Online Class Discussion #8 is open for comments March 27-April 2. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
Music has the power to convey messages—through its words, because of the context where it’s played, because of who’s playing it, and because of our associations with similar musical sounds. (The study of how music is able to convey messages, imply ideas, or communicate subtlrties to nuanced listeners is called semiotics.) We’ve seen examples of all of these already in class and in our online discussions: the patronage system and music lending prestige to a wealthy household, gender issues, the use of Beethoven’s music to celebrate German nationalism and later at the falling of the Berlin Wall, and musicking/the morality of listening. The composer Christian Wolff (b. 1934) goes so far as to say that “All music is propaganda music.”
In this Online Discussion, we’re going to explore four kinds of music propaganda: nationalism, protest music, political rallies, and the music of war.
Defining terms: politics and propaganda
The use of music as a manipulation towards political ends is propaganda. Let’s clarify the word “political” before we go any further. We often think of government, political campaigns, protests, or politicians as what constitutes politics, but the definition is much broader. “Politics” refers to the strategies or ideas of a particular group—any group. That’s why it can be considered “political” to shop (or not shop) at certain stores to protest the beliefs of their owners, or where your clothes are made, where you choose to live (or the fact that you don’t have a choice), who is cast to star in a movie or TV show, the level of education you want to achieve or have the (financial, social structure) means to achieve, or even the words you use. All of your actions in life are political—all of them, because you are a member of many different groups in society, and because your actions and choices rest upon assumptions, norms, and values not everyone would affirm—and the more politically aware you are, the more time you take to think about the broader repercussions or context of your actions. Your ideas, feelings, and beliefs are shaped by the political landscape around you, and they determine your actions, and those actions continue to shape your political landscape—for you and for others.
“That which you believe to be right and good and true in the world, those values that you hold most dear, your conception of what it means to live the good life, everything that is important and meaningful to you, make up part of your political landscape.”
The rebuttal argument says that personal decisions are just that—personal—and therefore aren’t political. This argument assumes that we can—whenever it suits us—ignore the repercussions or context of our decisions.
For now, let’s work with the idea that it’s possible for anything to be political, if only we’re willing to interpret it along those lines, and let’s turn our attention back to music. Music’s effectiveness as propaganda (manipulation towards political ends) is based on the power of music to incite particular feelings and thoughts in your mind, especially when coupled with context, power, or a threat.
It’s worth keeping George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in the back of your mind—music is a means of controlling the message of the present:
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
Reinforcing a nation’s power and identity
In class last week, we discussed the way in which 19th-century German citizens equated the greatness of their music with the greatness of their country, using the music of Beethoven and Wagner to demonstrate the might and value of Germany.
Nationalism (celebrating one’s nation) was a common political and musical theme in the 19th century, with nationalistic music being composed and celebrated all across Europe: Italians rallying around the king of a newly unified Italy (Vittore Emanuele II) and using the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) to do so, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) composing music that celebrated his homeland of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) doing the same in Norway, and Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) doing the same in Finland.
The same thing happened in the United States, particularly in the form of local town bands that played marches in parades after the Civil War. John Philipp Sousa (1854-1932), for example, made his career composing 137 marches and serving as Director of the US Marine Band and later his own professional band, the Sousa Band. One of his marches, The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896), was named the national march of the US in 1987.
Nationalistic music is often simplistic, with clear, obvious, and steady rhythms—things that can get a crowd of people clapping along, making them musically united as long as the music sounds. In music of this style, melodies are often clearly differentiated in the texture and are characteristically rousing, encouraging, or uplifting. The form of a Sousa march always concludes with a polyphonic texture [3:58 in the above video], allowing the composer to capture some of the depth and nuance of the idea they’re celebrating by simultaneously layering different melodies on top of each other.
On top of that, marches like these were played as part of larger patriotic displays, with flags waving, veterans marching, and stirring speeches—all things that resonated with and amplified the music’s message.
Giving voice to those not in power
Music played a large role in American anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, expanding protesters’ message beyond just disagreement with a specific war to a broad, public polemic against all violence. Woodstock (August 15-18, 1969) was the capstone of ongoing protests by young, often white and middle class Americans against the use of violence generally, the Vietnam War specifically, and other ideas that they associated with “the establishment” (their parents’ and grandparents’ generation who were in charge of the social, political, and governmental structures that led the country into this morass in the first place) and all things the establishment stood for: the American Dream, being uptight or square, capitalism, anti-drugs, monogamy and heterosexuality, and—of course—anti-rock music.
The power of Woodstock and the music by rock and folk musicians who performed there lay in uniting a large group of people (400,000 attendees plus more who sympathized but couldn’t attend), articulating a message contrary to that espoused by people in traditional positions of power, and doing so in a way that was pleasant, persuasive, and enticing for a certain group: young people liked this kind of music and were drawn to it, whereas older Americans were not.
Performers included rock bands (Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills Nash & Young), world music and fusion groups (Santana, Ravi Shankar, Sly & the Family Stone, Blood Sweat & Tears), and folk singers (Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie).
