“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings”
– The Merchant of Venice
Tucked away in a corner of the ex headquarters of the STASI in Berlin lies a forgotten book of socialist propaganda entitled “We Go to the Disco”. The excerpts that caught my eye quote East Germany’s discotheque regulations:
‘`The discotheque is a qualitatively new form of event, which because of its activity, diversity, variability and the possibilities for improvisation, is suitable to meet the diverse entertainment needs of the workers, in particular the youth. The combination of entertainment, sociability, as well as current information and education enables the discotheque to play a part in the development of sophisticated cultural and educational needs as well as the formation of socialist personalities”.
If this doesn’t immediately strike you as funny, imagine being invited to a party like this: “Come to my party, everyone. There will be music, dancing and lots of possibilities for improvisation”.
“Wow, sounds super spontaneous and edgy. I’ll leave all my conversational spider diagrams at home in that case.” One can say without a shadow of a doubt that the author was a crap dancer.
If the book was a spoof it would be clever, but the tone is in earnest. And now that I’ve wiped the grin off my face I can see why.
Nothing conjures up the spirit of an age as its music. If you ask twenty people to free associate about the 60’s I reckon all of them will mention music. With Hendrix’s screaming guitar as a channel for frustration, Dylan lyrics for a rallying cry, and promises of hope in Beatles anthems, music became the mouthpiece of the hippy generation, both spiritually and politically. Without music the decade disintegrates in a nuclear bang.
Similarly today, the whole psychedelic-spiritual movement is inseparable from the free parties and festivals which it gives birth to and which give birth to it. Every Glastonbury a thousand revolutions are ignited in the souls of its congregation.
And if music can be the touchpaper for rebellion then it can also be a Trojan horse for propaganda:
“Discotheques, known as tantsploshchadka, became a staple of entertainment in the 1970s Soviet Union. The Komsomols, Soviet youth political bodies responsible for propaganda education, had attempted to use popular music as a propaganda tool since the late 1960s. A café at Moscow University served as the first location where the Komsomols invited students to a “listening hour” which focused on Soviet propaganda, followed by three hours of “dancing hours”, where youth were allowed to engage in disco and social interaction. Formal disco clubs subsequently opened throughout the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s, solidifying their venue for the Komsomol to launch an “official ideological campaign.” From the café in Moscow University to the emergence of formal disco sites, Soviet officials saw disco as something not to be feared, unlike rock ‘n’ roll. Disco did not appear to dramatically alter Soviet youth. The disco image, immortalized in films like 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, was drastically different from the rock image of the 1960s American counterculture or the punk era. Rather, men wore fine suits and short, styled hair, a more appropriate image for Soviet officials.
The Soviet Union’s Komsomols were determined to make disco music a tool of ideological propaganda. In 1981, a national conference was held to encourage local Komsomols to open up new disco clubs, with the conference even offering advice on the types of equipment needed and how to properly train deejays. Disco was not expressively political, like Bob Dylan of the American folk revival. Rather, Soviet officials saw disco as a way to deal with dissatisfied youth.”
All this is faintly amusing, but not altogether shocking. After all we expect this kind of censorship and mind massaging from totalitarian states like The Soviet Union. “No dictatorship can tolerate jazz,” the pianist and bandleader Dave Brubeck told a Polish audience in 1958, when he and his quartet became the first American jazz musician to perform behind the Iron Curtain, “It is the first sign of a return to freedom.” Of course in the free world governments don’t interfere with the arts.
Not so. This year the US government commissioned a song to warn potential illegal immigrants of the dangers of riding trains across the border. The song entitled “La Bestia” was played by radio stations all across Central America, although since the song bears no sign of its governmental source across the border, Mexican listeners would have been unaware that they were listening to American propaganda.
Don’t believe for a second that this is an isolated example. If Derren Brown has taught us anything it’s that we’re far more suggestible than it is comfortable to believe. Why wouldn’t our government use this to their advantage? Because it contradicts their morals? We must think very carefully about what kind of TV we watch, which kind of paper we read.
And what music we listen to. Isn’t this what a recent film was trying to warn us with its insanely catchy theme song “Everything is Awesome” being pumped out of stereos all over a Lego version of 1984? One might be able to laugh it off if a nauseating song named “Happy” hadn’t topped the charts a month before the film’s release.
Look I’m not suggesting that Pharrell works for the government, even if he does dress like a character from The Adjustment Bureau. All I’m saying is that agendas are hidden in the strangest places, and that we must be more canny about the ways in which media is used to manipulate us.
This is the serious truth behind “We Go to the Disco”; music shapes hearts and minds, and as such it cannot help but be political.
