In his book Local Music Scenes and Globalization (2012), Thomas Burkhalter discusses the way in which digitalization and globalization have changed music making. While introducing the topic and his aim, Burkhalter poses the following question: “Do new “successful” positions help reconfigure how we understand music—and even how we understand the world?” With the rise of globalization – and so our increased access to a constant flow of news from different parts of the globe – music making has changed. In the context of globalization, music can address worldwide problems due to the fact that artists have constant access to news sources on these problems. In fact, an increasing number of musical artists now use their influential position to address worldwide problems in messages to their fans, be it via social media, during concerts or via their music.
World politics in local music performances
This study seeks to explore the way in which world politics appear in locally based music performances and how audiences engage with these political messages. I will divide the discussion into two parts. First, I will look into the notions of global and local, and their influence on music making (production and performance). I will then use two case studies of songs that have a strong political aura. Both case studies focus on a song that discusses Donald Trump and his US presidency. Yet, both songs are written and performed by artists that live outside of the USA. The songs in question are Kitty Kitty (2018) by the Dutch band De Staat, and Love It If We Made It (2018) by the British band The 1975.
The case studies will be conducted in a similar way; we will look at the songs' lyrics and their performance (their live performance and music video), and also at what the band has said about the song themselves and how audiences respond to it. The latter will be done by looking at data gathered in two short questionnaires. These questionnaires – one for each song – were sent out in order to gain insight on how audiences engage with the songs. In each questionnaire, the respondent was asked questions pertaining to whether they were a fan of the band, whether they knew the song in question, whether they were aware of its political aura (and especially of its connection to Donald Trump) and, if yes, how they had been informed about that. Next, participants were asked whether they had noticed political references in the performance of the song and, if so, whether they could elaborate on what they have noticed. The interviewees were also asked whether the song had influenced the way they think about today’s society and, if so, which part in particular had done so. The final question was whether they would now listen to the song differently.
Music meets the global, the globalized and the local
Over the years, the world has become an increasingly “smaller place”. Due to all kinds of (technological) developments we have become more connected to people from places all around the world. However, the process of globalization has been going on for ages, so it is not something new. Neither is it an even process; some parts of the world are less affected by globalization than others. This means that even in the age of globalization, we are not truly "global" in the sense that not “every part of the world is in lively commerce and contact on a relatively equal footing with every other part of the world” (Caroll, 2007).
However, the process of globalization has made certain products globalized rather than local. Since there is increased connectedness, it is easier for us to introduce products ("products" as in products of speech and products of thought as well as physical products) in new regions or to incorporate something from these new regions in our local products. By doing so, these local products are no longer local; they become globalized.
In order for art to be understood worldwide, we need both these universal meanings as well as shared understandings of form.
In his article Art and Globalization, Then and Now (2007), Noell Caroll talks about the way globalization and art have affected each other. Even tough he mainly deals with visual art, some of his claims can also be applied to music as a form of art. “The artists, presenters, and viewers are not only aware of a number of recurring themes or frameworks; they also share knowledge of a battery of formal devices for advancing those themes, including radical juxtaposition, de-familiarization, and the de-contextualization of objects and images from their customary milieus” (Caroll, 2007). Here, Caroll implies that around the globe we see the similar forms of art, but what we mostly see are shared, universal themes which lead to shared meanings.
In order for art to be understood worldwide, we need both these universal meanings as well as shared understandings of form. When focusing on music, we see this worldwide understandings of forms too: we tend to categorize music into different genres that we agree upon more or less on a global scale. The shared, universal themes that appear in music range from the regularly used concept of love and heartbreak, to concepts such as politics and worldwide crises.
Even tough such themes can be understood as universal since they can be experienced worldwide, we must recall that globalization is uneven. This leads to these universal themes still being somewhat locally specific: different cultures experience "universal" themes in different ways. By making use of both beforementioned tools – a shared form and shared meaning – local music can thus become a globalized good, which can still be interpreted and understood in different places around the globe. This interpretation and understanding, however, occurs filtered through individuals' own local backgrounds.
Delving further into the way globalization has affected the production and performance of music, we see that a lot of research has been carried out on the connection between music and national identity. In his chapter on national identity and music, John O’Flynn (2007) quotes Robertson (1995) stating that “the contemporary assertion of ethnicity and/or nationality is made within global terms of identity” (1995). That is, national identity is constructed in relation to the globalization discourse so that one's national identity is only one attribute to one’s global identity. Art – in this case, music – can thus be linked to the artist's national identity, but it also has a place in the bigger picture of his or her identity as a globalized citizen in this globalized world.