Here’s Country Joe McDonald performing Vietnam Song which he wrote specifically for the festival:
Jimi Hendrix played the last set of the festival (approximately 130 minutes long), and his solo performance of The Star-Spangled Banner (the US national anthem) was particularly powerful because it was both an extraordinary display of his skill and creativity as a guitarist as well as a musical protest—it audibly and prominently distorted the melody and form of national anthem, and in the process re-purposed it from a bland, patriotic gesture into a personal claim: “There is room in America for me, for people like me, for my ideas, and for me to shape America into the country I want it to become.”
Coming on the heels of the Civil Rights movement (1919-68), the assassinations of Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and in the middle of general dissatisfaction with the country, Hendrix’s performance made a powerful statement.
US football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem during the fall 2016 NFL season can be seen in the same context. As a racial minority in the US, Kaepernick listened to the anthem, saw the display of celebration and pride that it encompassed, and found those to be in dissonance with his experience as an American and the experience of other Americans. Rather than stand during the playing of the anthem at San Francisco 49ers games, he took a knee on the sideline, causing uproar for viewers who took his gesture to be a direct affront and insult to members of the military. The fact that his gesture could be interpreted so differently speaks to the powerful place that the anthem occupies in people’s imaginations and how strongly they associate the musical sounds with political ideas.
Kaepernick’s gesture also encouraged a broader re-examination of the Banner itself, which was written by Francis Scott Key following the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. (It became the US national anthem in 1931.) The song has four verses, but we typically only sing the first in public events today. The third verse, which celebrates the deaths of slaves who were promised freedom by the British if they defected to the Royal ships in the harbor but were killed by American fusillade, makes the song problematic.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The national anthem’s role as a piece of nationalistic propaganda doesn’t allow for a nuanced reading of its origin or text. Because the song is a powerful symbol of the nation it represents, a person who questions it or seems to lack complete faith in that symbol can be interpreted as disrespectful, not just of the song but of the nation itself. This conflation is an example of false logic, obviously, but the fact that such a reaction is possible shows just how effective the song is as a piece of propaganda.
A final poignant example of protest music from the US in the 20th century is Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit (1939). The text of this piece was written by Abel Meeropol (1903-86), a high school English teacher in New York City. Meeropol was disgusted and incited to action by photographs of lynchings that he had seen and he wrote the poem Strange Fruit in response. Hoping to gain more traction for his ideas and win over more people, particularly White northerners who didn’t think about the threat of lynching every day, he approached several musicians to perform it, knowing that more people listen to music than read poetry. Holiday made it one of her signature pieces.
The US government’s response was to call a series of hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Musicians who had performed the song were asked to explain themselves to the government: Why would they sing something that was so “un-American”? Meeropol was accused by New York State lawmakers of having been paid by the Communists to write the poem, and he was barred from teaching ever again.
Side note: Government officials in 2016 have called for the re-convening of the Un-American Activities Committee in order to investigate “un-American” actions by Muslims in America.
The US government has historically attacked other musicians for creating music that it felt conveyed inappropriate messages, thereby implicitly acknowledging the power of music to convey ideas, shape opinion, and encourage behaviors. The rap group 2 Live Crew was sued by the state of Florida for obscenity in 1990 for the content of their album “As Nasty as They Wanna Be.” The band won the court case, but their career was effectively ended by the process.
Campaign events, rallies, and inaugurations
Political rallies and political events—held to bolster the support of a particular government official or would-be government official (i.e., a candidate for office)—are common features of campaigns and governing alike. This is slightly different from nationalism, because the focus of adulation is not on the country per se but rather on the individual person standing at the podium.
Although less flashy than a modern political rally, an aristocrat or ruler during the Baroque era who commissions music for enjoyment in their palace in front of foreign dignitaries is certainly engaging propaganda: they are demonstrating their power through music and through the high-quality musicians they can associate with their palace (Online Discussion #1). And we’ve seen how modern dictators do the same thing (call back to Online Discussion #7!).
In modern political campaigns, politicians use popular songs as a means of turning their rallies into parties, unifying their supporters, and conveying their identity. Just as with music composed specifically for nationalistic purposes in the 19th century (described above), pop and rock music used in political rallies is typically simple and catchy, easy to clap or dance to, and has simple words that seem unambiguous (even if they aren’t in actuality). Music is played as the politician walks on stage, amping up the crowd and adding excitement or luster to the event. In 2016, for example, Katy Perry, Cher, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Bon Jovi, John Legend, Marc Anthony, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z all attended and/or performed at Hillary Clinton events. In 2012 will.i.am wrote a song and performed it at Barack Obama campaign events (plus all the musical events at the White House during the Obama presidency).
