Music and politics

From Academic Kids

In common with most of the arts, there is a long history of political expression in music. This expression has most often used anti-establishment or protest themes, although pro-establishment ideas are also used, for example in national anthems and patriotic music.


Politics in different musical genres

Folk music has a tradition of political content, with songs sung to commemorate popular uprisings and strikes, and to protest against injustice and social inequity.

Classical music has often been used to glorify political leaders, largely because the patronage of the rich or powerful was the main source of income for composers in previous centuries; see for example Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, French overture. In recent times this has become less prevalent; the Master of the Queen's Music in the U.K., for example, is no longer required to compose hagiographies to Elizabeth II. Even in the past classical composers registered dissent: Beethoven removed a dedication to Napoleon from his Third Symphony to protest against Napoleon's crowning himself Emperor.

Popular music since the middle of the 20th century has increasingly featured politically-inspired lyrics. It has often been used to express anti-war sentiments; Jimi Hendrix famously satirised the U.S national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," through the use of extreme distortion and feedback as a protest against the Vietnam War. The majority of political popular music has an anti-establishment or left wing perspective; right-wing musicians have tended to be condemned by mainstream audiences due to the racist stance of many of these performers. In western popular culture, it is rare except in times of war for pro-establishment music to gain a foothold in the popular consciousness. The punk rock genre was overtly political: its genesis in the mid-1970s was as a reaction to the aloofness of the bands in the rock scene at that time, and its lyrics often espoused anarchy or revolution. This position was epitomised by artists such as Crass and the Dead Kennedys, who were inspired by anarcho-syndicalism (see Punk ideology). Black music has a long tradition of protest, from the blues performers of the early 20th century, up to and including the rap and hip-hop more recently popular.

Censorship of music

Governments have often sought to place restrictions on the performance of certain types of music.

Totalitarian regimes in particular have censored music for the same reasons that they are prone to censoring literature, theatre, cinema, painting and other art forms.

Islamic fundamentalist governments, such as in Iran under the Ayatollahs and Afghanistan under the Taliban, have at times banned music completely, at least that of a secular nature. Similar laws were invoked in the 17th century in Britain under the Commonwealth of England.

In western democracies songs have been banned from receiving radio airplay due to their lyrical content, although this is often an action taken by radio stations rather than governments themselves. This has often had a counter-productive effect, with the records concerned increasing sales due to the curiosity engendered by the ban: in 1977, year of Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee, the Sex Pistols' single God Save the Queen reached number two in the U.K. Top 40 after being banned, largely for political reasons.

In the U.S.A., religiously-inspired outrage has also been known to lead to the public burning of music considered unholy: in 1966 recordings by The Beatles were destroyed by conservative Christians in the U.S.A. after John Lennon compared the band's popularity to that of Jesus.

The Soviet Union censored all art forms, including music, during its existence. Many of its prominent composers obviously felt restricted by this censorship, which often dictated that all pieces end in a major key and be uplifting. Several, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, often ran into trouble with the censors (such as after Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony) and became increasingly sarcastic and frustrated. Shostakovich himself is said to have slept by his door, ready to be deported to Siberia without waking his family.

Music in the political process

Candidates for public office often have campaign theme songs which they play at appearances. These songs are usually contemporary popular songs without explicit political content, though they may have easily politicized or sloganized lyrics. In both the United States and the United Kingdom since the 1990s, all the major political parties have appropriated popular songs at election time, not always with the consent or approval of the recording artist. It has also often been the case that, while the song's chorus may be "on message", the lyrics to the verses may espouse a different viewpoint that shows the party in a less than complimentary light. See coverage of this issue in the UK Guardian newspaper (,,1447057,00.html).

During the 1800s, particularly in the United States, political campaigners composed songs praising their favorite candidate, or criticizing their candidate's opponent. This practice gradually died out during the twentieth century.

Unions have a long tradition of rousing or mournful songs, usually consisting of popular and/or folk tunes with pro-union lyrics or lyrics commemorating union organizers or events. These were often sung at events or during marches and while on picket or strike lines. (see Seeger 1985)

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.

External links

Further reading

  • Pete Seeger (1985). Carry It On!: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0671603477.

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