October 29

Introduction to Modern American Social Realism

Lately, I’ve been inserting the terms “social realism” and “modern American social realism” into commentary and interviews about my own music and the music of others.  So, I figured I would lay out what it is that I mean when I talk about modern American social realism.

When I speak of social realism, I refer to a way of using art that brings light to previously unobserved aspects of society.  The use of the term “realism” is somewhat complicated.  At least as I view it, it refers to (1) an attempt to present these aspects of society in a “realistic” manner, not via caricature or exaggeration, and (2) an attempt to present these aspects of society as a counterbalance to what is usually presented, in an attempt to give a sense of what society as a whole is “really” like.  We’ll use the terms descriptive realism and holistic realism for these two kinds of realism, respectively.  Social realism, as I see it, incorporates both descriptive and holistic realism.

Maybe the term “social realism” differs from how it’s used in English literature classes.  I’m not an English lit major, and I’m not giving you an English lit definition, because I’m not interested in the definition from a traditional critical perspective.  I’m giving you a practitioner’s definition of the term, based on some more rudimentary concepts that attempt to cut the artistic world at its joints.

Anyway, to illustrate what I mean by social realism, take the work of Jacob Riis, presenting the artwork, Bandit’s Roost.  Riis is a journalist/artist presenting images via photography, examining the lives of the poor and neglected in New York City.  The photographs are, at least relatively speaking, descriptively realistic.  Bandit’s Roost is a photograph of some potentially unsavory characters in one of the most dangerous parts of the city.  Moreover, the work is a counterbalance to what is usually presented – hence the photograph is part of a book called How the Other Half Lives – suggesting both that it is providing a descriptive account of one half of society, and that this is a half of society that is not substantially represented.  It’s holistically realistic as well.

When I refer to modern American social realism, I refer to an intent to apply the aforementioned concept of social realism to modern times.  Of course, modern American social realism won’t take the same shape that social realism did in the 1900s.  Modern America is a more socially, racially and culturally diverse country than it was back then.  So, there is more territory to explore – not just “The Other Half” as it were, but the other 98%.  The task of holistic realism is harder.  Moreover, the methods for presenting descriptive realism will differ as well.  Traditional modern pop is, I think, a clunky medium for expressing this expanded and more diverse modern America.  The limited chord set especially used by traditional pop and top-40 (extensively discussed by others elsewhere) requires adjustment.  After all, we are dealing with descriptive realism, and if the music is to be adequate to describing the reality that is modern America, it had better be sophisticated enough.

Most modern political music is holistically real in that it attempts to bring light to previously unaddressed aspects of society (at least up to a point).  This is to say that political music deals in holistic realism.  However, most modern political does not deal in descriptive realism.  As I see it, most modern political music consists more of direct proselytizing, or the musical ornamentation of talking points.  These forms of music present holistic realism by animating political messages with musical beauty.  Descriptive realism differs from these other musical mindsets because it motivates by way of talking about the world in descriptively honest manner, and if the listener listens intently then a political message becomes clear.

Or at least, this is what I mean when I talk about modern American social realism.