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Populism is hitting the charts

18 December 2018
‘At the beginning of the year 2000, there was a fierce discussion about the introduction of a quota for national music on the radio in Germany. This raised questions that went beyond music. Should we get over our shame and be proud to be German again?
‘At the beginning of the year 2000, there was a fierce discussion about the introduction of a quota for national music on the radio in Germany. This raised questions that went beyond music. Should we get over our shame and be proud to be German again?

The ‘Top 2000’ season is once again upon us: some people hate it, others wish it lasted longer. Compiling this list of the ‘best’ pop songs goes hand-in-hand with lobbying efforts to get particular songs to chart highly. Why is that so important to us? Because music is so much more than just entertainment – it is a way in which we try to establish our identity, says Melanie Schiller, who researches popular music. It is therefore high time that we took music seriously as part of the cultural and political debate.

Text: Nynke Broersma, UG Communication, photos: Elmer Spaargaren

Melanie Schiller has always been fascinated by the important role that popular culture plays in our lives. At the start of 2000, that fascination went one step further as she studied Media and culture at the University of Amsterdam. Yet during her degree, little attention was paid to Schiller’s personal passion: music. ‘Of course, this was partly due to the lecturers’ specialist areas. But I thought it was a pity, and actually quite strange, because music is always everywhere. And everyone identifies with it in one way or another. Yet it’s not always taken seriously. Take Schlager music, for example. In the second half of the 1940s, when Germany was occupied by the Allies, art forms such as literature and theatre were censored and controlled. Schlager music, on the other hand, was seen as entertainment, but not as something that could be potentially subversive.’

Proud to be German

It is not surprising that Schiller gives a German music genre as her first example. Her interest in the relationship between music and identity all began with an event in Germany. ‘At the beginning of the year 2000, there was a fierce discussion about the introduction of a quota for national music on the radio. This raised questions that went beyond music. Should we get over our shame and be proud to be German again? Should we protect ourselves against Anglo-American influences? Essentially, the whole debate was about what it meant to be German.’ It turned out to be such a rich subject that it became the focus of her PhD research and this year, the subject of her book. In Soundtracking Germany, Schiller uses examples to show how German identity became ‘‘constructed’, ‘challenged’ and ‘re-affirmed’ in the 70 years following the end of the Second World War.

Fuss about the Koningslied

Constructed, challenged and re-affirmed are abstract terms, but with an example they become more tangible. ‘Take the huge fuss there was about the Koningslied, the Dutch coronation song for Willem Alexander. Does it represent us? And who are we, then? Or ‘Het Land Van’, by Lange Frans and Baas B. Two years ago, a new version of this track was released with different lyrics, which paints a completely different picture of what it is to be Dutch,’ says Schiller. ‘Music therefore becomes an expression of national identity, but also a way of contesting, influencing and representing that identity in a different way.’

Spreading populism through music

Schiller is currently focusing her research on the emerging populist movements throughout Europe. With a team of international researchers, she is looking at the role of music in spreading and mainstreaming populist ideologies in five European countries. ‘For some time now, a number of subcultures have been spreading populist ideologies through their music, for example Nazi rock. But recently, these ideas have also been found in music with a more mainstream sound and these songs have also featured in the charts. It is no longer on the fringes of society, but right in the middle of it.’ However, this is not reflected in the debate on populism. ‘Current research mainly focuses on the political and economic dimension; the cultural dimension is often not taken seriously or is simply ignored. And we think that’s problematic.’

'Recently populist ideologies have also been found in music with a more mainstream sound and these songs have also featured in the charts.'
'Recently populist ideologies have also been found in music with a more mainstream sound and these songs have also featured in the charts.'

The emotional power of music

Why is it problematic that music does not yet feature in the debate? ‘Often, music is about much more than just the lyrics or melody. It brings people together, making them feel part of a community. It is a great way to reach people and give them the feeling that they are represented. Even if you don’t listen very closely to the lyrics and even if you don’t identify with a song, music touches you, whether you want it to or not.’ Music has a strong emotional power, says Schiller. A power that politicians are keen to exploit.

‘Born In The USA’

Not only do politicians use music to spread their political message, but they also use it to reach people and demonstrate that they do in fact speak on behalf of the people. A song does not even have to be particularly populist for that, says Schiller. ‘The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party used the song ‘Wir Sind Wir’ during election campaigns. In doing so, they tried to appeal to the idea of a united and essentialist German nationality. The fact that ‘Wir Sind Wir’ was released long before the AFD existed at all didn’t matter to them.’ The best-known example is perhaps Bruce Springsteen's ‘Born In The USA’. Reagan wanted to use it for his election campaign, but Springsteen objected. ‘‘Born In The USA’ is a classic example of the many layers of music: sound, melody, lyrics, video, performance. At first sight, it seems like it’s a pro-American song, but if you take a closer look, it’s actually meant to be ironic or subversive.’

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There is a very good chance that ‘Born In The USA’ will once again make it into the Top 2000 this year. Will the voters think about all these layers? Or do they just think it’s a great track? And do they consciously vote for ‘Het Land Van’ because, for them, it represents what it is like to be Dutch? Whatever the answers may be, Schiller’s research encourages us to reflect on these questions when we listen to the myriad of pop songs between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

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Last modified:04 January 2019 10.43 a.m.
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