Music, a way to resist political oppression? Not so much in Hungary, where most acts are either afraid or unwilling to address the political and societal problems affecting the country.
It’s all #fakenews
Forget everything you’ve read about Hungary, it’s all #fakenews. Everybody’s happy here, well, apart from those who suffer from perennial troubles of the heart. Our greatest problem is that people spend too much time either on Facebook or in the grips of mass media, forgetting about real life. Then there are some people who have difficulty making ends meet. And humanity, please, a bit more love; stop fighting wars and stop destroying the planet!
OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it’s more or less what you might think about Hungary if you based your opinion solely on Hungarian pop lyrics. And it’s not just the mainstream: most alternative bands also avoid political topics or tackle them with non-committal generalities, avoiding current events and anything specific to the country’s situation. The exceptions are a small underground on the left (punk, a small portion of hip-hop) and the much bigger national rock groups on the far right.
Here’s a striking example: in theory, at least, everyone agrees that corruption’s bad, so you’d think there should be no harm in saying that publicly. According to research by Transparency International Hungary, “80 percent of young people think that corruption is a serious problem in Hungary, and 71 percent think that people who are willing to engage in acts of corruption have more chance to succeed in life compared to straight, decent people”. Transparency International organises engagement programs and wanted to conduct campaigns with famous people who can be hold up as examples saying “no” to corruption. One of their ideas was to write an anti-corruption song with a well-known band, but, as Emese Hortobágyi, the organisation’s Head of People Engagement Programmes, told me via email, all the bands they approached declined to participate. “They say that our work is important and they agree with our goals, but they don’t want to be part of the campaign. I can only speculate about their reasons. A few said that they thought the topic is ‘too political’ and they didn’t dare to make a stand.”
Fidesz’ surreal rule
Hungarian pop music contradicts the truism that political art thrives under oppressive regimes. (Recent example: ‘Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again‘). We’ve had an oppressive, (semi-) authoritarian regime since 2010 and previous governments weren’t exactly beacons of democracy, not to mention the Socialist system in place before 1990.Some context might be useful here. After eight years of Socialist Party rule (the greatest achievement of which was barely saving the country from bankruptcy, and not much else), Fidesz, the right wing party led by Viktor Orbán, won a parliamentary majority 2010 with 53 percent of the vote. Fidesz claimed victory again in 2014 in a “not fixed, but not fair” election (see the official report by OSCE and look past the diplomatic language). You may have read about Fidesz “removing checks and balances” (with an obligatory “…according to critics” – but forget that, it’s all true), and you must remember when Hungary’s refugee crisis made the front pages everywhere in 2015, accompanied by shocking images. You may also know that Orbán has alarmingly close ties to Putin. But that’s not the whole picture.
Luckily, now that Donald Trump is in the White House, it’s easier to explain Hungary to foreigners. We’ve had the same surreal mixture of evil and stupidity for seven years now. Of course, we don’t have a nuclear arsenal, but neither do we have real democratic traditions, nor strong institutions. Fidesz’s rule is surreal, yet it affects people’s lives deeply. For example, the 4,000-seat stadium built in Felcsút, Orbán’s hometown, was rightly called “the symbol of power for Hungary’s premier” by the New York Times. The public was repeatedly told “it was not bankrolled by public money, but by generous donations of corporations”, but this was a blatant lie as those donations were tax deductible. Meanwhile, 42.2 percent of children under seven years-old live in poverty.
In 2015, György Matolcsy, the governor of the Central Bank of Hungary, failed to officially declare part of his income, to the tune of €3,900 per month (that’s about eight times the average income in Hungary). Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor admitted that “objectively” this is against the law, but as Matolcsy had given this money to charity, it wasn’t “present in his mind as an income” (again, he’s the governor of the Central Bank!), so he dropped the charges. Meanwhile, if you go to a hospital, chances are that basic equipment like X-ray machines won’t work. And I could go on and on and on, contrasting images of a blatantly corrupt, racist and stupid members of the ruling class with data on poverty, the struggling education and healthcare systems, and crumbling infrastructure.
« Making art in a time of rage »
There are several valid ways of ‘making art in a time of rage’, so you can’t fault each and every band for not making political statements. But the general, almost total depoliticisation of the pop landscape as a whole is striking. Why do musicians behave, at least in public, as if Hungary is a normal functioning country?
