Social Commentary from Singer-Songwriters to Rap

20 – 21 OCTOBER, 2017, at the UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI, Finland

Popular songs are increasingly recognized as cultural artefacts and as indicators for societal developments, as can be seen by the fact that Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Song lyrics are especially interesting, since they depend on the intention of the authors/performers as well as on the acceptance of the audience.

The social import of popular music, such as rock and rap, is rather seldom analyzed in detail. This is why we have decided to arrange a symposium on the topic. The plenary speakers include Allan Moore (Professor Emeritus of Popular Music, University of Surrey, and author of Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Song, 2012), Nicola Dibben (Professor at the department of music, University of Sheffield) and Paleface, one of the leading rappers in Finland. The papers span the social impact of popular songs in various countries, such as Finland, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Southeastern Europe, the United States and Canada.

The participants of the symposium include, apart from the above-mentioned plenary speakers: Dragana Cvetanovic, Hans Giessen, Tomi Huttunen, Pekka Kolehmainen, Hartmut Lenk, Rogier Nieuweboer, Bo Pettersson, and Johanna Virkkula.

Symposium coordinator: Hans Giessen (

Please register at until Friday, 13 October, 2017



Thursday, 19. October, 2017, 18:00

Get Together


Friday, 20 October, 2017

Conference Venue:
The University of Helsinki
Metsätalo, Floor 3, Room 10
00014 Helsingin yliopisto, Unioninkatu 40,

9:30 – 10:30
Allan Moore (Professor Emeritus of Popular Music, University of Surrey)
Living in political song
A, perhaps the, key feature of song is that it is sung. And, in most cases, it is supplied with a further musical environment (sometimes extensive). A first response, unanswered here, is probably “Why?” Hard on its heels must come consideration of the consequences of the embedding of ‘message’ within a context of music. A dominant contention in my own work has been that the belief that one has accounted for the meaning of a song by accounting for the meaning of its lyrics is completely misplaced. In this paper I shall take one sense of the political in song, that of protestation at a currently manifested set of social relationships, and observe some of the contributions made by musical environments to the ostensible protests carried by song lyrics. I have, then, a political aim.

10:30 – 11:00
Coffee Break

11:00 – 11:30
Bo Pettersson (University of Helsinki)
“It’s All a Stacked Deck”: On the Effects of Social Commitment from Guthrie to Springsteen
As you may have noticed, the title of our symposium “Living in a Political World” is a paraphrase of the first line in “Political World” (Oh Mercy, 1989) by Bob Dylan. In that song he goes on to claim that “crime don’t have a face” and that “it’s all a stacked deck”. Clearly, by targeting the capitalist powers that be, he is continuing the social criticism that was so evident in many of his early lyrics. This social commitment, which originally drew on blues, gospel and Woody Guthrie, spawned political criticism in folk and rock artists not only in the United States but all over the world.
My talk focuses on the effects of this political commitment among rock musicians in the United States. Since socially critical folk and rock music from Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Dylan and Bruce Springsteen has been in the vanguard of American popular music for over half a century, why has its political effects been less evident than in other countries? My claim is that this is due to a number of reasons, including the abiding American faith in the American Dream and the nightmare visions of the Red Scare, the American voting system (including registering for voting) and the rather narrow ethnic background of folk and rock musicians (hence the rap scene). Also, the most emblematic singer-songwriters themselves have been rather ambiguous in their commitment: for instance, Guthrie usually declined to sing the two most socially critical stanzas of “This Land Is Your Land”; Dylan has been reclusive and given equivocal statements; and Springsteen’s evident social commitment for the poor is somewhat undermined by the fact that he owns multi-million dollar homes in a number of states. Thus, it is not enough to recognize that the deck is stacked, if you cannot get at the dealer and how he (yes, patriarchy reigns) stacks the deck.

