Table of Contents



Title page

Copyright page


Introduction: making connections

1 Sound barriers: censoring music

Background noise

Censorship in context

A matter of definition?

Music and free expression/speech

Music as a source of fear


2 Falling on deaf ears? Music policy


Managing music in authoritarian regimes

Managing music in liberal capitalist regimes

Justifying and explaining music policy

A national agenda?

A transnational agenda?

Auditing culture

Markets and states

Conclusion: music policy re-visited

3 Striking a chord: from political communication to political representation

Sounding off: music as a political platform

Becoming political

Mapping political songs

The tunes they are a’changing

Becoming political: a biographical approach

Becoming political: an institutional approach

Becoming political: a political communications approach

Becoming political: a musical approach

Becoming political: a genre approach

Being political

Fans and citizens


4 All together now: music as political participation

From participation to partying?

Music as talk (and as participation)

Music and movement

Music as action as participation

Orchestrating engagement: organization, legitimation and performance

From Jubilee 2000 to Live 8


5 Fight the power: music as mobilization

Rock Against Racism

Telling tales

Picking up the pieces

RAR, music and political mobilization


6 ‘Invisible republics’: making music, making history

Greil Marcus, the Anthology and myths of America

Imagining a community

Imagining the Woodstock nation

Remembering Woodstock

Re-imagining the Woodstock nation

Making history, making music

7 Sounding good: the politics of taste

Star ratings

Distributing stars

The politics of the star system

The Mercury Music Prize

Amazonia: the revenge of the citizen critic?


8 Politics as music: the sound of ideas and ideology

Music as morality: Plato and Aristotle

The sound of silence: Hobbes, Mill and Marx

Music as language and emotion: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Music as consolation and desolation: Friedrich Nietzsche

Music as control and negation: Theodor Adorno

Re-birth of a tradition

From music to ideology

Radical critics and conservative art

Elegantly conservative

Music as conservatism


9 One more time with feeling: music as political experience

The power of music

Music and deliberation

Music and compassion

Music and the political imagination

Music as political organization

Music as political values: the feeling of freedom

Music as community

Music as the experience of politics


Conclusion: repeat and fade



For Marian

Title page


Those who still peer at CD covers, and there are not many of us left, will note a tendency for the list of credits to get ever longer, in ever smaller print. I would like to buck this trend, but I have incurred many debts in the course of writing this book. My first debt is to my publishers, Polity, and particularly to Andrea Drugan, Lauren Mulholland, Clare Ansell and Susan Beer, who have shepherded the book into print. I have sorely tested Andrea’s faith and patience, and I am immensely grateful for her support. My second debt is to Seth Hague and Heather Savigny who worked with me on the Striking a Chord project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. An article we wrote together forms the basis of chapter 4, and interviews that Seth conducted have been used in chapter 5. Then there have been the many friends and colleagues, especially on the journal Popular Music and at the University of East Anglia, who have helped in a variety of ways, sometimes knowingly and sometimes in all innocence: Andy Bennett, Richard Bellamy, Mike Bowker, Barbara Bradby, Alex Brown, Valentina Cardo, Sara Cohen, Sara Connolly, John Corner, Debra Craine, Tim Dant, Nikki Dibben, Jan Fairley, Marion Forsyth, Steve Foster, Reebee Garofalo, Lucy Green, Chris Hanretty, Dave Hesmondhalgh, Sarah Hill, Jude Howell, Sanna Inthorn, Mark Jancovich, Mike Jones, Hussein Kassim, Dave Laing, George Lipsitz, David Loosely, Hazel Marsh, Lee Marshall, Allan Moore, George Musgrave, Ian Peddie, Michael Saward, David Sinclair, Steve Smith, Tim Snelson, Will Straw, Jason Toynbee, Matt Worley, Scott Wright, John Wulfsohn and Liesbet van Zoonen. There are four people whose friendship and whose work has been crucial to me over the long haul. They are Martin Cloonan, Simon Frith, Keith Negus and the late John Orman. Finally, I am, as always, indebted to my family – Marian, Alex, Jack and Tom – who continue to deride, albeit gently, my musical tastes and my obsessions, as only those closest to you can.

