[Marxism] The misuses of music

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 6 11:18:33 MDT 2010

Counterpunch Weekend Edition
August 6 - 8, 2010
The Musical Patriot
How BP Harnesses Music to Its Message


There is nothing more sincere than a guitar. A few simple chords, 
plucked or picked one note after the other at a gently swaying tempo 
summon reflexive feelings of trust, comfort, love, and hope. This 
elemental musical style works for the lullaby and the love song, the 
meditation and the memorial. Few musical tasks are easier to learn than 
grabbing a chord with the left hand on the frets while the right hand 
moves across the strings. Still fewer musical techniques give you more 
bang for your buck.

This mode of gentle guitaring provides the new soundtrack to the oil 
catastrophe as staged by BP on its “Gulf of Mexico response” website, 
which posts new videos every day of how swimmingly the clean-up is 
going, how satisfied the residents of the Gulf are with BP’s claim 
system, and how committed the scofflaw corporation is to “making things 
right.”  A canny lot, the BP filmmakers know full well that the 
earnest-looking BP managers confronting the camera with the most 
fantastical tales of environmental justice and technological triumph 
over accident and adversity would be hard even for children to take with 
a straight face.  Enter the mournful minstrel. His honest lyre will make 
us understand how BP really feels.

The August 4th video features Keith Seihan, BP’s head of beach cleanup 
along the Gulf Coast. Before we see this young-ish man with receding 
hairline, rimless glasses, a yellow polo shirt, and beige slacks on 
screen we hear the guitar—the calming sonority of BP’s oil spill media 
campaign. The guitar precedes Seihan’s appearance by about one second, 
but that is plenty long enough to project the company’s seriousness of 
purpose and resolute compassion. What we hear on the soundtrack, and 
before the projection of any image, is a G-minor chord rising up from 
its bass note.  The minor mode and restrained pace of the arpeggio 
assure us that this is not a glib exercise in public relations.  From 
out of the depths, this oil-soaked minor cries, “I know this was a 
tragedy. I understand your pain.” Just one chord and we are made to feel 
certain that BP takes its cleanup task with profound seriousness and 
compassion for humanity at large. The guitar speaks directly to the soul 
without the clutter of text, sung or spoken.

With the guitar still rolling through that resonant minor chord, the 
first image comes up: a hand-held camera swings onto a boardwalk between 
a parking lot and a wide, sandy beach. We see an image of Seihan 
listening carefully to a big-bellied man in uniform talking to him. 
Seihan nods. He wants to hear what this guy has to say as they stroll 
along the sand, empty of people and oil.

Seihan’s southern-accented voice-over enters above the lingering minor 
chord, and tells us, “I’m from the gulf coast. I vacation here. My 
family spends a lot of time here. I have a personal vested interest in 
ensuring that we get this job done right.” He feels the pain, too.  With 
regarded to “vested interest,” Seihan doesn’t disclose his salary

As Seihan continues introducing himself, the bass descends to E-flat and 
the harmony fills out that chord. The music has almost surreptitiously 
shifted to the sunnier major mode.  With this simplest of musical means, 
the BP troubadour—perhaps a Gulf Coast hippy paid off to calm the savage 
beast of public opinion, or more likely a big-city studio 
musician—signals that although a great tragedy has occurred, BP has 
taken full responsibility. There are far more gallons of hope in the 
Gulf and than there are of oil. After the opening minor chord three 
major ones proceed in logical order, following a tried-and-true chord 
progression that many a 17th-century composer and modern-day weekend 
strummer have found their way through. It is not only the warmer, major 
sonorities that imply a rosy future for the Gulf. With its logical, 
almost ineluctable succession of major chords the music conveys not only 
optimism but progress as well. Has BP recognized the seriousness of the 
catastrophe, and its minions are moving forward with a series of 
positive and successful measures.

The filmmakers time things with great precision. The first pass through 
the four-chord guitar’s cycle, each of which lasts about ten seconds, 
coincides perfectly with Seihan’s litany of his bona fides. As Seihan 
stresses his “personal investment,” the harmony is poised on an F-Major 
chord ready to resolve to B-flat major from where it has just come. But 
instead the music moves unexpectedly up to the original G minor, closing 
the circle of the progression, allowing it to beginning again where it 

In music theory this is called a deceptive cadence, because from the 
so-called Dominant chord, which in the vast major of Western pieces 
precedes the final sonority (the Tonic), the ear expects the bass to 
move down the interval of a fifth (or up a fourth) to come to a close. 
For a tutorial in this venerable musical convention listen to the close 
of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the composer 
alternates between Dominant and Tonic chords at epic length. The BP 
catastrophe soundtrack would seem to want to send us from the F Major 
back to B-flat Major. But BP knows it is too early for even a dash of 
the triumphant heroism of Beethoven’s Fifth. Instead of the full 
cadence, the bass moves upward by a step, thwarting our expectation, and 
bringing us to back to the minor. Never was there a deceptive cadence in 
which message and musical means were more perfectly aligned. It’s 
precisely at this point that the screen is filled with the ad’s first 
tag-line: “Making this Right. Beaches.” This exercise in corporate 
deception should answer any doubts that even the simplest of 
instrumental music can project meaning.

We next see Seihan on the beach with hotels rising behind him.  Talking 
directly into the camera now, he introduces himself as head of BP beach 
clean-up, then recites lines about BP having taken full responsibility 
for the mess. The music and message are looking towards a bright future: 
“You may have heard that oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf. Less oil 
is coming ashore every day.”  This assumes that the job can be done, 
that oil can be cleaned from grasses and marshes and sediments and vast 
stretches underwater. The music laps at our consciousness like gentle waves.

By returning to the minor chord again and again through this deceptive 
cadence, the cyclic soundtrack expresses an underlying message that BP 
is not going to take the easy way out. There is still much work to be 
done: “When oil is spotted we get right to work. We still have thousand 
of people ready to clean up [the oil] when it does [come ashore].” The 
down-to-earth-guitar strives and strums to lend credence to this 
corporate fantasy. The music slogs on, moving ceaselessy from concern to 
hope and back to concern. It is music for the long haul, never tiring, 
never giving up. But while the mood is firmly confident, it is too early 
to celebrate on camera, even if the boardroom is dancing to a very 
different tune as the stock price vigorously rebounds.

With each successive chord plucking relentlessly at the listener’s 
credulity, the BP guitar wants us to believe in the corporate message of 
commitment and candor. But the soundtrack’s effect is both more 
insidious and more instructive than that. Beneath the sheen of 
sincerity, this music lulls and comforts. It numbs the faculties. All 
the ads end with one or another of the BP spokesmen, in this case 
Seihan, saying “We’re going to be here as long as it takes to make this 
right.” By this point, the hypnotically rocking guitar chords have 
already becalmed the ears, and the vision blurs against the dancing 
flames of the flare-stack. Sleep descends and the minstrel steals from 
the room.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and 
the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: 
Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica 
Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2 at cornell.edu

More information about the Marxism mailing list