Marxism: The Music Theory That Never Goes Out of Style

I argued a while back in the Pop Goes Philosophy installment, “Rock Hits Wall”, that there’s not much that is truly new in rock music. My co-editor, Brandon, may have been right when he hinted that I should get out more, I admit. I’m not denying that there may be artists and bands making truly original, nonderivative music out there in small clubs or dorm rooms. My claim is about what becomes popular.

By American Idol standards, of course, imitation is everything (cut to Adam Lambert ,circa 2008: “I know! I’ll sing like David Bowie but look like Robert Smith!”). But even by indie standards—think of the bands de jure embraced by Pitchfork, showcased by Lollapalooza, or championed by Sound Opinions as new and exciting and creative sound like—favorable album reviews inevitably compare bands to others, usually critical favorites of the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s. Not since 1991, I think, has a reviewer been able to credibly write, “I’ve never heard anything quite like this before!”

While I’m still waiting for counterevidence, I recently stumbled upon an explanation for this situation. Step one was reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which depicts a not-so-future United States culturally ravaged by corporate capitalism. Then came news that the British punk band Gang of Four was about to release a new album, its first in 16 years (Content, which is out now). Marxism seems to be making a comeback, I thought, as I flashed back to dorm-room debates about Jon King’s lyrics, like these from the modestly-titled “The History of the World”:

When I was in my mother’s womb

Social structure seemed a simple thing

After birth I cursed my luck

Then went down to breakfast

Mother had for me an egg

I understood the relations of production

Gang of Four added up to much more than the sum of its parts and influences, if only because no one in rock or punk had been so musically inspired by critical social theory. This band (I would have written in my review) doesn’t sound like any other because they actually sound like Marxism: The bass and drums pound out an economic substructure, Andy Gill’s guitar grinds out soaring pillars and bricks of industrial sound and texture, and Jon King’s vocals move around on top of it all, like Marx’s cultural superstructure, blinking into self-consciousness and trying to make sense of it all.

How perfect. Gang of Four springs back to life as yet another reminder of the imitative cul-de-sac so many bands seems to be caught it (check out NPR’s audio montage of bands that still squeeze surplus value out of Gang of Four’s labor of the ’70s and ’80s). At the same time, their Marxism suggests a potential explanation for rock’s habit of constantly recycling itself: maybe, just maybe, for all the hype about the indie musical revolution and the reconfiguration of the music industry, the fundamental “relations of production” that shape bands’ output remain the same as those in place when Elvis first swiveled his pelvis, women swooned, and businessmen around the world started seeing dollar signs.

Of course, all this assumes the truth of Marxism. I won’t begin to deal with that here, but I will point to Jody Tate’s chapter in Radiohead and Philosophy, which examines that band’s decision to sell their music directly to fans (at a pay-what-you-want price) as a Marx-inspired rejection of major-label capitalism. Still, I wonder whether this kind of development fundamentally changes the music-production equation (whatever form it really takes). Tate isn’t sure, either. As he reminds us, Marx cared a lot about music when he lived in London, over a hundred years before Gang of Four, Radiohead, and Gary Stenygart came on the scene. And he cared a lot about beer. Sometimes he got drunk, let his musical opinions fly, and threw rocks at London street lights. But we still have streetlights, and they still kind of look the same as they always have.

Extracted from “We (Capitalists) Suck Young Blood,” by Joseph Tate in Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, edited by Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch, Open Court Publishing Company, 2009

For the greater part of his life, German economic philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) lived in London. One evening, feeling a bit overly nationalistic after a pub crawl—one beer each at the eighteen pubs between Oxford Street and Hampstead down London’s Tottenham Court Road—Marx is said to have harassed a group of patrons at the last stop. Rumor has it Marx proclaimed: “No country but Germany… could have produced such masters as Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and Haydn; snobbish, cant-ridden England was fit only for philistines.” After igniting the ire of locals at the pub, Marx, with drinking companions in tow, fled into the night and threw paving stones at streetlights…

Bringing Radiohead together with bushy-haired Marx might seem like sucking the band’s blood. Marx never imagined digital distribution and he wrote nothing systematic on music. Plus, many of us come to Marx with too many presuppositions. But set aside what you might know about Marx. I’d rather that we not, in Radiohead’s words from “Nude,” “get any big ideas.” Approaching Marx without preconceptions is difficult or maybe impossible—approaching a “Nude” Marx is maybe, as the Radiohead song says, “not going to happen.” But it’s important to remember that the Marx we rarely hear about was human. And he loved music.

Six Fluffy Wee Rabbits

Thom Yorke is troubled by making money. When questions directed at Yorke tend toward record contracts or celebrity, his responses give away a singular unease. There’s wry misdirection: “It’s all for the cash!” Or over-direct anger: “we did not ask for a load of cash from our old record label EMI to re-sign. that is a L I E … We are extremely upset that this crap is being spread about.” He misdirects. He gets angry about it during interviews—even in Radiohead-produced parodies. But he can’t laugh about it.

