How different is Capitalism from Communism, Really?

Well, very different, obviously. But when you get right down to results?

My Hungary pictures aren't here yet, so I thought I'd post a more general, music-political post first, which I've come to think about a lot during my stay in Hungary. I even asked my mum about life in the eighties but since we only lived peripherally in Budapest, my dad being a diplomat, she wasn't sure. Still, she did give me some pointers and I've thought a lot about the conditions that produced the records I've bought.

The thing is, the records of the era are not terribly different or worse than contemporary records from the west. And it's fairly interesting, I think, to consider why.

The Hungarian elites have always been quite disdainful of pop music. Just listen to its name in Hungarian: könnyűzene, "light music". As opposed to "serious music". The pop music recorded during the communist era was not let through because of its quality or artistic merit - it was more or less purely engineered to pacify the young and the proletariat.

There you have a first, obvious similarity to capitalist pop music - not just if you listen to Adorno - in that there's a definite sense of this "youth-pacification" in commercial western pop too. It's not meant to be challenging. It goes for fairly low common denominators. In fact, in order to spread the music widely, the regime tried to keep on its toes and be trendy so as not lose its grip, and often went straight for the commercial western stuff as a model. There's a Hungarian hip-hop record made in 1984, which is quite early by European standards! This kind of trend-jumping is another similarity to western pop, too - just look at how many "crazes" have been jumped at by marketeers on major labels.

In practice, the situation in Hungary was very much like there was only one "major label" - Hungaroton and its subsidiaries - and it behaved startlingly like a western major. It censored what material was let through, and was often behind the times - much like a western major. It relied on a very small set of commercially successful songwriters and musicians, and mostly avoided real bands - much like a western major. Sure, you were never going to get through any properly edgy material - but it really doesn't matter if your counterpart is one hulking behemoth or four. If you succeed, you're considered a sell-out in both cases.

But of course, there were no indie releases in Hungary. There were no samizdat recordings in Hungary in any large quantities. No metal, no punk. And there's the big difference in the end - not in the products of the capitalist and communist churning machines, but in the commercially less viable material that happens to be an unfortunate side product of freedom of expression. The so-called "market" may think similarly to a communist regime, but it allows less viable music to flourish underneath. The dictatorship, of course, didn't.

The Hungarian elites have always been disdainful of pop music. More than ever today. Pop and rock, to them, is heavily mired in the Communist era, and they prefer to listen to "world music" and "ethno-jazz" as my journalist friend told me. And according to my mum, what anyone with taste listened to in the eighties was jazz anyway...


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