Popular Music and Populism
Populism has been researched from a great array of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences over the last decades. In musicology and popular music studies, however, the concept has been relatively neglected so far. This is all the more surprising since populism and music have been intricately connected at least since the nineteenth-century populist movement in the U.S. (Patch 2016; Kazin 2017), and popular music studies have a long tradition of research into music and politics (Street 2017; Garratt 2019), subcultures and counter-cultural movements that challenge the hegemonic ‘power bloc’ (Clarke et. al. 1975; Hebdige 1979; Eyerman and Jamison 1995). This special issue, therefore, seeks to explore the nexus between popular music and populism.
Research on populism is complicated by the concept’s ambivalence. Populism has been defined as a democratic movement (Goodwyn 1976), an emancipatory resource (Laclau 2005), a political strategy (Weyland 2017), an economic policy (Dornbusch and Edwards 1992), a communication style (Block and Negrine 2017), or an ideology (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017). Due to its wide scope, populism has been subdivided into various classifications, including inclusionary, exclusionary, right-wing, left-wing, nineteenth-century, contemporary, US, South-American, and European varieties. However, although populist movements assume highly diverse shapes across the world, they share a common ideological core based on a dichotomous understanding of a basic conflict between the two antagonistic camps of the essentially ‘good’ people and an inherently corrupt elite. As Michael Kazin (2017) has noted, populism’s power lies precisely in its adaptability.
As a result of the term’s polyvalence, a large number of musicians and musical cultures have been labelled populist. In the U.S., examples range from ideologically diverse phenomena such as 1880s farmers’ songs, Woody Guthrie, and Aaron Copland’s ‘Billy the Kid’ to Kid Rock’s ‘Born Free’ and the Trump-glorifying genre ‘Fashwave’. Elsewhere, examples of musicians who have been described as populist include celebrity singers such as Morrissey (UK), Fabrizio de André (Italy), Andreas Gabalier and Hannah (Austria); iconic rappers like Krúbi (Hungary), Piotr Liroy-Marzec (Poland) and Ricardo Alves (Brazil); as well as neo-folk and rock bands such as Böhse Onkelz (Germany), Les Brigandes (France) and frei.wild (Italy). A critical understanding of populism would help us to disentangle these diverse musical practices while revealing heretofore overlooked similarities.
In addition to investigating the populism of music and musical actors, another way to approach the interconnection between popular music and populism is to explore how populist politicians have employed music. Some of the political forerunners of the recent rise of populism in Europe, such as Silvio Berlusconi (Italy) and Jörg Haider (Austria), performed as singers of popular songs. Likewise, the front-runner of the far-right populist Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, plays in a pop band that performs light-hearted tunes with nationalist content, and his party organizes an annual summer festival. In Germany, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany plays German-language R&B tracks by celebrity singers such as Xavier Naidoo to support their marches against what they call the ‘islamisation of the Occident’.
Conversely, popular music has by no means been employed exclusively by the populist far-right. The Chavéz government, for instance, tapped into Alí Primea’s musical legacy for its political purposes in Venezuela in the 1990s (Marsh 2016), and the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey used popular music in the populist strategy to authenticate the demonstrations as an anti-establishment movement of ‘the people’ (Way 2016). In Italy, the founder of the initially left-leaning Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, organized ‘Five Star Woodstock’ events years before his party formed a coalition with the far-right Lega.
This special issue, therefore, seeks to bring together different understandings of populism and foster a dialogue regarding the roles of popular music in the development of populist movements from a transnational perspective. We invite submissions for this special issue of Popular Music that investigate the interconnection of populism and popular music in different historical and geographical contexts.
How exactly does popular music interact with and negotiate populist ideologies? How do musical sounds, lyrics, performances, and visuals articulate populist politics? And how can investigations of popular music contribute to developing a better understanding of populism as a cultural phenomenon?
We are looking for a range of international and interdisciplinary contributions from different perspectives, including popular music studies, ethnomusicology, and cultural sociology. Questions to be raised and explored in this issue may include: