When Music and Politics Collide

Updated November 29, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

From Verdi to Pussy Riot, musicians use their lyrics and music as a vehicle to express their political views.

by Jennie Wood
Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square, Moscow
Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev ©2012

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In July 2012, three female members of a Russian punk band called Pussy Riot were arrested and put on trial for hooliganism after they performed an anti-Putin song on the altar of Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral. During one of the most high-profile trials that Russia's seen in years, the band members said their demonstration was political, not an attack on Orthodox Christians. On Aug. 17, 2012, the three members, Masha, Katya, and Nadya, were convicted of hooliganism and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. At the sentencing, activists outside of the courthouse began to protest, chanting "Free Pussy Riot!" Police arrested dozens of protestors. Rallies supporting the three women were held in cities around the world, including London, New York and Paris. Immediately following the verdict, governments including the United States, and human rights groups criticized the decision, calling the sentence severe. This wasn't the first time that musicians and politics have collided. Political expression through music has been present in many cultures and time periods.

Classical Rebellion

In 1844, Nabucco, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, premiered. In the opera, a chorus of Hebrew slaves was considered to be a call for the Italians to overthrow Austria and France's dominance. Napoléon had crowned himself king of Italy in 1805; but with the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Austria once again became the dominant power in a disunited Italy. In 1859, Italy helped France in a war against Austria as part of a push toward its unification. Verdi was appointed to the parliament of a newly unified Italy in 1861. In the 1954 ballet Spartacus, composer Aram Khachaturian used gladiator slaves rebelling against Roman masters as a metaphor to overthrow the Russian government. German composer Kurt Weill believed in writing music that served a purpose socially and politically. A socialist, Weill's most well-known work, The Threepenny Opera, took a Marxist viewpoint of capitalism.

Over the years, folk music commented on politics directly. "We Shall Overcome," perhaps the best-known folk protest song, was taken from an early gospel song, "I'll Overcome Someday" by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley. The tune was made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was used as a theme during the Civil Rights Movement. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" by Pete Seeger became a popular protest song during the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" helped usher in a younger generation's discontent with the beliefs and politics of older generations.

Rocking the Vote

At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the underground rock band MC5 performed. After their performance, a riot broke out between police and students who were protesting the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War. MC5, known for its countercultural lyrics in songs like "The American Ruse", did not participate in the riot. John Lennon often protested through his music and his song "Imagine" is arguably the most popular peace anthem ever written. The late 70s brought punk rock bands and artists like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Dead Kennedys who wrote lyrics that often raged against government, capitalism, racism, and social issues. Those punk bands had a lasting influence. Later on, bands like Green Day, Sleater-Kinney, Anti-Flag, and Rise Against would combine the same mix of uncompromising punk and politics in their music. U2 and R.E.M were rock bands who merged their political, social, environmental concerns with rock music to achieved mainstream success.

In 1990, Rock the Vote, a non-profit, non-partisan organization was founded in Los Angeles by Jeff Ayeroff, a long-time recording industry executive. The mission was to "build the political clout and engagement of young people in order to achieve progressive change in our country." By 2012, Rock the Vote had registered more than five million young people, including 2.5 million for the 2008 election.

Rage Against the Machine

Arguably no band in the modern rock era has been more political than Rage Against the Machine (RATM). Formed in 1991 in Los Angeles, they were inspired by heavy metal, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Urban Dance Squad. The band became known for their fiery lyrics which railed against cultural imperialism, government oppression and corporate America. From the beginning the band saw itself and its music as an outlet for social activism. In an interview for Juice Magazine, vocalist Zack de la Rocha said, "I'm interested in spreading those ideas through art, because music has the power to cross borders, to break military sieges, and to establish real dialogue."

In 2000 and 2008, RATM played free shows outside the Democratic National Conventions. In 2000, the show was a protest against the two-party system. In 2008, the free concert was to protest against the war in Iraq. After the 2008 performance, they participated in an anti-war protest march led by Iraq Veterans Against the War. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said that RATM was one of his favorite bands. Guitarist Tom Morello responded in an op-ed piece on Rolling Stone's website: Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles, but didn't understand them.

Through the years several musicians and bands have used their music as a vehicle to express their political views. From Verdi to Pussy Riot, these artists use songs and performances to spark movements. As long as there are policies and issues to rage against, these artists and bands will keep making sure their voices get heard.

Source: Recording Industry Association of America, Rockthevote.com, Juice Magazine, Rolling Stone
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