We will now turn to two bands that have successfully created a globalized product and we will look into the way their audiences engage with this product.
“Orange entertainer”: A case study of De Staat’s Kitty Kitty
De Staat is a Dutch band that is considered to make “chameleonic rock music” (Spotify, n.d.). Their song Kitty Kitty came out in 2018. Even though the song itself is a local product – it is created by a Dutch band who has nothing to do with American politics and it is performed almost exclusively in European countries – it addresses a universal theme, namely politics. Kitty Kitty covers Donald Trump's presidency, and the battle between red and blue in the country. Based on American politics, the band deals with a universal theme (politics) through the lense of a local (i.e. Dutch) interpretation. This interpretation is remediated into a song that can be understood worldwide but which is locally performed.
The song's lyrics feature many indirect references to Donald Trump: Trump is never named, nor direct quotes by him are used. However, a lot of Trump's aspects that are often critized are touched upon. The song starts with the lyrics “Big deal maker, orange entertainer” which already hints at Trump. Other examples of lyrics that point towards Trump are “Make the new news faker”, “Follow the tweeter” or “The great white white white preacher”.
In the performance of the song – both in live performances as well as in its music video – the band uses two ways to refer to Trump. Firstly, there is the use of blue and red lights only. These lights alternate and refer to the clash between democrats and republicans in the USA. Secondly, the lead singer Torre Florim behaves in a way that is typically associated with demagogues.
In interviews, De Staat has explained that the song came to life during the presidential campaigning period in 2016 (3voor12 extra, 2018). They explain how the song is about “de opkomst van die oranje boy” (translation: “the rise of that orange boy”), and about the way that the democrats and the republicans make claims against each other. The band also explains in the same interview that the song mainly critiques the idea that everyone is caught up in their own opinions and their own bubble, which leads to dissent.
A questionnaire about the song was sent out to 24 people. 17 of the respondents indicated that they were a fan of De Staat, 21 of the respondents knew the song. However, from those 21, only 17 responded that they were aware of the political references in the song. Most of them (15 out of 17) knew that the song referenced Trump. The references were mainly picked up from the lyrics themselves (7 people), but also from the band talking about it in an interview (4 people). Only 6 people were aware of and correctly elaborated on the political references in the live performance. From the 24 respondents, 12 answered that the song had not influenced the way they think about society. 10 respondents said it might have been of influence, and 2 respondents said it definitely has. Commonly mentioned lyrics that led to this influence were “Orange entertainer”, “Make it feel, make it feel real” and “Fuck up the facts”. Lastly, 17 respondents answered that they will probably listen to the song differently now.
Kitty Kitty is thus a globalized product that uses an international, political theme. Even though it contains a shared, universal theme, the song stays open for interpretation by not using direct references. The song also illustrates the fact of globalization being uneven by giving every global citizen the opportunity to interpret it in their own national context. In the Netherlands for example, the popularity of a demagogue, which is addressed repeatedly in the song, could be applied to politicians like Geert Wilders or Thierry Baudet. The questionnaire results suggest that using such a political theme can definitely be of influence to the way people think about society. Therefore, positioning themselves as globalized citizens has helped De Staat in educating other globalized citizens.
“Modernity has failed us”: A case study of The 1975’s Love It If We Made It
The 1975 is a band from the United Kingdom that makes mainstream pop, but with their own artistic take on it (Spotify, n.d.). In 2018, they released their song Love It If We Made It. Throughout the song, the band mainly critiques the world we live in nowadays In doing so, they discuss the universal theme of worldwide problems through a local product: their music. This in turn has made their music into a globalized product. By taking on a slightly vaguer universal theme, the band leaves open the opportunity for interpretation in local scenarios; while addressing worldwide problems, they also address the idea that everyone has their local problems. Just like in Kitty Kitty, The 1975 also discuss Donald Trump and his presidency of the USA in this song.
What immediately stands out when looking at the lyrics is the direct and harsh way in which they are stated: nothing is sugar-coated in this song which is also a critique on the fact that in today's society, only controversial opinions get attention (“Saying controversial things just for the hell of it”). The lyric “Modernity has failed us” is a short summary of the universal theme that is carried throughout the song. Unlike in Kitty Kitty, the political meaning of this song is conveyed very directly. When referring to Trump, the song uses direct quotes of his as lyrics, namely “I moved on her like a bitch!” and “Thank you Kanye, very cool!” By using literal quotes, they point out the absurdity of an influential person being this provocative, which is a theme that can be understood differently in different local societies.
