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.
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.
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.
This entry was posted on January 31, 2010 at 5:48 pm and is filed under Activism, Anarchism, Climate change, Copenhagen, Culture, Folk music, Music with tags activism, Anne Feeney, art, culture, David Rovics, music, Peggy Seeger, political, political song, radical art, social change. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.