Guitars instead of guns

Antonius Weixler on the political influence of pop music

1967: Military coup in Greece, protest against the Shah's visit to Berlin, Benno Ohnesorg is shot, Six Day War in Israel, race riots in the USA, death of Che Guevara, first heart transplant..., only a few people know that this year also marked a decisive turning point in pop music. Dr. Antonius Weixler, a literary scholar at the University of Wuppertal, researches the significance of pop culture and says: "You cannot get around pop music, if you ask yourself what is actually decisive for our culture" Born in Kempten, he investigates pop culture using methods from literary studies and focuses on the narration of pop cultural phenomena, which can also be found in cinematic storytelling or on online portals such as Instagram.

1967 as the leap year of pop

Together with Gerhard Kaiser and Christoph Jürgensen, Weixler, as editor of the book 'Younger than yesterday - 1967 als Schaltjahr des Pop' empasises that the year 1967 has a special significance in pop music history. "1967 saw the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles' most important album," he explains, "and if you believe historiography, also the most important and best pop album in pop history." After that, musciologists attest, nothing was the same any more, because for the first time, pop music self-confidently claims to be art as well. "You can already see that in the production. It is legendary, for example, that the Beatles spent six months in the studio working on this album, which was a ludicrous length for the time. You also notice that the lyrics were printed on the album cover for the first time ever, i.e. the Beatles treat their lyrics like literature, which is why they have to be printed." According to art scholars, the album cover is also one of the most important images of the 20th century. In addition, the separation of author and narrator, similar to that in classical literature, was adopted here, since it was not the Beatles themselves but Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band who played the songs on the record.
Weixler emphasises, that this phenomenon of pop music now becoming self-reflexive, i.e. reflecting its own modes of production and appearance, runs through many albums released in 1967 that wrote pop history. Our understanding of pop music is essentially based on the albums that were released in 1967. "There are some very important debuts, i.e. first albums by bands like Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), David Bowie (David Bowie), The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico), Jimmy Hendrix (Are you Experienced) or Grateful Dead (The Grateful Dead)," he says, "all in 1967, where electronic, avant-garde music was presented for the first time. In addition, there would be a whole series of significant albums by musicians who had already published songs before that, but who reached the height of "their art" in 1967, such as Bob Dylen, Aretha Franklin or Jefferson Airplane." This year also includes a curious non-release that found its way into the artist's repository years later, the album 'Smile' by the Beach Boys, which is considered the greatest non-released album in rock history.

RESPECT - an anthem of the civil rights movement

An entire chapter of his book, which deals with Aretha Franklin, deals with the political nature of pop music this year. Today, it is almost impossible to imagine, Weixler says, what these songs triggered in a conservative society. "It was unheard of for a young woman of colour to quite confidently demand respect, including sexual respect for herself as a woman, as a Poeple of Colour." Vea Kaiser, who wrote this chapter, even goes so far as to say that without this gesture of emancipation, it would not have been possible decades later for a man like Barak Obama to become president. From '67 onwards, hippie culture gained momentum and Weixler emphasises that "what we understand today as the '68 movement was a new category, because otherwise we perceive such major social upheavals as something that comes primarily from politics. Pop culture and pop music then react to this. But 68 is a movement that comes from pop culture and pop music and then leads to a social upheaval."

Pop music becomes worthy of a noble prize

Today, pop musicians are no longer controversial as literary figures, as the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Bob Dylan in 2016 showed, Weixler says. "There was criticism on the awarding, but essentially it was actually welcomed." Moreover, shortly afterwards a rapper, Kendrick Lamar, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the first time. In the meantime, pop music is also discussed and reviewed in the feature pages of the major magazines as a matter of course. Pop music and pop music lyrics have arrived in this broad literary field." The paraphrasing of song lyrics as three-minute texts has also always been equally applicable to all poetry. "If I take an old poem by Goethe or Schiller and recite it, it is also a three-minute text. And it works according to very similar methods." Weixler is aware of the importance of pop literature in literary studies, which classically deals with serious literature, and says with a smile, "Pop literature is often not valued as highly as classical literature, but that was also the case with contemporary literature in the discipline for a long time." But times are also changing in this field, because the more recent literary studies treat pop music lyrics the same way as poetry.

