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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 In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor, whereupon Beethoven rescinded the dedication.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 Mikhail 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 criticised. "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".[1][2]

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 Teutonic 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 Goebbels, who knew 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.[5]

Richard Strauss's opera Die Schweigsame Frau was banned from 1935–1945 because the librettist, Stefan Zweig, was a Jew.[6] In the Trblinka death camp, new arrivals were presented with a deceptive scene. A ten-piece orchestra played jazz and Jewish folk tunes[7] 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[8]

Contemporary classical music

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."[9]

A range of contemporary classical composers of socialist or Marxist sympathies have attempted in often quite radically different ways to relate their politics to their work. Primary amongst those from the earlier 20th century are Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, both of whom moved away from atonal idioms that had become prominent in their time, feeling these to alienate audiences, towards music and music-theatre that had roots in popular musics (for example cabaret songs), though with sophisticated harmonies that reflected their musical background. Of post-war composers, the most significant of the earlier generations were Luigi Nono and Hans Werner Henze, both of who wrote a wide range of works that combined music with texts, theatre, and electronics relating to political issues viewed from a Marxist perspective (for example to do with events in Cuba, Vietnam and Chile in Nono's work). Nono brought this subject matter into a dialogue with a relatively abstract music derived from his own earlier serial compositions, from his pioneering work Il Canto Sospeso (1956) onwards, whilst Henze relaxed his earlier formalism in favour of a more eclectic approach to musical style, as for example in his large scale cabaret-like work Voices (1973).

A range of slightly later composers in West Germany, including Helmut Lachenmann, Nicolaus A. Huber (both of whom were students of Nono), and Mathias Spahlinger responded to political concerns in a more abstract fashion, reflecting to some extent the ideas of Theodor Adorno and writing in opposition to the perceived demands made upon music (in terms of passive listening, audience pleasing, and so on) made by the culture industry. Lachenmann and Spahlinger explored a musical vocabulary derived in large measure from unusual techniques upon instruments, to offer expressive possibilities outside of the boundaries of what Lachenmann called the 'philharmonic tradition'. Huber for a while in the 1970s withdraw from the contemporary concert circuit, instead writing Politische Revuen. Other German composers whose works relate to this tradition, though with a more eclectic use of idiom, include Dieter Schnebel, Konrad Boehmer and Gerhard Stabler. Marxist ideas on aesthetic matters could be found in the writings on music by Hans G. Helms and Heinz-Klaus Metzger.

A thoroughly different approach characterised the late work of the British composer Cornelius Cardew who, influenced by the writings of Christopher Caudwell (also alluded to by Lachenmann in his work for two guitars Salut für Caudwell (1977)) and Mao Tse-Tung, famously denounced the work of the post-war avant-garde with which he had previously been associated, in his book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (in which he attacked not just Karlheinz Stockhausen but also the music of John Cage and others). Cardew argued that the atonal music of the avant-garde served to exacerbate the fragmentation of society rather than bringing the masses together; with this in mind he turned to the composition of didactic settings of revolutionary songs from Ireland, China, and elsewhere. Other composers influenced by Maoism include the Americans Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski and the Japanese composer-pianist Yuji Takahashi, all of whom also incorporated political song material into their compositions, though without wholly surrendering the other more abstract musical concerns of their earlier work, whilst the British composer Dave Smith continued to some extent in the tradition established by Cardew, as well as frequently making use of the medium of the nineteenth-century melodrama for speaker and piano, with a wide variety of texts relating to issues in Ireland, Palestine, and elsewhere.

