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Is Popular Music an Effective Vehicle for Political Discourse?

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When looking at the role of politics in music it is important, as when studying any complex area of popular culture, to look at a variety of subject positions as well as placing key historical events into context. In order to gain a well-rounded subject position of the effectiveness of politics in pop there are a variety of opinions and historical examples to take into consideration.

To look at the role of politics in music is to study a diversity of meanings. Political music, generally speaking, aids one of two causes; either serving, or rebelling against, dominant institutions in society. For example, national anthems could be cited as music with a political sentiment, aiming to reinforce nationalism and a sense of belonging, whereas protest songs (a more overtly radical form of political music) highlight social issues and act as a form of resistance.

As John Street (1986) puts it, "The politics of music are a mixture of state policies, business practises, artistic choices and audience responses." Here, Street highlights the multi-faceted nature of politics within music, and its reliance upon contextual factors, important aspects to consider in order to cultivate a better understanding of the suitability of music as a vehicle for political discourse.

Popular music has always been an effective tool in both creating and providing a commentary on social change, and its specific mobilization within social movements. For example, West coast rock music in the 1960s was ideologically premised on the opposition to America’s war in Vietnam.

…Throughout 1966 and early 1967, the antiwar movement became an increasingly legitimate concern within the political establishment. More influential politicians voiced support for the protesters and, on the West coast, the movement was gaining momentum through the efforts of the leading musical groups, regarded as modern day prophets by the disillusioned American youth… (Frankum, 2002)

These "modern day prophets" took form in bands such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and The Fish, who addressed their audience as members of an alternative society, with opposition to the war acting as the central articulating principle behind this counter-culture. The music both expressed the values and aspirations of the counter-culture and helped to consolidate the culture and unite those with the same, anti-Vietnam, beliefs.

There have been many instances where popular music has played a key role in identifying social problems such as alienation, racism, and other forms of oppression, acting as a powerful means of raising both awareness and funds for political or humanitarian causes. Examples of music playing this overt political role can be seen in both national campaigns, such as the civil rights movement, and 1969’s Woodstock Festival and international movements such as Live Aid and Rock Against Racism.

…The Woodstock festival of 1969 is remembered as much for its 'bringing together' of the counter-cultural generation as for the music performed. The event represented a milestone in the use of music as a medium for political expression, while simultaneously acting as a springboard for the more expressly commercial of rock and pop events which were to follow… (Bennett, 2004)

Music supplies a voice and allows for the creation of a shared experience and collected vision amongst those who desire change. It also enables the translation of extreme political radicalism into a more accessible, and often more effective, outlet.

Neil Young exercises his right of free speech

Another prominent, and perhaps more obvious, example of the use of politics in music is the protest song. Protest songs involve artists using their music to make political statements, usually via politically charged lyrics. There is a particularly strong tradition of protest songs within the folk genre with one of the genre’s leading figures, Bob Dylan, also being perhaps the most prominent, and certainly the most successful, writer of protest songs (and songs in general).

This aspect of folk music has crossed over into other genres, and can be seen as a clear influence in styles as varied as reggae (Bob Marley’s "Get Up, Stand Up"), punk (The Clash’s "London Calling"), and alternative rock (Pearl Jam’s "Worldwide Suicide"). Many critics fail to acknowledge these stylistically varied formats of protest song, dismissing them as unimportant.

…On the one hand, so much activity is attempting to explicitly articulate rock to political activism; on the other hand, this activity seems to have little impact on the rock formation, its various audiences or its relations to larger social struggles… (Grossberg, 1992)

Grossberg’s argument, for example, rests on a perceived "radical disassociation" of the political content of the music of artists, such as Dylan, U2, and Pearl Jam, meaning that listeners derive pleasure from listening to their music, but do so without either agreeing with their politics or even being aware of them. However, there are many factors that serve to disprove this cynical point of view, and illustrate that many listeners do indeed have their ideological horizons both defined and expanded by their association with political music. Such factors include the tremendous support given to campaigns such as Amnesty International, Rock Against Racism, and Live Aid.

In 1988 the Amnesty International tours, featuring artists such as Sting and Bruce Springsteen, succeeded in adding in excess of 200,000 new members to the organization in the USA alone. Live Aid, the key political pop event of the 1980s, reached an audience of over two billion, raising funds and awareness of famine in third world countries. These staggering achievements highlight the fact that these campaigns reached an audience who were not only aware of and interested in the events’ politics, but were also supportive towards their aspirations.

Rock Against Racism was a mass campaign against the sudden rise of extreme racism in urban Britain in the 1970s. It made use of demonstrations, magazines, records and concerts to "politicise while entertaining." While the campaign failed to put an end to racism, it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people and was a leading factor in the decline of The National Front’s proportion of the vote in 1979’s general election.

Rock Against Racism strengthened the idea that popular music could be about more than entertainment, and in 1981 the campaign’s Greatest Hits album was the first record produced as a political gesture, serving as a precedent for subsequent efforts from organizations such as Band Aid and Artists Against Aids. Street (1986) argues that the Rock Against Racism campaign illustrates "the delicacy of the relationship between a cause and its music," stating that there is too much reliance on the music as the source of unity and strength, rather than the cause and the collective support of that cause. He claims that this process of shifting importance indicates "the limitations of politics organized around music."

