“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

Should songs be political? There’s no “should” about it. No one has to insert political content in a song. However, if a songwriter has something to say that could be taken as political, but holds back from doing so out of fear or apprehension, that’s a loss to the musician and the music. Try things out, say what you want to say in the form that suits it best.

But know that others might not take well even to your lighthearted endeavors.

On May 10, Felső Tízezer (Upper Ten Thousand, or Upper Class) released a new song, “Majdnemország,” about how we don’t live out our true beliefs and desires but instead give in to the forces at hand. As a result of this passivity, the song sings, we live in a “majdnemország,” which could be translated as “Almost-Country,” or “Republic of Not Quite” or something along those lines. It could also be a pun on “Majomország” (Monkey-Country), a poem by Sándor Weöres that appears on the Sebő-együttes’s 1986 album Cimbora, a collection of children’s songs and poems.

The song begins,

Majdnemországban élni, ahol nem köszönnek vissza,
ahol az ajtóban megállnak, aztán se jobbra, se balra.
Majdnemországban élni, ahol azt mondják, hogy mindegy,
úgyse tudod megcsinálni, inkább azt csináld, amire kérnek.

A rough translation:

To live in Almost-country, where they don’t return your greeting,
where they halt in the doorway, then go neither right nor left.
To live in Almost-country, where they say it doesn’t matter,
that you can’t do it anyway, so do instead what they ask.

Within a day or so of the song’s appearance on YouTube, nasty comments started pouring in. One after another–from people who didn’t seem to have listened to the song but assumed it was an attack on the country or government. That was what struck me: that the comments were not about the song, and that there were so many of them. A familiar scenario! (Since then, the irrelevant comments have been removed, but the comments about the song itself, including negative comments, have remained.)

I saw no point in responding to those commenters, so I posted an independent comment, in which I praised the bracing quality of the song and suggested that it could apply to many countries, not only Hungary: that it was speaking about the tendency to give in to political, personal, and social systems and orders.

It seems that this comment was on target, because it came up in an interview in ContextUs with two of the band’s members, László Sallai (the band’s frontman and songwriter) and Gallus Balogh (the bassist). The interviewer quoted it, and Sallai said that it came closest to an understanding of the song. (Yes, I am honored! But that is not the point here.)

In the interview they talked about how they like to take different directions with their music instead of always repeating the same thing. Their second album, Majd lesz valahogy, is about relationships, but they went on from there, with A bonyolult világ, to sing about complexities of life more broadly.

When the discussion moved toward political songs, the two had somewhat different things to say. Balogh said that he doesn’t bring politics into his music because for him, music is intimate. But he saw “Majdnemország” as only slightly political and was startled by the reactions. Sallai said that a person should not be afraid of writing about political themes, but he doesn’t blame those who don’t, if it’s not what interests them. He went on to say that the climate today is prohibitive, that musicians lose audiences even because of something they have said outside of the music. Later he spoke of how the large news portals have been giving less and less attention to culture.

It’s a fascinating interview because of the frankness, the ideas, the take on political music and Hungarian life. I agree with Sallai: I don’t think musicians have to be political at all, if it isn’t how they see the world. There’s much more to life and music than politics. But if it is part of what they want to do and say, then they shouldn’t be punished for that. Saying, writing, or singing what you think, even tentatively and playfully, deserves room and more. Until recently, I thought that music in Hungary was a great domain of freedom. Now I see some of the restrictions and censure that musicians face. I am glad that there are people speaking about it.

I added to this piece after posting it and made slight corrections to the translation of the lyrics as well.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has just been published online in Harper’s. It will also appear in the Letters section of the October issue. I consider the contents both urgent and enduring; I am honored to be one of the signers, along with many people I respect and admire (as well as people I disagree with on many issues and people whose work I don’t know).  Please read it carefully and share it widely.

I rarely sign group letters or petitions, but the letter strongly reflected my thoughts and observations, and I saw a need for a statement of this kind–against the recent climate of intolerance and in favor of “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

It is difficult to single out one part of the letter as more important than the rest. But this deserves close attention: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

The difference here lies between disagreeing with someone–even vociferously–and demanding that the person be fired, shamed, denied publication, etc.

The responses have been telling–an outpouring of support, some thoughtful criticism, and a number of ad hominem attacks. Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris wrote an excellent article about the letter for The New York Times. There are many interesting comments, including this from James in San Diego:

It’s widely recognized that this “intolerant” way of thinking is somehow related to the type of speech that takes place on the internet, but the exact relationship remains mysterious, usually waved away with a passing reference to the dreaded Echo Chambers, which are actually just some lovely caves.

But it’s more related to the dominance of advertising on the internet. Before advertising was ubiquitous on the web, netizens were actually quite tolerant. And it’s also not really about “tolerance,” at least not in any causal way.

It’s more about the order of mental operations that advertising requires. Advertising requires you to set your judgments first, THEN absorb information. So articles’ headlines (basically small ads) need you to find the topic interesting, shocking, appalling, or heartwarming BEFORE you’ve read about it. If you wait until after learning the details of something to start forming a judgment about it, advertising has failed.

And the habit sticks. People now EXPECT to be able to draw conclusions about things before starting to understand them, and so they organize the data in a way that facilitates this, by highlighting and foregrounding “easy discriminator” elements, which might be rhetorical, contextual, or personal.

But ads rarely lead to new heights, and the way of thinking they inspire militates against intellectual growth or ascent to the unknown.

I don’t know whether James is right about the influence of advertising culture–I would say that the trend toward rushed opinions comes from several sources, including a few education trends–but many of his observations ring true. There’s now an expectation that we form opinions before actually learning about an issue. The contexts range from satisfaction surveys to dating to political discussion.

In addition, opinions have become like badges. Display the right ones, and you’re fine, until someone calls you out as fake; display the wrong ones, and you’re an elitist fearfully clinging to a dwindling demesne, or simply a terrible person. Don’t display any at all, and you’re defective at best.

I hope the letter will bring some needed questioning and challenge into the air. It is already beginning to do so.

I added considerably to this piece after posting it.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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