Music and politics  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

There is a long history of the connection between music and politics, particularly political expression in music. This expression can use anti-establishment or protest themes, including anti-war songs, although pro-establishment ideas are also used, for example in national anthems, patriotic songs, and political campaigns. Many of these types of songs could be described as topical songs.

Unlike many other types of music, political music is not usually ambiguous, and is used to portray a specific political message. While the political message in political music is apparent, it is usually in the political context of the time it was made--which makes understanding the historical events and time that inspired the music essential to fully understanding the message in the music.

Since political music is meant to be heard by the people, it is often meant to be popular.


Classical music

Beethoven's third symphony was originally called "Bonaparte". In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor, whereupon Beethoven rescinded the dedication. The symphony was renamed "Heroic Symphony composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man".

Verdi's chorus of Hebrew slaves in the opera "Nabucco" is sometimes considered to be a kind of rallying-cry for Italians to throw off the yoke of Austrian domination (in the north) and French domination (near Rome) - the "Risorgimento". Following unification, Verdi was awarded a seat in the national parliament.

RAPM (The Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) was formed in the early 1920s. In 1929 Stalin gave them his backing. Shostakovich had dedicated his first symphony to Mkhail Kvardi. In 1929 Kvardi was arrested and executed. In an article in "The Worker and the Theatre", Shostakovich's "The Tahitit Trot" (from the ballet "The Golden Age") was criticsed. "Can one actually dance to such music", said Ivan Yershov. the article claimed it was part of "ideology harmful to the proletariat"". shostakovich's response was to write his third symphony, "The First of May" (1929) to express "the festive mood of peaceful construction". (See "Shostakovich and Stalin" by Solomon Volkov (2004) and "Shostakovich Studies" (1995) edited by David Fanning).

Prokofiev wrote music to order for the Soviet Union, but managed to keep his musical standard high. "Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution" (1937) is far from banal. Khachaturian's ballet "Spartacus" (1954/6) concerns gladiator slaves who rebel against their former Roman masters. It was seen as a metaphor for the overthrow of the Czar. Similarly Prokofiev's music for the film "Alexander Nevsky" concerns the attack of Tutonic knights into the Baltic states. It was seen as a metaphor for the Nazi invasion of the USSR. In general Soviet music was neo-romantic while Fascist music was neo-classical.

"I don't believe anyone venerates Mussolini more than I" said Stravinsky in 1930 to a Rome newspaper ("Music in Fascist Italy" (1988) by Harvey Sachs). By 1943 Stravinsky was banned in Nazi Germany because he had chosen to live in the USA. Beginning in 1940, Orff's cantata "Carmina Burana" was performed at Nazi Party functions, and acquired the status of a quasi-official anthem. ("The Oxford History of Western Music, vol 4" (2005) by Richard Taruskin). In 1933 Berlin Radio issued a formal ban on the broadcasting of jazz. However, it was still possible to hear swing music played by German bands. This was because of the moderating influence of Goebels, who know the value of entertaining the troops. In the period 1933-45 the music of Mahler , a Jewish Austrian, virtually disappeared from the concert performances of the Berlin Philharmonic. (see "Music In The Third Reich" (1994) by Erik Levi).

Richard Strauss's opera "Die Scheigsame Frau" was banned from 1935–1945 because the librettist, Stefan Zweig, was a Jew. (See "The Twisted Muse" (1977) by Michael Kater). In the Trblinka death camp, new arrivals were presented with a deceptive scene. A ten-piece orchestra played jazz and Jewish folk tunes (see "Music in the Holocaust" (2005) by Shirli Gilbert, page 193). Shloyme Klezmer stood by the entrance of the gas chambers and played with the orchestra as the bodies were gassed. He saw his son being led in and pulled him out of the line. As SS officer saw this and laughed. shloyme smashed his violin over the SS officer's head and marched with his only child into the gas chamber (see "The Book of Klezmer" (2002) by Yale Strom, page 140).

Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" (1962) emphasised the futility of war, by quoting poems by Wilfred Owen. He had previously written a "Pacifist March" in 1937. He had been a conscientious objector during the second world war.

Adams' opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" (1991) concerns the killing of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists. The audience had expected to see the demonisation of the terrorists, but instead saw an even-handed treatment of the Palestine Liberation Front. Richard Taruskin of the University of California accused Adams of "romanticizing terrorists." (see article in the December 9, 2001, New York Times Arts and Leisure section).

Folk music

The song "We Shall Overcome" is perhaps the best-known example of political folk music, in this case a rallying-cry for the Civil Rights Movement. Pete Seeger was involved in the popularization of the song, as was Joan Baez. During the early part of 20th century, poor working conditions and class struggles lead to the growth of the Labour movement and numerous songs advocating social and political reform. The most famous songwriter of the early 20th century "Wobblies" was Joe Hill. In the 1940s through the 1960s, The Weavers as well as Woody Guthrie were influential in this type of social and political music. Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", was a popular anti-war protest song. Many of these types of songs became popular during the Vietnam War era. Blowin' in the Wind, by Bob Dylan, was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, and suggested that a younger generation was becoming more aware of global problems than many of the older generation. In 1964, Joan Baez had a top-ten hit in the UK with "There but for Fortune" (by Phil Ochs). It was a plea for the innocent victim of prejudice or inhumane policies. Many topical songwriters with social and political messages emerged out of the folk music revival of the 1960s, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and many others. These traditions are still being carried on today by many old and new topical songwriters and musicians of all types and varieties.

