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Politics through music: How music became political

The two go hand-in-hand – or do they?

By Nikos Papanikolaou

A couple of years ago, Taylor Swift broke her silence and decided to talk about politics – adding her name to a long list of artists who used music to talk about social injustice and governments’ policies. Taylor Swift’s case was pretty impressive because even if she was under fire for being apolitical, she remained loyal to her decision.

Having more than a hundred million followers on Instagram, Swift’s opinion would subsequently have an impact on a large crowd. In an Instagram post – in which she talked about the rights of the LGBTQ community – Swift asked her followers to get informed before they vote. At the same time, she gave her support to Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper – both Democrat candidates on the midterm elections.

That Instagram post caused many reactions, but at the same time, revealed two interesting facts: how important were the elections, and the amount of power social media currently has. After the post went viral, Donald Trump commented on it, saying that he likes Swift’s music “25% less” than he previously liked it.

At the same time, some fans – those expressing either nationalist or homophobic views – chose to retaliate, by insulting her in any way possible. Despite the reactions, Taylor Swift achieved what she wanted, as more than 65,000 people added their names to the voting lists in less than 24 hours. Even if her post had had no impact on the midterms, it was a reminder about how music and politics have had a love and hate relationship for hundreds of years.

Inextricably linked

Politics and music are two concepts that have been inextricably linked for centuries. In the United States, music was used many times – especially during the American Revolutionary War – as a way to ridicule both political candidates and their supporters.

Most of us can only think of recent examples of the politics/music relationship; the truth is that this story goes way back. The slogans, the songs, and the music were always essential elements of politics, and it seems like they still remain valuable parts of the political procedure for the future.

From the very first years of the American presidency, music was a medium to highlight the weaknesses of the opposition. Many songs were exclusively written to ridicule, and while some failed to do that, others succeeded. During that time, songs were often love letters, addressed to each candidate.

The first song ever written for a political campaign was during the 1800’s American elections. The song, Jefferson and Liberty, was written by Robert Treat Pain Jr, and was seen as an ode to Thomas Jefferson and an attack on his opponent, John Adams. It should be mentioned, though, that before that song, Treat Pain Jr wrote songs in favour of John Adams. Treat Pain Jr used the same songs when he was hired by Jefferson, but he changed the lyrics in Jefferson’s favour.

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Fitting Into the Campaign

But things have changed since. Politicians have stopped rely on songs written exclusively for them. Instead, they tried to make famous songs of every era fit into their campaigns. The change happened as a way to identify the politicians with the voters, and vice versa. And unsurprisingly, politicians soon realised that the songs which identify with the candidates and not with their political agenda were powerful tools for revitalising the voters’ base.

From Harry Truman to John Kennedy, politicians were choosing songs which were liked by the public but also advocated the values of their respective campaigns. Surprisingly, after the end of the 1960s, that quality significantly dropped. That happened because the candidates decided to turn into rock music as a genre to dress their campaigns musically. With some minor exceptions – such as Don’t Stop Thinking ’bout Tomorrow by Fleetwood Mac – the other efforts did not have great results.

The power of the song – which would be associated with each campaign – would be so important that Hillary Clinton, during the 2008 elections, asked from her supporters to vote on the song she would use for her campaign. The winning song was You And I by Celine Dion. Before Clinton’s campaign it had been used in an advert, something that hurt her public image.

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Politicising the Apolitical

Using famous songs for political campaigns was not always successful, mostly because politicians or their consultants couldn’t quite interpret the message of each song. One of the most typical examples was Born In The U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen, which was written as a form of disapproval to Ronald Reagan’s policy.

Since then, the song has been used in many political campaigns, despite its non-political sense. The fact that many musicians and composers in rock music were writing songs against politicians led them to choose their campaign songs more wisely.

Some musicians, however, used their music and lyrics as a way of protest. That was something that had started earlier – mostly during the 1960s with folk and rock n’ roll music. Some examples of famous musicians who identified their songs with anti-political protests were Joe Hill, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and of course Joan Baez, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.

Tom Lehrer is an excellent example of an artist who used his art to protest. He wrote plenty of political songs during the 60s, such as ‘So Long, Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb (A Song for World War III)’. He was inspired by the paranoia of the Cold War, and the state that the American society was back at the time.

