| Arts & Culture
Television Even the TV Characters Know It’s Time to Riot
The rise of radical politics in shows like “Andor” offer me a surprising source of hope.
When people think of classical music, they often picture expensive instruments and beautiful concert venues. That association is by design. A carefully constructed veneer of class and luxury hides an industry that exploits its workers without hesitation.
For five years, I was one of those exploited workers: a violinist struggling through her first years in the gig economy, taught to be grateful for any scrap of work. I took any job I was offered, even if it was unpaid, hoping it would lead to opportunities that never materialized. I had been made to think I was utterly replaceable—something I’m only now beginning to disbelieve—and my only luck was that I had enough of a safety net to think that I could afford to work for free. I was recently reminded of this time in my life while watching the Disney+ series Andor . If the show had aired a few years before the pandemic, I might have recognized how much my work depended on my dehumanization and been given the courage to resist.
Over the last year, shows like Andor , the sitcom Abbott Elementary , and films like Everything Everywhere All at Once have offered me surprising sources of hope against our society’s many failing systems. Andor is largely a show about the radicalization of individuals. We watch as, over the course of the series, characters who do not start as part of the rebellion are left with no choice but to join by the end. There is no Force—that power usually ubiquitous in the Star Wars franchise—to help the people of Ferrix, Cassian Andor’s home planet. Only the community can liberate themselves from the Empire’s oppression.
During what’s become known as the show’s “prison trilogy,” I watched the Attica-esque riot and briefly fantasized about what might have happened if one of my orchestras had revolted in the same way. In the life of a working classical musician, there is a lot to revolt against: Our industry is opaque, bogged down by a history that perpetuates exclusion and exploitation. The Berlin Philharmonic, recently featured in the movie Tár , first admitted a woman in 1982 after almost a century of its existence. That was still two decades before The Vienna Philharmonic’s first female admission in 2003. In 2018, when I toured Europe with the Houston Symphony, I shed tears of gratitude on many concert-hall stages, thinking of all the women who had been denied the same opportunity. Even though I no longer feel the pressure to accept every job I’m offered, the conditions are still far from fair. Like nurses, freight railroad workers, book publishing staff, and countless other fields that have recently gone on strike for fairer working conditions, my colleagues are overworked and underpaid, saddled with debt, and neglected by the institutions that purport to serve us.
I’m ashamed to admit that I was hesitant to join the musician’s union when I started freelancing. How could I afford dues when I was struggling to make rent? I finally joined when I took a job that required membership. That it was one of the best paying jobs I’d ever had was not a coincidence. Before I joined the union, I worked with contractors who would never hire you again if you asked ahead of a gig how much you would get paid. I’ve had friends who were fired for not writing grateful enough thank-you emails after a job was finished. I once took a job that required three different methods of transit each way. Factoring in the cost of food and transportation, I earned a total of sixteen dollars for a week of grueling rehearsals and hours of commuting. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve been paid in pizza, and definitely don’t ask how many times (for some ensembles, years!) I’ve worked for free, hoping my willingness to do so would get me called again.
In the life of a classical musician, there is a lot to revolt against: Our industry is bogged down by a history of exclusion and exploitation.
Our industry calls this kind of thing “putting in the work.” Other industries call it “paying your dues.” Whatever you call it, it’s abusive. Organizations do this because they can. Same with the Empire. For too long, Kino Loy (Andy Serkis), one of the foremen at the prison factory in Andor , kept his head down and did his job, thinking it was the best thing for himself and for his fellow workers. Instead, he was participating in his own exploitation and the exploitation of his peers. Similarly, when I took jobs, I was so relieved to be making money, it never even occurred to me that companies would pay me unfairly. But they did, and in accepting their offers, I was eroding the bargaining power of my fellow musicians. It didn’t help that the music institutions responsible for our education enshrine classical music as something of deep cultural importance. I was trained to believe that my art was worth every sacrifice, including myself, and that I should be grateful to ever play at all.
The first few years I freelanced as a violinist, I took as many jobs as I could because I, like my parents and their fellow immigrants, believed in chasing the American Dream. My parents moved to New York with almost nothing after surviving the Cultural Revolution in China. They worked multiple jobs to earn enough money to bring over the son they’d had to leave behind. I absorbed their work ethic, practicing four to five hours a day, a number I would later double in music school. They were led to believe that if you just work hard enough, success is inevitable. This myth also served me for a time, but more often than not, it led to self-hatred. When I didn’t achieve the expected results, it was always my fault and never the fault of the systems that were invisibly stacked against me. The solution didn’t seem like community—it seemed like working even harder.
