Music; the gift of a speech act?

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Earlier this month, 91-year-old Denis Robinson became the source of great media attention as his piano performance at St Pancras Station went viral. When interviewed, Mr Robinson highlighted he performs twice a week to bring joy into the lives of passengers to which he is always met with a positive and touching response in the way the music affects those who hear it. This mundane and everyday encounter of music is instrumental in demonstrating how influential and powerful music is as a source of affecting the human consciousness, performing as a symbolic container for the emotional temporal engagement with the past and present. Power projected in this mundane way can give music a voice and when contextualised to more exceptional modes of understanding, can become hugely relevant to security.

Music ultimately operates in a multitude of ways that have performative affects. Characteristically thought of as a form of entertainment, music can provide and project specific sentiments and converse in diverse emotions as a way of opening new channels of discussion for acceptance and objection. It acts as a medium for the self to relate to and work through problems faced in everyday life arguably internalising ways of engaging with the world. Moreover, music not only operates at an individualistic level but is also instrumental in forms of unifying the collective. It can be found at the core of protesters’ chants, unifying sports teams, or as a form of commemoration or praise. It provides a way of connecting people without conditioning them to any pre-set forms of interaction or background knowledge. Everyone can be met on an equal playing field with an equal voice and mode of expression. In this sense, music becomes an extremely exciting means of giving voice to the individual but also to the collective, producing dually a singular and collective speech act.

Historically, music has had an extremely intimate relationship with politics and as such has frequently been at the core of political protests. The adoption of songs for specific campaigns or indeed songs being created around specific causes has always included music within a wider conversation of security related issues. However, technological advancement has drastically opened this to wider audiences being given the agency within music as opposed to it just being limited to the voice of musicians and performers. Social media has opened a new avenue and platform for music to be constructed as a response to the everyday while simultaneously impacting the exceptional. Furthermore, through the essentially emotive responses in which music is directed, the range of genres also provides a performative way of speaking. Typically, genres are seen to be instigated in specific ways as representing particular viewpoints. As such, the adoption of a specific genre of music can be extremely and explicitly useful in attempting to support or drive causes. Altogether the power that is infused into music allows a conceptualising of music not simply as a response to security related challenges or political struggles but indeed needs to be further problematised as indicative of a speech act in of itself.


The relationship between Donald Trump’s Presidency and music as a speech act is indicative of how music is a way in which audiences can speak. In the original understandings of power dynamics of who has the ability to speak within security claims and indeed who has the power of projecting music to engage audiences in specific sentiments, Trump would be the individual holding the strings of the puppets and dictating actions. However, I argue in this highly controversial Presidency music has become a method of counteracting traditional speech acts to gain agency and as a means of opposition. Indeed, many musicians have explicitly spoken out about refusing to have their music played as part of Trump’s campaigns. Musicians such as Adele and the Rolling Stones have spoken out condemning the use of their music for any political cause. Moreover, George Harrison of the Beatles made a public statement explicitly stating that, ‘the unauthorised use of #HereComestheSun at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland is offensive and against the wishes of the George Harrison estate’.

Furthermore, music has not only been restricted in terms of Trump’s Presidency but also in advocating a specific resistance. Symbolically a host of anti-Trump protest music was released on Trump’s Inauguration Day in January 2017. It was stated that, in ‘fear and frustration’ individuals turn to a ‘creative outlet’. A wide array of compilation albums, genres and signers came together in force to protest the election of President Trump using this medium for their voice and opinions to be heard and considered in direct response to a specific political act. In addition, more than a year later (Oct 2018) Barbara Streisand released an album (Walls) directly engaged with responding to her anti-Trump sentiments of his Presidency.  Of the album title there is a clear connection to Trump’s wish of building a wall with Mexico and Streisand has highlighted, ‘walls can be structural, and walls can be emotional; walls between people’. In this sense, the album can be seen to represent Streisand’s belief of Trump dividing the nation as well as discussion and objection to security related policies.  The first single released, Don’t Lie to Me is indicative of this through the music videos visualization of a United States under President Trump falling into despair.  Although a direct discussion of Trump, of the single she states, ‘You have to write lyrics that can be more than just a protest… They have to appeal to a universal audience. Even when I wrote Don’t Lie to Me, at first I thought well I could make you think its like a love affair, a marriage breaking up. It’s a universal thought: don’t lie to me’. The sharing online, collective signing and adoption of music in protest of Trump therefore acts as a way of having a voice within the wider political sphere. One in which that is not limited to simply an accepting or denial but indeed a platform in which to directly have an impact on the security that surrounds one’s environment.

Ultimately, the way in which music acts as a stand-alone concept contains undoubtedly moves publics from a position of simply an audience to those in power to the role of an active speaker. Music is an empowered agency providing a voice for all; whether it be for private consumption or collective engagement. We can no longer think of music simply as a way of responding to events but rather a means of allowing individuals to create their own speech and act as a speaker in a deeply complex world. Music makes speakers; speakers make actions and actions alter the course of history. Even a mundane performance by a 91-year-old pianist in an everyday setting has power and says something. The ramifications and effects of this just need to be paid attention to and analysed within a more empowered view. Music is all around and has been represented so mundanely we forget to look at the way in which music flooding the ears is secretly and quietly working as a speech act, empowering the masses and challenging who has the ability to speak within the security realm.