11:30 – 12:00
Tomi Huttunen (University of Helsinki)
Bob Dylan in Russia
My paper discusses the 2016 Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s influence on the late Soviet Russian rock music and culture, as well as Dylan’s reception in Russian pop culture more generally. On the one hand, I shall analyse adaptations of Dylan in 1970s – 1980s rock songs by Mikhail Naumenko and Boris Grebenschikov, especially concentrating on their joint project, the unofficially recorded album Vse bratya syostry (All the Brothers are Sisters, 1978) as well as Dylan’s first official visit to the USSR in 1985.

12:00 – 14:00
Lunch Break

14:00 – 15:00
Nicola Dibben (Professor at the department of music, University of Sheffield)
“Empowered by pop: young girls’ experience of power and agency through music listening”
It has long been acknowledged that popular music provides social commentary. But the way in which music might manifest that political expression has perhaps been less well understood, especially when considering mainstream pop as opposed to more obvious forms of political ‘protest’ song (Street, 2012). It has been argued that music is a medium of social order that shapes behaviours, constitutes identities, and articulates emotions (DeNora, 2000). But how does music order the socio-political dimension? I focus on one aspect of this larger phenomenon: the part played by the physically rousing qualities of musical experience in self-perceptions of power and agency. I use qualitative data from interviews with young British females about their engagement with pop to explore the way in which music affords an embodied experience of empowerment, and how this relates to agency in girlhood. Coulter (in press) has argued that girls’ valuing of music reveals individual ‘empowerment’ is acquired through adopting dominant discourses which could be seen to constrain them and disempower girls collectively. Similarly, I argue that the embodied experience of pop music can lead girls to feel empowered but within a social context in which the domain of that power is severely limiting to them. This sheds light on the way engagement with popular music with, and without, social commentary can enable the feeling of empowerment, but that in these examples it remained a private reflection rather than inspiring collective thought or action.

15:00 – 15:30
Coffee Break

15:30 – 16:00
Pekka Kolehmainen (University of Turku)
How Rock Became Porn: the Parents Music Resource Center and the Politics of Pornographic Rock
As part of their mid-1980s media campaign against the spread of explicit rock music, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) employed the term “porn rock” as a way of depicting some segments of popular music as essentially pornographic. This served to expunge certain artists from the realm of artistic expression and move them into the domain of obscenity and pornography. In my paper, I will analyze the political ramifications of the term in the 1980s and its effects on the larger ideas of rock music at the time. I will look at its particular usage and examine the ways in which it was used as an exertion of power to categorize music. Furthermore, I will explore the notion of “porn rock” in the larger context of the Culture Wars in U.S. history and in relation to cultural history of sex and pornography. I will further link struggles over rock and pornography into larger debates about questions of autonomy and citizenship in U.S. history.

16:00 – 16:30
Johanna Virkkula (University of Helsinki)
Describing a social context through names: Eurovision Songs from Southeastern Europe
Personal names are words we use to reference to specific individuals. But names also function as a photo, telling us things we imagine we know – gender, age, general belonging – in a way similar to how we imagine we know things about a person when we see them on a photo.
The Eurovision song contest follows specific rules and specific processes. The material of this paper is music and especially lyrics from Southeast European contestants in the Eurovision song contest. Social commentary through personal names is subtle but exists: When Daniel in 1983 (Yugoslavia) sings about Džuli (spelled Julie in the English translation), his dream girl who comes in summer and says hello in English, or Seid Memić Vajta in 1981 (Yugoslavia) sings about how nobody will love Lejla like he does, the names Julie and Lejla paint us a picture of these love interests. This picture will be presented in this paper, and compared to other personal and place names in the material.
The results of the study reveals that female names dominate and place names occur but in highly specific contexts.

16:30 – 17:00
Dragana Cvetanovic (University of Helsinki)
From a nation to the Balkans and back – politically engaged rap in the post-Yugoslav region
In this paper I will discuss some current questions on rap music with a political message in the region of post-Yugoslavia (often called the Balkans). I will delve deeper into the main themes, objects and discursive aspects of local “message rap” during the last 20 years, and then make some critical observations on how this genre is doing today. By exploring concepts such as public intellectualism, patriotic and traitor rap, as well as collective identities and transnationalism, this paper aims to examine, how and if rap music in its street-wise manner, reflects developments in the environment that is supposed to be transformed from the turbulent to post-turbulent.


