In an episode of the Simpsons, Homer and his fellow union power plant workers protest Mr. Burns’ stark regime by clasping hands and singing along to Lisa’s guitar.
In the classic holiday story, the Whos over in Whoville sing of Christmas joy, warming the Grinch’s heart.
But in today’s world, when stories of uprisings are all over the news, it begs the question: in non-fictional, real-world rebellions, what chance do activists have of tackling inequality through song?
The Estonian Singing Revolution, which began in 1987, certainly helped to collapse the USSR and free the oppressed nation. A 2006 James and Maureen Tusty film documents the movement, showing how thousands of Estonians would crowd into the Tallinn Song Festival grounds where they would sing patriotic, national folk songs that were previously outlawed by the Soviets.
Then in 1989, two million people from Baltic states Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania held hands along a 600 km stretch of road in protest of their oppression.
Two years later, the USSR dissolved and Estonia was a free country.
But Arrogant Worms musical comedian Trevor Strong is doubtful this method would work today.
“I’m not sure if a revolution could be based on music, but it’s certainly a powerful way to get your message across,” Strong said.
Strong did just that with his 2010 song, “The Wild Proroguer,” which intended to chastise Stephen Harper for proroguing Parliament. He said the sense of unity in the crowds was palpable as they caught on and launched into the chorus with him.
“Music has powerful emotional and physical effects,” Carleton music professor William Echard said. “It can intensify and channel already existing feelings.”
There is a certain power to music that evokes feelings and emotions regardless of race, gender, age or culture, he said, a phenomenon which intensifies common bonds and builds solidarity between people.
When it comes to political activism, Strong said for him as a musician, music is key in getting certain messages across to people.
“It’s one thing to read about what should be done,” he said. “Music can get into the heart.”
Folk songs, like the ones that helped rally Estonians during their revolution, are part of a shared experience, Connor McGuire, jazzmaster and vocalist for Ottawa band The Murder Plans said. In the past, popular musicians have often become instrumental in uniting people for a cause.
But McGuire said he thinks the time has come and gone for musical prophets like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bob Marley.
“Those guys were it. That’s it,” he said.
This is because we no longer have one communal message, he said. We don’t have thousands of people rallying to one musical prophet, we have many prophets rallying people around many different messages.
But that doesn’t mean music can’t have the power to bring people together for a cause.
“When people sing along, they’ve made a commitment,” Strong said about music and political activism. “It’s something more than putting your name on a petition, and when people sing together, they sing as one.”
In a YouTube video of a performance of “The Wild Proroguer,” Strong stands boldly in front of Parliament, mocking the prime minister right in his front yard. A true aura of raw human energy emanates from the united singing of the passionate audience.
“If you ever go to a sporting event and hear the chanting, it becomes obvious that there’s a tribal element of music that is hard to resist,” Strong said. “It’s a part of everyone. It’s this weird thing that almost everybody enjoys.”
Nowadays, though, McGuire said it’s harder to get everyone singing the same song. With technology at our fingertips, anyone can create music which means not everybody is listening to the same style, he said.
“There’s a comfort in listening to classic rock,” he says. “It’s the last time we all knew the same songs.”
The days of simply “rock” or “pop” are long gone. Now there is everything from gospel-grunge to psychedelic doo-wop, and with those styles comes diverse audiences with equally diverse musical tastes. McGuire said the cultural experience of music is lacking in a way it never did in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In the past, just like in Estonia, McGuire said revolutions have been incited largely by cultural songs or anthems that applied directly to the groups in question. Crowds could rally around a single, relevant voice.
But in the modern era, with so much music to choose from today, movements through music will have to adopt a different approach.
And McGuire said he’s not sure this would be the “Canadian way to revolt.” Looking at baseball in Japan or soccer in Europe, McGuire said they’re always singing. They incorporate music into their culture in a way Canadians rarely do. But he said anything is possible.
Music is an ideal way to unify the masses by getting in touch with the human spirit, he said. It is a powerful way of getting a message across.
—Photo courtesy of rpaterso.