Music and Politics: A Perfect Blend

Shock-rocker, Alice Cooper once said the following about rock musicians who dared express their political opinions: “To me, that’s treason. I call it treason against rock-and-roll, because rock is the antithesis of politics. Rock should never be in bed with politics.”

Alice Cooper

This is a common establishment line that serves the purpose of keeping us distracted and focused on the meaningless, and often propagandist, escapism of corporate entertainment. The strategy works to a point, but won’t be as successful going forward as Americans are more and more repressed by their government, and it becomes obvious to listeners that corporate-fabricated music does not reflect the collective experience.

I like to use the music of Soviet Composer, Dmitri Shostakovich as an example of music that reflected a population’s collective experience.

Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich conducting from the pianoShostakovich was probably the most controversial composer who ever lived, due to information that surfaced after his 1975 death and the eventual fall of the USSR in the 1990s.

He was also the most rebellious musician I can think of, and that’s what rock and roll should be all about in my opinion (I guess Alice’s idea of rebellion starts and stops with dropping out of school).

The main reason for the Shostakovich controversy is that due to the extremely horrific circumstances under which he lived and composed his greatest works, the composer was not able to speak publicly about what his music was about. In the Soviet Union, especially under the rule of Joseph Stalin, artists were  scrutinized, spied upon, controlled, and were expected to promote the dictated propaganda of the day (which usually took the form of the glorification of Stalin, “The Revolution” and/or the greatness of the USSR). Criticizing the violently oppressive government, or expressing true emotions about what it was like to live under the regime, was a sure death sentence.

Some modern-day communists believe that Shostakovich was loyal to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and that his music was in glorification of the state (some of them even deny Stalin’s horrific crimes against humanity that killed tens of millions of his own people).

Musicologists who have made careers writing about Shostakovich’s music as abstract music (as was much of 20th century “classical” or “art” music) also share this view of the composer. Incidentally, many of these music “academics” do not believe it is possible to pick out specific emotions or subject matter in instrumental music, and are extremely critical of how many interpret Shostakovich’s work.

The other school of thought, and the one that I am advocating here, is that Shostakovich thumbed his nose at the “leader and teacher” Stalin in his music, while at the same time praising him publicly in pre-written statements he was forced to read. Not only was he critical of Stalin, he also expressed the extreme  emotions of perpetual fear and grief that accompanied life in the Soviet Union during the terribly precarious period. The composer said in his controversial memoir Testimony, that all of his works are “tombstones” for the “mountains of corpses” created by Stalin.

People on the latter side of the fence believe that had Shostakovich not been the most famous symphonist of his time (arguably the greatest in all of the 20th century), he would likely have been shot, like so many other outspoken artists, poets, writers and intellectuals in Soviet Russia during  Stalin’s “Great Terror”. As it turned out, world opinion meant a lot to the psychopathic dictator.


Many of the stories that have poured out of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union tell of how the music of the beloved composer helped his listeners survive. His performances and recordings gave citizens, who were living in perpetual fear of being killed or “disappeared” into labor camps (the Gulag) for even showing a hint of dissatisfaction with the leadership, a place to openly weep at his performances. They would sometimes stand and clap for 30 minutes at a time in appreciation, often not stopping until a piece was played again.

Shostakovich Against Stalin documentary DVD cover

Dmitri Shostakovich helped keep people alive with his music (his 5th Symphony is a prime example of this). He offered them empathy and hope. He expressed their frustrations, pain, horror and anger where they could not. He allowed them to openly grieve and weep where they were not able to in their daily lives.

As the United States becomes more and more like Soviet Russia, its media increasingly resembling the Soviet propaganda rag, Pravda, the citizenry will come to desire a true and honest music, reflective of their collective experience as they do in all lands ruled by repressive regimes. The corporate music industry will continue to float  the idea that music and politics shouldn’t mix. When that doesn’t work, it will attempt to profit off of this demand, but only in a compromised way, because truly doing so would give power to the ones who would destroy them.

As long as we have the internet, we have the possibility of sharing honest music that is reflective of the lives we are living. The search for the best independent music online is not always the most pleasurable experience, but the buried treasures one can uncover make it worth the trouble.

John Dissed is a rock and roll musician and “deep politics” junkie from Los Angeles. Get a free song that combines the two when you enter your first name and email in the form beneath the red arrow at the top-right of this page.

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