‘Grey zones’ in music scenes – A blurred concept, or ‘the attempt to nail a jelly to the wall’

In the context of research on music and politics – especially on White Power Music – one will sooner or later come across the term “grey zone” (also: “gray zone”/ “gray area”), which is in most cases used to label bands on political fringes, predominantly on the right. But, whereas the relation of music and politics as such is well researched, there is barely any literature on the “grey zone”, not to mention a definition or an elaborate (theoretical) concept. Exceptions are the anti-fascist network project “Grauzonen” (grey zones) hosted by “Agentur für soziale Perspektiven” and James Garratt’s “Music and Politics. A Critical Introduction”, which offers a broad definition: “The term ‘grey zone’ is often used within the extreme right to describe bands at the margins of its music scenes, groups that share its platforms yet merely toy with its ideology or present it in a more publicly acceptable form”. The vast majority of literature – mainly short newspaper articles, anti-fascist magazine reports or blog entries – uses the term “grey zone” without applying neither an intensional nor an extensional definition, just referring to current examples such as the South Tyrolean band “Frei.Wild” or the Frankurt based “Böhse Onkelz” in the Germanophone context. In spite of that, everyone seems to have a particular denotation of this musical-political space. Focusing on one random and one purposive sample of Germanophone and Anglophone antifascist activist literature from 2004 to 2019 reveals that a wide range of meanings are covered by the term, but no definitional core regarding an intensional or an extensional dimension can be identified. Hence it can’t be considered an “essentially contested concept” but rather a “contingently contested concept”[1] in this subfield of research. In order to equip further research with adequately empowering eloquence and to make it fruitful, the concept has to be properly defined, with precise terminology and suitable concepts, because – as Cohen and Nagel already stated in 1934 – “logically, definitions aim to lay bare the principal features or structure of a concept, partly in order to make it definite, to delimit it from other concepts, and partly in order to make possible a systematic exploration of the subject matter with which it deals.”

Due to manifold interpretations and political instrumentalizations, the concept of “grey zones” is at best polysemous and at worst ambiguously contradictory. So how can such a concept be defined in order to obtain an operationalizable concept? To carry out a minimal definition of what should be considered a “grey zone”, this text draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations and his notion of “blurred concepts”: “One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges. Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?” Critics might object to this approach with the demand for perspicuity or accuracy, but in this case the “value of vagueness” and “the principle of parsimony” outweigh possible disadvantages of a fixed and unyielding definition that is neither expandable nor applicable to large number of cases. But regardless of researchers’ preferences for either a narrow or a broad definition, this endeavor resembles “the attempt to nail a jelly to the wall”, as the German political scientist Max Kaase ascertained regarding a definition respectively the intension and extension civic culture concept. Subsequently, the following lines will attempt to define a “grey zone” concept by addressing the key questions ”Who, What and Why”, drawing on the Weberian concept of ideal types.

Firstly, the “Who” and “What” – the objects the concept is supposed to cover – must be determined. Music scenes – and thereby also the White Power Music scene – consist of various elements (referred to as “actors” hereafter) that can be stripped down to core elements: bands (band members, most importantly: music and lyrics), concerts (venues, experience, business(man)), record labels/distributors (selection, range, business(man)) and ancillary infrastructure.

Secondly, there are three approaches to address the “Why”, i.e. on which theoretical basis the “grey zone” is delimited between white and black terrain: the legal approach, the cultural approach and the political approach.

The legal approach is based on the core ideas of militant democracy concept, first specified and itemized by the freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung (liberal-democratic constitutional order) for the Federal Republic of Germany in the SRP verdict of 1952. This dichotomous approach – still applied by the German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) – distinguishes between radical right and extreme right. The radical right is a part of the democratic system as “loyal opposition”[2], as it accepts the core elements of liberal democracy, whereas the extreme right is an “opposition of principle”[3] that rejects liberal democracy as such.

The cultural approach targets music, politics and its merging into one lifeworld. While “every neutralization of some partial content as ‘non political’ is a political gesture par excellence’”, it is crucial to distinguish between three ideal types of bands in this contextual relation: 1. bands who define themselves as a political band with a clear focus on politics and propaganda whereas music is only considered as a functional tool and barely a kind of art 2. bands who define their music as “identity music”, i.e. music is an “undistorted”, “authentic” reflection of their lifestyle and lifeworld where music and politics are equally valued and merge together. 3. bands who define their music primarily as art, i.e. an extraordinary part of their life that is to different degrees detached from their personalities and lifeworld.

The political approach consists of a white terrain, including democratic i.e. anti-fascist music groups, and a black terrain, enclosing strictly anti-democratic, extremist groups. In between there is the trichotomous “grey zone” with its different shades of grey ranging from (the labels): “unpolitical” (light) to “patriotic” (medium) to “nationalistic” (dark). The black terrain includes only strictly extreme right active and passive actors – as for example Völkisch Settlers – who only accept their kind among themselves. The dark grey terrain diffuses from the black terrain to the “grey zone”, with the major difference that the active actors are still strictly extremist and anti-democratic, but they accept passive actors who do not follow their way completely but show – at least – a lot of tolerance for this way. The medium “grey zone” has a hinge function on this terrain as it includes both active and passive actors of the black terrain as well as those who sympathize with and/or tolerate members of this scene. The light “grey zone” excludes active actors from the black terrain and includes passive actors who tolerate those from the medium “grey zone”.

The first two approaches offer proximate definitions, serving as indicators for a first, rough estimation of a bands’ position within the musical-political space, with still quite “blurred edges”. The third definition sharpens the image so that a bands’ position can be delimited, even though it will never be possible to determine such a position with mathematical precision. The application of this Weberian based formulation of an ideal-typical “grey zone” concept helps researchers to draw borderlines in the multidimensional musical-political space. It clarifies the understanding and process of social construction of social reality in this (part of the) lifeworld. Kaase’s dictum of “the attempt to nail a jelly to the wall” proves to be true – one more time – also for this attempt of concept formation for the “contingently contested concept” of the “grey zone”. As this is only a short conceptual sketch, further, more theoretical in-depth research is indispensable. Finally, as a complementary element to theoretical concept formation, further research should also build on practical attempts of applications of the concept in order to ascertain its validity, reliability and of course to identify weaknesses and shortcomings.

Mr Maximilian Kreter is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at Hannah Arendt Institute Totalitarianism Studies, TU Dresden. See his profile here.

© Maximilian Kreter. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] Terence Ball “‘Power‘” in Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit (Ed), A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford 1993, 548-557: 556.

[2] Otto Kirchheimer, “Germany. The Vanishing Opposition.”, in Robert Alan Dahl (Ed), Political Oppositions in Western Democracies. New Haven 1966, 237–259: 237.

[3] Ebd.