Popular Music scholars have devoted considerable attention to the relationship between music and power. The symbolic practices through which subcultures state and reinforce identities have been widely documented (mainly in the field of Cultural, Gender and Postcolonial Studies), as has the increasingly political and revolutionary dimensions of popular music. Most studies have focused on the genres and movements that developed with and in the aftermath of the 1960’s counterculture. Yet little has been written about how the politics of popular music has reflected the social, geopolitical and technological changes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, after the fall of Communism. Still, the music of the Arab Spring or of the Occupy and Indignados movements have been scarcely commented upon while they attest to significant changes in the way music is used by activists and revolutionaries today.
This international conference therefore aims to explore the new political meanings and practices of music and to provide an impetus for their study. Broadly the themes of the conference are divided into five main streams:
1. Music as a Political Weapon
The history of popular music cannot be divorced from that of social, cultural and political movements, and yet the question remains: if music is politically efficient, how can we measure its impact? It is not clear what role music plays in the struggle for political, ideological and social change. While musical practices and the writing of songs can strengthen existing activist groups, can it also truly change minds or upset the established order and destabilize it? If there are such things as soundtracks for rebellions and revolutions, do they merely accompany fights or can they quicken the pace and bring about change themselves?
Of course it would be naïve to think of the political impact of music only in progressive terms; participants are encouraged to pinpoint the ambiguities and contradictions at work in the relationship between music and power. Popular music artists and whole genres can refuse to meddle in politics – and the non-referentiality of music makes it an ill-suited medium for the diffusion of clean-cut messages. It would therefore be ill-advised to consider popular music genres and artists as falling either into the political or apolitical categories. Music can also be violent in less political ways, and even carry nihilistic undertones – it can ignore or even mock its own alleged political power. This should lead us to a re-evaluation of subcultural politics.
2. Political Change, Musical Revolution? The Question of Artistic Legacy
The musical styles that accompany social and political change are part of a musical continuum. This prompts the question of originality and relation to tradition. Has the new historical context shaken up the old codes for protest music? What are the new politically conscious forms and genres of today, and how do they relate to older protest movements? The covering of songs from the Civil Rights era and the Great Depression in the aftermath of Katrina and the participation of singers from the 1960s counterculture in the Occupy Wall Street movement raises the issue of correspondences between groups of artists and activists. We will also look at how contemporary movements connect with one another. Can it be said that protest music is globalized today? How does the music of the Arab Spring compare to the songs of the Occupy Wall Street movement or of the Maple Spring protesters?
3. Music, Identity and Nationalism
Popular music has a hand in the building and solidification of (sub)cultural communities. Songs have expressed the emergence of new group identities in fall of Communism, the breakup of Yugoslavia and during other political schisms in Latin American countries more recently. People sing and play the old regimes away, or they use music to connect with fellow migrants or refugees in an upset political landscape. Songs serve as a bridge between past and present by pairing traditional patterns to new instruments, new technology, and new media – by associating nostalgia with the wish for change. They can also smooth out the transition to a new life and a new identity as individuals and groups assimilate into another culture. Reversely, they can reflect new cultural antagonisms and class conflicts and follow the radicalization of group identities. In the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russia, nationalist movements have their own anthems, too.
4. Aesthetics, digital practices and political significations
The increased use of computing technology in musical practices as well as the advent of social networks has opened new aesthetic vistas (with the increasing use of sampling, mashups, or shreds), as well as changed the way music is shared, advertised and composed. How do those technical changes affect the political uses of music and its weight? Of course while these changes have led to a wave of increased artistic creativity, they might also obliterate symbolic legacies and political meanings. When do reference and reverence turn into betrayal? New technologies might have opened a new battleground where political awareness competes with cultural emancipation.
5. Marching to a Different Beat? Censorship, Propaganda and Torture
The political weight and the mobilizing capacities of popular music can be gauged by how authorities react to them. Some states consider them a threat to their stability and to an established order in which the voice of the people is seldom heard – and never listened to. In the 21st century, popular music is still censored and repressed all over the world. From the ban of irreverent songs after 9/11 to the violence directed against emos in Iraq and the trial against Pussy Riot more recently, the regimes contested by deviants and/or protesters can take musical criticism and anticonformist artists very seriously.
Political and moral authorities with a sense of how powerful music can be may also use it for their benefit, as propaganda. Soldiers’ moral and psychological states can also be altered by listening to aggressive playlists during military operations. Music is never further away from its role in political struggles than when it is meant to numb the will of individuals, subdue or even torture. This might constitute the most extreme way in which its emancipatory power can be subverted.
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