Monday, 7 October 2013

To What Extent Can Music Be Used As A Political Device?

by Will Wallace

For rhythm and harmony penetrate deeply into the mind and take a most powerful hold on it”

 So said Plato, one of the fathers of philosophy. He was, of course, referring to the incredible power that music can have over those who listen. Music is further described by Anthony Storr as being able to ‘penetrate the core of our physical being. It can make us weep or give us intense pleasure’.  More recently George Osborne who, during Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, was photographed crying described this phenomenon as a ‘very, very powerful and emotional moment’. Music can have a definite impact on the listener’s emotions; the question is whether this can have such an effect on an individual that it influences their political views.
Historically, music has been used to glorify a nation, unite people behind a nationalist movement and encourage citizens to support a military campaign. This was particularly true of continental Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, as revolutionaries sought to overthrow autocratic rulers and overcome foreign powers that had occupied their territory. In the twentieth century, music’s political use became more pronounced, with anti-war and anti-establishment movements gaining in strength. However the crux of the issue is whether it is the music itself that impacts the listener, or the political symbolism that has been evoked by leaders: for example, does ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ itself contain musical elements that stir emotions, or is it the association that the song has been given with British patriotism that creates such a reaction?

 Music can be used as a means of political participation: Courtney Brown goes so far as to suggest that music’s potential as a political force has caused ‘a continuation and possible acceleration of the diminishing role of political parties as socializing agents and informational pipelines’. At times of war, music has played a particularly important political role: patriotic music would be used to glorify soldiers and encourage others to get involved in the war effort, and on the other hand protest music would provide the opposition with a means of expressing their stance. One of the most highly regarded choral works of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, is noteworthy for its markedly anti-war associations. The piece was written for the war damaged Coventry Cathedral, at a time when most new additions to Classical repertoire were nationalistic and fuelled jingoism. Britten’s work takes the text from a number of Wilfred Owen’s poems in order to highlight the consequences of military conflict as being atrocious.

The 1960s and 70s saw a flurry of popular songs in opposition to the Vietnam War, including John Lennon’s 1969 hit ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and Edwin Starr’s song ‘War (What Is It Good For?)’, which was popularized by Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s. The music resonated strongly with younger people, reached high places in the charts and powered many events and marches in opposition to the United States’ direct involvement in the 18-year conflict. The effectiveness of popular music as a popular force is explained by Storr as he reasons that ‘the mnemonic power of music is still evident in modern culture. Many of us remember of words of songs and poems more accurately than we can remember prose’.


 Brown justifies this point in noting that ‘I have yet to meet and individual who has memorized the words of any recent speech made by a presidential candidate over the past few elections’. Other political movements have also used music to their advantage, including anti-establishment groups in the 1980s (for example, Sex Pistols’ 1976 song ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ in 1977). Brown analyses the importance of political music in modern culture by saying that:

‘What is new [about the contemporary relevance of music as a conveyor of political ideas] is the magnitude of this phenomenon combined with technological advances in the distribution and accessibility of music, minimally affecting hundreds of millions of mostly young adults across nearly all cultures in the world today’.


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