A Cultural Reader: Dan Graham, Rock/Music Writings

by Martine Syms

A few months ago I went to my first business conference. Between keynotes I overheard three middle-aged female executives discussing an idea that had been rejected by a client. “We should just do it,” proclaimed one of the women. “You can write it, I can produce it, she can direct it. Why can’t we do it ourselves?” The women nodded vigorously in agreement, visibly excited at the prospect of doing it themselves. 

I was sitting alone a few rows in front of them wondering if they were familiar with the acronym-cum-ethos “DIY.” It was hard for me to think of “doing” without the accompaniment of self-sufficiency. I was a tween when I became aware of punk culture. It was the 1990s, so I had twenty years of dogma to obsess over.

The best of Dan Graham’s writings explore this tremulous relationship between rock music and belief. Graham writes like a fan. I’m sure as a teen he pogoed with the best of them. In “Rock My Religion” (1983), Graham explains how the ritualistic dance of the Shakers evolved into a vital part of rock ’n’ roll. He recasts rock shows as tent revivals. The star is godlike, while the music provides a steady beat for a collective fugue of youth and commerce. 

In “Punk as Propaganda” (1979) and “Artist as Producer” (written between 1978 and 1988; published in 1999), Graham turns his critique toward the contradictions of popular punk acts from Devo to Alternative TV. Beginning with Devo’s assertion that rock music is “Propaganda for Corporate Capitalist Life,” Graham indicts punk for promoting empty rhetoric about the media for the sake of media attention. But maybe punks are formalists; collapsing structure, content, style, and distribution into one continuous activity. 

Martine Syms is a conceptual entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, California.