Academic journal article China Perspectives

"Do You Hear the People Sing" "Lift Your Umbrella"?: Understanding Hong Kong's Pro-Democratic Umbrella Movement through YouTube Music Videos

Academic journal article China Perspectives

"Do You Hear the People Sing" "Lift Your Umbrella"?: Understanding Hong Kong's Pro-Democratic Umbrella Movement through YouTube Music Videos

Article excerpt

In autumn 2014, the international media's attention shifted to Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of young people occupied the streets demanding democratic reform. In particular, the power of the pictures that were spread by means of TV, Internet, and newspapers created a strong sense of the protests, which are usually referred to as the "Umbrella Movement" (UM). Among the most remarkable images were the innumerable young protesters waiving illuminated cell phones. In many instances, this was accompanied by the singing of protest songs. (1) Both the sound of the young people singing as well as the images televised from Admiralty district in the heart of Hong Kong conveyed the peaceful character of the occupation as well as creating a sense of the young people's power given their sheer numbers and solidarity. No question, these pictures have helped form a favourable world opinion and global admiration for the UM. Beyond this external impact, the internal experience of being part of a huge and powerful social movement was also boosted by the crowds' voluminous sound and impressive imagery. Since the power of imagery in Hong Kong's protests is a topic discussed elsewhere at length, (2) this article focuses on the importance of the songs.

Mobilising tradition through music

Existing social science research has pointed out that art in general and music in particular are of enormous importance for social movements in several respects:

Singing is not only a peaceful protest tactic but clearly one of the most widespread ones. Furthermore, songs provide popular singers with a chance to demonstrate their support for a protest movement, which secures public attention and helps strengthen social movements.

However, singing protest songs is not only a peaceful, risk-averse, and entertaining protest technique, but also inherits the mobilising force of both physical and material support by mobilising demonstrators and resources. (3) This is because music serves protest movements by putting across their demands, framing their agenda, and make sense of it. (4)Why is that the case?

On a very general basis, Jeremy Gilbert has argued:

Sound vibrations are registered by parts of the body which do not register changes in vibrations of light. Music has physical effects which can be identified, described and discussed but which are not the same thing as it having meanings, and any attempt to understand how music works in culture must, as many commentators over the years have acknowledged, be able to say something about those effects without trying to collapse them into meanings. (5)

This is not to say that music carries no meaning: while its social context as well as visual and linguistic codes of songs express meaning that can be verbalised, the musical sound consisting of tone, rhythm, timbre, etc. carries an affective dimension derived from the irreducible materiality of the music itself. (6) In other words, a song does not necessarily have to be explicitly "about" a specific topic but may deliver social and political impact if people feel that it expresses their hardship. Songs are more than intellectually stimulating texts; they help to create emotions stimulating an atmosphere of community and solidarity that very often draws on the power of utopia and stimulates people to dream. (7)

Scientific studies have confirmed that music stimulates emotions: structural factors of the music itself as well as the performance, characteristics of the audience, and its motivation make music not only an expression but also a cause of emotions. Among structural factors are the tempo, mode, loudness, melody, and rhythm of music, which contribute to the induction of different emotions. The appraisal of music, empathy with the performers, proprioceptive feedback to rhythm, and memory induced by music are the major "pathways" that transform music into emotions. (8) To this paper, the role of memory in particular is of crucial importance (see below). …

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