When music becomes political

01 Aug 2018 | Source: Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg

An international group of researchers led by Professor of Music Education Mario Dunkel is exploring the role of music in the rise of populism. The Volkswagen Foundation is funding the project with just under one million euros.

What do the election success of the Alternative for Germany, the tens of thousands who take part in the Pegida movement demonstrations, and the Freedom Party of Austria’s entry into the Austrian parliament have in common with bands like Frei.Wild or the self-anointed “Volks-Rock'n'Roller” Andreas Gabalier? Quite a lot, Professor of Music Education Mario Dunkel suspects. In a joint research project with colleagues from Hungary, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands he is exploring to what extent commercially successful music is linked to the spread of populist ideologies. The Volkswagen Foundation is funding the project with almost a million euros over three years under the auspices of its “Challenges for Europe” research initiative.

The cultural dimension of populism

„For some time now we have observed that in various European countries, in addition to Nazi or far-right rock bands, very mainstream musicians are adopting populist ideas and reaching out to broad sections of society with them,” Dunkel explains. In three project phases the scientists will examine this phenomenon of populist, mainstream music using Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy and Sweden as examples. Together they will first analyse from a musicological perspective the populist elements to be found in commercially successful tracks, and examine the connection between the lyrics, music video and musical parameters such as form, rhythm, melody, harmonics and sound.

Once this musicological analysis is completed the focus will switch to how the songs are received from a sociological perspective. For this purpose, moderated group discussions with first-time voters in the five example countries are planned. The final phase of the project will focus on pinpointing differences and similarities between the countries.

It is the cultural dimension of populism that the researchers are concentrating on in their project. Dunkel explains that even though populist movements deliberately use the emotional and identity-forming impact of popular culture, this aspect had barely been taken into account in previous studies. Yet music plays a key role as the leading segment in the cultural and creative industry across Europe, he stresses.

A challenge for the European community of shared values

A typical strategy of populist ideology is for example to distinguish between the “corrupt elites” and the “real people”. This is a feature that is also to be found in Gabalier’s songs, as Dunkel explains: “In 2014 he was criticised in the press for singing an old version of the Austrian national anthem which mentions only ‘sons’ and not ‘sons and daughters’. In reaction he published the song ‘A Meinung Haben’ (Having an opinion) in which he criticises the elites’ purported dictatorship of opinion.”

Anti-democratic tendencies often go hand in hand with this “us against them” mentality, according to Dunkel. “Those who claim to represent the will of the people are not bound by democratic structures.” With this claim, he explains, populist movements call into question the values on which the European Union is based – such as the democratic order or the protection of minorities. “To deal with these changes we must first of all come to understand them. We want to contribute to this process with our basic research,” Dunkel says summarising the goals of the project. The results, he says, could also serve as starting points for didactic methods that promote a critical attitude towards populist cultures – a particularly important aspect in the view of the 36-year-old academic, who has held the position of Junior Professor of Music Education with Special Focus on Transcultural Music Transfer since April 2017.

For several years now Dunkel has focussed his research on the question of how music is instrumentalized for political purposes. Among other things he studied West Germany’s “music diplomacy” during the Cold War. The idea for the current project came to him last summer, during a conversation with his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Niederauer. “Martin recommended that I read the book ‘The Authoritarian Revolt’ by Volker Weiß, which led to a conversation about the connection between music and the New Right scene,” Dunkel recounts. Shortly afterwards the Volkswagen Foundation’s call for applications presented them with the opportunity to set up a research project on the topic.