There are multiple reasons, of course, but I’ll deal with the two I think are most important. The first is that ‘politics’ is a dirty word here. Discussion are heated, even hysterical, with accusations of wanting to expose your country to terrorism (by “caressing migrants” – that’s how the right describes giving shelter to refugees fleeing warzones), or that you have been bought by Fidesz, etc. Even if you are willing to alienate a part of your audience by making a stand, do you want to handle trolls invading your videos on YouTube? Because if you make one political gesture, you will carry the stigma for life. Also, politics is equated to a primitive notion of party politics, so if you criticise, say, the devastation of the healthcare system, you must be a fan of Ferenc Gyurcsány (Hungary’s prime minister from 2004-2009, who is widely disliked).
The most popular wisdom about politics in Hungary may be: please avoid politics! It only causes disagreements and has nothing to do with our lives. It’s also too much; who can keep up with scandals when they emerge on a daily basis? Who can remain constantly angry for years? And, you know, musicians are people too, so a lot of them may share that belief. Anyway, you can’t change anything, according to popular wisdom. Politicians are and will be corrupt liars, period (that’s the way most punk rock bands address the topic.).
But that excuses people for not doing anything, and obfuscates the responsibility of politicians to set specific policies. Just take the problem of education: Fidesz routinely fucks everything up in this field, with catastrophic results. When a student learns that he or she may not gain entry to their desired university because the government changed the rules at the last minute (yes, this really happened), what does their favourite band offer them? Certainly not solidarity or answers, nor possible means of action; just an escape into partying, love and heartbreak, or in the case of national rock, nationalistic pride – and the band may be even proud of that (“we provide an escape from the grim/dull reality, that’s the most music can do”).
The fear factor
The second factor is fear. Politicians don’t really care about pop music, except for having a few favourite bands and singers – a few of the Old Greats, a few younger ones, usually in their 40s, that is – to sing at rallies and accept national awards. That means there are no confirmed cases of explicit censorship in the field of pop music – but make no mistake, there are serious, blatant violations of the freedom of press (see this article about “the killing of the biggest opposition newspaper”, by Direkt36, the best Hungarian investigative site you can read in English.)
But if you are part of the music scene, you definitely will hear stories about bands criticising the government and suddenly having to cancel some of their shows due to “technical reasons”, or struggling to get their new song played on the radio, etc. (The radio situation is especially tricky, meriting an article on its own. In short: now there’s only one radio station broadcasting music in the whole country, the state-owned Petőfi. This station played a pivotal role in the careers of many bands since 2009, but last year it was rebranded and now it plays only the most narrowly defined mainstream pop. It’s also under strict political control. This situation is mainly the outcome of the war between Fidesz and its former financial strongman, Lajos Simicska, who among others, owned a media empire aided by taxpayers’ money – see this detailed investigation.
Simicska turned against Orbán in 2015, calling him “scum” in public. In 2016, his market-leading, commercial music radio station was sold and unsuccessfully re-applied for its frequency. So the “new” Petőfi’s aim is to cater for its former audience, and presumably to sell them the official propaganda disguised as news between the hits. The outcome is that bands that don’t play the most narrowly defined mainstream pop have lost one of their most important platforms for reaching a wider audience.)
Some of these stories may be false or paranoid – maybe radio DJs just don’t like that new song – but there are also confirmed stories about staff being fired for voicing the wrong political opinions, getting in trouble for liking the wrong article on Facebook, or that some kindergarten teachers are told not to join protests about the crisis in the education system if they want to keep their jobs . The list goes on and on.
A tragicomically absurd story illustrates the climate of paranoia well. In 2011, a gala concert’s programme in Pécs included Zoltán Kodály’s ‘The Peacock’ , but the director of the Pannon Philharmonic orchestra scrapped the piece because “the audience would think it mocks the mayor of Pécs”, Zsolt Páva (‘páva’ is Hungarian for ‘peacock’), even though the mayor himself said he’s not hurt by it. So you can never tell who may cancel a show: a politician taking revenge, an overzealous employee, or somebody who’s just protecting his job by using extreme caution. But in the end it doesn’t really matter as the result’s the same. The climate, the feeling that “it’s possible that I’ll lose my livelihood” counts more than the actual, unknown risk of that happening, when musicians decide to keep their opinions to themselves, even if that opinion is simply ‘corruption is bad’.
