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.