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OPINION Same tune, different message

As events in the US have shown, there’s nothing new about the the right wing subverting radical and popular music for its own ends, says OSKAR COX JENSEN

AMID the serious criminal offences committed during the recent breach of the US Capitol, one prominent trespass was against good taste.

Numerous commentators, including original I Three singers Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, took exception to Trump supporters singing Bob Marley classics Three Little Birds and One Love.

The sound of white nationalists appropriating Afro-Caribbean music — though all too familiar in the Britain of the 1970s and ’80s — was considered both offensive and surprising.

Ideologically, such groups are more often associated with fetishising “white” classical music and eschewing “black” culture.

One of the early warning signs of singer Morrissey’s far-right leanings was his 1986 comment “reggae is vile.”

Some may find it surprising to realise that the alt-right can enjoy Bob Marley as well as death metal and Wagner.

But this might be less of an example of deliberate cultural appropriation than a pragmatic example of how music works when organising a crowd.

The lyrics of One Love unify its listeners, forming an in-group against an implicit other.

The choruses of both songs are effortless to sing. Above all, the tempo is perfect.

The Capitol mob neither goose-stepped nor surged: it shuffled slowly. Famously, it even kept between the guide ropes.

Marley’s songs, with their relaxed, off-beat rhythm, are the perfect soundtrack for a movement that mostly mills about.

Still, this wasn’t the first time that the far right’s choice of song has come out of left field.

In 2014, the anti-immigration UK Independence Party featured UKIP Calypso, a song at its annual conference penned by former BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read.

It was a travesty of Trinidadian music sung in an accent that, in the views of many, bordered on minstrelsy.

Bona fide calypso star Alexander D Great responded with his own song Copycat Crime.

The Marseillaise is the anthem of liberty written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792 and France’s national song.

In 1934 the British Union of Fascists needed a song of its own but its publication Fascist Week rejected Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, a far-right favourite then as now, because “it stands for ideals we regard as obsolete.”

The Italian fascist anthem Giovinezza (“Youth”) was deemed too, well, Italian.

Instead, asked Blackshirt magazine, the British Union of Fascists newspaper: “Who is to be the first Rouget de Lisle to give the Movement a Marseillaise?”

The anti-democratic right had a precedent here. In 1799, reactionary Royal Navy chaplain Alexander Duncan also proposed imitating the Marseillaise.

But the idea never caught on and today Britain’s far-right favours Keep St George In My Heart sung to the tune of the hymn Oil in My Lamp, most commonly associated with small schoolchildren.

Few far-right figures have embraced song in quite the manner of Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right French political party Rassemblement National (National Rally).

In 2015 she was filmed ironically serenading former French president and political rival Nicolas Sarkozy with the 1979 love song Nicolas

But the joke may have been on the anti-immigration Le Pen — Nicolas was a hit by French singer Sylvie Vartan, born in Bulgaria and of Armenian and Jewish heritage.

But the most extreme case of misappropriation is surely the German national anthem.

Its 1797 tune was penned by Haydn for the Habsburg emperor.

So when August Heinrich Hoffman gave it new words in 1841, he was reappropriating a royalist song for republican ends.

Its infamous opening “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” was a call for the disparate German states to form a liberal union, putting their shared identity above allegiance to petty monarchs.

Its lyrics are essentially peaceful, unlike bloodthirsty lines found in God save the King, The Star-Spangled Banner or the Marseillaise itself.

But since its appropriation by the Nazis, broadcast worldwide at the Berlin Olympics, its message has been tainted, and now only the third verse is officially sung.

In recent decades, musicians have been quick to object to the appropriation of their material.

Though Neil Young has abandoned his fight against Trump’s use of Rockin’ in the Free World, Tom Petty did successfully prevent the Bush campaign from playing I Won’t Back Down in 2000.

As a former Bush spokesman said: “We backed down.” 

And when in 2009 the British National Party plumbed new ironic depths by pirating the Manic Street Preachers’ anti-fascist anthem If You Tolerate This, the band’s label were swift to take action.

There’s little room for nuance when a movement takes a fancy to a slogan.

The ultimate example is Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, meant as a critique of the Vietnam war and its effect upon veterans.

Knowing this, some commentators sneer at its use by jingoistic nationalists and “birthers.”

But its verses require concentrated listening, whereas the macho, stadium-rock chorus is simplicity itself.

Perhaps we should suspend our knowing impulses and accept that, in practice, a song’s meaning is determined in performance not in the intentions of its author.

Oskar Cox Jensen is a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia. This article first appeared in The Conversation, theconversation.com.

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