“We are the world”: Music and propaganda in democracy

A few years ago I wrote two research articles on the role of humanitarian songs in the depoliticisation of armed conflicts and the moralisation of international relations at the end of the Cold War.1 Following the recent German translation of my article “Reflections on Music and Propaganda” in the book of the exhibition After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st century, I would like to publish here some excerpts of this paper that analyse the political impact of humanitarian songs in democracy.

Generally speaking, the concept of propaganda refers to a method as well as the symbolic object mobilized by this method. It is in this context that some musical works, and works of art in general, can be considered as propaganda if the mobilized individual accepts the implicit ideology in the works or the intentions summoned to activate the opinion of a group of individuals or to provoke an action. Propaganda, however, equally constitutes a method of communication that implicates not only the mobilization of objects, but also the mobilization of discourse, places, acts, and rituals.

Ambiguous relations between music and propaganda

Propaganda can be considered as a political legitimization strategy that aims to provoke and influence a specific group of people. For Jacques Ellul, “propaganda feeds, develops, and spreads the system of false claims.”2 He defines propaganda as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization.”3. He concludes that propaganda provides “a complete system for explaining the world, and provides immediate incentives to action” for human beings, organizing a “myth that tries to take hold of the entire person.”4. Thus, the aim of modern propaganda “is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. … It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief.”5. This definition is useful when thinking about the use of symbolic objects for propagandistic ends.

One musical work may contain several meanings, depending on the political rituals from which it is issued, the historical context of its creation and its reception, and the aesthetic and ideological discourses surrounding it. It also involves the efforts of political powers to fix or to maintain at least one of the possible meanings in a work that is inherently polysemic. Thus, the manipulation of a musical work’s polysemy through specific political rituals and measures constitutes one of the primary methods of propaganda, even if the deployment and reception of musical works at the heart of propaganda dispositifs are never linear and unequivocal. Their effectiveness and even the possibility of their deployment depend on many historical, aesthetic, and sociological factors.

For the contextualist concept that I will defend here, however, the symbolic dimension of musical works and practices may rest on a text or be intrinsic to its material, its form, or its musical language according to aesthetic conventions or artistic traditions. But more often than not, the significance that power grants to works—nationalist, Nazi, anti-fascist, anti-communist—is external to musical material or musical language and rests with the actors according to the context in which it is performed or uttered.

Music and propaganda in democracy: the case of humanitarian songs

Humanitarian aid during the famine caused by the Ethiopian civil war between 1983 and 1985, was held up as proof of the supposed moral superiority of the “West.” Songs played an important role in the symbolic legitimation of this humanitarian action and the vision of the world that it promoted. Such songs are part of the symbolic political dispositifs deployed as propaganda, made much more effective because of their seemingly anodyne and inoffensive nature and their good intentions toward victims whose lives are at risk.

In late 1984, musicians and television and film personalities launched several initiatives that were mediatized by major national television networks. Among the first to do so was the singer Bob Geldof, who formed the collective Band Aid in Great Britain and recorded the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? with, among others, the singers Bono, Phil Collins, and Sting. In July 1985 they organized Live Aid, two simultaneous concerts in London (Wembley Stadium) and Philadelphia (JFK Stadium) broadcast live via radio and television that, according to the organizers, garnered an audience of 1.5 billion, mostly in Europe and North America. In total, between 1985 and 1991, the project raised at least 144 million dollars, managed by the Band Aid Charitable Trust.6

In the United States, some musicians came together to form the collective USA for Africa and record the song We Are The World, which rapidly met with great success. Among the musicians were Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Lionel Ritchie, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan; they sold approximately seven million copies and raised more than 60 million dollars.7

In France the singer Manu Dibango brought together a group of African musicians in late 1984 to record Tam Tam pour l’Éthiopie. Then the French singers Renaud and Valérie Lagrange formed the association Chanteurs sans frontières in early 1985 to give “help to victims of famine in every corner of the world, with no consideration whatsoever of political or social order, the sole goal being assistance and charity.”8 They recorded Chanson pour l’Éthiopie,which was a great commercial success, and transferred almost all of the funds raised—more than 1.7 million copies sold, worth more than 3 million euros—to Médecins sans frontières (MSF) to confront the humanitarian emergency in Ethiopia.9