This book draws on ideas and arguments earlier versions of which appeared elsewhere. I am grateful to the editors and publishers of them:

(with Seth Hague and Heather Savigny) ‘Playing to the crowd: the role of music and musicians in political participation’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 10(2), 2008, 269–85;

‘Breaking the silence: music’s role in political thought and action’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 10(3), 2007, 321–37;

‘The pop star as politicians: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience’, in Ian Peddie (ed.) The Resisting Music: Popular Music and Social Protest, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006, pp. 49–61;

‘Showbusiness of a serious kind: a cultural politics of arts prizes’, Media, Culture and Society, 27(6), 2005, 819–40;

‘ “This is your Woodstock”: popular memories and political myths’, in Andy Bennett (ed.) Remembering Woodstock, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 29–42;

‘Celebrity politicians: popular culture and political representation’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6(4), 2004, 435–52.

Introduction: making connections

This book is about the politics of music, and about the music of politics. Its title makes this clear, but the connection between music and politics is less simple than it may appear. Confusion stems from the thought that music and politics are two discrete realms of human experience and endeavour. One is concerned with the organization of public life; the other with the creative use of sound and the appreciation of its beauties and meanings. And insofar as the two are linked, in, say, the protest song or in the censorship of music, one sees music intervening in politics, the other politics in music. The two realms remain recognizably distinct, and our interest or curiosity is how they respond to each other. We ask about how music can help to influence political thoughts and actions, and what censorship reveals about the powers and paranoias of states and political regimes. These are important questions, and much can be learnt from answering them. And indeed I address them in this book, but they do not go to the heart of its concerns.

What I want to argue is that they are not to be seen as separate entities whose worlds collide only occasionally, but rather are extensions of each other. I would like to persuade readers that music embodies political values and experiences, and organizes our response to society as political thought and action. Music does not just provide a vehicle of political expression, it is that expression. And, furthermore, states organize us through their management of music and sound more generally. The boundaries between the two realms of music and politics, I will try to suggest, are largely illusionary.

This is not an entirely new argument, but it is a neglected one. It was a common-place in Ancient Athens, and it could be detected in the eighteenth-century writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. More recently, it can be detected in the work of Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali (1985: 3); the latter boldly announces: ‘For twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible.’ Such claims, though, have been largely overlooked or dismissed by those who study politics, and some who study music. And even if the connections are recognized, and these old habits of thought not lost, their implications have not been fully realized. Music and Politics is my attempt to spell out these implications and the possibilities they represent for understanding the relationship between music and governance, between music and thought and action. Before delving further into this argument, I want to illustrate the thinking behind it with some examples.

The case of Simon Bikindi

In July 2006, I received a letter from someone called Wilfred Nderitu. Mr Nderitu, it turned out, was a lawyer. He wanted to know if I would act as an expert witness in a trial for which he was representing the defendant. His client was called Simon Bikindi and he was due to appear before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Bikindi was charged with ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide’. The letter explained that Bikindi was a musician, and the UN prosecutors had indicted him because they believed that his songs had contributed directly to the slaughter of Tutsis. His songs were held to have been written with the deliberate intent of inflaming Hutu hatred of their Tutsi neighbours. The UN charged that specific songs composed by Simon Bikindi had a direct effect upon those who heard them.

Mr Nderitu rang me to discuss the case, but, to my considerable relief, nothing came of this conversation. It was not immediately obvious what kind of expertise (if any) I could possibly bring to such a trial, and I think Bikindi’s lawyer shared this view.

The prosecution of those responsible for the mass murders in Rwanda was clearly right, but so too was it right that they have a fair trial. There was the question, a very real one in this case, about whether songs – melodies, rhythms and lyrics – could be the source of genocidal acts. My own immediate thought had been that this was, at best, unlikely. Although the history of music is littered with instances in which politicians and other guardians of public morality have decried the effects of music on people’s behaviour, much conventional academic wisdom held that such effects were more imagined than real, a product of ideology, rather than reality. Research, insofar as there was any, suggested that there was no direct causal chain between songs and social action. Bikindi’s trial did address this very issue. There were arguments about what his songs actually said, what messages they might be held to contain, about how often they were played on national radio in Rwanda, and what effects they might have had. Expert evidence was heard on both sides.

