The Dark Side of Music
“We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone
All in all it's just another brick in the wall
All in all you're just another brick in the wall”
The eerie monotone voice of a single man, and subsequently an ensemble of children, chants these lines in legendary British rock band Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).” An infectious, to-the-point, disco-influenced rock song written by Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters as a part of the band’s highly-regarded concept album, The Wall, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” topped the charts in major countries and marked the rock group’s only hit to reach the peak. One music critic noted, “Listeners have the chorus [of Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)] lodged in their memory like a bad commercial jingle, and always join the Islington Green school children in chanting it.” Though Pink Floyd has since then disbanded, their legacy, particularly that of The Wall and its lead single, has lasted and reverberated across global cultures.
The concept of The Wall, on which a subsequent film was based, hones in on themes such as abandonment and isolation, symbolized allegorically, by “the wall.” Despite referring to a rigid school system, the song itself has transcended its meaning, most notably exemplified during the South African apartheid era. In 1980, the South African Government’s Directorate of Publications banned The Wall in its entirety because South African anti-apartheid demonstrators had adopted “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” as their anthem in the midst of a nationwide boycott alleging racial discrimination in the country’s school system.
Throughout human history, music has been used as a platform for political commentary and advocacy. Music has unified its audiences in difficult situations, been used to raise money and awareness for worthy causes, and served as a political lightning rod for commonly agreed upon issues. On the other hand, music has also polarized the population with the use of passionate lyrics advocating for partisan, politically controversial issues, mainly on the progressive front. In a way that no other media addresses, music plays a crucial role in impacting politics by empowering audiences and launching movements that strive to make a difference.
On a broader scale, music, oftentimes referred to as the universal language, has historically served a wide variety of purposes, particularly as a forum for political advocacy and protest. A vast majority of this music, much of which released during different eras, has proven protest music to be a unifying force that has principally advocated for progressive causes. Examples of these causes range from American slaves singing biblical hymns that painted portraits of freedom and bondage while working in the fields in the 19th century to established artists releasing music that advocated for U.S. Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s to 21st century American popular acts singing in approval of the Black Lives Matter Movement and in disapproval of current United States President Donald Trump. Whenever the politics lean more left, artists tend to follow suit.
With music being a hugely popular and widely accessible medium that has global political implications, scholars of political communication must assess how music goes beyond the text itself and becomes politicized. The distinction between the adoption of Pink Floyd’s famous work by the South African anti-apartheid movement, which occurred at the time when the album and its signature track topped the charts, and the same music’s modern anti-Israel politicization by Pink Floyd’s own Waters, provides an intriguing example of media-centered political activism, specifically as to how a movement disseminates its message when the media covers activism efforts. Moreover, the intended meaning of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” not referring to apartheid, yet the song resonating with anti-apartheid South African activists and now resonating with anti-Israel activists, poses the question: who actually has the power to control the political meaning of music? Finally, the politicization of Bruce Springsteen’s music and his subsequent reaction to it in different time periods differs and also draws parallels to Waters’ response to the politicization of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” taking into consideration the artist’s effect on the perception of his music.
In “Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism,” Sarah Sobieraj recounts an observation derived from her studies that asserts that the media’s coverage of activism “was governed by a very different set of rules and practices, which in many ways was diametrically opposed to those employed in routine newsgathering.” While activist groups that abided by “standard industry practices” were largely ignored, those who distinguished themselves by demonstrating “authenticity” in their activism were deemed the most “newsworthy” and received the most coverage. The “outside-of-the-box” approach of anti-apartheid South African activists adopting The Wall as its anthem exemplifies Sobieraj’s findings. The efficacy of this protest was reinforced by the South African Government’s subsequent ban of the album once the nationwide school boycotts received attention. In conclusion, because of the unusual circumstances, activists have an incentive to use well-known music to advance their movements in addition to their movements’ agendas.
Music that contains the rebellious lyricism and catchy hook of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” particularly the emphasis on “we” revolting against authority as a united movement, has the capability of transcending the time period of its recording as well as the scope of its context. As already evidenced in this essay, the album, let alone the song, has already transcended its era and its original meaning, the latter of which Waters, the songwriter himself, has confirmed.
Though political, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” was not written to address apartheid in South Africa, yet the song resonated with the country’s anti-apartheid activists, who adopted it as their anthem. Now, in the 21st century, Waters himself has drawn parallels regarding the song’s politicization in anti-apartheid South Africa to the disputed claim of Israeli apartheid, a claim that Waters actively perpetuates. In March 2006, the Electronic Intifada, an Chicago-based online news publication that covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective, published an open letter to Roger Waters. The letter calls for Waters to cancel his June 2006 performance in Tel Aviv and prints the lyrics a song that “...was to be performed by school children [as part of the 2005 Palestine International Festival who were] inspired by [Waters’] timeless song [Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)]:
We don’t need no occupation
We don’t need no racist wall
No more siege and no more curfews
Soldiers leave us kids alone
Hey! Soldiers! Leave us kids alone!
