From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand
Following protest music in twenty-first-century Thailand, tracking songs as they stream from cell phones plugged into motorcycle speakers and flit about the Internet’s vast, unruly underside, requires vigilant attention. It also requires willingness to regularly refresh one’s understanding of musical categories. In the past half-decade, none of the country’s largest political movements—regardless of ideology—have settled on a playlist. Moreover, the same genres, and even the same songs, have been utilized by movements of vastly different viewpoints, increasing the confusion. In the case of recent Thai politics, an ethnomusicological approach that would identify a set of reiterative musical elements that characterize and symbolize a given movement and its political principles has proved inadequate. When it comes to the relationship between music and ideology in Thai politics, chaos reigns.
It is tempting to explain this condition, this lack of aesthetic or symbolic consistency, as a consequence of technology. The speed of modernity, accelerated by tools that promise only to get faster, may in theory overtake the meaningfulness of aesthetics in the political sphere. Perhaps what is old is, a priori, devalued, and as a result, protest music has begun to circulate as if in a popular music industry, its value governed by fashion rather than form. This is worth considering.
It is likewise tempting to suggest that contemporary Thai protest music is an expression of the ethnomusicological principle that musical meaning emerges in performative and interpretive practice rather than in composition (Mukdawijitra 2009; Blacking 1973). This principle explains why, in a different context, Ronald Reagan could use Bruce Springsteen’s ironic and critical anthem “Born in the U.S.A.” as a jingoistic campaign song in the 1980s and why his supporters could hear it as such without contradiction. As powerfully as a listener might identify with the political valences of a song, other valences remain stubbornly possible when a song is filtered by another pair of ears. This is worth considering, too.
The weakness of these two explanations, however, is that they tell us little about Thailand or Thai music as such. A more compelling—if still undertheorized—answer draws on the recent analyses of Nidhi Eoseewong and Tyrell Haberkorn (2014), who argue that the Thai polity has grown more atomized along a path leading perilously toward totalitarianism. On this path, the naked will to power eclipses political philosophy, and Nidhi and Haberkorn argue that the only coherent political agenda becomes atomization, meaning surrender to a set of ideologically vacant signs. In practice, atomization has been marked by a proliferation of “neutral” political symbols, including white shirts, a vacuous category of “good people,” and of course a hot fervor for the monarchy. But neutrality, as Haberkorn notes, is merely a sign that obscures an anti-democratic agenda. The use of this sign is incompatible with dissent but quite compatible with the aims of aspiring power holders, be they politicians, generals, or royals. And neutrality has been, for some time now, among the most potent and common keywords in all of Thai politics. Atomization proceeds apace. It has become harder and harder to figure out who is on the left or right in any conventional sense, only who holds power and who does not.
Neutrality is, arguably, convenient cover for a politics of mercenary ambition. The military junta of 2014, deeply antagonistic to the Shinawatra political clan, nevertheless appointed to its advisory council Somkid Jatusripitak, former deputy prime minister under Thaksin Shinawatra. Additionally, Sondhi Limthongkul, Thaksin’s former business partner and friend, provided momentum for the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin. And Thaksin’s own cabinet, as Kasian Tejapira (2006) has noted, included a number of ex-communists converted to the side of the neoliberal state. Political parties, alliances, and ideology are and have for many years been profoundly malleable within Thai politics. Disturbingly, individual figures often seem unburdened by the weight of any political agenda. Just as there is atomization among the rank-and-file, so too is there among political elites. There are scarcely any ideological bonds in Thai politics today.
The current state of Thai protest music parallels the political scene. Musical form and ideology are not mutually adhesive, allowing genres and gestures to drift. Thus the pleng march form, which arrived with quick tempi and soaring melodies to symbolize a strong and centralized state authority at the height of nationalism, was later adopted fluidly by the anti-military student and agrarian movements of the 1970s. The journey of phleng pheua chiwit, or “songs for life,” has seen even more twists. Inaugurated as a mild imitation of the American folk revival and of 1950s–60s protest songs, songs for life grew into its own as performers like the Gammachon Band, Carabao, and Caravan became key players in the pro-democracy movements of the 1970s. Their music fused Western folk instruments such as acoustic guitars with Thai drums to create a unique texture and featured poetic, minor-key melodies that criticized politicians or sought common cause with the poor. Songs for life was in every sense linked with an emergent left. But by the 2000s, Carabao lead singer Aed Carabao had capitalized on his fame to become a wealthy energy drink magnate, while Caravan lead singer Surachai Jantimathawn had publicly joined the nationalistic Yellow Shirt faction. But it was not only the musicians who had grown conservative. Songs for life itself became the de facto style for the Yellow Shirt movement, even as some (especially older) Red Shirts continued to find inspiration in it. The very first songs for life composition, “Fight, Don’t Retreat,” written in 1973, was also an anthem of the anti-democratic PDRC movement in 2014.
These examples are not anomalous. I suspect that the lack of ideological stickiness in Thai musical genres telegraphs a similar instinct in Thai politics, in which parties and individual power holders stand less on platforms than on their own suzerainty (or potential for such). Might it be that neutrality, understood as a kind of allergy to the alignment of symbol and principle, is endemic in Thailand? Genres like songs for life have remained vibrant because musicians and listeners can—without ethical regret—delink melodies and rhythms from historical circumstance. Genre can be easily recycled, frequently during political events that likewise have a familiar historical ring.
Blacking, John. 1973. How Musical is Man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Haberkorn, Tyrell. 2014. “Hannah Arendt, Nidhi Eoseewong, and the Spectre of Totalitarianism in Thailand.” Asia-Pacific Journal 12, no. 14, article 4.
Kasian Tejapira, 2006. “Toppling Thaksin.” New Left Review 39, May–June.
Yukti Mukdawijitra. 2009. “The Sound of Politics in the Sound of Music,” Siam Rath, March 18, (translated).