Glam, Metal, and Regime Change

I recently had the opportunity to guest lecture in my colleague Mona Krewel‘s course Politics and Music. The title of my lecture: Wind of Change: Glam/Metal, Protest, and Regime Change from Berlin to Tahrir Square. You can see the slides here (PDF).

Although it is certainly fun to play “Heroes” and “Youth Gone Wild” to a room full of nineteen year olds,* I found it much more challenging to prepare this lecture than I had expected. It’s easy to read lyrics and see how they are political, and it’s easy to show videos of bands performing during important political moments, but teaching good social science about how music affects something like regime change is hard.

The approach I followed is this. Start with what we know about regime change: what causes it? Under what conditions do regimes collapse? That gives us a series of analytical approaches and causal pathways that have regime change at the end. From there we can ask, where does music—of any sort—fit into those causal pathways?

My preliminary thoughts are that we can think about glam and metal as having three roles in creating and sustaining oppositions to authoritarian rule. Glam or metal can function as a regime defier, a type revealer, and a coordination device.

  1. Regime defier: the music itself—both lyrics and performance—undermines ideological hegemony or social conformity
  2. Type revealer: listening to glam or metal is a signal of what you believe or value, and allows others to infer whether you share common characteristics
  3. Coordination device: performances serve as focal points, and the creation and distribution of illicit music creates interpersonal trust and develops movement expertise

Now we have at least some analytical purchase over how glam and metal might matter for regime change. But it always pays to be skeptical, so I concluded the lecture by inviting the students to question everything that I’d told them. Specifically, I invited them to ask

  1. Is glam/metal special or unique? My guess is no: rap, punk, hip hop, and other forms of music could probably do the same thing.
  2. Is glam/metal incidental? There’s a good case that it is. Think of it this way: did the cassette player cause the Iranian revolution?
  3. When does glam/metal help and when doesn’t it? There is much more metal out there than there is regime change.
  4. Is glam/metal fundamentally democratic? Aside from the obvious point that, say, Nazi black metal is pro-Nazi, I think that there is a good argument that metal’s characteristic focus on power could easily be used for illiberal or anti-democratic purposes.
    The case for glam is different. I’m willing to bet that glam’s characteristic focus on gender non-conformity makes it fundamentally liberal as a musical genre.**


* It is also interesting to think about how both metal and glam emerged from the same late 1960s U.K. psychedelic rock scene.

** David Bowie’s Nazi period may be evidence against this proposition.