Take three apparently trivial events: Ukraine wins the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, a rock star cancels a concert and a political rally features the song Rolling in the Deep by Adele.
None of these moments might strike anyone as significant, and certainly not worthy of the attention of those interested in politics and the political system. But looked at more closely, suggestions of political relevance begin to emerge.
When Ukraine won Eurovision, it was with the song 1944. Sung by Jamala, it referred to Stalin’s deportation of the Tartars from Crimea. Although the organisers of the competition deemed that 1944 did not represent political speech, it was widely understood to be an expression of political protest, resonating with past and present injustices.
It was Bruce Springsteen who cancelled the concert in 2016, and he did so for explicitly political reasons. The show was due to be staged in Greensboro, North Carolina, a state that had recently passed the so-called bathroom law determining which toilet facilities could be used by transgender people. Springsteen issued a statement in which he said:
“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry- which is happening as I write- is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards”.
And finally, Donald trump’s campaign used Adele’s hit song at its rallies. Also, used were songs by Queen, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Aerosmith. In every case, the musicians objected to the use, arguing that they did not want to be associated with “The Donald”.
In each instance, these trivial cases reveal a direct connection to the political world, and hence they assume some greater significance than might otherwise have been expected. But, even still, the more hard-nosed student of politics might object that all of these examples serve merely as footnotes to the more substantive business of politics, to the transactions of power and principle. When we look at music’s involvement with politics, they might say, we’re looking at a sideshow, not the main feature.
Why might such a view be wrong? Why might it be important for those who want to understand politics and politicians that they pay heed to music and musicians?
The golden days of the 1960s protest song nay be past, but music is still used- across the world- as a vehicle to voice political views and to inspire resistance (hence Jamala and Eurovision). One very recent example is the song What it means by Drive By Truckers, protesting at police shootings of African Americans.
Music played a prominent part in the Arab Spring, where it served both to spread the message and to provide a spirit of solidarity when the police and army moved in. Rapper El Général is credited by Guardian music journalist Andy Morgan as helping to spark the uprising in Tunisia and the viral hit Leave by Ramy Essam combined the chants and slogans of Tehrir Square.
As such, music served as a form of political communication, and as a source of mobilisation.
The power of music in these circumstances is precisely why authoritarian regimes take the trouble to censor it or, in the case of Mali, to ban music for more than a year. (It’s not just authoritarian regimes, of course, that censor. In 2003, Clear Channel removed the Dixie Chicks from all their radio stations in the US after the band made uncomplimentary remarks about George W Bush.
To the extent that music seems to matter as a form of political communication, so it is that musicians assume the role of spokesperson and representative of their fans- or in the case of Bob Geldof and Bono, of “humanity”. They become “celebrity politicians”. For some, such interventions are merely the stuff of show business, but Springsteen’s protest in North Carolina led business leaders to join in the campaign and to put pressure on the legislators.
In a sense, Donald Trump is also a “celebrity politician”, whose claim to represent the American people is based on his role on The Apprentice. As Mark Singer reports in his book Trump and Me (2016), there are those who believe that, “deep down”, Trump “wants to be Madonna”.
For those who want to understand modern politics, such remarks, however frivolous they seem, are revealing of how politicians are conceived (and conceive themselves). Their fortunes, and popular responses to them, are articulated through the world of entertainment, and the music business in particular.
The story of music’s relationship to, and importance to politics, doesn’t end with the celebrity politician and with political communication. It extends into the way in which states both in the present and in the past use music as part of their “soft power” armoury.
In the Cold War, the US government devoted much time and money to recruiting music and musicians to the cause of undermining Soviet ideology. Jazz was used not just as example of Western Culture, but as the embodiment of “freedom”. In the current era, it’s hard not to see the competing responses of Russia and the US to the treatment of the punk protest of Pussy Riot in 2012 as the conduct of international relations by other means.
Even the apparently arcane disputes over the operation of copyright law, state policy intersects with matters of identity and interest. the case brought by Marvin Gaye’s estate for plagiarism by the writers of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines entailed arguments about cultural rights and cultural history, about what was common culture and what was private property.
The example of Blurred lines might seem like another of those trivial examples, of no consequence to the serious-minded student of politics, but as with the other cases, there is more than might meet the ear.
John Street is Professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia