Music and the Elusive Revolution: Cultural Politics and Political Culture in France, 1968-1981

Music and the Elusive Revolution: Cultural Politics and Political Culture in France, 1968-1981

by Eric Drott

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Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In May 1968, France teetered on the brink of revolution as a series of student protests spiraled into the largest general strike the country has ever known. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In the forty years since, May ’68 has come to occupy a singular place in the modern political imagination, not just in France but across the world. Eric Drott examines the social, political, and cultural effects of May ’68 on a wide variety of music in France, from the initial shock of 1968 through the “long” 1970s and the election of Mitterrand and the socialists in 1981. Drott’s detailed account of how diverse music communities developed in response to 1968 and his pathbreaking reflections on the nature and significance of musical genre come together to provide insights into the relationships that link music, identity, and politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520268975
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/02/2011
Series: California Studies in 20th-Century Music , #12
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Eric Drott is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Texas.

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Music and the Elusive Revolution

Cultural Politics and Political Culture in France, 1968â?"1981

By Eric Drott


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95008-5


Music and May '68

Our October Revolution was a night in May, comrades
A night in May when we built barricades
To fight repression and cultural degradation,
And to create a new society.
—Anonymous, "Le chant des barricades" (May–June 1968)

Knowledge is finished. Culture today consists of speaking out. —Striking worker outside the department store La Samaritaine (May 1968)

On Friday, 3 May 1968, at one o'clock in the afternoon, approximately four hundred students gathered in the courtyard of the Sorbonne in Paris. They had come to protest the closure of the Nanterre campus of the Université de Paris following a series of disturbances, as well as the threatened expulsion of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven other members of the Mouvement du 22 mars group for their role in stoking student unrest. The gathering in the Sorbonne followed a well-rehearsed pattern, another in the series of political rallies staged by student militants in recent months, protesting everything from American involvement in Vietnam to the government's planned restructuring of the French university system. After speeches condemning the administration's actions, the meeting drew to a close, its organizers announcing that another demonstration would take place the following Monday. The crowd began to disperse. But by 2 p.m. a few hundred students had reassembled in the courtyard, spurred by rumors that the neofascist youth group Occident was planning to confront the students as they left. With far-right students marching in the streets just outside the Sorbonne, and an assortment of anarchist, Trotskyist, and Maoist militants milling about inside its walls, the university administration feared a violent clash was imminent. Jean Roche, the rector of the Sorbonne, decided to cancel courses for the rest of the day and to call in security forces. By 4:30 p.m. the police had arrived and began forcing students off the premises, ushering them onto the rue de la Sorbonne. The students had been assured that they would be able to leave freely, but upon exiting the university, they found themselves shepherded into police vans. The actions of the police only served to inflame an already fraught situation. Incensed by the sight of their peers being led away en masse by the police for no apparent reason, students and other bystanders on the streets outside the Sorbonne grew agitated. Shouts of "free our comrades" and "the Sorbonne to the students" welled up from the crowd. Some tried to bar the way of the vans; others started to hurl loose paving stones at the police. The police responded by charging the assembled crowd and throwing canisters of teargas into their midst. By 8 p.m. the situation had exploded, as approximately two thousand students flooded the boulevard Saint Michel to protest the police's "occupation" of the Latin Quarter.

The drama that unfolded over the next four weeks marked the most serious political crisis that the French Fifth Republic has faced. Within a week protests against police repression had grown in both size and intensity. On 7 May, some twenty thousand protestors marched through the streets of Paris. By 10 May, the "Night of the Barricades," the Latin Quarter had turned into a site of low-level street fighting between police and youth, with barricades erected in the streets across the fifth arrondissement. Parallels began to be drawn in the media to other flashpoints in French history, most notably 1789 and the Paris Commune. These parallels were strengthened by the exponential growth of the movement. A one-day strike called by the major trade unions swelled the ranks of protestors. One million people were alleged to have participated in the march through Paris that took place on 13 May, the day of the strike and, ironically, the tenth anniversary of de Gaulle's accession to power. But the most remarkable development came during the second week of the uprising, when wildcat strikes broke out across France. Inspired by the students' occupation of the Sorbonne (itself precipitated by the government's decision to withdraw police from the university on 13 May), workers seized control of factories throughout the country.

