The first songs to express personal emotions and individual aspirations appeared more than 3,000 years ago in Deir el-Medina, a village on the west bank of the Nile. By seeming coincidence this was also the location of the first successful labor protest in history, when artisans launched a sit-down strike that forced “management”—Ramesses III in this instance—to increase grain rations. Is it just by chance that a major musical innovation and a historic expansion in human rights took place in the very same (and tiny) community?
Perhaps only a few dozen families lived in this setting, yet they spurred a profound change in both arts and politics. But this wouldn’t be the last time that new ways of singing would be linked to the growth of personal autonomy and individual rights. The same thing happened in ancient Greece, in Christian medieval societies, under the Abbasid Caliphate, during the 1960s US civil rights movement, and in many other historical settings. In fact, song has been our most enduring tool for the advancement of freedom.
We take for granted that songs express personal feelings. But that wasn’t always the case. And we shouldn’t minimize how empowering this kind of music can be. Having the right to sing about what you feel legitimizes your worldview to an uncanny degree. First you claim a stake to your own music, and soon you demand other freedoms. That’s how the process has always worked.
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Just consider how often rebellions and dissident movements take place in the same communities that produce innovations in music. During the height of the troubadour movement in the south of France, the sociopolitical environment was so threatening to authorities, that the Pope went to war against the residents of this region—the first time in history that a Crusade was launched against Christians. Greil Marcus has suggested that the Cathars, the heretical movement that made this intervention necessary, anticipated the later punk ethos. At first glance, that seems like a strange, exaggerated claim—could medieval punks really have existed? But a holistic view of the converging musical and ideological shifts of that time and place make it a plausible hypothesis.
In fact, the whole first thousand years of Christianity witnessed an extraordinary suppression of peasant songs. These were attacked repeatedly in sermons, laws, and various official pronouncements. The censorship was so severe that almost no love songs or lyrics of personal emotion in the vernacular languages have survived from that long period. It’s hard for us, nowadays, to grasp why a love song might be threatening to those in power. But, viewed from another perspective, the power of a love song in promoting personal autonomy makes perfect sense. After all, these romantic lyrics proclaim the lovers’ determination to take control of their destiny and happiness—and if they are willing to do it in this instance, what prevents them from demanding independence and self-determination in other matters as well?
Political philosopher Michael Walzer once claimed that the revolutionary movement in Germany failed in the aftermath of World War I because “it did not have a song”—unlike the Russian Communists, who made extensive use of “The Internationale.”
The same is true in modern times. Consider the case of the Stonewall riots, now viewed as a milestone moment in the gay rights movement. The name Stonewall sounds like a reference to the street barricades that sometimes figure in the history of heated urban protests. But in fact the name comes from a nightclub, the Stonewall Inn, where a heated conflict originated between patrons and police over whether gay couples could dance on the premises. The resulting protests and riots, which started in late June 1969 and continued into July, mobilized the gay community—and, in retrospect, can be seen as a turning point in the history of civil liberties in the US.
Is it a coincidence that the right to dance to music set off this chain of events? Not at all—the whole history of the 20th century testifies to the many ways new developments in music anticipate dramatic social changes. This is why all authority figures—from parents to world leaders—have always fretted about new styles of song. “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake,” once said Alan Ginsburg, in a loose but fairly accurate translation from Plato. And that’s just as true now as it was in ancient Greece.
Just in the last few days, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has led to musicians hiding their instruments, and even to a halt in background music at hotels. The hotel staff member explained the change to a BBC reporter: "Friends are here, so no more music." Many outsiders are puzzled why a new regime would care about such small things—but the lessons of history in this regard are clear: Music isn’t a small matter, not at all, and is intrinsically connected to human rights.
I could give numerous other examples from current events, whether we want to consider regulations on karaoke songs in China, or the death penalty imposed on people smuggling K-Pop into North Korea. The authoritarian leaders of these societies are no fools. They understand full well why they need to control songs in order to stay in power.
In Egypt, pop stars were recently jailed for their suggestive music videos. In Russia, members the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot have emerged as focal points for protest; they were convicted in court for “undermining the social order.” A subsequent campaign to eradicate rap music proved impossible to implement, but Vladimir Putin announced a fallback plan to “lead” and “direct” Russian hip-hop—a mystifying declaration that seems destined to failure from the start. In Ethiopia, singer Teddy Afro became the biggest pop star in the country only to have his album launch shut down by police. In Thailand, the government was so unnerved by a recent rap song that it responded not only with threats and denunciations, but with its own music-video response.
Nobody seems to have told the rulers of these nations that music is just idle entertainment. The music industry may view songs in that narrow manner, but people in power know better.
The connections run deeper than most of us realize. There’s a whole unwritten history of the ways music has changed legal codes—that will be one of the subjects addressed in my next book. I don’t want to anticipate too much of that here, but there’s a good reason why the ancient Greeks used the same word, nomos, to refer to song and law—in fact, I can trace a connection between legal protections and music in every major ancient culture.
We need to reevaluate how we define a political song. When most people hear that term, they conjure up images of antiwar chants at student protests, or defiant workers singing union anthems. What they don’t realize is that even the gentlest songs of introspection are potentially political songs—the same today as back in ancient Egypt—and have repeatedly laid the groundwork for every significant expansion in personal autonomy and human rights.
Political philosopher Michael Walzer once claimed that the revolutionary movement in Germany collapsed in the aftermath of World War I because “it did not have a song”—unlike the Russian Communists, who made extensive use of the “Internationale.” Walzer’s student Todd Gitlin, picking up on this line of thought, has suggested that the inability to mobilize socialist activism after the fall of Soviet Bloc was due to a musical failing.
“All these years later, the left is still tuneless,” Gitlin, lamented in a 2018 article in The New York Review of Books.” Missing from social democracy is a galvanizing cross-border spirit, a sense of historical destiny, and yes, a literal song.”
But other social movements haven’t been so tone deaf. The recent Hong Kong protests found millions taking to the streets—where huge crowds unexpectedly started singing a Broadway tune. And the song they picked “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables, captured the mood of the moment perfectly.
Can you really overcome an authoritarian regime with a Broadway song? It may seem like a pipe dream. But the verdict of history on this subject is clear. Music not only announces changes that are coming, but even makes them happen. That was true 3,000 years ago, when songs were one of the few ‘viral’ forms of communication, and it’s just as true in our own times, despite all the impressive technological advances. If you doubt it, wait and see.