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Political Performance Art Can Be a Right Song and Dance

Green Day: Protest Songs - gillyberlin
Performing Arts (dance, drama, music) and politics make natural travellers on the same road. Whether they change minds, win hearts, may be another matter.

Political arts are about raising awareness of issues, ideas and responses to society. Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica showing the tragedy of bombing civilians during the Spanish Civil War has become an iconic anti-war artpiece. Visual and performance art is often in the form of protest against a government, a system, an act of war, on stage, in song or on film.

People hear Edwin Starr’s Motown song, ‘War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing…. only friend is the undertaker’, and know it’s a political, antiwar pop song. Other classics include Universal Soldier, by Buffy Sainte-Marie (1964), Eve of Destruction (1965) and It’s Good News Week by Hedgehoppers Anonymous (Jonathan King, 1965) about nuclear holocaust.

Political music is not confined to pop. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich came into conflict with the Soviet authorities who demanded music to glorify the state, propaganda. His Symphony No. 7 (The Leningrad) in 1941 was rebellion, non-verbal music seen as a denunciation of Stalin’s totalitarian regime.

Bob Dylan, Master of Lyrics

Possibly the greatest poet/singer-songwriter of the 20th century, Bob Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie and folk singers and protesters on behalf of the American working man, like Pete Seeger. Dylan first became popular in the early 1960s in the folk-protest movement, although later he denied being a protest singer.

A scan through some of his early albums, like Freewheelin’ (1963). Bringing It All Back Home (1965), The Times They Are a Changin’ (1964) and Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), reveal classic protests about war, racial freedom, the threat of the atomic bomb. Blowing in the Wind, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Talking World War III Blues, Oxford Town, Maggie’s Farm, Outlaw Blues, Gates of Eden, With God On Our Side, Chimes of Freedom and I Shall Be Free are anthems for the political protest movement in its various guises.

Jamaican Bob Marley used his music to protest. Get Up Stand Up is uncompromisingly a demand for recognition of his Rastafarian religion. Songs of Freedom, Slave Driver, Revolution, War and Redemption Song all speak of black, working peoples’ struggles, the ultimate protest songs. English poet singer Billy Bragg expresses radical political sentiments through the often bitter human experience and outcomes in tight lyrics and music that harks back beyond the Punk that first inspired him to Woodie Guthrie and Phil Ochs.

Bragg once said that the only way he would hear the political songs of his own generation, was to actually write them. Ochs’ song I Ain’t Marching Anymore is part of the 60s anti-Vietnam, hippie movement that used the drugs, free expression and psychedelia of the era to voice the fears, anger and hopes of that generation.

Nerina Pallot’s Everybody’s Gone to War is a cry against more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Green Day preface performances of Holiday (2005) as ‘not anti-American, but anti-war’, and they use politically charged lyrics that place them in the van of contemporary political/protest singers.

Dancing to the Political Drumbeat

US choreographer Bill T Jones and his ensemble The Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company are at the forefront of energetic, innovative, technically diverse dance work. The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land encapsulates his political drive dealing with racial, gender, sexual and faith issues. Jones himself is an articulate, forthright exponent of artistic challenge/probing questions, and a leader in the politico-performer field.

Lea Anderson’s Car is a postmodern, site-specific piece, in part about the ravages of the automobile on life and a bland mechanical future, but also about the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, and the fact that Jackie Kennedy was alongside him in the open car. It is not overtly political, but she herself said in the UK Times in 2004, ‘I should’ve shot the Prime Minister, that would have been a useful thing to do with my life… it will ignite people’. There are few more provocatively political statements for an artists to make.

English choreographer Christopher Bruce has designed a number of classic pieces that reflect a political motive. Hurricane (2002) dances to the Bob Dylan protest song about boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter being framed by police and imprisoned for murder. His Swansong (1987) is about interrogation of a prisoner by two guards, while Ghost Dances (1981) about human rights is set in Chile’s Pinochet regime about torture of dissenters.

Pina Bausch (1940-2009) was the founder of Germany’s Tanztheatre style of dance, a form of German surrealist-expressionism incorporating short sections of action and dialogue, and is regarded as an experimental, political voice in choreography. Fellow German, with whom she worked, Kurt Jooss, devised The Green Table (1932), offering commentary on war-mongering politicians who have no thought for consequences.

Contrary to what most political performers fervently hope, Jooss maintained that art should not dream of altering people’s convictions, that no war would be shorter because of performance. Sadly history proves that right, but artists are not going to stop trying. In the meantime, politicians of all shades keep encroaching onto the performance stage themselves. Nobody knows how many minds they have changed, either.

First published on Suite 101, 29 April 2010.

Photo: Green Day: Protest Songs – gillyberlin

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