The Dictator’s Music
A performance of Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary opera during the Chinese Cultural Revolution
In his black fedora-style hat, dark glasses, and a white T-shirt featuring the slogan “Down with Big Brother” in messy red and black lettering, Cantopop star Anthony Wong Yiu-ming was the picture of anti-establishment cool on the evening of 3 March 2018. The venue was a modest stage at Edinburgh Place in central Hong Kong where the pro-democracy politician Au Nok-hin was holding a rally for the Legislative Council by-elections. Both men were about to break the law, whether or not they knew it.
About halfway through the event, Wong slouched up to the stage, grabbed the mic, and grinned. “This song is about choice, whether society has a choice,” he told the audience before launching into the melodious “A Forbidden Fruit Every Day:”
“Someone in the garden often asks me what I want…
There are not many choices at all, only apples every day.
Everyone says I’m too stupid, I don’t care about the consequences at all.
I chose mangoes…”
This song, of course, is not about fresh produce and the upbeat “It’s My Party,” which Wong performed next, isn’t just about having a good time. “Come on, come on, come on,” Wong crooned, managing to look befittingly boyish despite being in his late 50s:
“Join the party with a different biography…
Let the grown-ups take control of all the beasts,
But youth belongs to me.”
With this performance, Wong, whose music had already been banned in China due to his support of the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, pushed his luck a bit too far. On 2 August 2021, the Hong Kong police arrested him after the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) accused him of illegally using “entertainment to induce others to vote for a candidate.” The ICAC also charged Au Nok (who won the election but is currently in prison for participating in a pro-democracy demonstration) with the same offence. The charges of corrupt conduct against Wong were dropped a few days later, but the judge warned him to “not breach the peace, show good behavior, and not violate any law related to election conduct for 18 months.”
There are two things at play here: one is the ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy politicians, activists, and artists in Hong Kong ahead of the December 2021 elections. The other is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) increasingly heavy-handed campaign to rein in popular culture, particularly music, which it perceives as a threat to the state’s authority and the moral order in general.
After the charges against him were dropped, Wong defiantly proclaimed, “Hong Kongers will continue to sing.” But as China’s grip over Hong Kong tightens, for how long? The soaring and almost liturgical protest anthem “Glory To Hong Kong” was banned from schools last year, mere hours after China set up its national security bureau in the city. The Cantopop sensation and democracy activist Denise Ho has spoken about how singers will need to self-censor and be more “cryptic” with their lyrics if they want to be heard at all.
Hong Kongers sing their protest anthem, “Glory To Hong Kong,” in New Town Plaza in Sha Tin (Picture Credit: Studio Incendo)
It’s a damning indictment. Music has been a major casualty of the CCP’s cultural cleansing project, in which dozens of songs have been deemed morally unacceptable and controls on online music services tightened. Last month, the Chinese Ministry of Culture announced that it would make a centralized list of banned songs that karaoke establishments would need to comply with, since drunken patrons belting out “I Love Taiwanese Girls,” “Beijing Hooligans,” or “Fart” could “harm national security, honor, or interests.” Similarly, the Chinese government has over the past few years decimated much of the country’s once vibrant indie music scene with frequent raids on clubs and strict rules for approval of album releases. So keen are the authorities to promote only “healthy” and “positive” music that artists who get too political are accused of “improper conduct” and promptly blacklisted. Others have “disappeared,” like the gravel-voiced folk rocker Li Zhi, who committed the ultimate transgression of alluding to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in his song “The Square.”
KTV in Wuhan, China (Picture Credit: User:Vmenkov)
China, though, is hardly the only state that wages political or ideological wars on the cultural battlefield. Most autocratic regimes, and occasionally even democratic ones, have had (and still have) an uneasy relationship with music.
The power of music is undeniable. It’s a communication multiplier that melds ideas and symbols with emotions in memorable patterns that sticks in the brain, affects mood, and often provokes physical action. Neuroimaging studies have found that music activates the same pleasure centers of the brain as chocolate, sex, and recreational drugs. When experienced collectively, music is part opiate, part amphetamine of the masses. It makes them sway in unison, hum the same tunes, bonds them, moves them.
When experienced collectively, music is part opiate, part amphetamine of the masses. It makes them sway in unison, hum the same tunes, bonds them, moves them.
Campaign songs and advertisement jingles are so essential to selling a candidate, platform, or product because of their catchiness. Music hooks people, reels them in, and helps build group identity centred around a particular person, cause, or brand. These very properties can also make music a potent force for resistance, the foundation of a chorus of protest.
