American novelist and musician James Greer—who spent two years in the mid-1990s playing with the indie rock band Guided by Voices—discusses the way lyrics reflect the listener’s emotions rather than the songwriter’s intentions. “Even the most nakedly vulnerable song ends up as the soundtrack to someone else’s heartbreak,” he writes in his contribution to a symposium in The Believer’s 2017 August/September music-themed issue. “Whether or not it reflects the writer’s actual experience, or even his or her imagination, should be irrelevant.”
The observation that music produced for a wide audience can be exceedingly personal underscores a challenge undertaken by “Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance,“ which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit this month, and runs through January 7, 2018. The show provides ample social context in the form of posters, photos, documentation, musical instruments, and videos. There is footage from the 1967 Detroit Uprising showing tanks dispatched on the city streets and snipers firing from buildings. However, MOCAD juxtaposes this historical information with presentations that emphasize the privacy of interpretation. Cauleen Smith’s Black Utopia (2012), a double LP featuring music, lectures, interviews, and other material drawn from Sun Ra’s archives in Chicago, is configured for “Sonic Rebellion” as a listening station, where a visitor can sit in a rattan chair among scattered records and a potted plant.
In “Sonic Rebellion,” artworks are presented with little distinction alongside archival material, and there are plenty of items that fit both categories. The keyboard on which techno pioneer Derrick May composed “Strings of Life” (1987) functions as a historic marker rather than an art object. A set of amplifiers belonging to guitarist Jack White, customized in 2003 at the behest of the musician by influential Detroit artist Gordon Newton, serves as both an artwork and relic. The reference materials were drawn from local networks, grounding the exhibition in Detroit’s history of musical innovation, which encompasses Motown Records, techno culture, and the EDM scene, as well as genre-busting works by musicians schooled in indie rock and second-generation hip-hop.