Politics as usual: music and social change

Music and Art

All the talk of politics in the news recently about Obama’s re-election and, closer to home, the NUS protests next week, got me thinking about the role music plays in politics. Can music really be an instrument of social change? Should it be used like this?

Music is not an autonomous art form; it can and has consistently been used as a political resource throughout history. William Byrd, a catholic composer working in protestant Elizabethan England used music as a means of survival and success, eventually earning himself a special place in the heart of the queen. In the twentieth century, music was appropriated by government forces, as with the Nazis’ adoption of Wagner, and the Soviet Union in their autocratic control of Russian composers. On the other hand, oppressed forces have used music’s power for political strength such as black musicians singing the blues in Civil Rights era America and women (think: the Spice Girls) in their plea for gender equality.

Perhaps music has been used for political reasons because of its semantic slipperiness: the fact that it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways means that it has the potential to be used to make subversive statements and get away with it. Potentially, the musician has the option of claiming that the opposing force is misinterpreting his or her work if it all goes wrong, for example when Frankie Goes to Hollywood denied that the lyrics of ‘Relax’ were sexual in reaction to the BBC ban in 1984.

Equally, music’s power stems from the physical act of performance which involves people coming together and being united by a common goal. The community spirit which is integral to music has been harnessed by the Venezuelan initiative El Sistema which was set up in 1975 in the hopes of improving the lives of young people who, living in impoverished circumstances, were turning to drugs and crime. This project involving children’s orchestras has been considered a model for social change to such an extent that it has been copied in the USA and Europe. The mission of the newly established Sistema Scotland is to change the lives of the children of an underprivileged community in Raploch, Stirling. Although some might be sceptical that this is too much to ask from what is considered an aesthetic object, music’s power to teach discipline, sensitivity and creativity will surely lead to more enriched childhood experiences and more hopeful futures.

Over the summer BBC Proms audiences witnessed the seemingly impossible coming together of Israelis and Palestinians through music as members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. While I am slightly dubious about the use of western classical music as a forum through which Middle-Eastern politics are shown to be pacified (with its associations of Western dominance over the East), this ensemble demonstrates that where other methods fail, music succeeds. Music’s apparently harmless status can be used to its user’s advantage, appearing innocuous when it is actually a powerful weapon of politics and persuasion. To remove the political element in music would rob us of some great songs and part of what makes the art so compelling.