Blues songs tend to be resigned to fate rather than fighting against misfortune, but there are a few exceptions. Josh White recorded "When Am I going to be Called a Man" in 1936. At this time it was common for white men to address black men as "boy". He also wrote "Silicosis is Killing Me" in 1936. Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" in 1939. With great sophistication, it draws a comparison between fruit on the trees and the rotting corpses of lynched black men.

In Communist China, exclusively national music was promoted. A flautist named Zhao Songtime, a member of the Zhejiang Song-and-Dance Troupe, attended an Arts festival in 1957 in Mexico. He was punished for his international outlook by being expelled from the Troupe. From 1966 to 1970 he underwent "re-education". In 1973 he returned to the Troupe but was expelled again following accusations. (see "Folk Music of China" (1995) by Stephen Jones, page 55).

Rock music

Some rock groups, such as Roger Waters, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Living Colour, Rage Against the Machine, Manic Street Preachers, Metallica and Marilyn Manson openly have political messages in their music.

Detroit, Michigan's MC5 (Motor City 5) came out of the underground rock music scene of the late 1960s, and displayed an aggressive evolution of garage rock which was often fused with sociopolitical and countercultural lyrics of the era, such as in the songs "Motor City Is Burning" (a John Lee Hooker cover adapting the story of the Detroit Race Riot (1943) to the Detroit Insurrection of 1967), and "The American Ruse" (which discusses U.S. police brutality as well as pollution, prison, materialism and rebellion). They had ties to radical leftist organizations such as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and John Sinclair's White Panther Party (composed of white American socialists seeking to assist African Americans in the fight for racial equality - it was not, as the title may suggest, a white supremacist group). MC5 performed a set before the 1968 Democratic Convention held at International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois where an infamous riot subsequently broke out between police and students protesting the recent assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnam War. During the counterculture era, acts like John Lennon commonly protested in his music, with latter devoting an entire album to politics and the song Imagine, widely considered to be a peace anthem. Imagine's lyrics talk about "giving peace a chance" and Imagine also deals with imagining a world without countries or religion. 1965, Bob Dylan sang to his fans about the evils of war and the emptiness of consumerism when he released his trade mark album "The Times They are A-Changin'" which became one of his number one albums containing one of his number one songs. This song was articulating the movement of social change and that history will always repeat itself. When he sang the lyrics "Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen and keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again. And don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin." He achieved the attention of the civil rights movement which helped in the transformation of the American political landscape.

Like any other musical artist, Dylan was influenced by other radical groups such as the Wobblies- the popular group of the thirties and forties, the Beat Writers of the fifties, and above all, by the political beliefs of young people during the civil rights movement. In his songs, he included the terror of the nuclear arms race, poverty, racism, prison, jingoism, and war. With his songs, he helped with the political revolution of America in the 1960s.

Punk rock

Since the 1970s, punk rock has been associated with various anti-establishment ideologies, including anarchism and socialism. Notable punk artists such as Dead Kennedys, Anti-flag, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Patti Smith and Black Flag have been known to use political and sometimes controversial lyrics that attack the establishment. The Sex Pistols song "God Save The Queen" was banned due to perceptions that it was anti-monarchy. Green Day's "American Idiot" caused controversy among George W. Bush supporters who believed it was anti-patriotic, anti-nationalist, and anti-American.

Hip hop

Racism and inequality are common themes in hip hop music.

Rap artist Sean "P Diddy" Combs led "Vote or Die," a not-for-profit organization, around the 2004 elections that was geared to draw more youthful voters into the polls. The "Vote or Die" campaign was successful in its efforts, as it drew 20.9 million votes from the youth demographic (age 18-29) — up from 16.2 million in 2000. The overall turnout for the age group increased as well. 51 percent of citizens ages 18 to 29 voted in 2004. 42.3 percent voted in 2000.

Public Enemy was known for their politically charged lyrics, especially for their album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and the song "Fight the Power". Frontman Chuck D is the main advocate for political awareness in the group. He travels across the United States and advises people to pay more attention to politics instead of celebrity issues.

Immortal Technique, Flobots, dead prez and The Coup are all noted for their left-wing views and lyrics.

New musicology

New musicology is the cultural study, analysis, and criticism of music. It is often based on the work of Theodor Adorno (and Walter Benjamin) and feminist, gender studies, or postcolonial hypotheses. As Susan McClary says, "musicology fastidiously declares issues of musical signification off-limits to those engaged in legitimate scholarship," including politics.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Music and politics" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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