Schengen blues: critical (musical) notes on Europe

Schengen bluesThere’s something about Schengen that makes it a favourite subject of creative types of all stripes.  What this ‘quid’ consists of may elude us non artistically inclined mortals. After all, what can be so exciting about an utterly dry catalogue of rules regulating travel in and about the Old Continent? Apparently, a lot. The reasons why Schengen has become a source of artistic inspiration, however, are not necessarily as benign as some European policy-makers (especially those who still hail this policy initiative as one of the finest achievements of European integration) would like us to believe. Indeed, Schengen is often the artistic target of trenchant criticism, especially because of its exclusionary practices vis a vis selected individuals (i.e. the unwanted non-Europeans). This critical streak permeates the entire spectrum of the performative art scene. Musicians play a big part in this anti-Schengen chorus. Europe’s free travel area seems to touch a (metaphorical) cord with this category of artists. After all, is there a better way to voice your opinion (and be heard from afar) than through your own voice, especially if screamed out of your lungs? The latest example of this increasingly popular musical genre (‘Schengen blues’?) that I have recently come across is from the Spanish crooner Raphael (by the way, why would the author of 60s’ hits such as “Cuando tú no estás”, “Mi gran noche”, “Tema de amor”, would pen a song – in French, alas! –  on a topic such as Europe’s border control regime is a question that definitely warrants further investigation…). The song, simply titled ‘Schengen’, poetically evokes the painful experience of the typical migrant living in the Old Continent. The result is a rather depressing portrayal of Europe…

(…)

Tellement de nuits sous la paupière
Tellement de forêts abattues
Même sous la mitraille et le fer
Moi je leur ai rien vendu
Et que même dans l’espace Shengen
Ils ont pas voulu de ma peau

Ce que j’ fais là moi
Je sais pas
Je voulais juste marcher tout droit
Ce que j’ fais là moi
Je sais pas
Je pense à toi depuis mille ans

(…)

(NB: full text and English translation are available here)

How (popular) music reproduces the ‘Schengen myth’

Can music, and popular music in particular, contribute to the reinforcement of the myth of Schengen as emblem of ‘freedom, security and success’, as EU officials often claim when referring to Europe’s border control regime? I think it does, although this suggestion needs some clarification (and a certain leap of faith, I would add) [1].  Let me start with some general thoughts about the myth-music connection in general. Most people would agree that music has historically played a central role in the creation of myths, including political myths. Through the articulation of social values in specific musical repertoires, this performative art has in fact often functioned as means of transmission of a dominant ideology. The relation between music and myth is apparent not just in musical compositions (e.g. the mythical figures in Richard Wagner’s works), but also in the socio-cultural milieu in which music is created and performed. Music has been influenced by existing social standards and norms, and in turn it has influenced the society surrounding it. At the same time, music and society interact with and mediate one another within and across socio-cultural boundaries. This is not just the case for a society’s high culture, but also its popular expressions. This has always been the case, but contemporary music is one of the domains in which the blurring of distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture has been more marked, especially in the West.

Not let’s turn to a concrete example involving Schegen. The subject that I consider here (a contemporary British band) carries with it an explicit reference to Europe’s border control regime. It is in fact called (you guessed it) ‘Schengen’. On their website, the band members explain the origins of their name by writing that they “stumbled across it in reference to the Schengen Treaty”[2]. Thus there is a direct link between the band and the ‘original’ Schengen. This ‘marriage’, however, seems rather casual. The band carries this particular name because its members “liked the sound of the word”: there is no apparent conscious attempt to link their music to the Schengen regime, or to make any particular political statement. The genre of music the band plays seems to support this claim. Reviewers have described the ‘Schengen sound’ as “lush, relaxed, gorgeously atmospheric electronic…” and “(s)eizing, atmospheric and unique” (all quotes are from the band’s website), characteristics that seem far removed from those we might experience when visiting Europe’s bustling and chaotic external frontiers. In what sense then is it possible to argue that the band helps to support the establishment of the myth of Schengen?

What follows might seem a bit far fetched. But let’s see if I can persuade you about this unlikely connection. The contribution of Schengen (the band) to the construction of the myth of Schengen (the border regime) can be better understood if we move away from the emphasis on music per se and its textual dimension, and shift to its performative dimension. This is the kind of move that a growing number of authors in Performative Studies (musicology being one of its sub-disciplines) have recently suggested. Traditionally, music and performance were often presented in music literature as separate. The new practice-oriented paradigm advocated in contemporary Performance Studies stresses the extent to which signification is constructed through the act of performance, between the performers themselves, and between the performers and the audience. Performative meaning is thus a process and cannot be reduced to product.

In the present example, when Schengen (the band) is playing (‘performing’), it is contributing to the reproduction of the Schengen myth. The same could be said of other rituals surrounding the band, such as selling music, touring, interacting with fans, etc. As with the hotel in Beijing, these activities represent a microcosm of Europe’s border regime. Through them, the band is indirectly ‘promoting’ the Schengen regime, helping cement its standing in popular culture. Although the band’s sound does not seem to echo the Schengen regime’s script, arguably the band embodies a music genre that indeed reflects a borderless Europe, a cosmopolitan blending of (European) sounds. After all, the band can freely (that is, without visas) tour across Europe, and the fans (if holding an EU passport) can freely follow them. This would not happen in the same way if the band and its fans were not from the EU.

The political implications stemming from Schengen (the band)’s existence and the rituals surrounding it do not end here. It should be noted that the band’s members, as British citizens, are actually not part of Schengen (the free travel area). Thus, when playing outside continental Europe, ‘Schengen is outside Schengen’, as it were. Since Schengen is a British band, its members are allowed to travel to the Schengen area, because the (Schengen) visa for British citizens is waived. Still, the band’s members need a passport to enter Europe’s free travel area. In these circumstances, what we see is an instance of ‘Schengen entering Schengen’. As in a case of transubstantiation, the band is both Schengen and in Schengen. The most ironic aspect of this situation is that the band is British, and the British government (and the majority of the population in the UK) is notoriously skeptical (if not outrightly opposed) to the Schengen regime, especially the idea of abolishing national border controls, which the regime supports. Hence, although the choice of the band’s name was not strictly speaking ‘political’, its implications clearly are. Is this enough to convince you about the link between music and Schengen myth?


[1] NB: the following ruminations (shamelessly) borrow from an essay I have published some time ago on the subject of Schengen myth making. Here is the link to the full article .

[2] The band’s website can be found here.

Schengen macht frei?

Does Schengen really makes us a free? The performer Sarpinto does not think so, and he sings it out loud. Schengen does not always sound good, it seems…

Sarpinto – Schengen Macht Frei

http://soundcloud.com/sarpinto/sarpinto-schengen-macht-frei

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