Saturday, 21 October, 2017

Conference Venue:
Goethe-Institut Finnland
00100 Helsinki, Finland, Salomonkatu 5 B

9:00 – 9:30
Hartmut Lenk (University of Helsinki)
Halloween in East Berlin. SILLY’s social commentary on Germany’s reunification
SILLY was founded in 1978 (as FAMILIE SILLY, since 1982 named SILLY) and became one of the most successful East German rock bands. The lead singer Tamara Danz (1952–1996) was very popular and even called the ‘Tina Turner of the East’. The band was allowed to perform in Western countries, too. But several of their texts in the late 1980s were subject to political censorship. In autumn 1989, Tamara Danz and SILLY were among the first to sign the socalled ‘Rockerresolution’ and read it aloud at the beginning of their concerts (regardless of the threat of a stage ban). This declaration demanded changes in political life towards more democracy and freedom.
In the late 1980s, several texts of SILLY contained more or less metaphorical criticism of East German society. Directly after the unification of the two German states on October 3, 1990, SILLY (like many other East German musicians) suffered from a lack of interest among the public. They made a successful comeback in 1993 with the album Hurensöhne (‘Sons of a bitch’). It contains several songs reflecting the implementation of reunification (experienced partly as subjection or colonisation), such as Traumpaar des Jahrhunderts (‘Dream pair of the century’) or Halloween in Ost-Berlin (‘Halloween in East Berlin’).
After the death of Tamara Danz in 1996, SILLY fell silent – until the actress Anna Loos became the new lead singer. She also produced most of the lyrics of the album Kopf an Kopf (2013) and all the songs on their latest album Wutfänger (2016). Some of these songs are critical comments on the role of reunified Germany in the world, e.g. as an exporter of weapons.
In the paper, some of the songs containing social criticism will be subject to a hermeneutic analysis.

9:30 – 10:00
Hans Giessen (University of Helsinki)
Konstantin Wecker: Philosophy of Life as raison d’être for politics and social commentary
The focus of my presentation lies with Konstantin Wecker and his songs from the second half of the last century. It is shown that Wecker’s system to interpret the world is close to that of Philosophy of Life. Wecker expresses his intense affirmation of life and love, and, at the same time, a thoroughly irrational, very energetic criticism of the state and the principle of ‘order’. It seems to be precisely this affirmation of life and rejection of (or even hostility towards) theory that determined Wecker’s success. At that time, at least in West Germany, the idea was very dominant that Nato’s “double-track decision” or that the atomic industry, both based on scientific research as well as on specific conceptions about the relationship between state and society, were indeed a threat to life on earth. In this view, rationality was not part of the solution to the problem, but its very cause. In this context Konstantin Wecker appeared as a songwriter whose concept expressed an intensive philosophical alternative draft.

10:00 – 10:30
Coffee Break

10:30 – 11:00
Rogier Nieuweboer (University of Helsinki)
Herman van Veen – The Art of Crossing Borders
In the Netherlands, Herman van Veen is most known as a singer/songwriter and a stage performer, but during his long career, he has also been active as a musician (violinist), actor, television director and author. Van Veen has also served as a member of UNICEF and he has founded a number of non-profit organizations in support of children’s rights. Not surprisingly, many of Van Veen’s song lyrics contain a social and/or political message, often expressed in a humorous way.
Herman van Veen is one of the few Dutch performers who have become well known outside of the Dutch language area, in his case mainly in Germany, but – thanks mainly to the Dutch-Japanese-German animated television series Alfred J. Kwak – also in other countries.
In my presentation, I will try to answer the question why Herman van Veen’s songs appeal to such a broad audience in both the Netherlands and Germany.

11:00 – 13:00
“Rap at Noon”

Symposium arranged by the Department of Modern Languages, University of Helsinki, as planned by Hans W. Giessen (chair), Hartmut Lenk, Tomi Huttunen, Bo Pettersson and Christian Rink, with special support from Goethe-Institut Finnland, the German Cultural Institute in Helsinki.b>


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