Sometimes politicians use music without the permission of the musician, and musicians then publicly disavow their lack of support for a politician who used their music. The association of their music with a politician and their ideas is powerful, and if given the choice musicians would rather that their music advance causes or people they believe in. Here are few examples of popular music used by politicians in the past 30 years for campaign events without the artist’s permission:
- Neil Young, Rockin’ in the Free World; Adele, Rolling in the Deep; Elton John, Rocket Man; R.E.M., It’s the End of the World; Rolling Stones, Brown Sugar; Giacomo Puccini, “Nessun Dorma” from Madama Butterfly – used by Donald Trump without any of the musicians’ permission (2016)
- Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. – used by Ronald Reagan without Springsteen’s permission (1984)
- John Cougar Mellencamp, Pink Houses and Twisted Sister, We’re Not Going to Take It – used by Paul Ryan without either musicians’ permission
- Jackson Browne, Running on Empty – used by John McCain without Browne’s permission (2008)
- Tom Petty, I Won’t Back Down – used by George W. Bush without Petty’s permission
- Tom Petty, American Girl – used by Michele Bachman without Petty’s permission
- Survivor, Eye of the Tiger – used by Newt Gingrich without the band’s permission
- Dropkick Murphys, Shipping Up to Boston – used by Scott Walker without the band’s permission
- K’Naan, Wavin’ Flag – used by Mitt Romney without K’Naan’s permission (2012)
- Heart, Barracuda – used by Sarah Palin without the band’s permission
- Bobby McFerrin, Don’t Worry Be Happy – used by George H.W. Bush without McFerrin’s permission (1988)
When a politician uses a musician’s work without the artist’s permission, they’ll typically be attacked publicly (in a statement by the musician or their representative) and legally (with a cease-and-desist order from the musician’s attorney).
If some of these songs seem unfamiliar to you, it’s because the politicians are courting a different generation/demographic than the one you belong to, and these songs are ones that those people remember.
President Trump’s inauguration had significant difficulty booking musical acts precisely because artists were apprehensive about being associated with his presidency or bolstering his positions. The list of artists who were invited and publicly declined to perform was long: Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes, Andrea Boccelli, Elton John, Céline Dion, KISS, Garth Brooks, Rebecca Ferguson (who said she’d only perform if she could sing Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit), Charlotte Church, Jennifer Holliday, and the Bruce Springsteen cover band The B Street Band.
The Music of War
Armies have been using music in battle as long as there have been battles. Drums keep armies in step, trumpets signal which units should advance, and the enemy can hear music of an approaching army long before they see them—allowing fear to set in if the approaching army sounds big and powerful.
During the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars (1526-1791), Turkish armies made use of psychological warfare by having their Janissary bands perform outside the walls of a city under siege, psyching up their own troops and intimidating the citizens trapped inside. For Europeans, the Turks’ use of percussion (especially metallic percussion) and nasal-sounding wind instruments would have been frightening because of its unfamiliarity.
Music as psychological warfare continues today, and Jonathan Pieslak’s book Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War (2009) explores how American troops and interrogators typically use heavy metal and rap to pump themselves up for battle and to rattle prisoners during interrogations. Alex Ross’s excellent article “When Music is Violence” in The New Yorker (2016) summarizes Pieslak’s book and other instances of music being used to inflict harm on others: Ross – When Music Is Violence – The New Yorker
The last piece of music I’ll leave you with is Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (2002), a song written during peak post-9/11 fervor that captures the ideologies of American protectionism, American exceptionalism, and anti-foreigner sentiment. It encapsulates everything we can expect from propaganda-music: it’s catchy and simple, it leaves no room for subtlety or nuance (“We’ll stick a boot in your ass / It’s the American way”), and it spreads a particular idea among a group for political purposes. The imagery of the video (gently billowing American flags, cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves of the southern working class, US soldiers in battle fatigues, and guns) reinforces the propagandistic message.
Music is a powerful means of conveying messages, and the potential flip side of this power is the rejection of that message (and the messenger/musician) in the form of boycotts, commercial failure, and censorship.
Art is a way to express ourselves at our best, or at our most profound, or ourselves in our best image. And it’s a way for us as listeners to explore, empathize with, and experience other people’s lives and perspectives. The arts and literature are among the first targets of tyranny and censorship because they open people’s eyes – to different ways of life, to different perspectives, to alternative realities. We humans are by nature inquisitive creatures, and when confronted with something new, we ask ourselves how it could exist, what has caused it to come into being. We imagine what sort of person might have come up with a piece of art, what kind of world a person who writes a certain song could live in. And if we start imagining other people and other perspectives, we might be tempted to change our own, and that is the wonderful danger of art.
Questions to get the conversation started
- In what ways are your choices/actions political (in music or in other aspects of your life)?
- What role does nationalistic music, protest music, overtly political music, or the music of war play in your life?
- There are many kinds of musical propaganda, including prominent varieties not covered in this discussion post: music in movies, video games, TV, advertisements, and religious settings. What are some other examples of music as propaganda that you’ve noticed, and how do they compare to the examples included in this discussion?
- Are there examples music that you admire precisely because of its political content/context, or are there examples of music that you avoid because of its use as propaganda?