Pop & Politics

Well, it’s been a wild week in the world.

I’m not going to comment on You Know Who – I think we’ve all read enough articles. (Although I do recommend this one if you’re not sick of the commentary. It’s an interesting take to consider).

What I am interested in reflecting on is the connection between music and politics. We all love to think of music as transcendental, magical, artistically pure, timeless, etc. But music is always affected by the context its creators live in. Exterior pressures on the artists themselves are written in along with the notes.

Of those pressures, political climate can have one of the biggest impacts. But politics are, as we’ve seen, very complicated, and when we look back and music history we have the tendency to organize things into nice little boxes according to genre and time period. This approach is helpful for dividing history books into chapters, but also runs the danger of skipping over difficult and complicated associations. One such sticky subject is the tangle of German music with the Nazi Regime.

As the Nazi party rose to power in the early 1930’s, its officials recognized the importance of taking control of the arts and culture scene. The German Empire’s world renowned music tradition was a huge source of pride for its people, and the Nazi party needed to be involved and in control of cultural production to leverage it to promote their xenophobic and bigoted platform of Aryan superiority. Within weeks of winning political office, Hitler installed Joseph Goebbels and instituted government bodies like the Propaganda Ministry and the Reich Chamber of Culture. The party took control of popular music criticism publications, radio and live entertainment, commissioned pieces from renowned composers like Richard Strauss (essentially a celebrity endorsement), and gradually started cataloguing and eliminating artists who didn’t fit their ideals.

Music critic Alfred Rosenberg, head of the Combat League for German Culture and Haupstelle Musik was assigned by the party to create the “Lexicon der Juden in der Musik.” This document was essentially a blacklist of Jewish people involved in the arts. Other barriers were set up to disenfranchise musicians the Reich did not want. One such measure was the Reichsmusikkammer, headed by Strauss and superstar composer Wilhelm Furtwangler, essentially became an elite club that kept opportunities from not only those listed in the Lexicon but also musicians of other ethnicities. As their control expanded, the Reich even began to ban the use of stylistic elements that didn’t match their Aryan standard, such as atonality, a musical system pioneered by Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg (who fled to America shortly after the Reich came to power), and jazz elements created by African-American musicians.

It is important to note here that to many Germans living through the beginning of the Third Reich, this did not feel as sinister as it looks to us looking back through our history books. While we can see now the impact that control had in gaining the German public’s support of Hitler’s regime, to them it felt like a celebration of cultural pride rather than censorship. Historians tell us that the Propaganda Ministry did not promote ‘Nazi Music’ but rather ‘German Music,’ the music of their people. In a political climate of fear and suspicion towards outsiders and ethnic minorities, this ideal was very welcome to many Germans.

While lofty German classical music worked perfectly for their ideals, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry had to grapple with the popular music of the day, jazz. As I mentioned, jazz, as the music of Black Americans, was a strict no-no. But in order to infiltrate radio broadcasts and keep the public happily listening to propaganda speeches, Goebbels had to allow jazz to be broadcast. The compromise here was to gradually replace the recordings of Black American jazz musicians with the more Reich-approved recordings of German jazz musicians. This also allowed the Reich to have German jazz bands bring propagandistic messages with them on tour outside of Germany.

As anyone who’s seen the 90’s classic Swing Kids will know, jazz did become symbolic of an underground resistance movement of university students and intellectuals who opposed the Nazi party. But as the article I linked above warns, it is easy to fall back on a “silver lining” mentality of art as expression of cultural resistance, particularly when it is so dramatized as in the case of Swing Kids. And while we may no longer have something so obviously named and cartoonishly sinister as the “Propaganda Ministry,” it is important in days ahead to remain critically aware of the relationship between pop culture and politics.

Here’s hoping history isn’t repeating itself.

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