Is it possible to sing of the financial crisis without political investment? Are there songs referred to the crisis which are not “protest songs” or “anthems” for some sort of social commitment or conscience, which express no disaffection or anger or defensiveness or anxiety or desire for change?
Consider ‘The Euro Crisis Song’.
This was produced by the Guardian and NYU Studio 20, released in July 2011. Along with the lyrics you will find the credits – graduates of NYU Studio 20, notably David Holmes and Andrew Bean. Earlier that year they had released a similar popular music video, ‘The Fracking Song’, and launched the company Explainer Music LLC. The Euro Crisis song is an example of what they mean by “explainer music”; according to their company’s website: “What is an explainer? A basic explainer provides a short yet detailed introduction to a much larger and complicated subject.”
Let’s try to clarify the impetus behind this song.
(a) Ostensibly it is meant to inform and educate a passive and ignorant audience. It is informative for that consumer base of, say, a media corporation like the Guardian which is curious from a distance. The Guardian promoted the song thus: “are you still struggling to understand how we got here? To help you out, we present The Euro Crisis Song.” In a didactic spirit, they also provided an incentive to get their consumers involved: “Can you do better? Send us your own musical responses to the euro crisis […]. It can be satirical or serious, musical or unmusical (but suitable for a family audience, please).” The didactic spirit was in tune with having Studio 20 of New York University, with its graduate journalism programmes, as co-producer. So, the song could also pass as an educational resource: it could perhaps be used as a teaching tool in courses on the financial crisis. In brief, this song is presented by a news corp and a university as a pedagogic and informational resource backed by their authority: it is seemingly the voice of the informed singing for the ears of the uninformed; cognoscenti pronouncing sound knowledge for the benefit of the ignoranti. To what effect it works as such can only be unpacked by looking closely at the content – on which a few thoughts later.
(b) It is fairly obviously useful as a brand building device for the Guardian and NYU Studio 20. For the former, its brand is thus associated not merely with providing news, but also with proactively engaging its consumer base and nurturing creativity. For the latter, this product is not so much about explaining-the-crisis as about demonstrating-what-our-students-can-do – good for recruitment and raising donations, in which the private “not-for-profit” NYU is splendidly successful. So, for both, the Euro Crisis Song is a vehicle for promotional advertising.
(c) More covertly, for Explainer Music LLC this is a mode of demonstrating publicity potential and recruiting clients and informing interested parties of their product. Their website offers to make such “explainer music” videos for the promotional purposes of commercial firms and not-for-profit organizations (offering to help the latter with fund-raising) which use their for-profit services. This video features as an example of the kind of product on offer on their website. Those who may chance upon this in the internet because of curiosity about the financial crisis in Europe – a large number of people – may unsuspectingly find themselves impressed with the product. If there’s evidence of sufficient numbers being drawn to it that shows that the publicity device works for potential commercial clients of Explainer Music LLC; and perhaps some of the unwittingly impressed will themselves turn out to be clients. So, for Explainer Music LLC, the Euro Crisis Song is a vehicle for ambient advertising.
But what of the explanation offered by The Euro Crisis Song with such authority -- its content? The video has three related elements – lyric, music, and graphic – which can be considered by turn, with increasing attention towards their relation to each other.
(a) Lyric: The lyrics here are given with colour coding: blue for solo-voice, giving the story (often different voices coming in and out); red for choric voices, particularly refrains; and green for what sound like solo-voiced quotations, as from a news report. The lyrics present an interesting paradox: a demonstration of how to depoliticize the implicitly political. Several strategies work to that end.
(b) Music: 1970s style disco, with reverberated voices and syncopated beats. The music refers to an immediately recognizable tradition with immediate associations: designed not so much to be listened to as to be performed with – danced to. The music then doesn’t express the lyrics, is at odds with the lyrics; rather, it is a means for making the jaded “we” respond to the beat of the patter, get involved in the entertainment on offer, despite the lyrics. That is, the music caters to the “we” that moves to the beat in a discotheque without feeling oppressed by the Euro Crisis, well outside it all, but secure in the feeling that “we” know all about it.
(c) Graphic: These appear to accentuate the lyrics since they consist mainly in reeling off the words on screen, untrammelled by the interference of images of, say, the “Strikes and riots causing Athens to burn” which are mentioned. But the visual display of words comes with heightened affect to accentuate the disco beat at the same time, with psychedelic colouring and beat-synchronised flashing reminiscent of discotheques – to arouse the jaded “we” and help them get high. In a way, the graphics remind of artist Christian Marclay’s Surround Sounds installation (2014-15); but whereas Marclay’s work is a reflection on pop culture aesthetics, the graphics of the Euro Crisis Song are pop culture aesthetics in commodity form. The heightened visual quality of the words dumb down their meanings and implications, make them aurally thump and visually flare like spirited ritual incantation.
And there we have it: the financial crisis in the EU transformed into the product Euro Crisis Song, for the entertainment and gratification of jaded (“we”) consumers of pop culture, as a vehicle for promotional and ambient advertising, in the service of brand building.
Suman Gupta, February 2015