Just after I finished this article, a rare thing happened. Tibor Kiss, the frontman of one of the most popular Hungarian rock bands, Quimby, was asked in a talk show about the lack of political content in his lyrics. He said that while that’s true in general, he also has poems pertianing the actual political situation. To the surprise of the host, he recited one that includes lines like “Why do you screw up my country / why do you kick the nurse in the stomach / why do you punish teachers as if they were bad pupils / why do you shit in the mouth of the dreamer?”, “You are scum so evil even Satan despises you” and “This land is a swamp and Toad King is celebrating what created”. The text quickly took the web by storm. This is partly because such a scene of a popular musician name-calling politicians is so rare.
Later Tibor Kiss explained that this poem was part of a play where it’s told by “a very angry man”, and shouldn’t be taken out of this context. It’s art (even if you think it’s shitty art), so it’s not “party politics”, but a “reflection of our sick, feuding world”. The official response from the communication director of Fidesz was “I don’t really know Quimby, but art is free in Hungary, anyone can write anything”. The pro-government media was not that tame: one paper called the poem “racist, Nazi and fascist” (presumably racist against Hungarians), an other reminded its readers of Tibor Kiss’s past struggles with drugs and rehab (that’s no secret, he was open about it). It’s also telling that one of the first things journalists thought of was to provide a link where you can check if the state-owned Petőfi stations “punishes” Quimby (it’s too early to tell).
The band tried to get past the whole scandal in a Facebook post, writing “Thanks God the playground of art is bigger, freer and more interesting than that of politics. So we would like to stay here [in art]. Thanks and kisses for those who understand.” But some commenters say it’s too late. And if you scroll down just a bit, the last post that was online when the poem surfaced announces a concert in Erdély (a former part of Hungary, now of Romania, with considerable Hungarian population). That’s where the commenters vented in their usual style, some calling Tibor Kiss a “socialist faggot”, others calling the previous ones brainwashed Nazis, and some warning the band not to come to Erdély ever again.
Is it depressing? Yes, it is, and trust me, there are much worse things here than pop lyrics. On the other hand, I have good news: Hungarian music has gotten noticeably better in recent years. There are a lot of new, interesting, original bands. But the main reason is something that’s thankfully beyond the government’s reach: the Internet.
Examples and counterexamples
One of the rare exceptions is Dopeman, who is one of Hungary’s most famous rappers. This song is a ‘fuck you’ to all the political parties, the System, the media and the Hungarian people in general, whom he calls “sheep” who enjoy “being fucked in the ass”. The song quotes the national anthem at length, and Dopeman was investigated for “desecrating a national symbol”. He was also investigated for kicking the head of an effigy of Viktor Orbán. He was acquitted on both charges.
In a rare occurance, a political topic that’s been addressed by multiple bands is emigration. This song is ‘Emigrant Blues’ by one of the country’s most popular rock bands, Quimby. The emigration of a large number of wealthy, educated young people affected the section of the Hungarian music industry which targets that very demographic.
A massive punk compilation titled People of Orbán from 2015. One of the bands is Rákosi, named after the most ruthless Hungarian communist leader, Mátyás Rákosi.
Ismerős Arcok is a band often categorised as national rock, despite their objections to the category. The song ‘Without You’ from 2007 is often sung by sport fans and also by children in school choirs (see this compilation of videos). It was also shared by Viktor Orbán on Facebook. The song is about the Hungarians living outside the borders of the country, due to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, where Hungary lost about the two thirds of its former territory. The lyrics are full of similes (“like a torn, dying flower”, etc.), and then there’s the chorus: “Whatever happens, as long we live and die / We are of one blood”.
Songstress Péterfy Bori was amongst those whose career was jump-started by Petőfi radio. This new song of hers is not played on the new Petőfi as she was was told “it doesn’t fit into the station’s unified image of women”, whatever that means. In the lyrics, she sings “I’m the woman who screws you up / You will have to dig your own grave / Don’t crawl and pray, I don’t care / You will be a beautiful corpse, that’s all I say”.