The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced Bikindi to prison for fifteen years for incitement to commit genocide. But significantly this decision was based on a speech he made to Hutus in June 1994 in which he demonized the Tutsis and called for their extermination. The Tribunal dismissed the charge that, through his songs, he instigated violence, in part because the songs were written before 1994 and in part because there was no direct evidence to support the claim that Bikindi had any part in their being played on the radio during the fighting. It might seem that the court took the view that songs were of no consequence. But that does not seem to be the right conclusion. Had Bikindi sung rather than spoken the sentiments he expressed at the meeting in June 1994, then he might well have been found equally guilty. And in any case, the court did not rule, as far as I can tell, that the songs on the radio had no effect, but rather that Bikindi was not to be held responsible for the fact that they were played and for whatever effect they might have had.

Although the Bikindi example is rare and exceptional, it is not unique, as Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan (2009) make abundantly clear in their book Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence. They provide chilling documentation of music’s involvement in torture and other forms of violence. The question of music’s power, for good or ill, does not go away. Following the murder of the South African white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche in April 2010, attention focused on the song ‘Ayesaba Amagwala’ [The Cowards are Scared], which contained the line ‘shoot the Boer (dubul’ ibhunu)’. Earlier in the year, the Constitutional Court had ruled that the South African Broadcasting Corporation should not play it on the radio (Mail and Guardian online, 27 March 2010). Such songs, the judges ruled, when sung at ANC rallies, were an incitement to hatred and violence.

Our feelings about these examples are, I think, revealing of more general attitudes about the way music affects people. We may be wary of crude claims of cause and effect, but we are wary too of suggestions that the art we value leaves no mark – or that the art we hate is not in some way harmful.

The Taliban: silence and power

When the Taliban were driven from power in Afghanistan in 2002, the Western media represented the event with photographs of citizens waving cassette players and radios. Journalists reported the liberation of Kabul in terms of the noise now to be heard. Freedom was symbolized in sound, in the opportunity to play the music that the Taliban had banned. For the journalists and sub-editors, the power of the Taliban, and their ruthlessness in exercising it, was captured in the silence imposed on the Afghan people.

Of course, the true story is more complex than this. The Taliban were by no means the first political leaders to regard music with suspicion. Quakers and Trappists have long placed a great value on silence (Sim, 2007: 63ff). The Russian Orthodox Church, according to Tim Blanning (2008: 292), banned instrumental music in the eighteenth century ‘because it adopted an exclusive and literal interpretation of the last line of Psalm 150: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” ’. In her book Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich (2007: 97–102) places the Russian church in a tradition that saw the alliance of state and religion operating to deny all kinds of public festivity, from singing to football.

The ban on music was one of the first edicts issued by the Taliban on their accession to power in Afghanistan in September 1996. To ignore the order was to risk imprisonment. If music was played at weddings, the head of the family was liable to arrest and punishment (Baily, 2004; Majrooh, 1998; Yusufzai, 1998). Radio Kabul became Radio Sharia, and the output, ‘once a comparatively urbane mix of international news, Asian pop, health advice and topical soap operas, was immediately replaced with bulletins of Taliban victories, religious homilies or fresh directives on how citizens should comport themselves’ (Griffin, 2001: 6). Not all forms of what might be recognized as music were, in fact, banned. Forms of chanting remained as part of religious practice. And importantly, the Taliban’s strictures owed more to their politics than to any widely sanctioned reading of Islamic scripture. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s behaviour, both in practice and in the accompanying rhetoric, yoked music to power and to freedom.