The British composer Richard Barrett stands apart from other tendencies in that country, working within a radical atonal avant-garde idiom a little in the manner of the German composers mentioned earlier, but equally influenced by other figures including Stockhausen, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Xenakis, Kagel, Michael Finnissy and others. Barrett is concerned to marry together sophistication of musical content with a degree of surface immediacy, thus developing a musical language from fundamental parameters of register, density, dynamics, texture and timbre so as to facilitate the music's surface accessibility to the uninitiated listener. Finnissy himself has alluded to politicised topics in various works, especially in his English Country-Tunes, a ravaged musical landscape tinged with moments of nostalgia (not unlike the films of Derek Jarman), intended as a comment on the hypocrisy and falseness of English pastoralism. The British composer Gordon Downie writes in a highly abstract modernist idiom and in writings links this type of modernism with Marxist concerns. The British arts journal EONTA, under the editorship of Steven Holt, featured a range of writings on music and other arts from various Marxist perspectives.

Other composers identify with a non-Marxist left, which may embrace non- or anti-authoritarian, left-liberal, Green, or even Anarchist politics. John Cage, for example, was influenced by ideas of Henry David Thoreau and other anarchist writers. Cage's concept of an "anarchic harmony" has been taken up by younger composers, including Andrew Culver and Daniel James Wolf. Many composers are engaged with environmental issues and may be usefully identified with Green politics.

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 folk protest traditions are still being carried on today by many old and new topical songwriters and musicians of all types and varieties. Today's socially conscious musicians not only sing at rallies, demonstrations and on picket lines, but typically have professional web sites and post videos on YouTube and other popular internet sites. Examples of such activist musicians include Ray Korona (environmental, labor, peace, social justice), Charlie King (labor, social justice) and Anne Feeney (labor, protest), among many others. Although these musicians each have their own followings and performance circuits, good sources for finding many of them include the Peoples Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle and the Labor Heritage Foundation.

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.

Paul Robeson, singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist, was investigated by the FBI and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his outspoken political views. The State Department denied Robeson a passport and issued a "stop notice" at all ports, effectively confining him to the United States. In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia on May 18, 1952.[10] Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border and performed a concert for a crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Robeson returned to perform a second concert at the Peace Arch in 1953,[11] and over the next two years two further concerts were scheduled.

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.[12]

Rock music

Rock the Vote is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in Los Angeles in 1990 by Jeff Ayeroff for the purposes of political advocacy. Rock the Vote works to engage youth in the political process by incorporating the entertainment community and youth culture into its activities.[13] Rock the Vote's stated mission is to "build the political clout and engagement of young people in order to achieve progressive change in our country."[14]

Some rock groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Living Colour, Rage Against the Machine, Manic Street Preachers, Marilyn Manson, Megadeth, Anti-Flag, Scars on Broadway, and System of a Down have openly 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 Civil Rights Movement). 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 such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon commonly protested in their music, with the latter devoting an entire album to politics and the Imagine, widely considered to be a peace anthem.

Punk rock

Main article: Punk ideologies

Since the late 1970s, punk rock has been associated with various left-wing and/or anti-establishment ideologies, including anarchism and socialism. Notable punk rock artists such as The Clash, Crass, Discharge, Dead Kennedys, Millions of Dead Cops, Aus-Rotten, Anti-Flag, and Leftover Crack have been known to use political and sometimes controversial lyrics that attack the establishment, sexism, capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other social conflicts they see as problems in society.

The Sex Pistols song "God Save the Queen" was banned due to perceptions that it was anti-monarchy.[citation needed] The Crass album The Feeding Of the 5000 almost was not released because workers in the plants refused to release it due to sacrilegious lyrical content, and later Crass albums were banned. Crass eventually even ended up in court on charges of obscenity, similar to what later happened in the USA to the Dead Kennedys over their Frankenchrist album artwork.

Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, as well as TSOL frontman Jack Grisham, have even ran as candidates for public office under left-wing platforms. Also, several musicians such as Joey Ramone, Fat Mike, Ted Leo, Crashdog, Hoxton Tom McCourt, Tim McIlrath, Bad Religion, and the Dropkick Murphys were politically center-left and liberal.

