Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America” provoked debates across the country about gun ownership, racial violence, and inequality in the U.S. This was no isolated phenomenon: music has long inspired individuals and mobilized social movements. For this same reason, governments have often attempted to censor musical expression. Whether looking at the writings of ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, modern European thinkers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Adorno, the American pop scene—let alone events such as the ban on music by the Taliban in Afghanistan—the strong links between music and politics are clearly audible. What is it about organized sound that makes it so politically important? In this seminar we will explore how musical practice affects political processes and how power dynamics shape the making, distribution, and listening of music.

Despite this strong connection, music has largely been relegated to a background and marginal position in the study of politics. Mainstream definitions and analysis of political processes emphasize standard procedures (i.e. electoral politics), institutions, and ideologies of rational choice, disregarding other levels of human experience such as emotions, imagination, and the shaping of aspirations, facets that play a central role in the formation of political subjectivities. Music flows across many sociocultural borders (religious, class, ethnic, linguistic), and its meaning is often malleable and ambiguous with effects that cannot be easily measured, defined, or controlled. These features also constitute music’s political power.
Across the course, we will focus on specific people, sociocultural contexts, and music genres in order to trace how musicians and listeners accept or resist certain social orders, how they debate, produce and sometimes change power relations through engaging with expressive culture, how they advance critique, express beliefs, identities and lifestyles, how they shape memory and imagination, create empathy, evoke emotions and encourage action. We will also explore who has economic and creative control over music-making and distribution, which people and ideological assumptions dictate the terms of scholarly and critical writing about music and its effects, and how race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class shape aesthetic choices.

Our main body of readings comes from anthropology and ethnomusicology, but we will also read from an interdisciplinary pool of texts such as philosophy, sociology, political science, history, cultural studies and journalism. Documentaries and selected music pieces will also be assigned. The class will take two field-trips to New York. Knowledge of music theory not required.