By the beginning of the third week of May, the country's economy had come to a virtual standstill. Public transport, telephone services, gasoline and food deliveries, and other critical services functioned sporadically, if at all. Although estimates vary, around nine million people were reported to have gone on strike, making it the largest work stoppage in France's history. The sense that the country was teetering on the brink of revolution was made all the more palpable on 27 May by the refusal of the union rank and file to accept the Grenelle accords, the wage and workplace concessions that trade unions had extracted from government and industry representatives. Not only had de Gaulle's government been overtaken by events; so too had the nominal representatives of the working classes. In less than a month the field of political possibility had opened up in a way that would have been inconceivable just four weeks earlier. Doubts that de Gaulle's government would survive were widespread. And if it did fall, what would take its place? A new government, led by a coalition of left-wing parties? A new constitution and a new republic, the third in two decades? The replacement of a Republican system of government with one based on the principles of direct democracy? Or the imposition of Communist rule?

That none of these outcomes came to pass has done little to rob the memory of May '68 of its force. That de Gaulle managed to hold onto power in spite of everything has only served to mythologize the May events. Unburdened by the consequences that would have ensued had the government actually toppled, the student-worker uprising of 1968 has been able to retain the magical allure of pure possibility. Yet there were other peculiarities that explain the continuing fascination that the May events exercise. Among these was the fact that such a sweeping challenge to the status quo could have materialized in conditions that, by all appearances, were hardly conducive to social unrest. France at the beginning of 1968 was, in the eyes of most observers, a peaceful and prosperous country, in the midst of an unprecedented economic expansion. Les trente glorieuses—the thirty years of growth that extended from the end of World War II to the oil shock of 1973—had promised to bring to an end the gaping disparities that had long fueled social strife in France. Increasing disposable income, the spread of credit, and an influx of consumer goods had improved the standard of living for a sizable fraction of the French populace. Politically, the country seemed to be moving past the bitter conflicts of the 1950s and early 1960s. The cold war tensions that had brought about the dismissal of the Communist ministers from the government in 1947 and that had led to the marginalization of the Parti communiste français (PCF) during the 1950s had receded. More significantly, the wounds opened by decolonization—and by the Algerian War of Independence in particular—seemed more or less healed by the late 1960s. The Battle of Algiers, the collapse of the Fourth Republic, the generals' putsch of April 1961, the massacre of Algerian nationals in October 1961, the death of antiwar demonstrators at the Charonne métro station in February 1962—such painful memories could now be forgotten. Or, if not forgotten, then at least repressed.

By contrast, France in 1968 appeared tranquil, perhaps even a little "bored," as one commentator famously put it. Within this context, the uprising of May and June 1968 could only have seemed an unanticipated event, an explosion without cause or explanation. This, to be sure, was a misrepresentation, one that ignored signs of growing disaffection in the months leading up to May. As Kristin Ross has observed, May "was not ... a kind of meteorological accident arising out of unforeseen planetary conjunctures or, as in the oft-heard cliché, 'the thunderclap in the middle of a serene sky.'" University students, for their part, had legitimate complaints about the state of the French educational system. The postwar baby boom had increased the student population faster than institutions could keep pace, leading to overcrowding, a high student-to-teacher ratio, and dissatisfaction with outdated teaching methods. Making matters worse was the government's proposal to render university admissions more selective in an effort to reduce the pressure on an already overburdened system. To many, such measures represented a step backward, a return to the bad old days when a university education was the preserve of a social elite. For members of the working class, the principal grievance lay in the inequitable distribution of France's postwar prosperity. Despite claims that France was on its way to becoming a "consumer society," this was true for only certain strata of French society. Most members of the working class remained trapped in low-wage jobs with little hope of social advancement. As of 1967, 40 percent of the population made 1,800 francs a year or less. The situation was even worse for the immigrants who made up the bulk of the unskilled and semiskilled workforce. They had to contend not only with low wages but also with shockingly poor living conditions: many still lived in bidonvilles, ramshackle shantytowns, while others took shifts renting out beds from so-called marchands de sommeil (sleep merchants). Such inequalities in education, income, and life chances provided the fuel that would feed the protests and general strike of May and June 1968.

Yet if the belief that May '68 came out of nowhere was not entirely accurate, it has proven durable, firing the imagination of the left in the decades since 1968. For if such a revolt could arise in an advanced capitalist economy, during a period of economic expansion and full employment, it could occur at anytime, anywhere. At the same time, the fact that the revolt spread from the university milieu to the industrial sector set May '68 apart from other social movements of the same period. Unlike contemporaneous upheavals sweeping the United States, Japan, Mexico, and Germany, the uprising of May '68 was not strictly a youth phenomenon. On the contrary, a common front emerged uniting French students and workers, fragile and short-lived though it may have been. Indeed, it was the conjunction of these previously separated sites of social struggle, the university campus and the factory shop floor, that was the most destabilizing aspect of the May movement. The one seemed to feed off the other, with students borrowing tactics from past labor struggles (most notably that of workplace occupation), which were then revived by striking workers in turn.

