In light of the death of Lou Reed, we offer an excerpt from Barry Shank's forthcoming book The Political Force of Musical Beauty (out in April 2014). This is from Chapter 4, which considers The Velvet Underground.
A restricted field of cultural production is Bourdieu’s term for artists who produce for other artists and the prestige they can convey, not directly for a market of consumers and the cash they provide. Unlike the typical restricted field, the restricted field that the Velvets created was not the mere reproduction of an avant-garde within the popular, mimicking the efforts of so-called downtown composers to transform the means of production of music. This restricted field was instead a specific intervention into the field of popular music. John Cale’s viola would have meant little without Lou Reed’s deep investment in the precise craftwork of the popular song. Sterling Morrison’s commitment to the capital R of “rhythm guitar” and Moe Tucker’s reversion of the bass drum back to its primary function as the keeper of all beats, not simply the downbeat, produced a rhythmic reinforcement of the drone that characterized the sound of the Velvets even after Cale was forced out of the band. The drone of the Velvet Underground reopened the question of the popular by alienating it from its dominant concretization—the market.
The Velvets’ drone-infused restricted field enabled popular-music artists to claim the authority of the popular while they articulated values that ran directly counter to mainstream beliefs. I am not referring here to the simple and obvious point that the Velvets wrote and performed “pop songs” about heroin and sadomasochism. Instead I argue that the drone that is foregrounded in the band’s signature sound was the central sonic technique used to establish a restricted field of popular-music production. By establishing this possibility, the music of the Velvets made audible the popular critique of the dominance of market evaluation—as a mainstream popular standpoint. This critique worked at the level of music before it was a conscious thought or desire held by the musicians. That is, their music was heard and felt as a meaningful sound before the musicians conceptualized its function. The drone was central to their music not because it was believed by the musicians or their fans to be a critique the market definition of the popular, but because the drone was beautiful. Indeed, the power of Velvets’ drone-based critique was rooted in its beauty.
With the reevaluation of musical meaning that was enabled by the beauty of the drone, every other aspect of the Velvets’ sonic signals took on heightened significance. Tucker’s version of “African” beats was not heard as white misappropriation. Reed’s lyrical precision was not judged according to the conventions of folk-descendant singer-songwriters. Morrison’s mastery of rhythm guitar, where it was commented on at all, was not compared to the classic models of John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Robbie Robertson. Beneath the drone, outside of the sphere of market calculation, the Velvet Underground’s sound created its own terms for critical evaluation and, in so doing, carved a new political aesthetic from the driftwood of the popular.