Rebellious lyrics alone do not make a protest song. For that to happen you need shared social meaning among a critical mass of people. A discordant Rage Against the Machine track that an angsty teenager listens to on headphones while fantasizing about sticking it to the man might not fit the bill. What would is a call to action like “Glory to Hong Kong” that motivates crowds of people to congregate, hold hands, and join their voices in direct opposition to authority. The Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement in Argentina, Chile, and Portugal in the 1970s and 80s is another example. This movement revolutionized traditional folk music to take on oppressive establishments, which retaliated by killing or exiling many performers. This genre of popular music actively sought to create an alternative political and social identity that resisted the domination of corporations and governments. In Russia, the feminist punk-guerrilla act Pussy Riot has no anthem to speak of but their fierce balaclava-clad performances make a statement and got up in Putin’s hair like nothing else. Their heretical “Punk Prayer (Mother of God, Chase Putin Away),” performed before the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012, earned three of them jail sentences; several members were arrested on various charges this year as well, including just on suspicion of future trouble they might create.
Pussy Riot in Red Square in Moscow (Picture Credit: Denis Bochkarev)
In some cases, music has directly helped to topple regimes. In 2010, a number of songs sparked and fuelled the Arab Spring protests by uniting people in what one researcher calls “acoustic communities” well before the actual uprisings. Songs like Ramy Essam’s “Leave” in Egypt, Khaled al-Zaher’s “Freedom” in Yemen, and Noy Alooshe’s “Zenga Aloo she’s” in Libya became rousing anthems of the revolution that saw several dictatorships dismantled. In Estonia, the 1987 Singing Revolution was remarkably successful in the way it cleverly deployed songs about Lenin’s quotes on freedom (well within censorship guidelines) to subvert the Soviet Union and to eventually win freedom. Music doesn’t have to be overtly mutinous to be effective either. In the 1930s, Mahatma Gandhi, the nemesis of colonial India’s British rulers, inspired people across the country to carry out singing processions. Gandhi rejected “hostile” lyrics and recommended only devotional music, but the British authorities were still furious and frightened since these pious musical groups got people together and promoted the idea of nationalism as a spiritual calling, impervious to corporeal punishment or reward. The Third Reich used Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony for its propaganda, but the same piece of music was also used by Chinese students to “create an ambience of solidarity and hope” during the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square.
Gandhi leading a musical procession in the 1930s
No wonder, then, that dictators have to sleep with one ear open for fear that people might start dancing, or rampaging, to tunes that could subvert the cultural order or shake the political establishment. As the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates recognized, “Never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved.”
So, how do dictators try to stay ahead in the race for sonic hegemony?
At one extreme are theocratic regimes like the Taliban, which, when it last ruled Afghanistan, latched on to a dubious hadith (basically, hearsay about the statements and actions of Prophet Mohammed) to outlaw all music. The theological debate about music in several Islamic countries, of course, has less to do with religion and more to do with controlling people. With the Taliban now grabbing territory in Afghanistan, it’s likely that once again even plucking on the strings of a rubab could mean death. Such extremes, however, are rare.
At the next level of music-control are the bans, arrests, and exiles of dissident artists, all of which are standard options in a dictator’s playbook. However, what deserves greater scrutiny is how dictators often try to use music to their advantage.
The first method is to construct an ideal national soundscape. Authoritarian regimes are maestros at using anthems, national songs, and even co-opting certain tonal and compositional structures to promote propaganda, rally support, and mould a collective identity. During the Russian Revolution, for example, composers were encouraged to incorporate the clamor of the factories and streets to create a “music of the working proletariat;” thus, in Alexander Mossolov’s “Zavod” there is a discordant clatter of steel, and in Dmitri Shostakovich’s “October Symphony” a factory whistle. In China after the 1949 revolution, Mao ruled that there were only two kinds of music: capitalist and proletarian. Communist songs and hymnal odes to Mao were acceptable, and those who didn’t follow the rules could end up in a labor camp. The music scholar Mao Yu Run succinctly captured the “crude resemblances” of the music popular at different stages of the so-called revolutionary development: “pentatonic scale, narrow register, four-measure phrases, two-four time, simple rhythms, and texts concocted of fine-sounding platitudes in different permutations of no more than a hundred characters.” Indeed, during the Cultural Revolution only eight “revolutionary model operas” were allowed on stage. A somewhat more benign example of political identity-building through music is Singapore. In 1988, the Psychological Defence Division of the Ministry of Communications and Information launched the Sing Singapore programme, which through books, tapes, and video clips of approved songs sought to build national consensus on values and ethics.
The problem with this approach is that when music becomes obviously prescriptive or tightly controlled, people may try to subvert it. For instance, in Singapore, a bunch of musicians released a Not the Singapore Song Book, along with a tape, in 1993, parodying some national songs and critiquing the lack of free speech. Even iron-fisted governments like those in China or the Soviet Union could not prevent the emergence of subversive musical subcultures, and bans sometimes had the opposite of the intended effect. For instance, the 70s’ Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe never set out to challenge the Communist government, but when they were banned and persecuted because of their rebellious style (like long hair) and dark lyrics, a passionate underground culture grew around them, eventually feeding into the revolution that ended the regime. The group’s saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec has since said that the band would never have been political had it not been made political by “offended” politicians and their draconian actions.