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall
All in all we’ve just made another BREAK in the wall”
Akin to the South African anti-apartheid activists, Palestinian school children adopted the song and changed the lyrics to equate “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” to a separate political issue, specifically the controversial separation barrier along the West Bank, which Israel considers a security barrier against terrorism and which the Palestinians call an apartheid wall.
When Waters visited Israel before the planned Tel Aviv concert in 2006, he spray-painted “We don’t need no thought control” on the security barrier and moved his aforementioned June concert from Tel Aviv to Neve Shalom, a village founded collaboratively by Arabs and Jews. Ever since, the Pink Floyd frontman has been an outspoken critic of Israel. He principally calls on and pressures artists to forego performing in Israel as a part of his advocacy for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, “...[until] the wall of occupation falls and Palestinians live alongside Israelis in the peace, freedom, justice and dignity that they all deserve.”
Principally, Waters has increasingly politicized The Wall as an anti-Israel symbol. He embarked on a large-scale solo world tour, “The Wall Live,” from 2010-2013 that drew the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League because some the tour’s performances featured “juxtaposed projected images of Stars of David and money signs.” Additionally, Waters himself “dressed up...in a black jacket with a red armband” to parody a Nazi officer, and the Pink Floyd frontman “...pantomimed firing a fake machine gun underneath a large pig-shaped balloon emblazoned with a Star of David” on this tour. Separate from “The Wall Live,” Waters urged his audience at Desert Trip to support the BDS movement, saying on stage, “I encourage the government in Israel to end the occupation.” Finally, Waters published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Congress Shouldn’t Silence Human Rights Advocates,” in which he writes:
“When the cause is just, boycott has shown itself to be an effective method of shining light on human rights abuses and the flouting of international law. That is why the Israeli government and its supporters are so determined to silence those who support B.D.S….Instead of working to undermine B.D.S., Congress should defend the First Amendment right of all Americans and stand on the right side of history by supporting equal civil and human rights for all people, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.”
Historically, artists have rebuked the politicization of their songs, especially when the political ideologies of the proponent of the song fails to align with the musician’s. One notable example of this occurred during the 1984 U.S. presidential campaign, when American rock star Bruce Springsteen famously rebuked incumbent President Ronald Reagan’s and conservative columnist George Will’s separate references to the perceived patriotism evoked by Springsteen’s smash hit “Born in the U.S.A.” Though the song features a constant upbeat melody line with a loud, booming refrain of the song’s title, the song actually refers to the Vietnam War’s disastrous consequences on Americans and the maltreatment of Vietnam veterans once they returned home.
However, unlike Springsteen, Waters did not deflect the perceived politicization; he embraced it and used it to advance his anti-Israel advocacy, citing the usage of the song by the South African anti-apartheid activists as the correlation between the two different political issues. Waters’ worldwide “The Wall Live” concert tour also received considerable attention for the artist’s controversial attempts to advocate for the Palestinian cause, which sparked accusations of anti-Semitism. Springsteen’s immediate rebuttal of the politicization of his music in contrast with Waters’ willing and enthusiastic acceptance and subsequent embrace of the politicization of his music proves that an artist has some degree of control over the narrative of his music because the music belongs to him. Conversely, this also means that the artist has free rein of whether or not to repudiate the perceived meaning of his music, and Waters’ exemplifies this.
Once a perceived meaning of a song has been established, oftentimes an artist has already lost the ability to control the meaning and subsequent politicization of his or her song. “Born in the U.S.A.”, to Springsteen’s dismay, is still widely played throughout America for the purpose of eliciting patriotic reactions. On the other hand, Springsteen has allowed his music, which has frequently been viewed as having a political message, in addition to his status as a well-known artist to be politicized in subsequent Presidential elections since 1984. In 2008 and 2012, Springsteen not only endorsed Barack Obama for President of the United States, but he also campaigned for both of the former U.S. President’s campaigns, travelling with him to different campaign stops and to perform well-known songs like “The Promised Land,” “Thunder Road,” “The Rising,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.” These songs, all of which have resounding lyrics and galvanizing rhythms, easily resonate with voters, and with Springsteen promoting the message of his music in support of Obama’s candidacy, he has politicized his music. Similarly, Waters continues to promote “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” under an agenda with which he agrees and has, rather conveniently, already been politicized beyond his control, as the song continues to be seen as anti-apartheid anthem.
As previously established, music undoubtedly serves as a universal, effective, and consequential method of communication, yet its interpretation can change over time. The politicization of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” by South African anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s to contemporary anti-Israel advocates epitomizes how the meaning of music transcends time and how music extends beyond its lyrics, rhythm, and intention. All-in-all, when artists release political music and activists politicize it, their interpretations may differ, but the intended effect of politicization remains constant, and the power of music will leave an indelible mark in the global landscape. One thing is for sure: The Wall and “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” will be shaped by another activist movement in the near future.