An extremely small minority of punk rock bands, exemplified by Skrewdriver and Skullhead, held right-wing and anti-communist stances, and were often dismissed or reviled in the broader, largely leftist punk subculture.

Hip hop

Racism and inequality are common themes in hip hop music. Sub-genres of hip hop centered around political messages have emerged, including political and conscious hip hop.

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.

Immortal Technique, Chamillionaire, Flobots, Dead Prez, and The Coup are all noted for their left-wing views and lyrics. Right-wing influenced rap is far less common, although it is not entirely unheard of.

Tupac Shakur's debut album 2Pacalypse Now generated significant controversy stemming from then Vice President Dan Quayle's public criticism after a youth in Texas shot a state trooper and his defense attorney claimed he was influenced by the album and its strong theme of police brutality. Quayle made the statement, "There's no reason for a record like this to be released. It has no place in our society."

Country music

American country music contains numerous images of "traditional" life, family life, religious life, as well as patriotic themes. Songs such as Merle Haggard's "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "Okie from Muskogee" are patriotic songs which contain an "us versus them" mentality directed at the counterculture "hippies" and the anti-war crowd. In more recent years, Haggard has become critical of "the establishment", and even disagreed with the Iraq War. Other country musicians, such as Charlie Daniels, openly supported George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and Conservative politics in general. When Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, made negative comments about George W. Bush and publicly spoke out against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, boycotts by country music radio stations and death threats hindered the band's continued success. In 2006, with Maines still acting as lead singer, the Dixie Chicks released a "comeback" album, Taking the Long Way. The album subsequently won five Grammys.

See also: Reception of country music.

Comedy music

Through the years, there have been numerous songs that have made fun of politicians and/or politics in general. One such group in the modern era primarily dedicated to political music and satire is the Capitol Steps. Tenacious D also features several songs with political themes.

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.

Further reading

  • Pace, Ian (Fall 2006/Spring 2007), ""The Best Form of Government...": Cage's Laissez-Faire Anarchism and Capitalism", Open Space Magazine (8/9): 91–115 
  • Walsh, Stephen (1999), Stravinsky: a Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934, London: Pimlico 
  • Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, London: Faber & Faber, 1975, pp. 505–506 , translated Leo Black.
  • Moldenhauer, Hans and Rosaleen (1978), Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 
  • Jameux, Dominique (1991), Pierre Boulez, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, pp. 142 , translated by Susan Bradshaw.
  • 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 0-671-60347-7.
  • Shostakovich and Stalin (2004) by Solomon Volkov
  • Shostakovich Studies (1995) edited by David Fanning
  • Marcello Sorce Keller, “Why is Music so Ideological, Why Do Totalitarian States Take It So Seriously: A Personal View from History, and the Social Sciences”, Journal of Musicological Research, XXVI(2007), no. 2-3, pp. 91-122
  • The Book of Klezmer (2002) by Yale Strom

See also


  1. ^ Shostakovich and Stalin by Solomon Volkov (2004)
  2. ^ Shostakovich Studies (1995) edited by David Fanning
  3. ^ Music in Fascist Italy (1988) by Harvey Sachs
  4. ^ The Oxford History of Western Music, vol 4 (2005) by Richard Taruskin
  5. ^ Music In The Third Reich (1994) by Erik Levi
  6. ^ Kater, Michael (1999). The Twisted Muse. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195132424. 
  7. ^ Music in the Holocaust" (2005) by Shirli Gilbert, page 193
  8. ^ The Book of Klezmer (2002) by Yale Strom, page 140
  9. ^ article in the December 9, 2001, New York Times Arts and Leisure section
  10. ^ Duberman, p. 400
  11. ^ Duberman p. 411
  12. ^ Folk Music of China (1995) by Stephen Jones, page 55
  13. ^ "Rock the Vote - About Rock the Vote"
  14. ^ "AT&T and Rock the Vote Team Up to Engage Young Voters via Mobile Technology Throughout 2008 Election" December 19, 2007 press release

External links



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