The Avid Listener: Music and Politics

19 posts categorized "Music and Politics"

April 25, 2016

Cutting It Up with Dickie Goodman: Communism, Castro and the Wall

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

American record producer Dickie Goodman made a career out of writing novelty songs. From the mid-1950s to the 1980s, his songs poked fun at current events, politicians, dance crazes, films, and especially the Russians. He is best known for creating and popularizing the “break-in,” a technique of inserting brief portions of popular songs into a ludicrous narrative to comically respond to, and comment on, current events. This practice began with his first recording, “The Flying Saucer” in 1956. Using razor blades, adhesive tape, a steady hand, and a hefty dose of patience, Goodman spliced together various portions of reel-to-reel tapes to make these songs. Taking advantage of the spate of alleged UFO sightings in the 1950s, “The Flying Saucer” used hits by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and others to comment on an alien spacecraft landing on Earth.

Goodman created several songs with Cold War themes, his first being the 1959 instrumental “Stroganoff Cha Cha.” It is an unlikely mishmash of Russian and Cuban music. This song shows that even a cheesy instrumental novelty song without lyrics can be meaningful and even prophetic. This Russian/Cuban alliance in sound was released in February 1959, not only before the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but before Nikita Khrushchev had even met Fidel Castro.

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April 18, 2016

Celebrating the Nuclear Apocalypse with Tom Lehrer

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

Like Pez, Peeps, and Pop Rocks, a novelty song is a sugar rush for the ear. The great number of novelty songs about the Cold War attests to the fact that people needed to diffuse their fear of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of nuclear war, with humor and satire. But can anything substantial be expressed about an immense subject like the Cold War through comedy? Perhaps Tom Lehrer’s songs can. They are a sugar rush, but they contain erudite social commentary.

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April 11, 2016

“You’ll Tic Tic All Day Long”: The Cold War, Geiger Counters, and Doris Day

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

Some wars are good. Most are bad. Some are just plain weird. The Cold War was definitely weird, and one of the best ways to grasp its weirdness is to listen to Cold War novelty songs from the 1940s to the 1960s. The oddest of them all may be “Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day, from 1949. Though Day’s 1956 hit “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” is a bit maudlin, it continues to pull on the heartstrings. Unfortunately “Tic, Tic, Tic,” about a Geiger counter, has not aged well at all. It may just get on your last nerve. Yet this song is interesting and valuable in that it captures the naiveté of Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s regarding the dangers of radioactivity.


“Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day

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March 14, 2016

The Power of Sound: The 2016 Presidential Campaign

Justin Patch (Vassar College)

The modern political campaign is an emotional and sensory affair. It is not rational or reasonable, nor is it concerned with presenting best policies and practices for governance, fostering the greatest good for all, or sensibly managing the world’s largest economy. Instead, campaigns appeal to pathos, optimism, nationalism, and fear. They use stereotype and caricature, level unverifiable accusations, present policies and platitudes devoid of possibility, and deal in clichés and sound bites. Campaign ads stimulate emotions and provoke strong (partisan and intra-party) reactions rather than laying the groundwork for deliberative debates on policy, process, purpose, or vision. The modern campaign, as the founders of democracy in the New and Old Worlds feared, is an appeal to humanity’s basest instincts: fear, hatred, paranoiacompetition, and hope. The power and profundity of sound make it an essential but dangerous element of political campaigns. 

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September 28, 2015

Poetic Protest: Women, Hip-hop, and Islam

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

When we think about protest music, we tend to think about music sung at political rallies or music created for a cause—the labor movement for example, or anti-war songs. But sometimes protest music is subtle. Sometimes performance itself—the getting up on stage in front of people, the very act of appearing in public—is the protest. Such is the case of Poetic Pilgrimage, a British Hip-hop duo comprised of Muneera Rashida and Sukina Abdul Noor. Their music certainly can be political: their song “No More War” decries war in all forms and encourages listeners to see the destruction that our material culture has wrought. “I’ve seen it all before: death, destruction; heard it all before: greed, corruption; no more, no more war,” they chant in the chorus.

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Norton Music

A History of Western Music

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

The Enjoyment of Music

Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis