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‘Fight the Power’: The Politics of Music and the Music of Politics*

  • John Street


Popular music has a long and varied association with politics. It has provided the soundtrack to political protest and been the object of political censorship; politicians have courted pop stars and pop stars — like Bono of U2 — have acted as politicians. But although these more familiar aspects of pop's connections to politics have been noted in passing, they have not received a great deal of academic attention, and there are other aspects of the relationship — the state's role as sponsor of popular music, for instance — which have been largely ignored. This article explores the various dimensions of the interaction between popular music and politics, and argues that the study of music can contribute to our understanding of political thought and action.



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This article is the second in an occasional series on Politics and Culture.



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1 The Sunday Express had reported earlier in the year that Labour was planning to use the pop band S Club 7 for its campaign tune, until some of the group were arrested on a drugs charge (Sunday Express, 25 March 2001).

2 Colley, Linda, Britons: Forgingthe Nation 1707–1837, London, Pimlico, 1992, pp. 44–8.

3 Starr, S. Frederick, Red & Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 175–6.

4 Burleigh, Michael and Wippermann, Wolfgang, The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 208 and 235 .

5 Starr, S. Frederick, Red & Hot, p. 186 .

6 Saunders, Frances Stonor, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London, Granta, 2000, p. 151 .

7 Ibid., p. 196.

8 Andersson, Muff, Music in the Mix: The Story of South African Popular Music, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1981 .

9 Slobin, Mark, Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe, London, Duke University Press, 1996 ; Stewart, Gary, Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of Two Congos, London, Verso, 2000 .

10 Frith, Simon and Street, John, ‘Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge: From Music to Politics, From Politics to Music’, in Garofalo, Reebee (ed.), Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, Boston, South End Press, 1992, pp. 6780 .

11 See Bennett, Tony et al. (eds), Rock and Popular music: Politics, Policies, Institutions, London, Routledge, 1993 .

12 Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, London, Verso, 1979, pp. 120–67.

13 Witkin, Robert, Adorno on Music, London, Routledge, 1998, p. 200 .

14 Starr, S. Frederick, Red & Hot, p. 85 ; Burleigh, M. and Wippermann, W., The Racial State, p. 220 .

15 Cloonan, Martin, Banned! Censorship of Popular Music in Britain: 1962–92, Aldershot, Arena, 1996 .

16 Frith, Simon, ‘Music and Everyday Life’, Critical Quarterly, 44:1 (2002), pp. 3548 .

17 Chevigny, Paul, Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City, New York, Routledge, 1991 .

18 Chastagner, Claude, ‘The Parents' Music Resource Center: From Information to Censorship”, Popular Music, 18:2 (1999), pp. 179–92.

19 Majrooh, Naim, ‘The Talibans have Banned all Music in Afghanistan’, in Proceedings of 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, Danish Center for Human Rights, Copenhagen, 20–22 11 1998, pp. 4956 .

20 Quoted in Genovese, Eugene, Roll Jordan Roll: the World the Slaves Made, New York, Vintage, 1976, p. 581 .

21 Quoted in Burleigh, M. and Wippermann, W., The Racial State, p. 221 .

22 Cushman, Thomas, Notes from Underground: Rock Music Counterculture in Russia, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995, p. 91 .

23 Willis, Paul, Common Culture, Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1990 ; Willis, Paul, Profane Culture, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978 ; Hebdige, Dick, Subculture: the Meaning of Style, London, Methuen, 1979 .

24 Notable exceptions include: Scott, James, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990 ; Merelman, Richard, Partial Visions: Culture and Politics in Britain, Canada and the United States, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991 .

25 Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1987 ; Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000 .

26 Ward, Brian, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Rehtions, London, UCL Press, 1998, p. 449 .

27 Smith, Suzanne E., Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1999 .

28 Cantwell, Robert, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 377 .

29 Place, Jeff and Cohen, Ronald (eds), The Best of Broadside 1962-1988, Washington, Smithonian Folkways Recordings, 2000 .

30 Ali, Tariq, Street Fighting Years, London, Collins, 1987, pp. 250–4.

31 Widgery, David, Beating Time: Riot'n'race'n'rock'n'roll, London, Chatto & Windus, 1986 .

32 Collin, Matthew, This is Serbia Calling: Rock'n'Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance, London, Serpent's Tail, 2001, p. 56 .

33 Ibid., p. 104.

34 Ibid., p. 108.

35 Wicke, Peter, ‘“The Times They Are A-Changing”: Rock Music and Political Change in East Germany’, in Garofalo, Reebee (ed.), Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, Boston, South End Press, 1992, p. 81 .

36 Ibid., p. 81.

37 Mattern, Mark, Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action, New York, Rutgers University Press, 1998, p. 19 .

38 Eyerman, Ron and Jamison, Andrew, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 1 .

39 Ibid., pp. 23–4.

40 Ibid., pp. 72–7.

41 Ibid., p. 105.

42 J. Place and R. Cohen, The Best of Broadside 1962–1988.

43 Lahusen, Christian, The Rhetoric of Moral Protest, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1996 .

44 Wicke, P., ‘The Times They Are A-changing’, p. 92 .

45 Frith, Simon, Performing Rites, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 275 .

* This article is the second in an occasional series on Politics and Culture.

‘Fight the Power’: The Politics of Music and the Music of Politics*

  • John Street


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