Every fourth of July, people across the United States are bombarded with the pageantry of patriotism. From the cracking of fireworks to the clamor of parades, to the sizzle of grilled meats, senses are pushed to delight in the trappings of a “Great Nation.” The festivities are always heralded by brilliant fanfares of marching bands. The winds and brass, each instrument section wildly different in color, create an irrepressible cluster of cacophonous pep, all somehow forced into strict formation by curt, martial drum beats. Law, order, and a common goal unify the disparate timbres and make the garish decadence seem entirely reasonable and practical. Bands are essential to American national myth-making which is never more obvious than on the fourth of July.
The Daily Propaganda of Aesthetics
Bands and other musical ensembles in the military play the role of Independence Day marching bands year-round. They use music and heavy-handed symbolism to manufacture support for wars and U.S. imperialism more broadly. Though they might seem like a mere ornamental afterthought within the giant machine that is the U.S. military, bands are actually quite important. One Air Force Band officer explained the significance of touring military ensembles saying, “For a lot of these people, it leaves a really lasting, positive impression of our country and our military. It’s hard to put a value on that.”1https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/us/military-bands-budget.html Hard though it may be, the government has put that value at around $437 million a year, nearly three times the budget of the entire National Endowment for the Arts.2https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/us/military-bands-budget.html
So how do military bands live up to their exorbitant price tag? In part, they are an homage to the bugles and fife and drum bands that used to play a direct role in training and combat, keeping troops synchronized and spirits up. Maintaining the memory of this and other aesthetic traditions harkens back to a familiar story of a simple, unified American past, one most residents of the U.S. have been inundated with since kindergarten. The military band is synonymous with “We fight for democracy,” and “With Liberty and Justice for All.” The underlying context is the simple and too easy feeling that “we’re the good guys.” Indeed, music is incredibly effective at stirring up emotions in the listener, and military music is composed specifically in order to create patriotic enthusiasm; it is a form of propaganda rendered even more effective because it is wordless and conjures only suggestions and nascent ideas.
However, this classic, nostalgic, red-white-and-blue marching band patriotism is only so effective on its own. The military has also figured out how to use musicians to modernize. One of the greatest benefits of military bands, according to their proponents, is their capacity for diplomacy and their ability to spread “American music.”
To this end, there are many ensembles within the military or the State Department that play non-classical music, including jazz, rock, bluegrass, gospel, and zydeco. This practice began in the late 1940’s, when the State Department started hiring prominent jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman to play around the world as a form of P.R. for the nation during the early years of the Cold War.3https://www.ausa.org/publications/keeping-peace-different-drum-note-military-music
The use of popular and folk music traditions to give U.S. imperialism a friendly, relatable veneer has continued. In 2015, Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience went on a State Department-sponsored tour of Russia. According to the group’s website, specific rural locations were chosen to combat the “negative portrayal of Americans and American government” in Russian media.4http://www.terrancesimien.com/united-states-department-of-statethe-urals-russia/ In addition, The U.S. Army Blues, a jazz group, regularly performs as part of the Army’s “Twilight Tattoo.” This series is a propaganda project put on for tourists in Washington D.C. that explains and justifies U.S. involvement in both historical and ongoing conflicts.5https://twilight.mdw.army.mil/
Clearly, the intent of projects like these is to use popular and folk music to humanize the U.S. government and armed forces, and to draw attention away from the material impact of military interventions. Like the musical “Hamilton,” these groups take a popular artform, and repurpose it to whitewash history and reaffirm false ideas of American unity and virtue.
These types of music were born out of working-class communities, most with distinctly Black roots and histories full of radical responses to domination. The U.S. government claiming ownership over these forms of music, rebranding them as patriotically American, and using them to justify imperialist violence, is an affront to the spirit in which they were created, and very often a crass exploitation of Black trauma. Powerful artistic tools for expressions of rage and yearning towards self-determination have been integrated as yet another weapon in the arsenal of the state.
Another way the military uses its musicians is similar to the purpose served by any orchestra or professional music ensemble in the private sector: as a class signifier. Music performed at a high level, especially classical music, allows individuals and institutions to broadcast their wealth, sophistication, and membership in a higher echelon of society. Military bands often function as state-sponsored ways for service members and government officials to do just that. Generally, low-ranked service members have a single bugler play at their funeral, or just a recording of a bugler, while funerals for higher-ranking officers have a full military band perform.
Military bands can even demonstrate status for elected officials outside of the military. According to Representative Betty McCullum, a Minnesota Congresswoman who has criticized government spending on military bands, “They were doing general P.R., and often the events weren’t even open to the public. A lot of it was community events where a member of Congress could call up and say send us a military band.”6https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/us/military-bands-budget.html These bands act as personal class signifiers on hand for legislators who increase military spending.
Meanwhile, symphonic orchestras in the private sector are drastically underfunded. In 2017, orchestra spending totaled $2.1 billion, covering 1,600 orchestras and 160,000 musicians across the country.7https://americanorchestras.org/orchestras-at-a-glance/ This comes to an average of $1,312,500 per orchestra and a paltry $13,125 per musician, about a third of the mean annual spending for military bands and musicians. Two thirds of orchestras in the U.S. have a budget of $300,000 or less. Even if 100% of this were to go into musicians’ paychecks, this would not be nearly enough to give each member a living wage for two months.