The significance of song lyrics in literature

"If you look at it historically, songs have always played a big role in literature," Weixler continues. "The great literary figures have often written libretti as well. In quite a lot of classical, literary texts, songs are incorporated." Romanticism, he says, began to collect folk songs. In 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn', Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim published, for the first time, a collection of folk song texts. If you will, Bertold Brecht's Threepenny Opera song 'Mackie Messer' could also be counted as an early form of pop music, which became an enormous success. Other literary figures, such as the poet Wolf Dieter Brinkmann, were avowedly inspired by the lyrics of pop songs. The quality of pop songs often has a literary value, explains Weixler. Of course, this does not include every pop song, but song poets of the Hamburg School, such as Jochen Distelmeyer, head of the band Blumfeld, or Dirk von Lowtzow, member of the rock band Tocotronic, are current representatives of modern, good and also lyrically sophisticated pop literature.

Protesting with music

Lana Del Rey has published a poetry album 'Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass', which will also be followed by an audio book. In it, she also deals with climate change in poems. Barbra Streisand wrote the anti-Trump song 'Don't lie to me'.
Musical lyrics often have a stronger and quicker effect on grievances than mere speeches do. Weixler sees the reason in the mixture that makes up pop music. "Pop music always includes the person, the star, who performs the music. It includes the clothes and the pose, in other words everything that is part of youth cultural identification." Moreover, songs could also appeal to a listener much more emotionally than a purely lyrical slogan. And the reception in the intimacy of a child's room should not be underestimated either, he says, because in this environment the emotional effect is intensified. "And when it comes to the political message, I would say pop music can be more effective because it appeals to the emotion more than the mind."
Pop music always transports norms and values of a society in a very subtle way. "If an alternative role or an oppositional role is attractive, then I want to be like that. If the star is sexy, then I am more likely to perceive this political message of this star than if an old politician says that," the scientist explains.

Music and Politics - Current Exhibition in Bonn

A current exhibition at the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn also shows how close Weixler works to the pulse of time. Entitled 'Hits & Hymns', it is about the interplay between music and politics. "One of the beautiful exhibits for us Wuppertaler at this exhibition is, of course, the guitar that Udo Lindenberg presented to Erich Honecker in Wuppertal on 9 September 1987 with the beautiful slogan 'Guitars instead of guns'," the 42-year-old says. The title of the exhibition shows the impact a song can have, then hits can become anthems. "It can be the 'Ode to Joy' (poem by Friedrich Schiller, set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1785 in the fourth movement of his symphony, editor's note), but it can also be the anthem for the fall of the Wall, i.e. 'Wind of Change' by the Scorpions."
A pop song, for example, sums up a historical event in three minutes, which one would otherwise have to read about in long texts, and often achieves a much more intense effect. The star status does the rest. "Cue Live Aid (Live Aid was a charity concert organised by musicians Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure in 1985 in response to the acute famine in Ethiopia, editor's note), or climate change; when Bono (lead singer of the band U2, editor's note) campaigns for climate change, he is received by the UN or by politicians and can deliver this message more effectively than ordinary mortals could".

Pophyme of the future

Asked about a song that has the potential to become an anthem in the future, Weixler spontaneously thinks of the song 'Blinding Lights' by The Weeknd. But he is more curious about an accompanying hit yet to be found for a very young protest movement. "Personally, I am very curious to see how Fridays for Future will express itself in pop music. I think that is where we are still a bit lacking in the pop music response to this very new youth movement. We have a youth movement that expresses itself in new forms of protest, but we do not really have popular pop songs about it yet. Maybe," he concludes, "Billie Eilish's 'All the good girls go to hell' has the potential to do that."

Uwe Blass (Interview on March 22, 2021)

Dr Antonius Weixler works as a lecturer for special tasks in Modern German Literature at the University of Wuppertal.

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