Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Mixed messages

It's nothing new for songs to be appropriated by politicians against the wishes of their creators. And, as Luke Ottenhof explains in an article for the Guardian, neither is it novel for such songs to be expressions of sentiments that are diametrically opposed to those of the appropriating politicians. He (inevitably) cites Bruce Springsteen's 'Born In The USA', beloved by Donald Trump and a host of other blinkered nationalists, but also quotes academic Noriko Manabe, who observes that similar examples can be found in English folk music as far back as the seventeenth century.

Nevertheless, Ottenhof identifies "the startlingly widespread trend for the right wing to co-opt music about struggle and progress" as a distinctively contemporary phenomenon, exemplified perhaps most bafflingly by Trump supporters' adoption of socialists Rage Against The Machine's 'Killing In The Name' . In their hands, the meaning of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" was perversely transformed - no longer about standing up to injustice and a white corporate oppressor and instead the selfish, oafish anthem of meatheads for whom wearing a mask seems to be the ultimate affront to personal liberty. As another academic, Jack Hamilton, argues, protest music unwittingly plays into the hands of people who are trying to rebrand conservatism as rebellion and a refusal to be constrained or cancelled (hello Van Morrison!).

What to do other than roll your eyes and despair? Polite requests and formal cease-and-desist orders from the relevant musicians don't seem to have much impact, and in any case such requests and orders don't actually address the fundamental and often willful misreadings that made the appropriation possible in the first place. Researcher Kevin Fellesz suggests that the solution is to "educate, empower and encourage people to listen with a critical ear". Perhaps - but teaching critical thinking in general would be even more sensible.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

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