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.

Déjà vu: Sarkozi and the spread of Schengenitis

Here we go again. Under pressure domestically? Opinion polls down the drain?Need to boost yout tight-on-immigration stance? Blame Schengen, the source of all ills!  Sarkozi docet ( Hmmm, didn’t the French government play the very same political card not that long ago? Remember the temporary closure of the border with Italy aimed at preventing the ‘orde’ of North Africans fleeing the turmoil caused by the Jasmine revolutions? The French, of course, are not the first, and probably not the last, to acquire this sudden revulsion of all things Schengen .  The Danish for  a while showed signs of this condition too (before the newly elected centre-left government managed to contain it), and others have periodically been affected by it – even if just in its milder forms.  Schengenitis, however,  is not a novel ailment. The roots of the current strain can in fact be traced back to the very early days of Europe’s border control regime in the early 1990s. Then, as today, European capitals (Paris in primis) maintained an ambivalent stance vis a vis Schengen, on one hand supporting the project’s objective , and, on the other, dragging their feet  in the implementation stage.In this period, for example, the French government (then as today of right wing leanings), citing other members’ laxity, periodically relied on the regime’s ‘special circumstances’ clause to maintain or reinstate internal border controls. In these early cases of Schengenitis, however, the regime not only managed to withstand existing tensions, but its body and ‘spirit’ came out reinvigorated. In the second part of the 1990s, Schengen expanded to new members and was officially incorporated in the European Union’s institutional framework. Thanks to the regime’s institutionalization and expansion, Schengen today is even hailed as one of the most visible achievements of European integration and a key pillar of European Union’s political architecture.

Will history repeat itself? Will Schengen not just survive, but emerge once again unscathed from the ailments that periodically affect it? Some contextual factors seem to cast doubts over this optimistic vision for the regime’s future. The latest strain of Schengenitis has in fact emerged in a political climate that is rather gloomy. The inward looking attitude of a growing swath of the electorate across Europe and the parallel rise of xenophobic political movements, together with the fear of further enlargement of the regime and, more generally, a steady decline in support for further European integration, have seriously curbed the enthusiasm for the border free Europe project.

Despite the current sceptical political climate in Europe, there are some signs that the resilience that Schengen demonstrated in the past is still present today. Throughout the recent epidemics, European policy-makers, side by side complaints, criticisms and reciprocal accusations over the handling of North African migrants, have repeatedly emphasized the achievements, both practical and political, that Schengen has accomplished over the years, and its fundamental importance for the European integration project. Crucially, they have also vowed their allegiance to the regime and their commitment to support it in the future. Does this state of affairs mean that Schengen “will never die”, as Charles Elsen, former Director General at the European Council’s General Secretariat, predicted on the eve of the regime`s incorporation in the EU in the late 1990? Probably not. After all, all policy projects, like the individuals who create them, are bound to get old and eventually pass away. Schengen is no exception to this rule. Its periodical ailments and the healing periods they require are testament to its mortality. As it has been the case in the past, however, Schengenitis seem to be still treatable. Europe’s border control regime is therefore likely to live on for some more time to come, pace Sarkozi.

Schengen macht frei?

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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

The (haunted) apartments that lead to Schengen

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Putin and the Eurasian Schengen…

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A fish called Schengen (border)

 The picture here is an aerial view of land art installation by Polish artist Jaroslaw Koziara as a part of the Land Art Festival on the field between Horodyszcze (Poland) and Warez (Ukraine), which took place over the summer of 2011.  Apparently not only humans try to cross European borders. ..

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