Sounds of Pop/Sounds of Protest: A Conversation with Greil Marcus and Gina Arnold

Students at the University of San Francisco were treated to an engaging discussion yesterday between music journalist and author Gina Arnold and revered cultural critic Greil Marcus on the sounds of pop music and protest. Hosted inside a classroom but open to the pubic, the event celebrated the life and work of USF Media Studies professor (and SF Weekly writer) Andrew Goodwin

The two music minds explored various topics relating to the idea of art as more than just entertainment, but an instrument for political action. The duo discussed the racial connotations of Pussy Riot dramatizing Eric Garner's death in its “I Can't Breathe” video at length, and questioned whether using music to react to single incidents was more or less effective than vague lyrics critiquing larger issues.

[jump] Marcus was particularly excited to discuss Pussy Riot's role on the recent season of Netflix's House of Cards because according to him, although they were acting, Pussy Riot would have the guts to actually go through with their scripted denunciation of the series Vladimir Putin-esque Russian leader if given the opportunity in real life. The glitz and glamour of the group, mixed with that bravery, make them uniquely engaging and powerful, according to Marcus.

Especially, the two agreed, when one considers how women willing to put themselves in the spotlight (like Pussy Riot, or Sandra Bullock) are often the victim of horrendous online and offline attacks. Feminism was a topic the two went back to fairly often, landing on one image burned into pop-culture conscious: Beyonce's 2014 VMA performance where she stood in front of a glowing “feminist” sign. 

“If I drop a big banner behind me that says 'Really Good Person' it doesn't actually make me a good person,” Marcus argued. 

Although most of the discussion was friendly, Marcus came off a bit combative at times, eager to dive into discussions about Arnold's use of the word “consume” in a question about the changing nature of music distribution. According to Marcus, no one can “consume” music or media, instead they experience it, or — when it's really good — get displaced by it (mentally, not in the San Francisco eviction kind of way). 

“I certainly eat books,” Arnold, the author, said of her reading habits. “If they're good they nourish me, and I keep them with me. But if they're bad I just pee them out,” she joked. 

The two shared a laugh at that one. Even if they disagreed on some things it was clear they're old friends.

Perhaps the most interesting topic of the night was a discussion and video presentation of Christian Marclay's performance art piece “Guitar Drag” (a recreation of the James Byrd dragging death). It's a jarring video made even more impactful by its back story. 

James Byrd, 49, was walking home in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998. He accepted a ride offered by three white men in a Ford pickup truck. Two of those men were white supremacists. The group pulled over behind a store, beat Byrd with a baseball bat, and chained him to the back of the truck by his ankles. They dragged Byrd to his death and dumped his body — missing its arm and head — in front of a local black cemetery. 

Christian Marclay, a visual artist and composer known for his performances with a phonoguitar, told Byrd's story by dragging an electric guitar, plugged into an amp, behind a truck and making a 14-minute long record out of the noise. According to Marcus, Marclay had some last-minute doubts, as a white artist, about telling a black man's tragic story, but was convinced by a friend that it was important enough to be told.

In a rare showing of the film outside its original art installation settings, the audience at USF were exposed to the harsh noise and footage of Marclay's Guitar Drag. 

With a noose around the guitars neck, and instrument cable duct-taped in place, the guitar grinds against the pavement, swinging in and out of double-yellow traffic lanes, the viewer's moral standards, and a nation's uncomfortable history of institutionalized racism.

Marcus, a friend of Marclay, chose this track as one of the 10 chapters in his latest book, The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs.

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