On Composer-Bros and Bernie Bashing: The Aesthetic Politics of the Ultra-Woke

In the 2016 Democratic primary, thirteen million voters pulled the lever for a candidate running on a traditional left liberal platform calling for a government jobs programs, a less bellicose foreign policy, a crackdown on Wall Street criminals and serious efforts to address an impending climate catastrophe.

At least, that’s what most of us who voted for Sanders thought we were doing.

One of the oddities of the campaign was persistently encountering the view within the agenda setting media that what was really motivating us was something very different. Rather than a positive affirmation of Sanders’ program the votes of Berniebros, as we were derisively referred to, were purely negative, motivated by sexism against the front runner and racism directed against many of her supporters.


A farcical recapitulation of this recent history can be seen in a column by a member in good standing of the elite media class, the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg. The ostensible subject involves a few composers objecting to the Pulitzer prize for music having been awarded to rapper Kendrick Lamar. These provided the opportunity for Rosenberg and a former Yale classmate (1) to engage in frenzied, ritualistic savaging of what might be called composer-bros, “white people from privileged backgrounds” whose veritable essence is assumed to deprive them of the capacity “to wrap their heads around Kendrick [Lamar].” Lamar is, according to them, “dealing with topics they don’t necessarily want to look at, in a way that’s simultaneously unflinchingly direct and also very complex and layered.”

“They” in the previous sentence is taken to indicate those excluded from the woke multiculturalist circles inhabited by Rosenberg and her interlocutor who somehow survive the extreme violence of their self-administered pats on the back on display here.

Returning to the planet earth, it is not only members of this post Yale social club who are able to appreciate the virtues of Kendrick Lamar. In fact, many of the composers they are condescending to insist on Lamar’s musical brilliance and cultural significance albeit while expressing reservations about the Pulitzer board’s decision. (2) That there is absolutely no contradiction is a matter of elementary logic: as anyone who has made a hiring decision knows, the question of whether X is highly skilled at or even brilliantly qualified for Y is entirely independent of whether X is an appropriate choice for Y.

Furthermore, even if it were the case that certain composers actively dislike Lamar’s music and have cast aspersions on his musical competence their doing so would say precisely nothing about their underlying attitudes. To take one obvious example, the manufacturer of legendary Republican hit pieces Lee Atwater had a profound affinity for African American music and musicians, sympathies which easily co-existed with his promoting a dogwhistled racist agenda. To infer substantive political content or commitments from affective aesthetic preferences is a fool’s errand.

That Rosenberg has little interest in examining these ambiguities is apparent as was her studied avoidance during the campaign of the reasons why Sanders voters rejected her preferred candidate, Mrs. Clinton. And just as Rosenberg played a role in creating the myth of the sexist Bernie bros, who, she claimed (were) ”aggressive(ly) adopting language and stances . . . tinged by gender” it should come as no surprise that she is attempting to imbue composer bros with similarly reactionary impulses.

As has been known since the time of Gilgamesh, myths come into the world in response to a range of psychological needs and cultural conditions.

In the case of the Bernie bro, its function was more or less transparent. Clinton’s long history of pandering to the corporate right exposed her to criticism from the left. Being based on obvious and uncontroversial facts, Clinton’s campaign staff well understood that these criticisms were unanswerable. Hence, the normal recourse in such situations to the time honored tactic of smearing those attempting to tell the truth and expose Clinton’s deceptions about it. The Bernie bro was almost certainly consciously manufactured for this purpose probably by Clinton’s deeply unsavory communications guru David Brock.

With respect to the composer bro narrative myth, the agenda which is being served is less narrowly political and more broadly personal, Rosenberg’s own history as a long time admirer and supporter of Clinton being illustrative of this point. It was Clinton, after all, who demonized a generation of black youths as superpredators while promoting the drug war leading to the mass incarceration epidemic which is, incidentally, the subject of Lamar’s most poignant and affecting work. It was Clinton who cheered on Welfare Reform, a cynical and opportunistic triangulatory maneuver directly attacking the most vulnerable and loyal sector of the Democratic Party base. And it was Clinton’s promotion of trade agreements which destroyed the industrial economy of numerous regions immiserating countless African American families who had begun to establish themselves on the economic ladder.

Rather than acknowledge the substantive atrocities which Clintonism visited on African Americans, Rosenberg and others shift the focus to the aesthetic realm which allows them to lash out at symbolic targets whose traditional tastes they see as marking them as benighted, reactionary deplorables. Within this realm they remain blissfully unaware that the politics they have actively promoted has done incalculable damage to African American communities from coast to coast and, for that matter, around the globe.

This gambit should by now be plenty familiar. A few years ago I made note of a similar tendency whereby academics “purchase leftist bona fides on the cheap through symbolic concessions in the aesthetic and cultural realm, while failing to challenge capital’s virtually uncontested string of triumphs in the political and economic spheres.”

The ultra woke aesthetics being shamelessly paraded in the Post represents the pseudo-populist face of the same tendency.

It’s time to recognize it for what it is and the major role it has assumed in legitimizing the predations of neoliberalism.

(1) A former student of mine, full disclosure requires me to mention.

(2) My 14 year old review of some of the grounds for reservations (all of which remain operative) is here.


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