Many orchestras have had to reduce the number of weeks of guaranteed work for musicians. Even among the most well-funded, top-tier institutions, only a precious few offer full-year contracts. Musicians used to be able to get through the dry seasons for orchestras and live performance gigs by relying on residuals from recordings. However, these days, recording work is becoming more scarce, and large studios like Disney are paying musicians far beneath their share of residuals on streaming content.8https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2019-11-25/musicians-strike-deal-studio-streaming-services
There are, of course, class distinctions among musicians themselves. Classical music is an expensive hobby, and seriously pursuing a career playing a classical instrument generally requires years of support from wealthy parents, generous patrons, huge scholarships, tremendous debt-levels or some combination thereof. Somebody has to pay for instruments, lessons, music school, travel to auditions, etc. Some musicians are able to continue practicing and honing their skills until they win an audition for one of the rare, coveted positions in a top orchestra. However, for musicians without abundant resources and luck, or those whose resources have been completely exhausted by the time they have finished their studies, any job playing their instrument can look very enticing. Thus the manufactured appeal of so many military bands.
For the majority of military bands, members are technically regular recruits, although they will likely only fulfill their service playing music. This means that most musicians recruited by the military go through basic training and could possibly be called into combat while serving. Although it isn’t common for musicians to be required to fight, this is a reserve of additional troops the military has up its sleeve and could use at any time. Due to meager non-military state funding, many musicians struggle to find steady work, let alone a job with a decent salary, housing, and good benefits. It is unsurprising then that many are willing to take risks associated with recruitment, even if they wouldn’t join up under different circumstances.9A few of the highest-level ensembles, like the President’s Own Marine Band, cannot be called into combat. These groups aren’t very different in playing level or salary from the top orchestras in the country, although their primary function is still military propaganda.
As one of the only games in town, military music is set up as an effective marketing and recruiting tool for US imperialism and nationalism at every level. The music itself acts as propaganda to inspire non-musicians to sign up. In addition, the massively funded ensembles promise solid compensation and job security to musicians without many other opportunities. Military officers, government officials, and others in similar positions of power are incentivized to siphon more tax money into military bands, and away from other forms of public arts funding, because they can personally use these bands to solidify and express their own class status. Finally, the military uses large reserves of talented, well-paid musicians to fortify its own facade of legitimacy with the aesthetics of patriotism.
There have always been relatively few opportunities for classical musicians to make a consistent amount of money, but recently, things seem to be reaching a breaking point. Throughout the country, musicians and other art workers are fighting for fair compensation and workers’ rights. Since the Great Recession, a number of major orchestras have gone on strike or faced lockouts while fighting cuts to wages, pensions, and other benefits.10https://thebaffler.com/salvos/strike-with-the-band-wagner The Metropolitan Opera, one of the most well-known classical institutions in the world, didn’t pay any of its workers for almost a year during the pandemic,11https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/arts/music/met-opera-musicians-deal.html hired scabs for a fundraising gala,12https://operawire.com/orchestra-members-fire-back-at-metropolitan-operas-decision-to-hire-non-met-musicians-for-virtual-gala/ enacted pay cuts for the chorus and soloists,13https://apnews.com/article/business-health-coronavirus-pandemic-entertainment-music-544cb41a43c951410adb50b1af57de76 and locked out the unionized stage employees.14https://prospect.org/labor/how-the-met-opera-is-squeezing-its-workers/ The Met orchestra musicians are still in talks with management demanding no pay cuts before the end of their contract on July 31.
Across the street from the Met, students at The Juilliard School, a highly selective training ground for musicians, actors and dancers, recently staged a sit-in demanding the administration freeze tuition for one year. The Socialist Penguins, a student group, organized the action in response to the news that tuition would further increase while so many artists are struggling to survive the rapidly shifting landscape post-pandemic.15https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/features/juilliard-student-artists-protests-1183239/ This level of student-led organizing and action had previously seemed nearly impossible at the small, competition-driven conservatory. However, after a year of unprecedented political momentum and increasingly difficult conditions for artists, a new wave of struggle is developing.
When unchallenged, the political use of state-coopted aesthetics helps further obfuscate the truly bloody nature of the U.S. military. The Washington Post recently reported that, since 2015 in Afghanistan alone, the military has paid $2 million to civilians and families in casualty payments.16https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-military-made-2-million-in-civilian-casualties-payments-over-5-years-in-afghanistan/2020/08/17/cd550af0-d025-11ea-af07-1d058ca137ae_story.html This is despite the fact that it is extremely difficult to apply for and receive these payments, and the military is almost certainly responsible for many more deaths than they officially acknowledge. Beyond its longest standing war, when the U.S. has claimed to be “spreading democracy,” it has actually been murdering civilians, directly fighting or funding coups against democratically elected leaders, and committing or supporting genocide in the form of settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing.
Moving forward, it is vital not to discount the political significance of music and its role in making palatable state violence at home and promoting it abroad. Classical music often expresses and reproduces power for capitalist and state institutions, but this is exactly why it is so important to pay attention to the struggles of musicians and other art workers. And musicians themselves need to look at how their labor is being used, and listen for the politics stated or implied in the art they perform.
When classically-trained artists stop acting as tools for capital and the state, and start building power and solidarity with other workers, they can help pull back an ideological curtain and be powerful assets in the struggle towards liberation. Worsening conditions for classical musicians in the U.S. are increasing political motivations to cut through the smoke and mirrors of patriotic aesthetics.