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Pop Music and Populist Messages

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology book series (PSEPS)


This chapter will apply instruments of content, musicological and visual analysis to explore the presence (if any) and forms of populist content in Italian pop music over 10 years (2009–2018), since the emergence and re-emergence of left-wing and right-wing populism in the country. We evaluate how and to what extent the songs’ lyrics, videos and music structures and the artist persona autonomously contribute to the spread of populist tropes, including anti-elitism, distrust of political institutions, celebrations of an authentic rudeness, articulations of specific grievances and celebrations of charismatic leadership. We argue that it is precisely its seemingly non-political features that enable this kind of cultural production to spread political (and, more specifically, populist) worldviews so effectively.

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  1. 1.

    As mentioned, due to our interest in focusing on Italian pop music, which we defined as ‘popular music’, namely, the most diffused, mainstream, we selected for each year (in our time frame 2009–2018) the ten most downloaded pop songs, the ten most played on radio stations and the winners (top three songs) of Sanremo Festival, for a total of 190 Italian pop songs included in the analysis.

  2. 2.

    For instance, citizens and political actors can politicize very different repertoires in the same ideological directions, and a single song in very different ways, according to semiotic processes influenced by many factors (geographical context, époque, context of usage, characteristics of the audiences/listeners, characteristics of the political leader).

  3. 3.

    For songs coded as ‘populist’ (based on our five different definitions), only.

  4. 4.

    For more details, see the codebook 3.a in the Appendix, and in Tables 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3.

  5. 5.

  6. 6.

  7. 7.


  8. 8.


  9. 9.


  10. 10.


  11. 11.


  12. 12.

  13. 13.

    As we read in the lyrics, “I always believe in the future, in justice and work/in the feeling that unites us, around our family/I believe in traditions, of a people who do not give up/and I suffer from the worries of those who have little or nothing./I believe in my culture and my religion/for this I am not afraid to express my opinion/I feel the heart of a lonely Italy beating faster/that today more serenely, is reflected in its entire history/Yes, tonight I am here, to tell the world and God/of my love, Italy. I won’t tire of telling the world and God, of my love, Italy” (ID. 30).

  14. 14.

    A visual analysis carried out on the official music videos of the 30 selected songs categorized as ‘populist’ confirmed the image of potential populist tropes present in Italian pop music over the last 20 years. We implemented the visual analysis according to three steps consisting of iconographic, symbolic and contextual analyses of images (Doerr et al., 2013).

  15. 15.

    Winner of Sanremo in 2014.

  16. 16.

    Through “the [transgressive] use of informal, locally anchored, language, the exaggeration of ‘typical’ displays […] always directed antagonistically at an Other, manifestly not of the ‘national pleb’” (Ostiguy, 2020: 31).

  17. 17.

    Senza pagare is a typical summer hit, which was the second bestselling Italian song in 2017, totalling over 90 million views on YouTube.

  18. 18.

    In the latter case, in quite an ‘innocent’, somewhat less masculine way, mixed with nostalgia for the good, pre-digital old times.

  19. 19.

    The addition of the adjective ‘Italian’ renders the idea of a criticism not towards public institutions per se, but towards the inefficiencies and corruption characterizing Italy.

  20. 20.

    The educational system is often considered a longa manus of the dominant values and interests in society (ID.14). In one case (ID. 17), there is a critique against classist education, which is accompanied by the celebration of common knowledge linked to everyday life, very much typical of populist rhetoric (Yva-Anttila, 2018).

  21. 21.

    The leader, presenting himself/herself as a ‘taboo breaker’ and fighter against political correctness, hence adopts de facto highly vertical organizational strategies—typical of the so-called charismatic party theorized by Panebianco (1982) in order to pursue political mobilization of discontent voters.

  22. 22.

    In general, hedonistic and vaguely ‘libertarian’ individualism, although without politicization of the message, is largely present in the pop songs analysed.

  23. 23.

