith. This provides a context for his own line of inquiry, which considers how “might music enhance human life by transcending or containing social difference” (130). He investigates music’s ability to articulate various feelings and emotions, and attempts to show how music can provide some insight into the social world of others, or rather, how music can be “used to envisage what it is like to be other people, even though they are different” (137). At the same time, however, he notes the limitations of this idea, pointing out that aesthetic experience and discourse still have the capacity to reinforce social divisions. The idea of music as a “life-affirming commonality” is also considered (166). Here, Hesmondhalgh focuses on music and politics, subcultures and shared music tastes, and music’s relationship to nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He looks to the music of Afghanistan, Latin America and Turkey to show how music can be viewed as a “valuable binding force across social difference” (171); however, he also acknowledges and discusses in detail the extent to which music and national identity is a complex and troubling issue.

Why Music Matters is an important contribution to sociology and music, but it also delves into philosophy, anthropology, musicology, ethnomusicology, psychology, political theory and music history. Hesmondhalgh’s critiques of these research areas are particularly informative and useful. The book’s core theme—the social value of music—is a provocative topic that evokes contrasting yet complementary ideas, an ambivalence which Hesmondhalgh handles with grace and dexterity. As he demonstrates throughout the book, music does have the capacity to enrich people’s lives, to encourage and nurture sociability, and to evoke commonality, but it also simultaneously exploits and divides individuals, and it reinforces social inequalities. Why Music Matters is, nevertheless, a comforting reminder “of why freedom, solidarity, and love matter” (171). Indeed, it reminds us that music plays an important and valuable role in the lives of individuals and in society, and it shows us why music will continue to matter, despite ongoing conservative views that attempt to devalue it.