During live performances of the song, the band uses the same visuals that are shown in its music video. Like in the lyrics, the visuals do not sugarcoat anything: the images shown are very explicit and shocking, which again plays into the idea of “saying controversial things just for the hell of it”. By showing provocative material, the song also illustrates the main theme of “Modernity has failed us”. In reference to Trump, the music video shows actual footage of the president and thus makes the reference very direct again.
When looking at interviews with the band, the most interesting one to look at is their interview with Genius. In this video interview, lead singer Matty Healy notes that the line “I moved on her like a bitch!” “is a direct quote from the sitting president of the United States, and that’s a weird reality. Like, when a radio plays your songs, they don’t play swear words. I would have to be censored for literally quoting the leader of the free world” (Genius, 2018).
About the quote “Thank you Kanye, very cool!”, the band states the following on the Genius website: “Being on the wrong side of history is never normally celebrated retrospectively. The Kanye thing really confuses me, and upsets me a little bit (…). It’s just a fucking weird time, isn’t it?” (Genius, n.d.). In the video The 1975 - Matty Healy breaks down The 1975’s videos from ‘A Brief Inquiry…’ (2019), Healy discusses the way things are portrayed lyrically and visually in the song: “We know all this stuff. That’s why it resonates. I don’t want to be provocative, but the point is that if we’re talking about shocking stuff, and we’re relating to shocking stuff, and we’re resonating with the song because of our relationship to that shocking stuff, we have to see the shocking stuff.”
Like in the case of Kitty Kitty, a questionnaire was sent out to measure the way in which audiences engage with the song. In total, 42 people filled in the questionnaire, of which 35 labeled themselves a fan of the band. 40 respondents knew the song, 36 of which were aware of the political aura of the song. From these 36 respondents, 26 were aware that literal quotes from Trump were used as lyrics. 18 of them realized that by the lyrics themselves. Others knew it from the band talking about it (6 respondents) or from others telling them about it (2).
Most of the respondents noticed the shocking imagery used in the music video and were able to describe it extensively; only 6 respondents had not noticed the shocking imagery. 7 respondents answered that the song did not influence their way of thinking about society; 19 respondents answered that it might have, and 12 people answered that it definitely did. The lyrics mostly mentioned in response to the question of which lyrics made them think differently about society were “Modernity has failed us”, “Saying controversial things just for the hell of it”, the Trump quotes, and “Selling melanin and then suffocate the black men, start with misdemeanors and we'll make a business out of them”. Lastly, 30 respondents answered they will now probably listen to the song differently.
Just like Kitty Kitty, Love It If We Made It can be seen as a globalized product. The song does not sugarcoat the shocking universal theme that it discusses, namely that modernity has failed us. However, this theme can be understood from local perspectives, which turns the song into a great example of a globalized product. The questionnaire results again suggest that such a harsh critique on the world we live in can definitely be of influence to the way people think about this world and their place in it. Like De Staat, The 1975 position themselves as globalized citizens and they inform their audiences on this. In doing so, they educate them and encourage them to critically think about society outside one’s own nation as well.
Trump in popular, local music
To conclude, we should reiterate that, in the age of globalization, music has become a globalized product. For people to understand such a globalized product – made by local entities – there has to be something universal about it, for example some shared broad themes, like politics. Yet, a song's content can still be understood and interpreted in different, local ways.
With regard to world politics in local music in particular, local artists can portray themselves as globalized citizens by referring to a globally shared theme, like world politics in the two cases mentioned. Our case studies suggest that the biggest part of the audience recognizes the shared theme in the songs, and even lets it influence the way they think about society. We thus see that audiences engage with world politics in music by treating music as an educational tool for them to become more critical towards today's society and for them to become truly globalized citizens.
Burkhalter, T. (2012). Local Music Scenes and Globalization : Transnational Platforms in Beirut. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Carroll, N. (2007). Art and globalization: Then and now. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65(1), 131-143.
Daniel G., Hann, A., Healy, M., MacDonald, R. (July 19th, 2018). Love It If We Made It [Recorded by The 1975]. On A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships [CD]. West London, England : Dirty Hit.
Featherstone, M., Lash, S. M., & Robertson, R. (Eds.). (1995). Global modernities. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Florim, T. (August 10th, 2018). KITTY KITTY [Recorded by De Staat]. On KITTY KITTY [CD]. Amsterdam, The Netherlands : Caroline Benelux.
O’Flynn, J. (2007). National Identity and Music in Transition: Issues of Authenticity in a global Setting. In Biddle, I. & Knights, V. (2007). Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location : Between the Global and the Local (pp. 19-38). Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com