Book Review: Music is Power

Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change. By Brad Schreiber. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020. Viii + 218 pages + bibliography, index.

Book Cover - Music Is Power by Brad SchreiberBrad Schreiber opens Music is Power with a defense of protest music. It, like the much of this book, needs to be more precise. Schreiber is a journalist and screenwriter who has written about  such  diverse subjects as Patty Hearst, Jimi Hendrix, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, and theater. He knows how to tell a story, but that’s not the same thing as writing a survey text.

Like many books on popular music, Music is Power is more engaging than analytical. His opening chapter on Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger is just 15 pages long. There’s nothing wrong with a breezy summary, but Schreiber relies upon too many slogans and not enough informed skepticism. Joe Hill, for instance, was sanctified in death, but he might have been guilty of the murder that sent him to the firing squad in 1915. A cause célèbre is not the same as innocence. It would have been wiser to concentrate on Guthrie and Seeger, whose contributions to American social movements exceed those of Hill.

In chapter two, Schreiber tackles Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Of these three, Ochs was a protest singer par excellence. Baez certainly challenged authority, but her greatest activism took place off the stage. And, sorry, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a romanticized relic, not a protest song. Dylan is more complex. Although he continued to take on causes–like Rubin Carter’s murder conviction–his moment inside the social protest movement was short; by 1965, he refused to be anyone’s poster child.

Schreiber doesn’t hit his stride until chapter three, in which he looks at Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” an opening salvo for LGBTQ rights; Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” a then-shocking affirmation of interracial relationships; and P. F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction,” a hand grenade hurled at the Establishment. By then, though, we are a quarter of the way through a book that still has 12 chapters to go. In them he features (in order): Tom Lehrer, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Smothers Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Who, Black Sabbath, John Lennon, The Dead Kennedys, The Sex Pistols, Gil Scott-Heron, Grandmaster Flash, Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, Frank Zappa, NWA, Public Enemy, the Dixie Chicks, and Green Day. In all, Schreiber traverses a century and tiptoes across genres such as folk, rock, psychedelic, soul, blues, punk, reggae, spoken word, world music, rap, and country. His attempt to be inclusive is laudable, but his is ultimately a grab bag approach that will confuse all but the more ardent music fans.

It doesn’t help that Schreiber can’t resist dropping names or inserting anecdotes from his own music interviews. Indeed, there is a sense of personal preference guiding many of Schreiber’s choices. Many young folks had their minds blown by Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979), but it’s hard to see the band as an engine of change in the battle against social alienation–more like a mid-train box car. Similar analytical muddiness swirls around heavy metal and punk, each of which are reactive art forms whose popularity soared amidst the economic ruins of the post-1973 recession and the legitimization of greed in the 1980s.

Schreiber does raise some intriguing ideas. He rightly observes that Gil Scott-Heron deserves more attention and reminds readers that James Brown was not a civil rights warrior. Grandmaster Flash and Frank Zappa are generally viewed more as musical innovators than rebels. Should we reconsider? Maybe, but based mostly upon Schreiber’s assertions, those cases remain open.

Music is Power would have worked better as a gleaning of Schreiber’s observations from his journalistic experiences; one expects idiosyncratic selectivity in such efforts. From an academic perspective it’s hard to overlook the fact that Schreiber doesn’t nail down what he means by his central ideas: power, social justice, and change. He paints with such broad strokes that each takes on the character of whatever he wishes them to be. Is music power? Let’s allow Lee Hays (The Weavers) to have the last word. In 1941, Hays was asked if music can change the world. He replied:

Good singing won’t do, good praying won’t do, good preaching won’t do, but if you get all of them together with a little organizing behind them, you get a way of life and a way to do it.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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