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May 5, 2011

Book Notes - Sophia Rosenfeld ("Common Sense: A Political History")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In Common Sense: A Political History, historian Sophia Rosenfeld explores the genesis of the phrase "common sense" and the evolution of its definition (and application) over the years. Arresting and enlightening, this book has as much to say about political history as it does the present day.

The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:

"Rosenfeld seeks to explain how the "common sense" of the people became a touchstone of political wisdom and a ubiquitous catch-phrase in political debate across the Western world…Rosenfeld is a shrewd and inventive historian. She has excavated the rhetoric of common sense from an impressive number of sites and has shaped this diverse evidence into a smart and plausible narrative. She writes with verve… Rosenfeld warns us that common sense is sometimes just an honorific that we bestow upon our prejudices."

In her own words, here is Sophia Rosenfeld's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Common Sense: A Political History:

Common Sense. Good luck finding a law-maker or pundit who does not claim it as his (or her) most trusted ally. We can argue over how we got to this point or even whether politics is better or worse off a result. Those questions animate Common Sense: A Political History. One thing, however, is beyond dispute. The idea of common sense has led to a lot of truly dreadful music. And its antithesis, nonsense--a big-time insult in the world of politics--has inspired some of the best music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the great French writer Denis Diderot put it several centuries ago, when the politics of common sense was just coming into its own, a man has in common sense just about everything necessary to be "a good father, a good husband, a good merchant, [and] a good man," not to mention "a bad poet, a bad musician, a bad painter, [and] a very dull lover."

Lets start with the bad stuff. There are several kinds of songs that take up the theme of common sense, all tending to the cliché-ridden and the predictable.

At the most basic, we're rich in songs in the exhortatory "Use It!" vein. They can be bland and anodyne, like the Jamaican Winston McAnnuf and the French keyboardist Camille Bazbaz's light reggae song "Common Sense," where the refrain vaguely warns us "Trouble's gonna set like rain . . . best to use your common sense." Or they can be full of practical prescriptions about rent payments and marriage, as in "Common Sense" by the spiritual rappers Raiderz of the Lost, where God is called in repeatedly for the stern rebuke: "I gave you common sense, use some today."

Next up is that bad rock staple, the mind-control fantasy. These tunes come with the contrary warning, "Watch Out for Common Sense!" "The Ministry of Common Sense" by the 60s-style, British psychodelic band Inspector Muffin (I kid you not) is a mildly catchy, derivative song about how some shadowy force requires us to all think alike, setting up picket fences around our ideas. Would it be unfair to call this song an unmemorable pop rendition of a big theme of recent French philosophy, where common sense has gotten very bad press?

But we must not forget the oft-heard laments "We've Lost Our Common Sense!" and "Where Did It Go?" In pop songs, nostalgia can—like populism in general—come in either right or left flavors. A scary example of the former is "Common Sense [Ain't Common Anymore]," from an album with the give-way title of Don't Tread on Me, by the country singer Rip Masters. Listen for all the talk of "illegals" blinding us with their high beams, the demise of the right to self-defense, and the horrors of gender-bending, conveyed in a reassuring, twangy, old-time mode. Or, on the other side, consider the painfully earnest folk ballad "Common Sense" by Cris Kelly, who sings about labor laws and late night TVand appeals in a similarly old-fashioned vein to three great Americans to bring back our lost common sense: Tom Paine (who is central to Common Sense: A Political History too), Woody Guthrie, and—surprise!—Walter Cronkite.

More in the spirit of Paine is, actually, the classic "It's Time for the Common Sense Revolution" song. What this actually means is always unclear—just as it was in the eighteenth century. But the aspiration does produce some slightly better aural effects. At one end of the musical spectrum is "6th Sense" by the rapper Common (originally known as Common Sense) and Bilal, an inspirational, collage-like hip-hop song that addresses itself to "the black people" and opens with a Gil Scott-Heron sample proclaiming "The Revolution will not be televised. The Revolution is here" before promising to "help y'all see clear." At the other end lies "The Politics of Common Sense" by the British band Napalm Death, the godfathers of furious and oddly compelling political grindcore with totally unintelligible lyrics aimed at no one in particular.

Finally, we can't forget all those songs belonging to the familiar genre that we can call "Common Sense is Overrated--So Let's Party!" Exhibit A is the electronic dance song "Common Sense" by Flunk in which the most compelling line is "You blow my mind and I'll blow yours." Exhibit B is the singularly terrible John Prine song "Common Sense," from his 1975 album of the same name, in which the lyrics "it don't make much sense that common sense don't make no sense no more" counts as a highlight.

Ah, but what can be done with nonsense, you ask? In the final chapter of Common Sense: A Political History, I write about Dada, that great early twentieth-century artistic celebration of the absurd, as a giant provocation to the politics of common sense that had been developing for the previous century and a half. Sound (and especially the sound of spoken language) functioned as one of its key instruments of attack. And there is no better starting point from the perspective of your ears than Marie Osmond performing Hugo Ball's "Karawane," written in the wake of the horrors of World War as a challenge to the habitual meanings, or sense, that we give to random sounds in the form of words.

Not surprisingly, some great pop music has picked up right where those interwar Europeans left off: removing the listener from the realm of clichés, thwarting his or her everyday expectations in a jolt that can be aesthetic, political, or both. To end this musical romp through the politics of common sense and nonsense on a high note, sit back and enjoy the true lack of common sense on display in the Talking Heads' 1979 "I Zimbra," a musical setting of Hugo Ball's Dada nonsense poem "Gadji beri bimba"; the Pixies' 1989 "Debaser," with lyrics inspired by the surrealist filmmaker Louis Buñuel; or the more current off-kilter nihilism of "Sans Bon Sens" (Without Good Sense) of the French metal band Marionet X. And then consider reading Common Sense: A Political History to help make sense of it all.

Sophia Rosenfeld and Common Sense: A Political History links:

the book's website

Brainiac review
PopMatters review
Wall Street Journal review

Matt Lewis Show interview with the author
The Page 99 Test guest post by the author
Washington Post editorial by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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