During the same period, artists such as The Doors, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane and others – who remained apolitical musicians – became politicised. North Korea’s war, in 1966, helped achieve that u-turn, as there were many protests against it by both youth and the artists.

The following decade a new musical genre was created to satiate the thirst for anger: punk rock. That genre aimed to create songs about social injustices and attack politicians and every form of authority. It gave birth to many influential bands in music history such as the Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, and The Clash.

More than anyone, the Sex Pistols became the band which spread the message and ideology of anarchy – even if they did it in an oversimplified and somewhat incorrect way. Many are still in doubt on if they really believed in what they were singing, mostly because their whole appearance was a well-worked project by the talented Malcolm Mclaren and artist Jamie Reid. No one, however, could doubt their influence on future musicians.

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That doesn’t mean that the raw sound became necessarily intertwined with a musical form of protest. Metal music, for example, has not been politicised until recently, with few exceptions such as Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, who wrote songs with a political tone, even if it wasn’t clear to what he was referring to. (It is worth noting that several years later, when Twisted Sister’s songs were used in Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, Snider stated that although he disagreed with Trump’s policy, he had no problem with them using his songs.)

Political Songs Wane

Fewer political songs existed in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. There have been musical initiatives on social issues, such as Live Aid and Band Aid, which have been using the most famous musicians to raise awareness, mainly oabout poverty in Africa. However, these initiatives failed because the fans didn’t identify with the musicians.

It is worth mentioning that during the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen released one of the most political records – and probably his greatest one – Born In the U.S.A. Many mistakenly thought that this record was a patriotic one extolling the virtues of America, mostly because of its title. But this record was describing the sad reality the working class in America was experiencing, and Springsteen was singing about these people.

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“Disobedient Musicians”

That changed during the following decades as the bands became much more politicised. From Rage Against The Machine to Public Enemy and from Ice Cube to N.W.A., many musicians sung against the established and mainstream culture. Pearl Jam, for instance, are still one of the most deeply politicised bands out there. Their frontman, Eddie Vedder, has made a direct criticism against presidents and their policies, having Pearl Jam’s guitarist, Mike McCready, on his side.

In recent years, with the rapid political developments in the world, musicians are much more reluctant to express political views but also to allow politicians to use their songs in their campaigns. Adele has sided with R.E.M., Neil Young and Aerosmith, urging Donald Trump to stop using her songs during his campaign. However, he ostentatiously ignored their appeal and continued to use the songs despite the legal proceedings against him, mainly as a sign of power and authority from him to the “disobedient” musicians out there.

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Sanders, Clinton – and Trump

But there was another group of the musicians who strongly supported politicians, most notably that of Bernie Sanders in 2016, who called for “democratic socialism”. Sanders had the forefront of indie music on his side while Hillary Clinton found support mostly from pop artists. That showed both the difference between the supporters of each candidate and their background.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Vampire Weekend, Joan Baez, Steve Aoki, Cat Power, Julian Casablancas, Cold War Kids, Miley Cyrus, Foster The People, Post Malone, Cass McCombs, Thurston Moore, Paul Oakenfold, Henry Rollins, Bon Iver, Neil Young and Serji Tankian were some of the names on Sanders‘ side. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton also had strong names of the music industry to support her even though they were more mainstream. DJ Khaled, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, RZA, Adele, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Jon Bon Jovi, Ariana Grande, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake.

But even in genres such as indie and rock, Clinton managed to secure the support of significant names such as Bruce Springsteen, Win Butler, Lykke Li, Rufus Wainwright, Eddie Vedder, The National, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor and several more. Clinton managed to get the anointing of the Democrats, something that was partially because of the number of fans of each musician who supported one of the two politicians. The quantity exceeded the quality, something that was clearly seen in the final result of the anointing.

This didn’t happen during the elections, however, as Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump. Trump was also supported by some musicians, including Azealia Banks, 3 Doors Down, P Diddy, Toby Keith, Kid Rock and Kanye West.

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Music and politics were, are and will be inextricably connected concepts. From the times of wars and uprisings to that of social media, music will always be part of politics and vice versa. And if today the meaning of political songs seem to have faded domestically and globally, the voices of musicians should speak louder about injustices – even without background music.