But while the explosive character of May '68 explains much of its continuing fascination, one must look elsewhere, to the domain of culture, to fully comprehend the mystique that suffuses its memory. The conjugation of the political and the cultural took two contrasting forms. On the one hand, culture and creativity were conceived as resources that the movement could draw upon in refashioning social relations. It was not just that various artistic media were put to work by the movement for the purposes of propaganda (though this was certainly the case: the posters produced by the students at the Atelier populaire in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were but the most notable examples of this tendency). Rather, the slogans, chants, wall inscriptions, and tracts that proliferated during the events bore witness to a belief that creative expression possessed a more profound function, that of nourishing the movement's utopian aspirations. Graffiti declaring "all power to the imagination," that "poetry is in the streets," concisely expressed the role accorded to cultural production as a force for personal and social liberation. On the other hand, culture itself became the object of contestation. The function of art in modern society was indicted on a number of counts: for its role in perpetuating social divisions, in transmitting hegemonic values, and in distracting individuals from political activism. Such polemics at their most virulent echoed avant-gardiste calls to eliminate art as a separate category of social life. It was here that the influence of the situationist movement was most clearly felt during May. For every inscription extolling the power of the imagination, one could find others that warned against the distortions wrought by art: "Culture is the inversion of life," "Art is dead, let us free our daily life," or, blunter still, "Art is shit." It was not the content of art that was challenged so much as its very existence.

No less than other art forms, music was drawn into debates about culture's role in political struggle. But music's engagement in the movement took more prosaic forms as well. As the scope of the work stoppage widened during the second half of May, musicians of all stripes joined the strike. Just as factories and universities had been occupied by workers and students, so too were concert halls and conservatories. And, as in the case of so many professions, the musical field undertook a thoroughgoing self-examination during the course of the revolt. General assemblies were held at which the role of music in society was debated, professionals and nonprofessionals exchanged ideas on what its function in the new society should be, and proposals for the democratization of musical culture were advanced. And yet for all this ferment, music remained strangely at the margins of les événements. Compared to the theater, cinema, and visual arts, the sites of dramatic and widely publicized interventions such as the États généraux du cinéma and the occupation of the Odéon theater, the actions undertaken within the musical sphere unfolded in the background, more or less invisible in accounts of the uprising. To a certain extent this was due to the nature of musicians' participation in the movement: by going on strike, performers brought musical production to a standstill, silencing their voices at the precise moment when others were clamoring to be heard. But music's marginal position in the May events was also due to the equivocal manner in which performers and composers responded to the crisis. Musicians' unions were particularly susceptible to the sort of charges gauchistes leveled at the institutional left: that far from wishing to bring about radical change to French society, they were chiefly concerned with furthering their own interests.

Yet to say that music's place within the May movement was marginal, especially relative to other forms of "cultural agitation," is not to say that it was either absent from or irrelevant to the events. As noted in the introduction, benefit concerts were held in occupied factories to entertain striking workers, the sounds of jazz (and free jazz in particular) accompanied the uprising at key moments, and, most notably, "The Internationale" was embraced by students as a symbol of their political aspirations. But even here, what might be described as the "problem" of music's role in May '68 is evident. Although the appropriation of "The Internationale" by young protestors was a multivalent gesture, its meaning dependent upon one's social position, it nonetheless signaled a significant lack within the political culture of the left, as well as French youth culture. Without a repertoire of contemporary political songs that they could draw upon, without a defined sub- or counterculture by means of which they could signify their resistance to dominant culture, French youth had to reach back to a century-old mainstay of the workers' movement to voice their opposition. "Clearly the movement was a little short on songs," music critic Jacques Vassal observed a few years afterward, noting that it was thus "reduced to pulling out the 'classics' of previous insurrections." Even if the adoption of "The Internationale" represented what Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison call the "mobilization of tradition"—a way of using song to link past and present struggles—the fact that a song dating back to the Paris Commune, rather than something more current or topical, became the primary musical touchstone for the movement demands reflection. The same holds for the ambiguous role played by musicians in the movement. Their marginal position within the uprising and general strike not only reveals something about the place that music occupied in the French cultural and social landscapes during the late 1960s; it also points to the endurance of longstanding beliefs concerning the relationship between art and society, and the role of these beliefs in enabling—or disabling—musicians' ability to conceive of themselves as political actors.


Excerpted from Music and the Elusive Revolution by Eric Drott. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Music and May ’68
2. Genre and Musical Representations of May
3. Free Jazz in France
4. La Cause du Pop
5. Contemporary Music, Animation, and Cultural Democratization


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