Everything Everywhere All at Once was the first film where I saw people like my parents and my community reflected onscreen. Not just people who looked like us but with obscene amounts of wealth—instead, this film centers a working-class immigrant, a laundromat owner and her family, fighting a Kafkaesque tax audit. In Everything Everywhere All at Once , community is both a means of survival and the ultimate goal. The happy ending for Evelyn, the matriarch, isn’t one that buys into capitalist notions of happiness and fulfillment. She could choose any potential universe she wants, including ones in which she has great material wealth. But instead of the American Dream of status and fortune, the film gives us permission to embrace a new dream: one of community and family.
After years of degrading jobs in different cities, I started freelancing in New York City. I was surprised to find a vibrant community of fellow musicians and contractors who stood up for one other. We would commiserate after terrible gigs, recommend each other for the good ones, and mostly, celebrate getting to do what we love together.
Abbott Elementary reminds me of this community. The show is largely about mutual aid: the educators are routinely denied the funds and resources they need to do their jobs, but they always manage to find creative, communal solutions. Like the teachers at Abbott, musicians also have to be resilient and resourceful to make up for the lack of resources extended to both schoolteachers and artists. I’ve played in many ensembles where we have had to fundraise to pay ourselves and to rent the sheet music, the venue, and the chairs (which we then also set up and tear down). We publicize these concerts, rent fancy recording equipment to document the show, and edit the results to use as marketing materials for the next event. We are our own recording engineers, costume departments, publicists, equipment movers, and instrument technicians, but the joy of collaborating and choosing what we play and who we play with makes any extra work worthwhile. In my favorite contractors, I see so much of Barbara Howard’s character. They understand their role as providers and protectors and treat it as a responsibility. I remember getting drinks with one contractor after a gig. She mentioned the original payment amount the organization had offered and scoffed in disbelief at a number I would have happily accepted. At other jobs, she stood up and walked out of the room when it was time for a break. I would have never asked for one at all—I was too starstruck by the recording artists and celebrities we backed to ask for one. Nor would I have negotiated pay: I was taught to be grateful for anything. She taught me I could want more.
At a time when Marvel superheroes and their politics of individual heroism are dominating screens, these shows are radical for centering the collectives that have been affected by institutional failures. As Barbara Ransby wrote, “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.”
The global reckonings of the past few years have led to a moment where some of us expect more from our culture than mere entertainment. It is important to honestly and creatively portray our challenging lives and the pervasive unease in which we live. I have often worried that a career in the arts is selfish or frivolous. Classical music can feel like a plaything for the rich, but I’m inspired by TV and film to find ways of using it to connect more deeply with wider audiences. The presence of radical politics in TV and film is especially apparent when I think about how mainstream these works are and the size of audiences they’re reaching. Abbott Elementary is a sitcom—traditionally a genre with mass appeal. There’s been a lot of talk about Abbott reinventing or rebooting the network sitcom, and I think it’s been successful in doing so at least partly because it’s about collective struggle, rather than neglecting substantial issues as a way to broaden its audience. Everything Everywhere All at Once is favored to win many of its eleven Academy Award nominations, an incredible feat by any means, but especially for a movie about working-class immigrants with an Asian and Asian-American cast. Andor , which contains dialogue that paraphrases Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, is produced by and streaming on Disney, whose content and amusement parks are a rite of passage for most children. While I’m excited that Disney, which has such a reach with younger audiences, is responsible for such a radical show, should we be worried that one of the biggest conglomerates has figured out how to commodify radical ideas? Is televising the revolution a way to get us to passively ingest ideas of resistance rather than actively resisting, thus maintaining the status quo?
Is televising the revolution a way to get us to passively ingest ideas of resistance rather than actively resisting?
Luckily, this representation is widespread. There are many shows and films interrogating our broken systems (like Severance , Reservation Dogs , Mo , and Emily the Criminal .) The corporations behind these TV shows and films may benefit in the short term, but I believe these works form a collective blueprint from which we can learn to free ourselves from oppression in the long term. These works all realize the words of bell hooks—“One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance.”
It’s a gift to see narratives onscreen that honor the work of community activists. I just wish it had happened sooner. I can only imagine how different my industry, particularly my generation of classical players and the ones before it, would have been if we’d been given such mainstream examples of community to guide us. I don’t often feel optimistic about the future of my industry or the world at large, but every night, I turn my TV on and let myself be surprised by all the reasons it gives me to remain hopeful.