The House of Lords and the value of music

Not all political interest in live music takes a malign form. In October 2004, the House of Lords, the unelected second chamber of the UK parliament, was earnestly debating the impact of the Licensing Act that had been passed the previous year. The noble lords were exercised over the impact the act had been having on live music. Defending the government and dismissing any suggestion that it sought the demise of live music, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting announced: ‘the Government would like to see more live music; they are doing everything they can to encourage this, and we are working to that end’ (House of Lords, 13 October 2004). Within the rarefied setting of the Palace of Westminster, Her Majesty’s Government appeared to be offering its unqualified support for the live performance of music. When the same issue returned to the Lords in 2011, the Peers once again voted for the need to protect live music. Lord Redesdale was moved to declare, ‘I believe it is a human right to have unamplified music’ (House of Lords, 7 March 2011). This thought, that music is connected to human rights, lies at the heart of this book.

From examples to arguments

It is easy enough, of course, to cherry pick examples and, as I did at the beginning, to make grand claims about the inseparability of politics and music. It is quite another thing to provide a sustained argument, and this is the task to which the rest of the book is devoted. The examples above are merely indicative of the kind of connections I have in mind.

In her book Music in Everyday Life, Tia DeNora makes a bold claim. Music, she contends, forges a relationship between ‘the polis, the citizen and the configuration of consciousness’. ‘Music’, she goes on, ‘is much more than a decorative art … It is a powerful medium of social order’ (2000: 163). In illustrating this power she refers to the way muzak can be used to control an environment and the behaviour that takes place within it. But DeNora does not see music simply as a tool of control and oppression. It can also, she says, act to constitute identities and to articulate emotions that empower people. Frustratingly, as Simon Frith (2003: 45) has noted, DeNora’s claims for music’s political purpose appear on the final pages of her book. The reader is left to wonder about how such ideas might be grounded. What does it mean to say that music is a ‘medium of social order’? All music? All social orders? How can a set of sounds – however dexterously composed and performed – ‘order’ human thought and action? My book is intended as a response to these questions. It is an attempt to show how and why music – as organized sound – can assume such an importance in people’s lives.

In chapters 1 and 2, I address the familiar conjunctions of music and politics, the first being the censorship of music, and the second being music policy. Both entail examining the ways in which states actively engage with music. But while these aspects of the link between music and politics are marked by familiarity, I want to consider their less obvious features. By this I mean, how censorship and music policy explicitly and implicitly invest music with political principles and political ideals. The chapters ask what is meant when live music is claimed, as did Lord Redesdale, as a human right.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 develop this thought further by looking, not at how the state sees music, but how music is used and seen by citizens in the demands they make upon that state. Here the question is how music contributes to the articulation of political ideas and to the organization of political action. Using examples such as Live 8 and Rock Against Racism, these chapters argue for music as more than a mere soundtrack to politics, but as the substance of politics. They look at how music comes to represent and articulate political ideas and identities, but also how music mobilizes movements in support of such notions.

The last part of the book is devoted to delving more deeply into the connections explored in the first part. Chapter 6 considers how music marks the sense of history that informs political ideals. It is, in a sense, about how music makes history. Chapter 7 traces the connection between musical taste and political values, mapping the interplay of aesthetics and ideology. This theme continues into chapter 8 where we chart music’s place in a particular tradition of political thought. It is a tradition in which music is not merely a matter of taste or entertainment, but in which it is key to our understanding of social order. The last substantive chapter draws out the further implications of this tradition for our understanding of music as a form of political experience.


Before going any further, I want to make explicit what I mean by ‘politics’ in this context. I am conscious that there are those who argue that ‘everything is political’, or more modestly that ‘all music is political’. There is, of course, something in both claims. Each seeks to challenge the view that there is a ‘natural order’ to human affairs or that ‘there is no alternative’. Each highlights the thought that in all aspects of our lives choices are being made and values being articulated. But the danger of such a perspective is that it empties ‘politics’ of all meaning. It becomes a truism that is deprived of any insight or leverage. It does not distinguish those activities that can affect the exercise of public power from those that cannot.

Something similar can happen in talking of the politics of music. It may be true that, in one sense or another, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and the Wombles’ ‘Wombling Song’ (‘Underground, overground, wombling free/the Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we’) are all examples of ‘political’ music, but how much would be gained by an analysis that lumped them together? Equally, all concerts, all music industry decisions, and all consumer choices may be ‘political’ in some sense, but how much do we gain by saying so?

