Marcia Adair, proprietor of The Omniscent Mussel, has a fascinating piece in the Los Angeles Times on references to classical music in Wikileaks cables. "It is surprising to discover how classical music performances are used to introduce foreign audiences to American culture," Marcia writes. Indeed, some of the initiatives she uncovers hark back, however weakly, to the heyday of Cold War cultural politics, aspects of which I describe in The Rest Is Noise. It's amazing to find, for example, that as recently as 2003 someone at the American Embassy in Amman was seeking guest speakers for a series of lectures on the History of Music, with one session devoted to "The Modern Period - Stravinsky, Korsakov, Skriabin and O. Messian." (I found that item through the highly addictive Wikileaks search engine.)
Marcia takes note of a February 2007 concert in Turkmenistan, marking the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, successor to the infamous Saparmurat Niyazov, the "Great Turkmenbashi." Berdimuhamedov was seen to be dismantling the extreme cult of personality that Niyazov had imposed, and this concert by the National Symphony Orchestra of Turkmenistan, devoted to Western-style classical music and including works by the Turkmen composers Nury Halmammedov and Dangatar Ovezov, presented evidence of a modest liberalizing trend. (Niyazov had banned opera and ballet as foreign infiltrations.) The cable reports: "Deputy Foreign Minister Hajiyev pointed out to Charge that the soloists were all great artists who had been banned in the latter years of the previous government. The orchestra itself was surprisingly proficient, equivalent to any second-tier orchestra in the West." Many students were in attendance, and the writer asked them whether they had been required to attend. "Each answered about the same: 'Are you kidding? We've waited a long time to get back to normal.'"
A cable from the same year gives a less encouraging picture of Turkmenistan's cultural scene. It describes a ceremony for a gas-pipeline summit between Berdimuhamedov, Vladimir Putin, and Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev:
The summit was topped off by a Soviet-style spectacle in Turkmenbashy's new theater with Putin, Berdimuhammedov and Nazabayev seated in massive gold thrones surrounded by the mandatory audience of rythmically-clapping socialist front participants, the "white beards," youth, women, trade unions, veterans, etc. The show itself consisted of -- to Western ears -- sensory assaulting modernized folk songs and dances with Moog-balalaikas and polyester gold lame national costumes. Ironically, one of the show's highlights was a string ensemble's version of the Beatles' classic, "Money Can't Buy You Love." The televised emission showed a visibly bored Putin, an apparently asleep Nazarbayev and a nervous-looking Berdimuhammedov. That these awful events still resonate in Turkmenistan is in and of itself evidence of Soviet nostalgia. As an embassy driver enthusiastically answered Charge's question, "it was wonderful, proof that music knows no borders."
All of which set me to thinking. Classical music does still have its political uses, and is still vulnerable to ideological appropriation, as Valery Gergiev's lamentable alliance with Putin has shown. More often, though, it plays a marginal role, even surfacing as a kind of underground activity. When music and power are meshed together, you are more likely to hear strains of the Beatles. One of the most infamous stories to emerge from Wikileaks was the tale of how Mutassim Qaddafi, one of the Libyan dictator's sons, hired Mariah Carey and Beyoncé to perform at his New Year's Eve parties. Those singers have faced heavy criticism for their actions, yet they've been chided mainly for being mercenary. In general, pop music is still seen as an irrepressibly liberating, liberalizing force. Is it so? Or is there an ideological dimension to these interminglings of pop and power? Is the devout materialism of so much current pop a symptom of economic inequality, or a cause of it? When a corporate-friendly right-wing politician blares songs by a corporate-friendly, avowedly left-wing singer at a rally, and the left-wing singer protests that he or she has been wrongly exploited, how deep does the misunderstanding really go? These are questions for pop-music critics to confront. With global hegemony comes global responsibility.
Previously: Pop culture as elite culture.