Friday, May 15, 2009

The Importance of Political Music.

As I start to condense some 8,500 words into four pages for my IASPM presentation I have been thinking a lot about the relative importance of political music. As you should know by now, my doctorate concerns the conditions that will ensure it’s production and reception in the digital environment and maximising the opportunities for it to act as an agent of social change. However in recent times it has become apparent that while this is a noble and valuable pursuit, it takes place in a world that in fact needs many forms of culture including those that I have tended to refer to as ‘superficial’ or ‘distracting’.

Someone asked me recently what music has had the most impact on my life and in answering, I, without hesitating, said that the most obvious music has been that with a strong message about personal strength and courage. Even last week, in the process of confronting some personal challenges, I walked around with a Britney Spears song in my head with the lyrics ‘I’m stronger than yesterday’. Yet in my intellectual pursuits I have typically distanced myself from this form of culture. Indeed there are many moments in my life when I have turned to non political music for comfort, support and fun. Just today I tried to purchase the new Hilltop Hoods CD. It has not been released yet, but the intention was to use it as a new form of escapism – to listen to something that I could enjoy but not on a purely intellectual level. [I will not download it but am cursing the fact that I can hear it on the radio but not purchase it for another month! Damn those release dates.]

As a politically aware person it can be hard for me to actually indentify the impact this form of culture has had on me – since becoming heavily immersed in the study of these types of songs I have made some changes to my personal behaviour including taking greater responsibility for the environment (buying carbon credits when I could, being more diligent about recycling, walking rather than driving when I can), being more aware of and more compassionate for the disadvantaged and marginalised and more in tune with the political events that are taking place in the world. But when the impact is micro not macro, it can be more subtle and difficult to see. Aside from the internet censorship campaign in Australia I cannot claim to have become more overtly involved in politics. Nonetheless the changes are there and the music has certainly been part of making that happen.

But political music is just one form of culture that has produced changes in my personal behaviour and approach to life. When I want to dance (much to the world’s regret) I listen to dance music, techno and hip hop. When I am feeling down I listen to music that has an uplifting message – one of my favourites is Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’. When I want to relax I listen to classical music or instrumental works (I would not be here today without Deep Forest). And so it becomes clear to me that in my enthusiasm for advocating the conditions for protest music that perhaps I am guilty of being dogmatic. There is a time and a place for all forms of culture – just so long as I am not the only one that remembers that.

Some are aware of my lack of appreciation for organised sports, indeed I commonly refer to football as a form of distraction. Having grown up in a city that stops for sport I became very frustrated by what I considered to be the distraction of the masses. Why, I would ask, do people devote so much time and energy to watching a group of men run around, often in the rain, after a piece of stuffed leather when so much of the world is in a state of crisis? And as a parallel I become frustrated with people that listen only to superficial and distracting music (not that those terms are appropriate). Indeed it is not the football game or the culture of football that I disagree with; it is not the love songs and the dance songs themselves that I don’t appreciate; it is a world which does not allow space for more that bothers me.

One perspective is that people devote themselves to football or listen to music that ‘entertains’ rather than ‘educates’ because they need to. The world is in a state of crisis, but so are many people in their day to day lives. Even if they are not in crisis as such, then they are under pressure from other places whether that be in the workplace, economic, from society itself, from their friends or family or a number of other sources, and they need an outlet. They need to express their feelings and be part of something that does not place demands on them and provides them with a sense of community and security. Political music can do this to a certain extent but it has another motive as well. Popular music which speaks of emotions and which creates a sense of fun and enjoyment does not place people under these demands; it simply allows people to feel.

I was asked recently what I would do to address some of the issues with disadvantaged youth and my answer was immerse them in music and I was clear that it did not matter what type of music or what involvement they had – whether that be to learn an instrument, play in a band, be a radio presenter, go to concerts or just download and share with their friends as much music as they could. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly much of the problems associated with kids stems from their use of time. If they are busy they are far less likely to get into trouble. The second part to this is that music is an outlet – it is a form of expression that is universal (second perhaps only to the smile) it is something that they can share with others and have fun with in the process. It can help them to overcome their personal difficulties, help them to rationalise the world and help them to stay on track.

And so I need to change my approach – political music is important but it is not more important, it is just as important. Without the emotional, without the physical, we are not capable of the intellectual.

One of the sentences in my IASPM paper that I may need to reword to be more diplomatic suggests that emotive and dance music will be produced under almost any conditions because the social function is so well engrained and so well established. Perhaps this is true but only to a certain degree. Just like political music, there remains conditions under which better emotive and dance music will be created. A professional sector of creators needs to be sustained not just to challenge the status quo on a macro level but to ensure that individuals on a micro level have the peace of mind and strength to get over their personal challenges, to enjoy life and can be in a position to contribute to the wider social issues of our time.

I accept that we cannot have one unless we have the other. They are interconnected and not separate. What happens to one effects/affects the other.

Forgive me for just focussing on the political. From now on I will do so in a less dismissive way.

In the digital environment, just as in real space, we suffer from noise. Life is a constant process of clustering and filtering. Trying to group things together and sort them from others. Unlike popular music which already has many architectures and spaces in which this can occur, much more needs to be done to ensure that political music too has a space. It has not gone unnoticed to me that my local club has started to play a lot more political music. As someone who has already been exposed to this, consumes it and uses it, the reception is welcome. But it is partly ineffective for others. While they might hear it and sometimes even recognise it, they cannot connect with it on a level that converts that exposure all the way through to use. There needs to be a forum. There needs to be space and it needs to be appropriate to be effective.

In the digital environment we have the space for the popular, now it is time to create the space for the political.


I have three phrases I use to describe my learning process. There are the ‘book ends’ where I find the start and the end that hold the middle together. There is the perfect circle, where I can trace something to find its holistic presence. This is what I would call a ‘corner’ because it changes my direction. I have turned it. Thank you.

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