In trying to specify more precisely what ‘politics’ refers to, I follow Colin Hay (2007: 65) in adopting a ‘differentiated yet inclusive’ definition. Hay is not alone in taking this approach. It is shared by other writers, and particularly those who are concerned with the relationship between the political and the cultural. Their starting point is, typically, to denounce the traditional definition of politics, one that confines itself to the activities of parties and governments alone (Buckingham, 2000; Nash, 2000). It is not that such agents are irrelevant to any understanding of politics, but that they are not its sole actors. It would be a strange definition of politics that excluded the activities of social movements, such as those organized round sexuality or gender or ethnicity. It would be strange too to deny the force of the feminist slogan that the ‘personal is political’. In this spirit, Stephen Coleman (2007: 15) argues for an ‘expansive conception of the political’ which contains ‘the micro-relationships in which power is contested and negotiated within families and workplaces, amongst friends and strangers, on a daily basis’.

The danger here is that all aspects of the personal are treated as political, in the sense that all involve some aspect of power. David Buckingham (2000: 34) is wary of this move, arguing that such inclusivity ‘is little more than a recipe for political quietism’. Buckingham contends that the personal should be treated as political only when this reconfiguration is recognized as such by the participants. In a similar vein, we need to be wary of conflating ‘politics’ and ‘public life’. As Nick Couldry (2007) and his colleagues point out, they do not necessarily share the same contours. What is public may not automatically be political, just as what is private may not be either.

Colin Hay offers a synthesis of the elements that constitute our understanding of the political. He notes the multiple, and often contradictory, accounts of the ‘political’, accounts which distinguish between politics as a function, a process and an arena. His response is to identify four distinctive features of the political. To count as ‘political’, a situation must present people with a choice, and one which they can act upon; they must have agency. And in exercising agency, people must be able to deliberate publicly and with others and for the outcome to have an impact on others; it must be social, not personal (Hay, 2007: 65). Put simply, decisions that are taken alone and affect only the individual who takes them are not social and hence not political (Hay, 2007: 70).

What are the implications of these definitional points for the way I approach the relationship of music to politics? One answer would be that if musical pleasure and choice are purely private matters of personal consequence, they are not political. It is only when musical pleasure (or musical displeasure) spills over into the public realm and into the exercise of power within it that it becomes political. It is where music inspires forms of collective thought and action that it becomes part of politics. It is where music forms a site of public deliberation, rather than private reflection, that we talk of music as political.


But while this book takes what, I hope, seems like a clear-eyed view of politics, and thereby allows for a more precise statement of how music and politics are connected, I do not thereby want to assume that ‘music’ is a self-evident category – far from it. Most of the examples I draw upon might be classed as ‘popular music’, but I hope that my argument is not dependent upon this particular categorization of music. The arguments advanced here can be applied to any form of music, whatever its genre.

This is not to deny the importance of music, but it is to open up the question of what sort of entity it is. This is not to invite wholesale scepticism. I do not want to deny the importance of music – and indeed all cultural forms – to the way we live. If Music and Politics was to have a guiding philosophy, it is provided by the novelist Carol Shields. In Larry’s Party, she (1997: 58) writes of her eponymous hero: ‘Larry listens. This is how he’s learning about the world, exactly as everyone else does – from sideways comments over a lemon meringue pie, sudden bursts of comprehension or weird parallels that come curling out of the radio, out of a movie, off the pages of a newspaper, out of a joke – and his baffled self stands back and says: so this is how it works.’ For Shields, Larry’s world is constructed by what he hears, rather than what he sees. In some ways, this book is an extended footnote to this insight. What it tries to demonstrate is that how music works on us, and how we act upon music, are intimately connected to the way we think and act politically. This is not just a claim about individuals, but about the collectivities and institutions they form. It is true for governments, parties and social movements, and the power they wield or seek to wield. It is a claim, as I have said, about the music of politics, and the politics of music.