Our Right to Listen: Music's Role in Future Politics | Teen Ink

Our Right to Listen: Music's Role in Future Politics

May 19, 2019
By Robert214 GOLD, Guangzhou, Other
Robert214 GOLD, Guangzhou, Other
11 articles 0 photos 45 comments

Favorite Quote:
Make the best of what is within our power, and take the rest as it occurs. -Epictetus

During the 1980s in China, people, especially students, sang songs that championed democracy and freedom on the streets. The most popular one was probably Nothing to My Name by Cui Jian.“I have given you all of my aspirations, I have given you all of my freedoms. Yet you still laugh at me for having nothing to my name…” This song embodied the young people’s increasing pursuit of liberty and individuality in China in the late 1980s. Led by this and other songs similar to Nothing to My Name, the optimism and eagerness for democracy permeated through society in China at that time.

However, all of these changed in 1989, following the mass protest at Tiananmen Square.

After the protest, the Chinese government realized people’s long for freedom and democracy was at odds with its socialist ideology and thus began to impose strong censorship on popular music. Singers like Cui Jian, who sang frequently at Tiananmen Square at the height of the 1989 protest, were unofficially banned from playing in public for years. Last year, the Chinese government even completely banned his songs online. Also, many hip hop songs were banned in 2018 because they were “immoral” and “instigative”.

Indeed, music is now an important source of soft power. It conveys message to the public more efficiently than cold political speeches, and people have been shown to be more willing to accept the messages delivered through songs. Thus, to control the state, the government needs to control popular music. In fact, the Soviet Union’s government had realized this since the cold war era.

After WWII, American popular culture spread to Europe rapidly including the Soviet Union. The culture was widely accepted by many Europeans and in some cases has even inspired Europeans to subvert their undemocratic governments. Widespread protests in 1968 and constant challenges to the Soviet Union were influenced by the democratic values seen in American pop culture. To strengthen its control over the state, the Soviet government eventually began to ban western music. Many people who listened to and sang Beatles’ songs were arrested for breaching the social order because Soviet authorities believed that the rock band was spreading western propaganda to destroy the socialism ideology in the Soviet Union. When the music ban was alleviated under Gorbachev’s reform, many Soviet rock bands emerged. The most famous and important band was Kino, which embodied the new-found freedom in Soviet society. Unfortunately, the band leader Victor Tsol, regarded as a cultural hero to some, was assassinated (probably by conservatives) in 1990. Nonetheless, these rock bands spread the value of democracy in the Soviet Union, accelerating the collapse of the Union in 1990s. In Russia today, learning from the experience of USSR, President Putin has imposed great censorship in music. He has tried hard to control the spread of hip hop music, which often included rebellious lyrics. He even imprisoned the members of Pussy Riot, who openly rebel against Putin through songs.

In the 21st century, the era of tech and globalization, it is even more crucial for governments to regulate popular culture, especially music. In Apple Music, we can get access to music produced all over the world. We can also share music on Facebook or Twitter, which has made music, as well as the political messages that it carries, spread even faster. For example, What About Us, the lead single from Pink’s 2017 album, implicitly questions the current administration “What about all the plans that ended in disasters?” “What about love?” “What about trust?” This song and MV were widely shared on social media and the song was even nominated for the 2018 Grammy Best Pop Solo Performance. More importantly, this song quickly became a protest song in the US. As evidenced by Pink’s song, technology facilitates the transmission of music and its political ideals, which may encourage more people to confront with the governments. The convenience of Internet both makes it harder and necessitates the governments (especially authoritarian ones) to strictly regulate the popular culture.

In the future, military power may no longer play an essential role in politics; rather, there might be a growing emphasis on soft power—that is, political ideology, popular culture, international image, etc. Music, the most prevalent form of entertainment across different cultures, is a crucial component of a country’s soft power. More governments may use music as propaganda both domestically and internationally. At that time, we ordinary citizens may no longer free to choose what we listen to…     

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