Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest

Edited by Ian Peddie

In contrast to this impression of the marginalization of politics, a recent survey of music censorship (Bastian and Laing, 2003) has shown that, of the music censored worldwide over the last 20 years, 75 per cent of the cases were for political reasons. Two qualifications need to be added. The first is that very few of these instances involved British or US artists; the second qualification is that such censorship may owe much more to the interpretation of the state than the intention of the artists (for example, the recent ban by the Chinese authorities of particular Stones' songs). But even when we include the history of censorship, we are still left to conclude that, at the very least, politically engaged popular music is not the norm. What could be some of the possible explanations of the exceptions to the general rule? One argument used to explain the political content of popular music is that it reflects or responds to reality. This is an argument that is made all the more plausible by the suggestion that, relative to other cultural forms of expression, music is by far the most accessible. Consider the words of Gordon Friesen, one of the founders of Broadside, the publisher of the early protest songs of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs:
The question was frequently asked as to why so many Broadside writers concerned themselves with topics like wars; why didn't they write more often about love, flowers, winds upon the hills? Well, the magazine did print such songs. But topical-song writers, as distinct from other creators of music (which is often commercialized escapism), have always tended to deal with reality. (Quoted in Cohen, 2000, p. 15)
Friesen's suggestion is a straightforward one: music, especially folk music, chronicles contemporary reality. It is a form of news reporting, and news reporters, musicians are political because of their sensitivity to the times they live through.

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