‘You’re just a Remoaner’: Brexit, Discourse and Musicology

With just 18 days until ‘Brexit-day’ this month’s feature by James Taylor draws our collective attention to the important relationship between musical discourse and political upheaval. James completed a BA in Russian and Music and Sheffield University (2012), MRes in Politics and Economics at University College London (2013) and, most recently, completed a PhD in Musicology at the University of Bristol (2018). He currently works at Nationwide Building Society, specialising in governance and risk management. James’ most recent publication is now out in Slavonic and East European Review (SEER), entitled ‘Revolutionaries or Delinquents: The Biopsychological Appraisals of Composers and Their Music in Early Soviet Russia’. Follow James on Twitter @jhht009.


As musically minded scholars and with our capacity to influence public debate, it is important to remain cognisant of our current and future roles in generating the musical discourse that contributes to and results from the current socio-political climate. As the British government continues to plan for the UK’s departure from the European Union on 29th March 2019, it is time to reflect on the lessons learned from this type of outcome. How did we get here? Why did this happen? Was it the will of the people or was it electoral fraud and political subterfuge? These are all questions that are still present in the debates around the UK’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union.

The campaigning in the run up to the referendum vote was contentious and the political division and outrage is still observable today. Some journalists, politicians and commentators continue to lambast those who voted Remain as ‘traitors’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘remoaners’ and ‘remainiacs’, whist another group claim those who voted Leave were ‘Brexstreemists’, ‘stupid’, ‘xenophobes’ and ‘illiberal’. Many would consider themselves to be above these binaries, and perhaps that is possible, even if it seems as though we have all fallen into a soup of binaries. Often, by just using the words ‘Remoaner’ and ‘Brexiteer’, we legitimise a discourse of division through self-identifying in opposition to the ‘other’. Indeed, I will turn later to analysing how the ‘other’ has been constructed in musical circles.

Vote Leave’s ‘Battle Bus’ (BBC, 10/03/2019)

Having read and analysed public and intellectual discourse around Brexit, it seems clear that authenticity and sincerity are central concepts within this political debate. On the day of the referendum result, the UCL academic Tim Beasley-Murray wrote that ‘the tragedy of the referendum is that many of those who voted out – those who rightly feel that they get a raw deal in modern Britain – were encouraged to do so by another elite: self-serving, mendacious, and illiberal’. I still find myself nodding to this sentiment (and I am sure others do too), especially in light of the fictitious £350m for the NHS. Yet Beasley-Murray’s viewpoint is still based on a number of assumptions, primarily grounded in the claims that such individuals were careerists, in it for themselves, and against liberal values. Indeed, for some, there is still an underlying resentment that those who voted for Brexit are seen as the cause of economic uncertainty (i.e. a cause of inflation and food price rises), whereas, for others, those who voted for ‘remain’ are seen as legitimising a political and economic system that supports a status quo of unsustainable growth, economic impoverishment, and the erosion of cultural difference. Commentators still refer to the hidden and insincere agendas of those in positions of power on both sides of the debate. This includes discussion around the anti-Brexit elite elusively not ‘respecting the will of the people’ (so-called de jure leave, de facto remain), the unmasking of the ‘£350m for the NHS’ slogan as fake news, the revelation of electoral fraud committed by Vote Leave1, the obscure links of leading politicians to US lobbyists2, and the questionable relationship between Nigel Farage, Fox News and Donald Trump.

Just like the historical tension in British politics over the European Union, similar pressures have been bubbling away within musical academia. The direction of music studies within the academy, moving away from traditional music analysis (i.e. the notes themselves) and towards historical interpretation, ethnography or interdisciplinary technique. Indeed, the reductive division between ‘leavers and remainers’ could easily apply to the musicological division between ‘formalists and new musicologists’ (or the so-called ‘reparative and paranoid’). Musical authenticity and individual sincerity seem to be driving points within these debates. On one side of the debate, I have heard music analysts being referred to as ‘hacks hiding behind Schenker graphs’, with the implication that such analysts cannot really ‘understand music’ because they are too busy applying predetermined models and formulas to musical matter. I know that some scholars would render this scholarship as localised, uncritical and, therefore, unimportant. On the other side, one music specialist working in a Higher Education institution wrote, a few years ago on a social media platform, that another ‘so-called cultural historian’ musicologist was basically a ‘journalist hack’ who wrote ‘low-level cultural studies on popular music’ and was ‘musically illiterate’. The author moved on to another academic, stating that this one was a ‘talented self-publicist’ who ‘ticks the right political boxes’ with ‘pseudo-ethnographic studies’, and concluded that their ‘appointment’ was one of the ‘darkest moments in the history of […] musicology’.