Since bringing out the whips and chains can sometimes backfire, several autocratic regimes have tried co-opting potentially rebellious musical genres and standardizing them so that they enable what the cultural critic Theodor Adorno called “official culture’s pretence of individualism,” yet not enough to really undermine authority.
Several autocratic regimes have tried co-opting potentially rebellious musical genres.
The theocratic republic of Iran, for instance, started out in 1979 with a strict ban on popular music, but the music didn’t die: it just went underground. The ethnomusicologist Laudan Nooshin underscores that it was in this private domain that Iranians “had the greatest opportunity for subversion.” The ban, much as in the case of the Plastic People of the Universe, made even apolitical music political (since even listening to it became an act of rebellion against the authorities) and thus increased its power. Over time, the Iranian government recognized this and in 1997 lifted the ban on certain categories of popular music. A year later, it started broadcasting “rebranded” Iranian pop that was remarkably similar in style and content to still-banned types of music, except that it was slower (dancing was forbidden), the lyrics were tamer, and there were no solo women artists. Because it was easy to access, this sanitized popular music gained traction and undermined the popularity of underground forms because people no longer felt so acutely that they were being deprived of music they could identify with.
A similar co-option of cultural resistance is at play in China too. A fascinating report by Rolling Stone details how last year a talent show called The Big Band on the state-approved streaming channel iQiyi brought formerly low-key rock and post-punk performers into the musical mainstream, and popularized a live music club called the School Bar, transforming it from a “dim, sticky punk den” to a trendy spot where people throng to listen to “real rock.” Yet, how real can rock be if it comes bearing the stamp of the authorities? The image of rebellion remains, but there is no substance to it. In Russia, Vladimir Putin acknowledged in 2018 that banning rap music, cancelling concerts, and arresting artists repeatedly was “impossible.” The government, he proposed, should “take charge” of the genre instead so that its “three pillars,” namely sex, drugs, and protest, could be appropriately tamed. The project, at least so far, seems to have succeeded. One of Russia’s most confrontational rappers, Husky, has stayed out of trouble since his last arrest in 2018 and the genre is not as political as it once was.
Could this mean that if dictators just chilled out a bit and got their rock or rap on, they might be able to rob music of its revolutionary potential? It seems plausible if, as some Marxist critics believe, the “culture industry” has already set us up to be willing subjects of autocratic regimes. According to this school of thought, not only is popular music “standardized,” repetitive, and “manufactured after a given pattern,” so are our responses to it. This music and our enjoyment of it, therefore, “is wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society.” The culture industry numbs our senses with distractions and shallow pleasures. It obliterates our political consciousness, making us the perfect drones for dictators and populist demagogues. Even disruptive forms of music like rock and hip-hop are co-opted by the culture industry, with expressions of rebellion reduced to little more than empty posturing.
However, people are not (always) stupid. For example, the Chinese government’s repeated attempts to co-opt hip-hop and turn it into a medium that cultivates the affection of the people have flopped miserably. One ill-advised attempt in 2015 praised “Big Daddy Xi,” urging him to “Rule the party strictly!” and “Govern the country!” The latest track, with the English refrain “China Rising,” was released to celebrate 100 years of CCP rule, but this was also widely mocked even though it packed 100 rap and hip-hop artists into a 15-minute track. In Cuba, the Communist government retaliated in an unusual way to the hip-hop song “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), which subverted the Castro-era slogan “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death) and became the battle cry of the largest demonstrations that Cuba has seen in decades. The government arrested protestors as well as a videographer who contributed to the song, but it also released a counter-revolutionary song that dusted off the old slogan “Patria o Muerte.” This ditty targeted the exiled Cuban musicians who collaborated on the original protest song, and accused them of capitalist hate-mongering:
“So you are against poverty
From a satin sofa
You obtain money and vileness
It pays to scream
What they want to hear
Those who hire your voice
The ones that incite you to hate.
Who make it profitable to throw mud
At your country in these times.”
This song convinced no one. A writer in the Havana Times called it a “poor imitation trying to present a counter message.” Even sadder was former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s attempt to use the Korean pop star PSY to boost his support amongst young people. The corrupt autocrat invited PSY to perform in Malaysia ahead of elections in 2013, and the crowds were pulled right in. “Are you ready for PSY?” asked a triumphant Najib, and the crowd roared YES! “Are you ready for BN (his political party)?” he ventured next, and the crowd just laughed. In America, many musical icons, including the Rolling Stones, Adele, Rihanna, and Neil Young, demanded that Donald Trump stop using their music in his political campaigns. The lead singer of REM took to Twitter to say, “Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign,” and soon after released a song called “World Leader Pretend.”
Ultimately, even though music may be co-opted by authoritarian forces, audiences and musicians themselves are still capable of making their own meanings, and they don’t much care for being clobbered over the head with propaganda – even if it has a catchy tune. And as long as that doesn’t change, there’s still hope.