Potentially Political

John Street argues that music and politics are active extensions of each other (I haven’t read the whole book so that’s the simple version). It’s hard to disagree; politics feed off power struggles and music retains power as a voice of human expression. Street hesitates with the idea that everything is political or that all music is political. There is a line between music and politics. This line is often crossed, but it’s still there. That’s because all music is potentially political–it depends on the interpretation of the song.

The kid on the left has the most potential energy. The outside force (besides the teacher) is gravity. If the teacher lets go, then the kid’s potential energy will change to kinetic energy which would energy of the other kids.

I think of it the terms of simple physics. There’s kinetic energy and potential energy. If an object is moving, then its energy is kinetic. If the object is stationary, then it has potential energy to move or transition into kinetic energy. This energy is dependent on an outside force. With music and politics, that outside force is the interpretation of the musician and the audience. A song by itself is not political. It needs the force of interpretation to transition its potential into politics. Once music’s potential energy changes into political interpretation, it has more power. Still, this power from interpretation only lasts as long as its audience’s momentum.


For example, one of the songs Scott Patrick played for us on Monday mentioned coal mining. He believed the song was narrative in its nature, not political. However, he was contacted about using the song in a documentary on coal mining. As an audio backdrop to the stories in the film, the song would have the potential to be political. The documentary has an agenda regarding coal mining; the filmmaker’s interpretation (as well as that of the audience) would make the song political.

I believe that music is firmly political only when it is written or performed with obvious political purpose. Music on its own is not political. It can be used politically but that’s a reflection on outside interpretation, not self-expression. People give music power by using it according to their interpretation.

The “everything is _________” argument is fundamentally flawed because (gasp) it’s not an argument. It’s a painfully broad interpretation. The one generalization I’ll defend is that everything is subjective (and if someone disagrees, that actually proves my point). There are limitless interpretations of self-expression. And if everything is subjective, and music is self-expression, then it can be interpreted as political.

One thought on “Potentially Political

  • March 4, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Wonderful post! I would like to know more about music as potential rather than kinetic and the necessity of translation. These are interesting concepts I hope we can discuss further. For instance, how is music translated? Who translates? Must it be translated?

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