From their beginnings, humanitarian songs and their music videos have been inescapably accompanied by discourse (the construction of victim figures), moral injunctions (the necessity of saving the victims) and mediatized rituals (concerts, artists appearing on television).10 All these strategies come together to constitute a humanitarian musical dispositif, which is a remarkable example of symbolic politics in democracy. One of the foundations of these dispositifs is the media-based elaboration of a fiction, which portrays the participation of the artists as spontaneous, urgent, disinterested, and free. This fiction is put in place by the discourse issued from the artists and the media, as well as by the texts in the songs and the artists’ actions as shown in the music videos.11 Moreover, regardless of the geopolitical context, all of these humanitarian songs show men and women with headphones on, pressed into action by the humanitarian “emergency,” singing in front of microphones in a recording studio to raise funds to rescue the victims. The media discourses are similar: faced with the unbearable suffering of victims, “we” have had the idea of doing a song for them, for the children of this or that country. Humanitarian songs can therefore be seen as media-based hymns of liberal democracies, destined to bring together moral communities that are as ephemeral as they powerless, at a time when humanitarianism replaces the political ideologies of the twentieth century.

Such highly visible songs and concerts continue to be used to raise funds and to legitimate humanitarian action as a response to political and economic issues in the most of mediatized humanitarian catastrophes to date, including Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Haitian earthquake (2010) and the Philippines Haiyan typhoon (2013). Furthermore, in the context of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, humanitarian songs persist to legitimize charity, humanitarian action, and neo-liberal schemes to ‘help’ African countries. This is the case of Bob Geldof’s Band Aid 30 and the remake of their song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, released on 17 November 201412. The French version of this song will be released on December 1, 2014, by the singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, wife of the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the current context of Sarkozy’s contest for the Presidency of the French Party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), on December 6, 2014, the lead role of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in this symbolic political dispositif has a manifest propagandistic dimension.

Humanitarian songs have undeniably manipulated emotions and enabled the development of a politics of pity in the public sphere. After the collapse of the communist regimes in the East, humanitarianism became a means of action to transform the world here and now that would be hypothetically freed from the weight of “ideologies,” while taking the place of the welfare state. Humanitarian songs, in agreement with the political logic promoted by humanitarian enterprises, preach help for the less fortunate without regard for who is responsible in conflicts or in the management of crises, while deploying a fiction which paints the “victims” as powerless subjects of neoliberal charity. Such political powers maintain the illusion that citizens can “do” something to change the world through the spectacle of the media; donors become consumers of the poverty of others, transformed into benevolent bearers of charity through the commercial exploitation of moralistic musical works.


  1. Chansons humanitaires, dépolitisation des conflits et moralisation des relations internationales à la fin de la Guerre froideRelations Internationales, n° 156 (2013), p. 109-123 (PDF); “Reflections on Music and Propaganda“, Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 12 (2014). []
  2. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda. The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Vintage, 1973 [1965]), p. 61. []
  3. Id. []
  4. Ibid., p. 11. []
  5. Ibid., p. 25. []
  6. Other sources cite 225 billion dollars as the actual figure (Bénédicte Rey, “Band Aid, une vague de solidarité inégalée qui a servi d’‘impulsion,’” AFP Infos Mondiales, November 26, 2009). While the exact sum of money raised is unverifiable, the Band Aid Charitable Trust gives the figure of 144 million for the period 1985-1991 (http://www.live8live.com/docs/bat-withlovefrombandaid%20.pdf, consulted 20 August 2013). Additional information concerning the division of the funds raised through the sale of Band Aid and Band Aid 20 DVDs and CDs is available on the BBC website. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4055325.stm, consulted 20 February 2014 []
  7. http://www.usaforafrica.org/We_Are_the_World/introduction.html, consulted 20 February 2014. []
  8. “Statuts association ‘Chanteurs sans frontières’ (Article 2. Objet),” Sous-Préfecture de Boulogne-Billancourt, 12 juin 1985 []
  9. La chanson pour l’Éthiopie was the second most sold hit of the 1980s in France, just behind La danse des canards (“Le top France des 80’s,” Le Parisien, 11 January 2012). []
  10. For an analysis of the main musical, visual, and discursive characteristics of humanitarian songs, see Luis Velasco Pufleau, “Chansons humanitaires, dépolitisation des conflits et moralisation des relations internationales à la fin de la Guerre froide,” Relations Internationales, 156 (2013), p. 109-123. []
  11. For an example see: http://www.unicef.fr/contenu/actualite-humanitaire-unicef/paris-africa-lhistoire-dune-belle-mobilisation-pour-la-corne-de-lafrique-2011-11-02, consulted 20 February 2014. []
  12. See http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/nov/17/band-aid-30-single-raises-1-million-pounds-within-minutes-x-factor-debut []

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