Song of the week: or, ten reasons why popular music helps in teaching nationalism

One course I took over at UCL SSEES this year was the postgraduate nationalism unit, Nations, Identity and Power in Central and Eastern Europe, where students get to grips with theories of nationalism and apply it to case studies from the region.

At some point while revising the syllabus, I realised practically every topic could match up with a pop song from the region, and then starting every lecture with a clip from YouTube was inevitable.

This also illustrates why one of the things I write about is popular music and nationalism.

1. Theories of origins

The classic debate in nationalism studies is between primordialism (nations go back to time immemorial) and modernism (nations only emerged because of industrialisation, or the bureaucratic state, or mass literacy, or many other flavours of the same argument).

So here is a very knowing performance of primordialism.

2. What makes the nation? / Ethnicity

Nationalism research has traditionally liked to typologise: nations have a shared language, a shared history, a myth of common descent, shared symbols, shared values, a national homeland, and so on. (More recent research often talks about processes of identification, inclusion and exclusion rather than typologising; I find this more interesting, but it’s harder to represent.)

Here are surely all the signifiers that one could want.

(Warning: I am told this is a bit of an earworm.)

3. States, peoples and sovereignty in modernity

The territory and state power week. (If it had been a longer course, I’d have liked a week just on territory; political geography is interesting.) Illustrated with a song from the presidential re-election campaign of Vladimir Putin, where it was useful for him to suggest that he exerts more power over more territory than anyone else.

There’s also a documentary on the song by PBS.

4. Imagining and inventing the nation

The Invention of Tradition (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s collection) and Imagined Communities (Benedict Anderson) both came out in 1983 and have been taught together ever since as part of a cultural, social constructivist turn in nationalism studies.

By using this video, I wanted to show how the video was imagining a national Croatian homeland (which, importantly, also contains images of Herzegovina, beyond the borders of the actual Croatian state).

5. Social construction, symbolic boundaries and the everyday

The next turn in nationalism studies has been to explore how nationalism manifests in the everyday, through symbols of nationhood that get routinised into everyday life. Flags, currency, national festivals, television news and even the weather forecast (those things have maps) are all part of this, but one of the most productive ways to research this has been to look at sport.

This, by one of Slovenia’s biggest rock bands, was the Slovenian football association’s official song for the 2010 World Cup. Rock has its own part to play in Slovenian national identity, but that would be another post.

6. Nations in communism and post-communism

Communism and nationalism had an uneasy relationship. Two collective ideologies, each based on a different kind of collective; yet communist rule could also be argued to have strengthened nationalist movements or even created proto-national institutions where none had existed before.

One of the best-known pop songs in socialist Yugoslavia was this song in honour of Tito. Containing many symbols of the Yugoslav state, but is there any trace of a Yugoslav nation?

7. National minorities and the politics of belonging

Another week I’d like to have split into two on a longer course: liberal nationalism, cosmopolitanism and the idea of minority rights is a lot. I delivered this lecture as a podcast, so didn’t add a song, but during the seminars one student suggested this song, Djelem, djelem, which has often been used as the Roma anthem, and works better here than anything I’d been thinking of using before.

8. Gender, sexualities and the nation

This was a difficult week to structure: the theoretical material may be completely new to some students yet very familiar to others, plus there’s region-specific literature on gender and post-socialism to integrate.

Territory, soil, motherhood, unique national symbols, rebirth, common descent, national enemies, food cultures, teleology: this song is a revision guide of its own.

I visited an Armenian restaurant in Montreal last month and was disappointed that nothing on the menu contained apricots.

9. Representation, power and hegemony

This week was one of my two main innovations in the syllabus, and brought in several theorists I felt were essential to understanding nationalism in the contemporary world (Edward Said, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy). Said’s theory of Orientalism has been a jumping-off point for a lot of work on identity construction in south-east European cultural studies, from Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden onwards; Hall’s work on hegemonic representations of the national Other complements or informs the work on symbolic boundaries that we’d been using throughout the course; Gilroy is used far less in researching CEE, but I want to explore whether his version of postcolonial thought could add anything that Said doesn’t.

So, yes. Orientalism, and what Dina Iordanova calls ‘self-orientalising’. Here is some.

10. Citizenship, borders and surveillance

Watch Kali: Shengen

This was my other new topic (at least, it wasn’t on the version of the syllabus I worked from), and the one I most enjoyed putting together: identity, power, the nation, sovereignty, the body, territory and the state all come together in the literature on immigration policy, mobility and border control. It’s also a great way to illustrate post-structuralist theories of power, and ‘region-specifically’ there’s much to explore in the expansion of the EU’s Schengen area and the simultaneous exclusion of non-EU states. (Stef Jansen has an excellent article on this, and is also excellent at open access, happily.)

What I did not enjoy was trying to source this video. The original mix of the song has a slapstick comedy video of stock Bulgarian figures (businessman, country woman, etc.) trying to limbo dance under a Schengen barrier staffed by Laurel-and-Hardy EU guards. I downloaded it from eSnips in case the streaming wouldn’t work in class, only for the downloaded file to decide that it didn’t want to work in class either. YouTube has a remix with no original visuals. Google now kindly throws up a streamable version of the original mix with the video, which is what I was looking for all along.

And now some thanks!

Thanks to Richard Mole and Oliwia Berdak for earlier versions of this syllabus. I moved almost everything around, with large doses of ‘I wish I’d known this when I was a postgraduate’, and of course the syllabi for future students will be different too, but if there’s still a presence of Croatian folk/rock or Albanian rap – yes, that was my fault.

Thanks to all the students on NIP this year. The instant-feedback cards I use in lectures are anonymous, so I don’t know who told me after the first lecture that there had also been a Eurovision song called ‘I Love Belarus’, but there was indeed.

Thanks to Laura Seay/@texasinafrica on Twitter for indirectly giving me a prod to do this.