The Sound of War and Peace: Music in Global Politics
“The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years”
There will always be music wherever there are humans, including in war and diplomacy. Politics, like music, is often built on the conflict in each and every melody, which ends in harmony. Both seek to inspire their audiences, and both have made extensive use of the other to further their ideas. Anti-establishment or protest themes, such as anti-war songs, can be expressed through music, but so can pro-establishment ideas. During war and peace processes, music is frequently used to spread influence to eventually form public opinions.
We already know that music influences political movements and rituals; however, how and to what extent general audiences relate to music on a political level is not well defined. Songs can be used to represent a particular political message. Because the label "political music" can be applied to songs that simply observe political subjects, songs that offer a partisan opinion, or songs that go further and advocate for specific political action, unless it's intended to be subliminal, the nature of that message can also be open to interpretation. Thus, a distinction has been made, for example, between using music to raise awareness and using music to advocate.
Earlier 'bops' such as opera and classical music played a role in the political atmosphere when leaders were waging war on a daily basis. Opera, for example, arrived in Russia in the 18th century. Initially, Italian opera troupes presented Italian language operas. Later, some foreign composers serving in the Russian Imperial Court began writing Russian-language operas. During the infamous Stalin regime, however, things come to a halt. Stalin desired that Soviet composers create music that was nationalistic and optimistic. Because of the centralized and oppressive pro-USSR music rules, many Russian composers fled the country. Dimitri Shostakovich, famous for his past as a child prodigy and his amazing, global phenomenon-level work, frequently did the opposite.
Shostakovich's colleagues, patrons, and family members, including his brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and uncle, were arrested and shot. A formal decree was issued designating three of the most prominent Russian composers of the time, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian, as enemies of the people for creating music that contradicted Soviet ideals. Shostakovich's teaching positions were terminated, and his music was banned. He was condemned across the country, subjected to scathing press, and even forced to slander himself at a public meeting. The government wrote his speech for him, resulting in his suicide plan because he expected to be arrested.
As the Cold War intensified in the years following WWII, the Soviet Union clamped down on any Western music or art that officials deemed decadent or culturally corruptive. Despite the ban, a subculture of Soviet teenagers were able to smuggle and share banned records by creating their own from old x-rays. Across the Soviet Union, bone record markets known as roentgenizdat, or "X-Ray Press," sprouted up, spreading subversive western music. By the end of the 1950s, however, the authorities had caught on: bone records were outlawed in 1958.
Wagner was a favorite composer of Hitler as a child. Wagner died before Hitler rose to power and became the Führer, but his ideas endured. Hitler brought an unexpected item with him when he descended into the Berlin bunker in 1945: a stack of original Wagnerian scores. Throughout his dictatorship, Hitler held Wagner up as a symbol of German nationalism. Richard Wagner was an author who wrote extensively about music, religion, and politics. Many of his ideas, particularly those concerning German nationalism, were forerunners of Nazi ideology. He wrote the composition Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music). The virulent anti-Semitic text singled out two Jewish composers, Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, both of whom influenced Wagner significantly, calling them ‘weak’ because they’re Jewish.
After the Second World War, Germany began a period of intense reconstruction. Along with the restoration of bombed-out buildings and the reestablishment of political systems, the postwar era saw a flurry of cultural adaptation as German musicians reinvented themselves and their style. The Cold War, which divided Germany, had an impact on the evolution of music in both parts of postwar Germany. In the West, the increasingly democratized Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) embraced capitalism, allowing musicians to express themselves more freely. The eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR), on the other hand, became a socialist state that censored music.
Some argue that the yearning for a Western way of life, as exemplified and amplified by rock, contributed to the events of November 9, 1989, which so dramatically altered the world. They point to a riveting rock concert and anti-Berlin Wall speech by Bruce Springsteen for 300,000 frenzied East Germans about a year earlier as a stepping stone toward tearing down the Berlin Wall. Springsteen's July 19, 1988, concert, the largest in East German history, reflected the growing thirst for freedom among young people within East Germany, which, unlike other Eastern European countries warming to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, had continued to impose restrictions on its citizens.
In a world of democracies, diplomacy, and fewer wars than a century ago, music is mostly used for advocacy and empowering messages, even if some songs are still aimed at supporting or opposing certain political positions. Famous singers or bands continue to endorse and be endorsed in elections.
In the last US election, Joe Biden chose songs to reflect his dependability, inclusiveness, and steadfast all-American virtues. Around half of the songs played at his rallies have been by artists of color: he usually starts with the noble sentiments of the Staple Singers' 'We The People,' and then throws in inspiring and optimistic tracks like The Four Tops' 'Reach Out (I'll Be There),' Bill Withers' 'Lovely Day,' and Stevie Wonder's 'Higher Ground.'
It’s a pretty similar situation in South East Asia. Slank came out in support of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo of Indonesia when Jokowi ran for president in 2014, and later in 2019. Slank is known as a band with a solid fan base in and outside Indonesia, as Slankers can be found in the United States thanks to their US and European tour in 2008. However, a lot of global musicians still support various causes and incorporate them into their works. Running Out of Love, a 2016 album by Swedish indie-pop duo The Radio Dept., caters to a lot of social issues, including xenophobia, police brutality, and shady arms deals. The work is a collection of dreamy dance tunes that confront the ‘not-so-utopic side' of the Scandinavian nation, as seen by its creators.
We've all heard the hit song "Where Is the Love?" by the Black Eyed Peas, which was written in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With a recent 2016 revamp, the video uses graphic, poignant, black-and-white photography to focus attention on the recent terror attacks in Europe, the Syrian crisis, the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the killing of five police officers in Dallas.
Psy's Gangnam Style did its job in terms of music diplomacy (yes, it exists), delivering a message that Korea has a powerful soft power tool, which eventually proves to be true even years after the song begins to fade. The song has topped the music charts in over 30 countries, and its accompanying dance moves have been attempted by a number of world leaders, including Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who have dubbed the song a "force for world peace."
Recently, the hit K-Pop group BTS recently made worldwide headlines after participating and recording a viral music video during the 76th United Nations General Assembly opening week, which has raised $3.6 million for UNICEF’s work to end violence. They have also dedicated booths at their concert venues worldwide to provide information on how individuals can protect themselves and each other, from violence and bullying.