Project description “Popular Music and the Rise of Populism in Europe / Popular Music and the Rise of Populism in Europe During the Corona Crisis” (2019–2022, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation)

The 2010s have seen what Lawrence Rosenthal (2020) has called “populism’s toxic embrace of nationalism” in European and North American societies. This is true of most European countries where populist-nationalist parties have gained more than a foothold in the parliaments: In Italy (Lega), Austria (FPÖ), the Netherlands (PVV), Denmark (DPP), and Finland (PS), for instance, populist-nationalist parties have already formed governments in coalitions with established and other populist parties; in Germany (AfD), Sweden (SD), the Netherlands (FVD), France (RN), and Spain (Vox), these parties have gained large swaths of the popular vote in national elections; and in some of the so-called Visegrád countries, such as Hungary and Poland, populist-nationalist politics and discourses have become hegemonic. At the same time, non-nationalist, left-wing, and syncretic varieties of populism have been on the wane over the last years (Moffitt 2020, 67).

In exploring these fundamental societal and political transformations, studies of populism, with some exceptions, have mostly concentrated on populism’s political and economic dimensions, sidelining the important dimensions of culture and music. As a cultural practice, music is uniquely tied to concepts of ethnicity, nationality, (collective) identity, self-expression, spatial belonging, and authenticity – ideas that populists emphasize in their rhetoric. Music not only represents these concepts; as an everyday cultural practice, it has the power to normalize and naturalize them as integral parts of a seemingly self-evident cultural reality. As a vehicle of symbolic politics, music is also connected to historical narratives and spaces. Thus, this project aims to rectify the negligence of music in the study of populist movements by examining popular music as one central element of the cultures of populism.

Our thesis is that, while music has always been an effective medium for the propagation of extreme-right and extreme-left ideologies, in recent years a new form of political popular music has emerged: increasingly mainstream sounds with populist – and in many cases nationalist – messages have gained widespread popularity beyond the confines of extremist circles. This recent phenomenon of commercially successful and widely received popular music promoting populist and nationalist agendas, we argue, has been instrumental in the growing success of specific varieties of populism in Europe. Thus, this empirical research project explores the role of popular music in the rise of populism in Hungary, Austria, Italy, Germany, and Sweden from a comparative perspective.

Our project concentrates on the following main questions: (1) How are populism and popular music connected? (2) How does popular music culture afford the normalization and mainstreaming of populism in specific contexts? (3) What is specific about popular music in these contexts? (4) How do people relate to popular music in these contexts? In addition, we consider the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our research field, investigating the ways inwhich the “Corona crisis” offers new opportunities – and poses new challenges – for the normalization of populist discourses, especially in connection with popular music. Our interdisciplinary project combines methods such as multiple opportunity structure analyses with interviews, participant observation, musicological group analyses, and media discourse analyses.

By so doing, we are (1) documenting a significant aspect of the current European crisis. (2) Although we focus on five specific countries, our results are relevant for other European countries facing similar challenges. (3) Finally, this project provides a theoretical and empirical basis that will enable cultural, musical, and political educators to develop concepts and methods that contribute to building a critical awareness of populist and nationalist cultures.