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Rock & Roll Diplomacy: Music as Soft Power

The Cold War was a clash of cultures as well as political/economic systems, and music had an important role in this drama. In 1956, The New York Times declared that ‘America’s secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key’, as so-called ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ such as Dizzy Gillespie embarked on global tours part-sponsored by the State Department and CIA. This was a geopolitically expedient programme as it projected an image of creative freedom and racial harmony to foreign audiences – an attempt to distract from the savage reality of Jim Crow segregationism at home. This irony was not lost on many of the Jazz Ambassadors, such as Louis Armstrong, who cancelled a State Department tour through the Soviet Union in 1957 citing civil rights issues at home.

Rock and roll took the world by a storm, and was intimately linked to the extension of US power via military bases around the world in the Cold War. Take Liverpool, for instance, which prior to the postwar years had no notable entertainment industry. Suddenly, in the 1950s, Liverpool’s music scene exploded with rock and roll bands from Gerry and the Pacemakers to the Beatles. George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, wondered why Liverpool in particular had produced such a ‘vibrant teenage culture centred around pop music … when the rest of Britain was snoozing gently away’.

He thought that Burtonwood, fifteen miles east of Liverpool, had something to do with it. This was the largest airfield in Europe, and was home to tens of thousands of US Air Force personnel, as well as a baseball team, and it played host to American entertainers such as Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. The mixture of a recovering postwar economy and an airbase full of Americans plugging their culture and records ‘directly into the mainstream of Liverpool life’, as George Martin put it, was what made Liverpool a uniquely fertile ground from which rock bands sprung. Teenagers and young adults whose fathers worked on the base, such as Ringo Starr, were raised on a diet of Buddy Holly and comic books, and realised that the Americans would happily pay them to play gigs covering their favourite tunes before going on to create their own brand of rock. Tellingly, the first amateur recording made by John, Paul, and George was Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day” in 1958.

Despite the role American military bases played in spawning exciting developments in music, the vanguards of the new music culture were far from deferential to their imperial progenitors. John ‘Give Peace a Chance’ Lennon was so outspoken in his anti-war activism that the FBI amassed a 400 page file on him. Although seen as a liability for US administrations who were on the receiving end of his criticism, the Soviet Union was just as panicked by the popularity of the Beatles, whom they mocked as ‘the Bugs’. This was because the 1960s nexus of student protest culture and subversive but popular rock music encouraged dissent and autonomy – attitudes regarded as a threat by the US security establishment and Soviet authoritarian state alike. My mother recalls a school trip to Moscow in the 1970s where she was approached by Russians asking her if she had jeans and CDs to offer them. As Régis Debray, a Marxist theorist of cultural transmission, summarised, ‘there is more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army’.

The Rolling Stones are another staple of the 1960s’ international music culture and its associated dissident political culture centred on America, with it being almost a capital offence to produce a film or documentary about the Vietnam War without Gimme Shelter in the soundtrack. But Olé Olé Olé!, a recent film documenting the band’s 2016 Latin America tour, reveals just how much of a soft power asset they can be to the US (despite the fact they, like the Beatles, are an English band). Towards the end of the Obama presidency, US-Cuba relations were starting to thaw following decades of frozen Cold War division and embargo. Mick Jagger noticed that this coincided with the Rolling Stones’ Latin America tour and, therefore the ‘obvious thing to do’ was try to get a Cuba gig.

RAF Burtonwood

Tour director Paul Gongaware appointed Adam Wilkes, whose career was built on promoting music events in rapidly-developing Asia in the early 2000s, to be producer of the prospective Cuba show. Justifying his choice, Gongaware explained how Wilkes ‘has considerable experience of dealing with communist governments. He opened China for us, and now he’s gonna open Cuba for us’. Gongaware’s neocon-inflected vernacular could be mistaken for a description a diplomatic mission led by Henry Kissinger, rather than a geriatric rock concert. The Cuban government shared this attitude, as Wilkes remarked that Raúl Castro saw the gig as ‘almost a piece of government policy’. Once it was announced that President Obama would visit Cuba (the first US president to do so since 1928), the gig’s date had to be rearranged so it would be five days after instead of 12 hours before, with government officials warning Wilkes that it would be ‘too big of a jolt to their system’ to have them happen too close together. In this arrangement, the Rolling Stones acted as musical encore to the political main show.

These episodes reveal an ambivalent relationship between music and US power. It is inherently more difficult for the US state to harness music as a soft power asset than it is for, say, film. Film as a medium and industry can be more easily manipulated to present a world of good guys and bad guys in accordance with the way the US state sees things. There are CIA and Pentagon ‘entertainment liaison officers’ often working in close collaboration with Hollywood on films and series such as Argo and Homeland. But it is more difficult for security services to intervene in the musician or band’s direct message in their lyrics and off-stage personas. Hence what we have instead, which is a kind of parasitical relationship in which bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones depended very much on a US consumer pop culture for inspiration and a market to sell to, while protesting against many of those same things. Similarly, the US state vacillated between bitterness towards its cultural critics and using the fact it allows such popular criticism through music as a marketable aspect of its political-economic system to promote abroad.

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