In late 2004 the band released The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time (TMGLMOAT), an eclectic DVD, originally planned as part of a Radiohead TV channel that never materialized. It is almost two-hours long and contains music videos directed by the likes of Sophie Muller, video shorts contributed by fans (such as an instructional video on how to create a chickenbomb), and odd interludes. During a comic interview titled “My showbiz life: THOM YORKE OUT OF RADIOHEAD,” Yorke is asked all the uncomfortable questions he’s asked regularly.

The questions delve into Yorke’s celebrity status and his relationship to money. Yorke admits he accepted “a Russian egg” from “some big fish at Microsoft” and confesses to using his celebrity to get free petrol. But when asked: “What’s the most money you’ve blown in a single day?” he lets go an embarrassed baritone “ew” followed by a quick edit to an “uh.” Yorke then stares for a long four-seconds into the camera with a pasted-on, uncomfortable grin and answers: “Six fluffy wee rabbits.” Watching Yorke become uncomfortable is discomforting. Ew, uh, and paused fake grin add up to: next question, please. The mock-interviewer says as much, and moves on.

TMGLMOAT was released not long after 2003’s Hail to the Thief, the band’s last album under contract with EMI. After touring to promote the album for nearly ten months, Radiohead took a year off. When the hiatus ended in 2005, the band started Dead Air Space, a blog (, but, at first, there was no news about a renewed or new record contract. Fans and the press itched for an update. In August 2005, Yorke broke the silence with a sarcastic post and his trademark misspellings:

we have no record conntract.

as such.

any offers?..what we would like is th e old EMI back again, the nice genteel arms manufacturers who treated music a nice side project who werent to bothered about the shareholders. ah well

not much chance of that…

The same day the short post appeared, it was deleted, only to survive as a quotation scattered around the internet in various other blogs.

Yorke sings on The Eraser, his 2006 solo album, that “The more you try to erase me / The more that I appear,” lines that ring true in this case: deleting the blog post caused it to loom that much larger, especially looking back after the “pay what you want, no really” release of In Rainbows. It’s clichéd by now to say Radiohead’s digital distribution of the album took the music business, music critics, other musicians, fans, and the press—the world—by surprise and even angered some (Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers declared that it “demeans music”). Yet people who’ve closely followed Radiohead’s career expected a tectonic shift. They didn’t know how or when, but the why was scrawled across nearly every page of Radiohead’s biography. . . .

C-M-C Music Factory

Marx, it’s no surprise, had an equation that helps make sense of Radiohead’s move to remove the middle-man: C-M-C. Economic transactions that don’t exploit, Marx said, can be represented as C-M-C. “C” is commodities and “M” is money. A person exchanges C, sells a commodity, for M, for money. That money, in turn, can be used to buy C, or commodities. I sell the product of my work for money and use that money to buy the product of someone else’s work: C-M-C. Capitalism works differently—more like, M-C-M. A capitalist uses money to buy commodities and the capitalist sells those commodities for money (see Part One, Chapter 3 of Marx’s Capital). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this formula, but it can get perverted into what Marx represented as M-C-M′. The M′ represented transactions that sold commodities for more than they were worth only for the accumulation of M′, money above and beyond what’s reasonable. This surplus is then passed back into the M-C-M’ transaction, and on and on, at the expense of those providing the capitalist the necessary C’s, or commodities. The worker providing the C never gets their rightful due. That’s the cycle Radiohead felt trapped in.

Radiohead’s move, then, was toward C-M-C. Yorke told BBC Radio 4, “the big infrastructure of the music business has not addressed the way artists communicate directly with their fans. In fact, they seem to basically get in the way. Not only do they get in the way, but they take all the cash.” The music business was operating under the sign of M-C-M′ and Radiohead switched to C-M-C: they made a record that you could buy with, or without, money and that money the band can use to live, not just turn into wealth to make money, but to make more music. Whatever one might say about the money made, In Rainbows gave the music business a different economic model where there’s no capitalist in the middle stringing Radiohead up by the wrists.

Freed this way, Radiohead made what might be their most human-sounding album. Jon Pareles wrote for the New York Times that much of the album “comes across as fingers on strings and sticks on drums.” Going back to fingers and sticks on instruments while going forward with a new way to get their work to fans may be Radiohead’s biggest triumph in years. With In Rainbows, digital distribution ends up hardly as disembodied as it has been accused of being. The band has done several live performances released online, performances in which you can see their fingers on strings and drums. And you can see a Thom Yorke that would be out of place in Meeting People Is Easy or TMGLMOAT: he’s visibly happy.

Joseph Tate is the editor of The Music and Art of Radiohead and lives in Seattle, Washington.