    Among these, we find pieces by Mannoia, Carboni, Gazzè, Mengoni, Vecchioni, Jovanotti, Litfiba, Zucchero, Neffa—intergenerational artists, the majority of which can be ascribed to the category of the ‘singer-songwriters’ (Fabbri & Plastino, 2013). It is interesting how some of these artists (Mannoia, Gazzè) have been or are associated with the 5 Star Movement, while others (Cremonini, Jovanotti) have links to the Democratic Party. Cremonini in particular, in his ‘concept album’ centred on New York, seems to be a perfect interpreter of the values of middle-class liberal progressivism.

  24. 24.

    Emma Marrone (Non è l’inferno, 2012 Sanremo winner), the pop-rappers J-Ax and Fedez (with the super-hit song Senza pagare, 2017) and Rocco Hunt (‘Nu juorno buono, 2014 Sanremo winner); La Grande V (2011), from the repertoire of the Venetian-rock band Rumatera (plausibly linked to the League’s discourse); an iconic song (Chi comanda il mondo?, 2016) from the right-wing songwriter Povia.

  25. 25.

    As mentioned, we conducted a musicological groups analysis on Italian pop songs that emerged from the ‘field’. In this part, our assumption was that music is always part of a discursive and historical context (Doehring et al., 2017; Doehring, 2019) and therefore it acts as an ‘agent of meaning’ (ibid.). MGA also enabled us to understand how structural features of a given sound (e.g. melodic, harmonic, micro-rhythmic and auditory aspects) are able to afford observed understandings.

    We are grateful to the partners of the research project “Popular Music and the Rise of Populism in Europe” (Volkswagenstiftung, n Ref.: 94754–1: Dunkel et al., 2018) for introducing us to this method, relatively unknown in political sociology and political science. We hope that this section can be a stimulus for new ideas and research agendas in our disciplines. For some details on this method, see Chap. 1. We conducted 10 sessions of MGA, each based on a single song deemed particularly relevant to populism from our text and visual analysis, reiterated/played several times during an interactive discussion. Six out of the 10 songs were included because of their high ‘populist’ scores in our lyric analysis, while the remaining four songs were scrutinized through MGA in order to explore alternative links between pop music and populism: thus, MGA.4 focused on one of the most important songs from the ‘anti-system’ repertoire by Giuseppe Povia; MGA. 9 analysed the most famous piece by Rumatera, a rock band singing in local dialect and celebrating their local roots, the Veneto region, arguably the electoral stronghold of the League; MGA 10 was devoted to the most popular official anthem of the 5SM; we also looked at ‘anti-populism’ with the inclusion of Lucio Dalla’s song Com’è profondo il mare (“How deep is the sea?”, MGA.8), which became the unofficial anthem of the ‘anti-populist’ Sardine movement.

  26. 26.

    Participants of the MGAs were asked to elaborate and discuss potential ‘affordances’ of the songs in an independent and spontaneous manner: in order to let the discussion be driven by different aspects of a song, such as the genre, the persona of the singer—when identified by the participants—the sonic structure, the lyrics and the video, which we only introduced at the end of the session.

  27. 27.

    Similar comments were made by a participant about Non è l’inferno, where the presence of strong ‘conservative’, ‘nationalist’ imageries were cited by the listeners, as well as ‘a critique of the current political and economic system’, for its ‘unfulfilled promises’.

  28. 28.

    Such imagery looks “very much like the American frontier—an idea which is fortified by the genre, which is not really something from Veneto, and thus increases the parodic effect”, as reported by a participant.

  29. 29.

    See, amongst many examples, Toto Cutugno’s L’italiano (1983), or, more recently, Articolo 31’s Italiano medio, ‘Average Italian Guy’ (2003).

  30. 30.

    Moreover, if we look at Italian pop songs affording potentially populist ideas in terms of genre, as well as emotions, we have either Sanremo pieces (Emma Marrone, Rocco Hunt, Pupo) or material deriving from Italian mainstream hip hop (such as the cases of J-Ax, Fedez, Marracash, Gué Pequeno, Fabri Fibra, Ghali); we see that the former group makes ample use of a national-popular rhetoric, which includes the use of words and concepts that can be associated with a conservative-nationalist tradition.


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Caiani, M., Padoan, E. (2023). Pop Music and Populist Messages. In: Populism and (Pop) Music. Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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