Rocking the State

Ramet, Sabrina Petra ed. Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

In Rocking the State, Sabrina Ramet compiles a comprehensive account of the socio-political effects of music in the last several decades of communist rule in the Eastern Bloc (with the exception of Albania and Romania which had no political music scene to speak of) and the Soviet Union.  The essays in Rocking the State revolve around the conflicts between proponents of a non-official youth culture and the cultural-commissars of the communist states.  Rocking the State is an appropriate follow up to A Carnival of Revolution as they both center on the destabilizing effects of youth-movements on their respective regimes.  Ramet and her contributors take their analysis of the youth driven musical movements further than the introduction provided by Kenney, addressing the trajectory of music through the eighties into the early nineties from an unofficial catalyst for political and social change into the arena of commodity rock.  Alex Kan and Nick Hayes clearly resent this metamorphosis asking: “Does anybody care if Poles can Rock and Roll with the best of Michael Bolton?” (53)

Ramet and her contributors discuss the political nature of these budding rock stars as not always being of their own choosing.  “In collectivist systems, a symbiosis of alternative culture and alternative politics is inevitable anyway because such systems define culture in political terms.” (5)  Often times the regimes pushed the non-political artists into the sphere of politics with the censoring of innocuous lyrics.  The Eastern Bloc regimes had problems with rock music on a number of different levels; from the perspective of the generation gap regime leaders just couldn’t understand what rock was about, they considered it too western (as most of the early rock was oriented in that direction), and it caused too much excitement amongst the youth.  The regimes considered it a threat when young people knew more about The Beatles and David Bowie than they did about Marx and Lenin.  Through cultural functionaries the communist regimes attempted to harness the power of rock music for the benefit of socialism, these efforts were often painfully transparent to young people although this did not stop a number of songwriters and musicians from enjoying the privileged lifestyle as pets of their regimes.

In the case of musicians in the GDR and elsewhere censors pushed artists to a higher level of performance, forcing them to rely on hidden allusions and nuance filled language, veiling political messages in complex metaphors.(25)  This lack of freedom forced them to become better artists, which I think is why so many of these contributors feel that post-1989 “free” rock music is a commercialized disappointment.

This book needs to be re-printed with an accompanying CD, or even better a DVD.  Many excerpts of songs are included but it’s hard to get a feel for the intensity of the emotional dimension (which was particularly important for punk) from reading text.  In her introduction, Ramet discusses how each revolution has its own soundtrack, an excellent example of this can be found in the movie Amandla! which is about South African freedom music.  A documentary of this sort about the music of the revolutions of 1989 is sorely needed, if anyone knows of one I’d be interested in seeing it.

One Response to “Rocking the State”

  1. mkeaney says:

    Never mind about the documentary, YouTube does just fine.