As it turns out, music’s relationship with politics goes back far further than the Soviet Union. The following passage is from the Ancient Chinese text called Spring and Autumn, compiled under the patronage of the Qin Dynasty chancellor Lü Buwei about 2250 years ago:
“The origins of music lie far back in the past. Music arises from Measure and is rooted in the great Oneness. The great Oneness begets the two poles; the two poles beget the power of Darkness and of Light.
“When the world is at peace, when all things are tranquil and all men obey their superiors in all their courses, then music can be perfected. When desires and passions do not turn into wrongful paths, music can be perfected. Perfect music has its cause. It arises from equilibrium. Equilibrium arises from righteousness, and righteousness arises from the meaning of the cosmos. Therefore one can speak about music only with a man who has perceived the meaning of the cosmos.
“Music is founded on the harmony between heaven and earth, on the concord of obscurity and brightness.
“Decaying states and men ripe for doom do not, of course, lack music either, but their music is not serene. Therefore, the more tempestuous the music, the more doleful are the people, the more imperilled the country, the more the sovereign declines. In this way the essence of music is lost…
Therefore the music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful, and so is its government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce, and its government is perverted. The music of a decaying state is sentimental and sad, and its government is imperilled.”
No shit, Sherlock, say the punk rockers. My generation, who found their dancing feet listening to drum and bass and dubstep, would do well to take notice.
“Music arises from Measure and is rooted in the great Oneness.” – Don’t you love the way Lü just blams that out there cool as cucumber, clear as day, without a logical justification in sight? We seem to have lost the ability to do that.
Music is rooted in the great Oneness. Well, there you have it. If you have a beard you should be scratching it and gazing into the middle distance. A real philosophical knockout blow if ever there was one, and, you suspect, the real thrust behind this post.
Have you ever wondered how extraordinary it is that music has laws unto itself?
This is not a coincidence. The same mathematical ratios which define the seven tone musical scale can be found in the seven colours of the rainbow, the periodic table’s law of octaves, Masonic architecture, String theory – which Stephen Hawking described as “the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe” – and countless other physical, vibrational, and spiritual expressions. Libraries have been written about these ratios.
The discovery of the mathematics of the seven tone scale is commonly attributed to Pythagoras who, as the legend goes, had his eureka moment while strolling past a forge where blacksmiths were hammering out a piece of metal. The ringing of the different sized hammers on the metal produced a kind of harmony from which Pythagoras went on to discover the mathematical relationship between mass and sound.
He developed this into a universal philosophy of numbers known as the music of the spheres thus encompassing the entirety of creation in a mathematical explanation:
“Pythagoras conceived the universe to be an immense monochord, with its single string connected at its upper end to absolute spirit and at its lower end to absolute matter – in other words, a cord stretched between heaven and earth.”
– Well done him –
“The Greek initiates also recognized a fundamental relationship between the individual heavens or spheres of the seven planets, and the seven sacred vowels…When these seven heavens sing together they produce a perfect harmony which ascends as an everlasting praise to the throne of the Creator…The Ancient Egyptians confined their sacred songs to the seven primary sounds, forbidding any others to be uttered in their temples. One of their hymns contained the following invocation: “The seven sounding tones praise Thee, the Great God, the ceaseless working Father of the whole universe.” 
I am the Alpha and the Ohmega, Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Bla Bla Bla.
A quick googling of “the music of the spheres” yields the following:
“All music consists of a form of dualism, an aural yin and yang in which consonance is inextricably linked with its complementary force of dissonance; one does not meaningfully exist without the other. Dissonance provokes a form of tension – an unsettled relation in the notes of music – and is relieved by the consonance of resolution. We hear this whether we are listening to Bach, Mozart, Bartók or Applebaum, although the balance is often shifted towards dissonance in post-20th century music, perhaps in reflection of societal conflicts.”
Sound familiar? We are back to our old friend Lü.
Looking back at Spring and Autumn you’ll notice that although Lü is very articulate on the correlation between music and society he is careful never to say which decays first. No linear causality is established, one simply reflects the other like a mirror image.
Does the spirit of the age shape its music or does the music of the age shape its spirit? Does the decline of music cause the state to decay or the decay of the state cause music to decline? Undoubtedly a chicken and egg conundrum. Either way, with Cheryl Cole currently at number one the revolution can’t be far off.
 Stayin’ Alive in the Cold War: Disco and Generational, Racial, and Ideological Currents in the 1970s-1980s, Eric Nolan Gonzaba, < http://www.indiana.edu/~psource/PDF/Archive%20Articles/Spring2011/EricGonzabaArticle.pdf>