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The Beastie Boys, Rush and Contrapuntal Thinking


It's not often that I get to combine my academic interests in comparative philosophy with my extracurricular interest in popular music. It's not that the aesthetic doesn't bear considerable weight in the philosophers that I work on. It certainly does. It does not, however, often collide with not one but two pop greats of the last three decades and seldom- never to be exact- involves radical genre hopping and internet memes.

But occasionally - very, very occasionally - the stars will align and produce a cultural object that tugs just so at the philosophical and pop strings. In his book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said discusses his idea of "contrapuntal reading" in terms of feeling out the push and pull of competing narratives within a single text; for example, the traces of a colonized narrative emerging alongside, within or below the narrative of a colonizer or vice-versa. This is the particular kind of comparison Said seems to have in mind in Culture and Imperialism but he writes of it as a generally recognizable category, counterpoint being for Said a clear reference to the musical phenomenon of melodies, countermelodies and accompanying harmonic figures working simultaneously at odds - competing for the ear if you will - but in an entirely, beautifully, complimentary whole.

In this musical reference, Said most likely had in mind the works of Bach and other baroque and classical composers and not, say, Rush or the Beastie Boys. But in the work of producer Jay Braun's "Pass the Mic, Tom" a very different kind of musical counterpoint suggests a slightly new spin on Said's notion of contrapuntal reading. Mash-ups are certainly not new on the cultural landscape at this point but many (probably most to be honest) involve simply ripping the vocal track from one source and throwing that on top of an instrumental track from some more or less unlikely source. These can range from completely forgettable throwaways to curious novelties, good for a laugh or two but quickly forgotten. But the more ambitious and more successful mash-ups often involve either a creative and occasionally unrecognizable reimagining of one half of that equation (as Dangermouse did with the Beatles side of The Grey Album) or, perhaps even more ambitiously, of entire musical ideas from both sources, as Braun does here.

This 'contrapuntal writing', if you will, involves finding truly complimentary and also usefully abrasive passages in the already existing works and fusing them, drawing out musical ideas hidden within the originals, merely suggested or which exist at some dialogic midpoint. In this case, an arena rock grandeur is found lurking within the decidedly lo-fi Beasties track, long after the group had left the trappings of big stage rock-influenced anthems (like on their first record) far behind. Similarly, within the technical proficiency and formalism of the Rush track is found a creeping subversiveness, a decided swagger and the very sense of danger that so many critics of prog rock thought the subgenre had utterly eliminated from rock and roll. While Said's contrapuntal reading involved hearing out the multiple voices within in a single author's text and between a single author's text and its context, here in some ways we see a conscious melding of texts to produce a similar 'counterpoint' -- however, in this case, the producer in many ways fills the shoes of both author and critic.