Tony Blair & Oasis' Noel gallagher

It seems many theorists and commentators are of the opinion that music and politics are better off without each other. It has been argued (Frith and Street, 1992) that attempts to utilise music to forge mass movement will always face two major problems. The first of these is that popular music’s power is transitory by nature, meaning that, as time passes and society changes, what were once extremist ideas and outspoken statements of rebellion will become less radical or relevant. Some songs are only overtly political in the time in which they are produced, thus the novelty or shock factor of the majority of political music has a short lifespan.

The second problem with using music for political discourse is that the power of mass protest music comes from the mobilisation of an audience brought together through the promise of a shared experience and identity, but ultimately this identity has nothing to do with their political beliefs and is, therefore, of little substance.

There is a tendency for political commentators to incorrectly assume the link between youth and the political left. Popular music is not merely the preserve of the left wing and has been used by politicians to support a broad range of political positions. This is a prime example of the political meaning of certain songs changing dramatically according to the context in which they are used. For example, John Lennon’s "Imagine," first released in 1971, once marked the outspoken, left-wing, radical impulse of a generation. However, in 1987 the song was appropriated by extreme right wing leader Margaret Thatcher for use at a Conservative party conference. This event is a prime example of ‘articulation in practice’, as the song was actively taken and given a different meaning by pairing it with a set of ideologies that completely juxtapose those it was originally written to connect with. This is just one illustration of how crucial context is to a song’s political meaning, as it may be changed by anything from the audience it is addressed at, to the location and circumstances in which it is played.

Just as musicians long ago realised the power of using politics in their music, allowing them a voice with which to broadcast their views on social issues, politicians have also recognised the power of music, and have often attempted to turn "the taste communities of pop music into the voting constituencies of party politics" (Storey, 2003).

This tempting prospect of attracting voters has seen many politicians use popular music, in varying ways in their campaigns, whether it be The National Front’s use of punk bands to attract new members during the 1970s, or President Bush’s inaugural appearances featuring an impressive roster of blues and soul acts. In 1965 Harold Wilson used The Beatles, through publicly associating with and voicing his support of the group, to increase his appeal to the youth culture and obtain more of their votes. This relationship was eventually terminated when John Lennon returned his MBE in protest of Britain’s support of the USA’s invasion of Vietnam.

Similar efforts were being made in America at the time, with President Jimmy Carter befriending Bob Dylan to gain support from the youth of America, and his successor, Ronald Reagan, openly voicing his appreciation for artists such as Bruce Springsteen.

The irony of this process is the often inept way in which politicians seek to use music in their campaigns. Reagan expressed deep admiration for Springsteen’s songs, in particular "Born In The USA," a song with extreme anti-establishment lyrics that, at times, focuses on many of the shortcomings of the Reagan administration.

More recently in the UK, Conservative leader David Cameron chose to end his part of a conference speech by playing "You Can Get It If You Really Want" by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, presumably wishing to transfer the song’s upbeat message of overcoming adversity into his own campaign. However, as always, context is crucial, and as the song is really addressing overcoming the persecution of a right wing, upper-class government, and the idea of a revolution led by the lower classes, putting the song into its correct context leaves David Cameron’s intended sentiments distinctly off-message.

Although it can be extremely effective, there are several problems with the use of politics in music. The unfortunate hypocrisy of political songs is that, while their power appears undeniable, many ‘radical’ artists only achieve mass popularity through being a part of the very institutions against which they claim to be protesting. This negative viewpoint leads us to the conclusion that the only tangible site for any kind of cultural resistance exists on the margins of society, where any form of political music has so far avoided being neutralised by the music industry.

…Put bluntly…“big is bad, small is good” because “big” supposedly represents domination, while “small” represents resistance… (Balliger, 2006)

The argument is that, eventually, as any type of politically oriented music gains popularity, it is marginalised and repackaged by the industry for maximum financial gain with minimal risk. The only problem with this negative way of approaching, and ultimately dismissing, protest songs and other forms of political music is that the very nature of political music is that it creates a banner around which "the masses" can rally. Therefore, political music, by definition, needs to exist on a large scale in order to be effective.

In summary then, the awkward appropriation of popular music into politics is yet to show effective results, as music is generally anti-establishment by nature. However, popular music is an extremely effective vehicle for political discourse, acting as a tremendously powerful weapon in bringing about social change, and in documenting that change. The argument could be made that politically oriented music solves, or at least acknowledges, factors such as youth alienation; providing every generation's youth (who are generally more radically minded politically) with a 'family' and a collective voice. Whilst it may not be completely successful in solving social issues such as racism, famine, and poverty, because it has the ability to reach a wide general audience, it is an immensely effective means of raising awareness on a number of issues, and bringing people together to strive towards a collective goal.

References/Further Reading:

  • Ballinger, Robin (2006): "Politics" in Horner and Thomas, Key Terms In Popular Music And Culture. Blackwell
  • Bennett, Andy (2004): Remembering Woodstock. Ashgate
  • Frankum, Ronald B. Jr. and Maxner, Stephen (2002): The Vietnam War For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons
  • Frith, Simon and Street, John (1992): "Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge" in R. Garofolo, Rockin' The Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements. South End
  • Grossberg, L. (1992): "Is There A Fan In The House?: The Affective Study Of Fandom" in L. Lewis, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Routledge
  • Middleton, Richard (1990): Studying Popular Music. Open University
  • Negus, Keith (2004): Popular Music in Theory. Polity Press
  • Shuker, Roy (2005): Popular Music: The Key Concepts. Routledge
  • Storey, John (2003): Cultural Studies and The Study of Popular Culture. Edinburgh
  • Storey, John (2001): Cultural Theory and Culture. Harlow
  • Street, John (1986): Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music
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About Rhys Williams

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