How the CIA Learned to Rock | The Nation
The CIA had not just an ideology but also an aesthetic. The Cold War was a cultural struggle as well as a political one. To demonstrate the superiority of Western Civilization, and particularly to win over wavering European intellectuals who might be attracted to communism, the agency funded literary magazines like The Paris Review—founding editor Peter Matthiesson was on the CIA’s payroll as a spy—and sponsored exhibits of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1970s, the journalist Richard Elman researched “the Aesthetics of the CIA” and found documents revealing that the agency seriously considered a suggestion that “T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets be translated into Russian and dropped by airplane all over the Soviet Union.”
Instead, the agency even in the 1950s thought that America’s musical strength lay in popular work. In a 1955, Frank Wisner, then deputy director of plans, rejected the idea of sending the New York Ballet to Moscow. “Our initial presentations to Soviet audiences should aim for mass appeal,” Wisner argued. He wanted music that was “expressive of our folklore or unmistakably typical of U.S.” Wisner was particularly interested in works by “negro performers” that would display their “capacity” and “the opportunities they have in U.S. artistic life.” Wisner believed that “first-rate American jazz” would “serve to demonstrate the breadth and vitality of American musicianship.”
The story of the CIA’s love of popular music is brought up to date in a splendid podcast called Wind of Change, by New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. In the eight-episode series, Keefe investigates the rumor that CIA agents composed the ballad “Wind of Change,” first performed in 1989 by the German heavy metal group Scorpions and released the following year. The song was a huge hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain, becoming a kind of unofficial anthem for the end of communism.
The podcast is very much a detective story, and like all whodunits deserves to be left spoiler-free. But one of its strengths is that Keefe places his story fully in the context of the CIA’s history of arts patronage.
As Keefe observes, “We think of culture—or we want to think of culture—as organic and spontaneous, as purer than politics. Nina Simone clearly did. She felt it gave her a deep connection to the people she met in Nigeria. So it is really unsettling to learn that the hidden hand of government was at work. It’s a feeling of dispossession, like someone picked your pocket.”