Johnston: More than soothing a savage beast

Another summer’s innocence stolen by hatred and violence.

Last year, it was Anders Breivek who armed himself and murdered 69 children on an island retreat in Norway. This year, it is Wade Michael Page who took a gun and murdered six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.

Once again, we are made to face the very worst of humanity — and, once again, the shock of disbelief is accompanied by a sickening familiarity. This is not the first time a man with a weapon has shattered the lives of families in peaceful communities and unsettled the promise of comfort everywhere.

Not in Aurora, Colo. Not in Montreal. Not in Toronto.



We ask again, what could lead a man to rage at the world so violently, and we ask again how someone could be filled with such hate. It has now come to light that Wade Page was active in a musical subculture known as ‘hatecore.’

Could music — the ‘food of love’ with ‘charms to soothe a savage breast’ — have the power to foster this malignancy?

Hatecore grew out of a post-punk musical trend known as ‘Oi!.’ This music was characterized by simple but strident musical textures and lyrics espousing anti-establishment views.

“The wankers try to put us down/But we will smash them in,” goes the Cockney Rejects’ 1980 song which lent its name to the genre.

The brash nihilism of Oi! had its appeals beyond the shores of Thatcherite England, especially among working class white supremacists. It was Canadian George Burdi who founded Resistance Records in Windsor, Ont., in 1993. Though no longer in his hands, the label is still one of the largest producers and distributers of hate music in the world.

Original hatecore labels now record a surprisingly diverse range of genres, from hardcore metal to bluegrass. But this musical community remains united by lyrics which promote hatred of non-white racial groups. They consume the music away from the public eye — online, at home and at small festival gatherings on private land.

An Aug. 8 op-ed in the New York Times by sociologist Robert Futrell and criminologist Pete Simi (The Sound of Hate) highlights white supremacists’ canny use of music as propaganda, “having grasped the medium’s capacity to bring adherents together into shared experiences and sustain communities anchored in Aryan ideology.” Whether connecting disaffected young men to the community through their iPod headphones or bringing them together through the exhilaration of live performance, music seems to have the strange ability to hold people in thrall of a hateful ideology.

Western art music — ‘classical music’ — has similarly been complicit in fostering racial animus.

This fall, I am teaching a seminar on 19th-century music; Wagner is inevitably on the syllabus. He is a figure you simply cannot avoid. His music remains wildly popular, encouraging a kind of near-religious devotion among its admirers. As a historical figure he had an enormous influence on European composers of the later-19th century.

But Wagner’s beliefs make his music uncomfortable to appreciate.

He was an avowed anti-Semite who promoted notions of racial purity — notions which invade his operatic works in coded but still significant ways. After his death, Wagner’s own Bayreuth Festival Theatre barred many Jewish performers from its productions. This year, on the lawn outside the storied theatre, placards detail the lives of musicians persecuted under Bayreuth’s pre-Second World War racist policies, including many murdered during the Holocaust. In some unfortunate timing, the intended star of this summer’s production of The Flying Dutchman (Russian Evgeny Nikitin) was fired at the last minute when it was discovered he sported a swastika tattoo on his chest — a reminder of his rebellious youth in a Russian metal band.

While tattoos, festivals and record labels might promote hate, it is still unclear if music itself may do so. In the classroom, students often disagree with the idea that music can promote an ideology. Like the argument for unrestricted gun use, many propose that it is not the music, but the context that matters. Music does not hate people, people hate people. This value-neutral opinion of music sustained much scholarship in the 20th century, allowing musicologists to teach Wagner without guilt.

However, the last 25 years have witnessed a significant change, with scholars eagerly embracing more critical methods which expose music’s sometimes unsightly underbelly.

More recently, neuroscientists have played a central role in investigating the power of music by studying its effects on the brain. But all too often this mode of scholarship concentrates on the seemingly positive effects of music — the ways in which it can reduce stress and promote a sense of belonging.

Listening and playing to music releases oxytocin, we are told, which lessens anxiety and increases empathy.

Many pieces of music may indeed have this effect. But we must be careful not to think that music is any organized arrangement of notes. Music is not a static entity, but dramatic experience that conveys meaning over time. Music can manipulate in powerful and often subtle ways. If you’ve ever cried during a Folgers commercial, you may have some sense of this.

That is why it is so important to continue to ask difficult questions about music in the classroom, not only at the university level, but even during our earliest experiences with music education.

I have nothing wise to share with students about the relationship between music and violence. Future tragedies cannot be prevented by simply eliminating certain kinds of music, even if such a thing were possible. But by seeking to understand how music tells us to feel, we might come closer to understanding how humans are capable of bringing such beauty and such destruction into our world.

And in that understanding, we may find some solace.

Until then, we are reminded once again that for all its beauty, music has the power, as John Dryden put it, to “swell the soul to rage.”

Keith Johnston is a sessional lecturer in the Don Wright Faculty of Music.