What makes music political?

What is it that makes songs more meaningful than the musical equivalent of dinner party conversation??

I think it all comes down to whether the music is a catalyst for change of some kind.  Just because a song is about a political issue, if it doesn’t make anyone or anything change then I don’t think you can call it political song.  The change can be in action – people changing their behaviour because of the song or the experience.  Or it could be people changing their mind about something as a result of the music.

Eric Drooker's 'People vs Military'

Eric Drooker's 'People vs Military'

Ok, bear with me while I pull out some complicated sounding language…  Collective singing is an experiential metaphor for collective action.  What I mean is that rather than just using a metaphor as a verbal illustration, you actually get people participating in a ‘collective action’.  Through singing together, people experience the power and togetherness of acting in a group.  Singing all by yourself is scary and exposing.  Same as political action – it’s scary confronting a police line or a coal train all by yourself.  So collective singing gives people the direct experience that doing things collectively gives power.  However, it’s not enough just to sing – that’s just step one!  Then you have to take that feeling and apply it into political action.

Image by Oxfam

We have more power collectively than we do alone

Music and performance can be political in other ways.  There are lots of examples from theatre that can be equally applied to music.  Brecht used the technique of Verfrumdungseffekt – roughly translated this means “alienation effect” or “making strange”.  The way it works is that evoke contrasting feelings in people by putting things together that don’t really match.  So you tell a funny story and make people laugh.  But the joke is followed immediately by a song that is sort of related but tragically sad.  So it gets people thinking about the same thing from two different points of view, and question their own assumptions about something.  People wonder why they laughed at the funny joke when it’s actually really sad.

Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and and The Weavers were involved in Agit Prop theatre, after the style of Brecht.  They appropriated lots of old tunes like hymns and traditional folk tunes that people know in their bones.  That way, people feel like they already know the song, and are singing along before they realise it.  And articulating a political view is a really important step in taking action. (Incidentally, the Nazis also used this technique, which has meant that many German people now associate those songs with the Nazis and have stopped singing those songs).

And in another example from theatre… Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty aimed to spur people into action in a different way.  He would assault the senses, with bright lights, smelly fish, bad language… whatever.  Often it would be offensive or cruel.  The point is to provoke a visceral response in the audience.  Music can use this technique in a way – offending people is not always bad.  It can get people thinking and acting differently as a result.  You just need to be thoughtful about how you offend people and for what purpose.

Music can also be a way of bringing people together for political organising.  Anne Feeney did a superlative job of this at a gig we played together in Copenhagen.   She used her songs to inspire people into action.  And she used them as an excuse to start some conversations like any good union organiser would do with a group.  “Who got arrested this week?”, she asked the crowd.  A few people had.  “Did they take you to the cells?  And did they take you names?  Did you have to pay to get out?  No? Good” (The crowd cheers).  “In my opinion if you haven’t been in a position to get arrested, you haven’t been doing shit”.  Or something to that effect.  Followed by her song Have You Been to Jail For Justice.

If you have anything to add (or dispute!) I’d love to hear it.

One Response to “What makes music political?”

  1. ‘You’re crying out for heroes, well now is the time!’

    Punk is not dead, it was only sleeping! Fame is next for the chop and you had better decide whose side you’re on. A flood is coming and it isn’t water or the hand of god, it is an ocean of hysterical people, people who look like you and me but they’re dead inside, foaming at the mouth with the taste of fame hungry on their lips. If you do not rise above this you will most certainly be buried alive. If you choose to rise you are not alone, there is a happening in the Underground that is a big bang in comparison to the hints of Lilly Allen and Dizzy Rascal. Bold statements are being made; bands are saying what they mean and meaning what they say! I have witnessed first hand, bands like KRAKATOA, THE RUSKINS, CALL ME ANIMAL and THE KOOLER KINGS all make a stand on socially political issues but none preach to be Politicians which should be what we want from our bands right!?! Billy Bragg and the like can only change the world by being a voice and getting heard! People have spent far too long fighting a musical revolution of ‘poor misunderstood artiste’ V’s ‘big bad record companies’ we have become numb to the true problems of the real-world! We have neglected REAL bands, bands that are bands because they believe in sending a message not because they believe in money and so called stardom! There are no A&R guys going to these gigs and being inspired by the truth because there are no record companies funding them, they are finding quick fixes to meet their quota to pay their bills! The roof is leaking and there are bands there to fix this but the NME and the like need to find them, get behind them and give them the exposure, instead of following suit of the industry with all their quirky and bizarre quick fixes and tricks the NME is not what it was-a supporter of all bands everywhere, it is now a fully fledged fashion victim, a comic book of music but the problem is the heroes inside (although talented) are lacking the balls to inspire a generation full stop! Let alone on a more political level! Punk is not dead it is rising again!

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