From my experience, this locker room talk is not uncommon to some specialist musical circles today. Yet the idea that someone is a ‘hack’, ‘illiterate’ or producing ‘pseudo-ethnographic studies’ draws clear discursive contrasts to a ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ one-dimensional typified musical identity. Comparable examples are plentiful and also filter into public discourse around musicology. One person wrote on a blog post about William Cheng’s Just Vibrations in 2016. They wrote that ‘this is not music or musicology. It is imposing the author’s political views on something they don’t belong to. The author knows nothing about music. The author doesn’t care about music’. I found a similar claim, albeit less acerbic, a few days ago: one music specialist on Twitter lamented the lack of ‘musical examples’ in recent musical publications and that such publications were based on ’people and buildings. Nothing on the stuff you actually listen to’. In essence, on both sides of the musicological spectrum, the accusation of inauthenticity is a key concept that remains central to the debates around what constitutes ‘good’ scholarship (i.e. ‘the music itself’ or ‘people and buildings’).

‘Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Filth’ (Open commons, Wikipedia, 10/03/2019)

For this blog post, I could not resist the cardinal sins of presentism and hyperbole – and, for that, I apologise! However, in my own research, one of the key lessons that can be understood from studying Soviet and Nazi cultural politics is that discriminatory (and therefore violent) vocabularies precede physical acts of violence. Indeed, some of the examples shown above compare to musical discourse in the Soviet 1920s and 1930s. Writing about the role of ‘degenerate’ bourgeois class enemies in Soviet music culture, one anonymous commentator claimed in 1930 that the ‘class enemy in our time is changing its tactics; it is “masking itself”. The “decaying bourgeoisie” is offering the light genre under a guise”’.3 In other words, insincere and deceptive individuals were polluting musical culture with hackwork through offering the light genre instead of ‘healthy’ revolutionary marches. In the same way, the Soviet musicologist Lev Kaltat, in a critique of Soviet Philharmonia concert repertoire in 1928, demanded the removal of ‘philistine and hack culture’ from its ‘programmes’ and claimed that the ‘worker-listener must receive from the concert a cheerful, healthy emotional impression’.[4] The binaries of ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’ or ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ were central to, here Soviet, discourses on music and artistic culture. In comparison, describing the Nazi state, Edward Ross Dickinson argued in 2004 that ‘the development of the science of human heredity and the ambition of total social “renovation” […] made Nazi policies theoretically possible, made them imaginable. What made them real was the creation of a totalitarian dictatorship. To put it in a few words: no dictatorship, no catastrophe’.[5] In essence, the coercive strategies, violence, and state repression later seen in the 1930s and 40s were based on the judgements and discriminatory frameworks drawn up by intellectuals both before and after the Nazi regime came to power. The important lesson here is that, placed in a broader context, governments throughout history have used or created social statistics, which have been collated and written up by intellectuals, to identify and to discriminate between authentic and inauthentic individuals; musical specialists play an important part in determining the content of that data.

On this basis, it is worth reconsidering, as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, our own performance in legitimising divisive terminologies. Various Soviet and Nazi music factions contributed to a discourse on music in the interwar period by using meaningful terminologies such as ‘degeneration’, ‘sick’, ‘healthy’, ‘genuine’, ‘fake’. In the same way, modern-day politicians, commentators and (musical) individuals have helped to legitimise discriminatory frameworks that classify, describe and seek curative resolutions to individuals, who, used to be considered, socially dangerous elements in society. We all have a responsibility, in our professional sphere, to deconstruct binaries and to test assumptions, even if they seem politically uncomfortable or challenge our philosophical worldview. In the coming weeks, as European citizens living in the UK are asked to register and identify themselves to government databases, we should all reconsider our roles, identities and language in drawing up the discursive (and musical) blueprints of a future British, and equally European, society.

1 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/17/vote-leave-broke-electoral-law-and-british-democracy-is-shaken (25/02/2019)

2 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/02/corporate-dark-money-power-atlantic-lobbyists-brexit (25/02/2019)

3 Anon., ‘Dovesti do kontsa bor’bu s nepmanskoi muzykoi’ [Finish the fight with NEPman music], Za proletarskuiu muzyku, 9 (1930), 1-3 (p. 3).

4 Pauline Fairclough, Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), p. 46.

5 Edward Ross Dickinson, ‘Biopolitics, Fascism, Democracy: Some Reflections on Our Discourse about “Modernity”’, Central European History, 37, 1 (2004), 1-48 (p. 18).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.