Friday, March 30, 2012

John Street, Music and Politics (2012)

I just finished reading the new book from John Street titled ‘Music andPolitics’. It is a very interesting book looking at the relationship between music and politics and politics and music. He argues that they are an extension of each other and that contrary to popular opinion they do not collide occasionally but are intimately entwined with each other. Street suggests that ‘music embodies political values and experiences and organises our response to society as political thought and action’ [pg 1].

Street begins with the example of Simon Bikindi who was charged with incitement to commit genocide in the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda through his composition of music that inflamed hatred toward Tutsi’s and notes that while he was not ultimately held responsible on that count (instead imprisoned for 15 years for a speech that he gave along the same lines) that there were inevitably questions as to whether music could be seen as a catalyst for genocide [pg 2-3]. Another example is that of a song in South Africa that the Constitutional Court ruled that the South African Broadcasting Corporation should not be played on air as it was an incitement to hatred and violence [pg 3]. Similarly, Street notes the banning of all music by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Street quotes Lord Redesdale from the English House of Commons who stated in March 2011: “I believe it is a human right to have unamplified music’ [pg 5]. He goes on to refer to Tia De Nora and her book ‘Music in Everyday Life’ who states that music forges a relationship between ‘the polis, the citizen and the configuration of consciousness’ and notes that music is much more than decorative art but rather a powerful medium of social order that ‘constitutes identities and articulates emotions that empower people’ [pg 5].

In Chapter 1, Street considers the censorship of music, drawing on the McCarthy House of Un-American Activities Committee and how this led to a temporary end to the careers of the likes of Pete Seeger; he also refers to the injunction against drag artist Simon Hunt for his song ‘I’m a backdoor man’ that mocked Australian politician Pauline Hanson and how that case has very serious implications for satire and free speech [pg 12-14]. Street notes that in the context of privately owned media there can be ‘market censorship’ [pg 15-16]. He also notes the Supreme Court decision in Schad v Borough of Mt Ephraim in the United States that held music to be protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

In Chapter 2, Street examines music policy and its effect on free speech and politics by looking at the Digital Economy Bill in the UK that required ISPs to report and act on piracy with critics stating that it was a gross infringement of civil liberties and human rights [pg24]. Street goes on to note the varying goals of government policy with respect to music:
  • The need to reflect audience tastes and interests and to support citizen welfare in the production and consumption of local popular music
  • Nation building both at a national and international level
  • National identity
  • Diversity of both venues and music genres and performers
  • Delivering economic security to the nation’s music industry
  • Social and cultural diversity
  • Realising ideas of freedom and choice, and
  • Enhancing democracy [pg 30-31]

In Chapter 3 Street goes on to look at how sound itself communicates politically, noting the tendency to reduce the political communication of music just to lyrics and words. He suggests that the political nature of music can also be communicated through voices, rhythms and melodies [pg 42]. Street then considers the way that musicians, in this case he uses the examples of Bono and Bob Geldof, are elevated to the position of spokesperson and how they gain the authority to speak on political issues as representatives of the people [pg42]. Street suggests that there are two ways that musicians become involved in politics – either through acquiring a public presence or statues which they use to support causes; or by using music to express their political values [pg 45]. Street suggests that political songs are not that common with most popular songs being about love [pg 46]. He suggests that internet architecture such as MySpace has increased the ability to distribute political music but that in real terms not much has changed [pg 47].

Street suggests there are six factors that need to be considered:

  1. The context – social and political events produce music that reflects on the times [pg 50]
  2. The personal – the personal history and circumstances of the performers is important [pg 50]
  3. The institutional – social movements, political parties and the institutional regimes impact on the connection between music and politics [pg 52 – 53]
  4. Political communication – musicians performing as politicians, politicians trying to win the popularity contest through endorsements from musicians and through their own personal connection with music (e.g. Bill Clinton and his saxophone) [pg 53-54]
  5. Musical approach – the way that the music industry tries to keep musicians away from politics or supports their engagement with issues [pg 55]
  6. Genre approach – how genres set conventions and open up or close down connections with politics – pop musicians with no credibility cut down for their involvement where as folk musicians are applauded for it [pg 56-57]

For musicians that do engage in political representation there are also a number of factors in play – particularly the strategic management of their image, their style as a political activist and the fact that representation is both political and aesthetic in nature and depends on symbolic gestures and accountability [pg 58]. The claim is that musicians are somehow in touch with the views of the people that follow them and the world they inhabit, that they produce a sense of community and that the audience can live through the political representation by the artist leads to the empowerment of fans giving them the optimism, invigoration and passion to change the world [pg60].

In Chapter 4 Street considers events such as Live 8 – Make Poverty History in July 2005 and Rock Against Racism and how movements and music work together to create change.

In Chapter 6 Street talks of the lived history of music and how the sounds embody the sentiments and events of their times.

Chapter 8 examines connection between ideology and music with an historical examination of how the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbs, John Stuart and Karl Marx consider the relationship between music and politics.

Chapter 9 reflects on the overall themes of the text and considers how music allows us to experience and understand the lives of others [pg 165] and produces internal deliberations [pg 167].

I found this to be a very useful book and would well recommend reading it – it considers some very interesting points regarding the connection between music and politics and articulates the inter relationship between the two very well.

No comments: