: Key change: The role of music in law reform

Key change: The role of music in law reform

Tim Hollo

In early 2014, a video was released of people in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines dancing to Pharrell Williams’ pop hit, ‘Happy’. While it would be hard to find a song less ‘political’ on the surface, the power of this video, showing happiness, strength and humanity amid the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, was such that it was soon replicated. Dancers in Tunis, Moscow and the Ukraine used the format to convey their struggle for freedom and what happiness means to them. Blogger Shan Wang recently wrote, in the online youth current affairs magazine .Mic, that ‘“Happy” came into the world apolitical, but it’s something more now — it’s a song of resilience and resolve under incredible hardship’.1

Pharrell Williams’ song tapped into emotions and opened new ways of understanding the world for new audiences. In building resilience and group identity in the dancers themselves and those around them, it helped create social and political change.

This is an ancient phenomenon. Artists have been centrally involved in campaigns for civil rights in the USA and Indigenous recognition in Australia, for freedom in Communist Eastern Europe and apartheid South Africa, for women’s rights, gay rights and peace and disarmament. Artists’ work in shifting debates and values, shaping our understanding of the world, framing ideas, prefiguring change, and opening hearts and minds to new ways of thinking, has on many occasions contributed to changes in the law.

To me, ‘culture’ is the concept that brings together art and law reform. Those seeking to effect deep law reform aim to change what is possible. And ‘what is possible’ is a cultural question. Culture guides us in making myriad daily decisions. It sits behind our desire to follow social mores or our willingness to break the law, whether by jay walking or shoplifting or locking on to mining equipment in an act of civil disobedience. Culture drives the way we vote, and the way we deal with conflict. Each of our actions feeds back on and influences culture as it evolves.

In terms of climate change, for example, climate scientists recognise that culture is key to driving the social norms that create it and is holding back the necessary social, political and economic change to address it. Graeme Pearman has told me that: ‘Climate change is really a human question, it’s not primarily a physical science question at all. It’s about what humans perceive they want or need’.

If what we perceive to be necessary in our lives is culturally driven, then social change processes, and deep law reform processes, must grapple with culture and seek to change it.

The obvious way in which we deal with cultural issues is through language. It expresses our understanding of the world and our place in it and is a key tool by which we expand or limit our ideas of what is possible. But there is a deeper mode of expression than language that arises from culture’s artistic connotations as well as its deep political meanings. If culture is about our understanding of our world and where we belong in it, art is one of the first and best ways in. The pre-human instinct for music as a way of finding and cementing our place in the world, from mating calls to territorial marking to group bonding, developed into hymns and other religious music, ethnic musics which still bind many of us so deeply, national anthems, and protest songs.

Cultural and political music form a complex interplay, including the use of campaign songs in election campaigns; the CIA’s Voice of America; and Soviet, Nazi and South African apartheid regimes’ use of militaristic and folk music. The corollary of desirable art as propaganda is censorship of undesirable art. John Street notes the prohibition of jazz and Jewish music under the Nazis, and the banning of Fela Kuti’s music in Nigeria, among other examples.2

Music can be used by political forces to help drive opposition and resistance or to control a potentially restive populace. On the other hand, musicians can of their own accord exercise their political voice. In some cases, these desires and aims are consistent; in others, there is a clear decision by political forces to co-opt musicians.

I suggest that music serves three distinct roles 
in law reform.

The first is music’s effect on the way we receive ideas. This can be as simple as drawing attention to an issue such as a musician playing at a benefit gig like Live Earth or Band Aid, or taking part in the fossil fuel divestment campaign. This engagement can be crucial for recruiting supporters, helping raise much needed funds, and inspiring those already involved.

The musician as messenger has cultural credibility and can shape and guide culture. Billy Bragg taps into this role: ‘I think you have to reveal to the audience that you don’t have all the answers and that you yourself are not completely sure that you know what you’re doing, you’re just trying to make the best of it, same as everyone else’.3

Beyond being humble and authentic messengers, musicians interpret the information through their music, presenting the ideas to engage their audience emotionally.

Music, in other words, frames the ideas, and primes us to accept new frames. Framing suggests directing the viewer’s focus, providing a specific perspective. Brendan Nyhan, for example, has studied disconfirmation bias and resistance to corrections4 to identify how to help people accept new frames. The results show that ‘priming’ can shift the frames of debates sufficiently to alter people’s understanding of ‘facts’. Priming can be anything from smiling, or actively boosting the self-confidence of the subject, to playing music that triggers certain feelings, making the subject more receptive to new frames and messages. Thus hearing Aretha Franklin singing ‘Respect’ might trigger frames about gender roles, and the positive social atmosphere of a gig triggers emotions. Music can act powerfully as the kind of prime Nyhan identifies, and help to shift frames.

Goanna’s Shane Howard suggests that his song ‘Let the Franklin Flow’ carried its message more powerfully because of the music’s ‘capacity to open the soul, and in a way prepare us for a transformative message’. Similarly, Charlie Mgee of permaculture dance band Formidable Vegetable Sound System, suggests that music is ‘a way for people to get together as a group and enjoy themselves. And when they’re transformed to that state of enjoyment it’s a lot easier to get messages through about more serious issues’.

Secondly, music shifts cultural norms by affecting 
and interacting with the way we see the world and our place in it. Finding our place in the world is 
about identity. Rosenthal and Flacks note that 
‘[i]dentity processes are inherent in all movements, 
[a]nd music is the way many first try on that identity. … [M]usic is a major resource for identity construction’. Music and group identity ‘may become so intertwined as to be synonymous in the minds of group members and outsiders’.5

In this sense music acts as a social legitimiser. Music creates the bond and ‘listeners … may then be motivated to carry out their political ideals not because the music “says” they should but because many others feel the same way and that it is acceptable to express those opinions’.6

Finally, music can shift and reprioritise values, enabling transformative cultural change. Music and musicians, as cultural leaders and influencers, play a role through their behaviour. Rosenthal and Flacks point to British multi-racial ‘2-Tone’ bands like The Specials and UB40, deliberately presenting a reality in which ‘race divisions were not inevitable’.7

Further, Mgee argues that music can perform a mnemonic function, placing an idea or set of behaviours into people’s ‘cultural repertoire that acts as a reminder and a pointer’. Both sea shanties and advertising jingles use catchy, simple and repetitive music to ‘encode public mnemonics’ that can trigger decisions and behaviours in a given situation.

Howard sees the role for ‘the artist to psychologically prepare people for change, or to explain change’ as ‘very subversive at times’. Art can be and is used not simply to challenge behaviours but to actively change deeply held views of the world. The role of prefiguring and modelling thus dovetails with the deepest layer of all — shaping and reshaping the culture through which we understand our world.

The deepest layer of cultural communications and campaigning currently being researched is values mapping and how activating certain values can support or repress other values.

Undue emphasis upon economic imperatives serves to reinforce the dominance, in society, of a set of extrinsic goals (focussed, for example, on financial benefit). 
A large body of empirical research demonstrates that 
these extrinsic goals are antagonistic to the emergence 
of pro-social and pro-environmental concern.8

The values of creativity and curiosity sit on the map amongst the values collectively referred to as ‘intrinsic’, close to the values of care for the environment, social justice and universalism, and opposite ‘extrinsic’ values, such as desire for more material possessions, wealth, social status and power. Consequently, Professor Tim Kasser writes that ‘engagement in arts & culture… [in and of itself can] encourage values that support well-being, social justice, and ecological sustainability’.9

The lesson from history and theory is that not only can artists play a pivotal role in deep law reform, but such reform is unlikely to occur unless cultural processes are at play. Deep law reform requires social change and social change is cultural change. The ability of arts and artists to draw people together around a new conception of the world is second to none.

TIM HOLLO is Director of Green Music Australia. 
This is an edited extract of a presentation to the Alternative Law Journal 2015 ACT Law Week forum. It draws on the author’s research under the auspices of Matthew Rimmer’s ARC Future Fellowship on Intellectual Property and Climate Change.

© 2015 Tim Hollo

email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

web:  www.greenmusic.org.au


1. Shan Wang, ‘How This Became the Surprising Protest Song of Our Generation’, Arts.Mic, 18 March 2014 — http://mic.com/articles/85423/how-this-became-the-surprising-protest-song-of-our-generation.

2. John Street, ‘“Fight the Power”: 
The Politics of Music and the Music of Politics’ (2003) 38 Government and Opposition 113, 117.

3. Billy Bragg, quoted in Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flacks, Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 214.

4. For example, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, Opening the Political Mind? The Effects of Self-affirmation and Graphical Information on Factual Misperceptions (Dartmouth College, 2011).

5. Rosenthal and Flacks, above n 3, 94.

6. Rob Rosenthal, unpublished work extracted in Rosenthal and Flacks, ibid 165.

7. Ibid 115.

8. Climate Change Advisory Group, ‘Communicating Climate Change to Mass Public Audiences’ (Working Document, September 2010) 6.

9. Tim Kasser, in Mission Models Money & Common Cause, The Art of Life: Understanding How Participation in Arts and Culture Can Affect our Values (2013) — http://valuesandframes.org/download/reports/The%20Art%20Of%20Life%20-%20MMM%20and%20Common%20Cause.pdf, 8.

(2015) 40(3) AltLJ 219
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