Feature: Stick to the music

Popular music is a storytelling mechanism, born from a history of folk songs and early human expression. Essentially, stories come from our own experience of life. So why do people get up in arms when an artist has an opinion on something political? We take a look at music’s relationship with all-things politics…

Words Russ Cook

You know what they say: don’t talk about religion or politics. Especially if you’re a recognised musician, apparently. Once your work achieves a notable degree of recognition, you sacrifice the right to political opinion. At least in public, anyway.

So, whenever a person with a large public presence makes their thoughts known on a matter, it ends up being quite divisive. But that’s nothing new. The only difference is that, today, we live in a 24/7 news cycle, where anything said or implied is scrutinised around the clock, to the nth degree.

But here’s the thing: art is a bi-product of society. At least good art, anyway. And music, being a key form of artistic expression, would lack emotional substance without a relationship to the world from which it is born. And seeing as our lives are imbued with politics, music will always be, to some degree, political. Those sentiments come from somewhere.


What really riles the constantly aggrieved masses, though, is when an artist/celebrity/sports star/performer stands up for something they believe in. Of course, some famous faces will use an issue to further their own career, but why are we offended when Angelina Jolie does humanitarian work for the United Nations? Or when a hip-hop outfit, like A Tribe Called Quest raises questions about the state of racial inequality in the USA? Surely, that’s a good thing. Use your status to help.

Many will no doubt be annoyed by Kanye West’s unhinged thrust into the political sphere, sure. And perhaps some are infuriated by suggestions that celebrities like Dwayne Johnson (AKA The Rock), Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks are being touted as future presidential candidates?

But, again, this is nothing new. In the 80s, former Hollywood actor Ronald Regan became president. Then, in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California. And in 2016… Well, we all know what happened there.

Let’s face it then, musicians are people too. And because their sphere of influence is far vaster than the average Joe, like you and I, their opinions, whether delivered in the form of song or public comment, are just going to resonate more. And often, that’s a good thing.

Bob Dylan

Delve back into early blues music and you’ll see the likes of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy and Billie Holliday singing about their disdain for the racially charged politics of the southern US states. Then fast forward to the USSR in the 60s, and you’ll find the impact that the censorship of The Beatles had on young Russians – in fact, many see the Fab Four as playing a key role in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then what about the likes of Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan and John Lennon in the late 60s? Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ is an autobiographical tale of a soldier returning home from the Vietnam War to find his own country in a state of social decay.

Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan features a number of songs that talk about war and the need for future generations to make a change, like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, for example. As for Lennon, his ‘Imagine’ talks about a world with no war, no famine and no religion, and is probably his most loved song. Why? Because we want those things too.

Such relatability can only come about when an artist conveys something we all experience and feel. And while Lennon was less explicit and more generic in his ‘Imagine’ than, perhaps, say, Dylan and the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, it was still a direct expression of his thoughts on the world and humanity, and what he thought was wrong.

Fast forward to the late 70s and the early 80s, and you have the punk movement. In its very essence, punk is a “F**k You” to the system. The “system”, in this instance, being major record labels that only signed virtuoso guitar bands, and the political leaders who advocated for privatisation, individuality and capitalism at any cost.

As a result, it was a powerfully successful movement because it chimed with a sentiment among society. Do you think punk would have been a movement at all if it’d sat on the fence or argued both sides? Nope.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA

Sometimes, an artist or a band will state an opinion regarding something political and the media will pounce, saying “You’re alienating your fans”, or “When did so-and-so get political?”. But if those same media outlets really paid attention to an artist’s career, they’d likely find that musician was always political, they’d just missed it before.

A fine example is Bruce Springsteen. Many thought his Born in the USA album was a love letter to the nation of his birth. A jingoistic call to arms. In fact, Ronald Regan even tried to suggest Springsteen was an advocate of his campaign. Nope. The title song, for example, wasn’t a nationalistic war cry, it was about the working-class man who felt untethered from his homeland. So, when other politicians and big business wished to affiliate themselves with his music, he always refused.

Today, with all aspects of everyday life entwined with music – a result of songs being synced to advertising and film, and the fact that everything can be delivered to the palms of our hands in an instant – politics and music are more linked than ever before. To expect our artists to be apolitical, then, is just not feasible.

Martin Luther King Jr

So think about it: do you really want your music to be safe and sanitised?

Do you want those that create it to leave the things that inspire them at the studio door? Just picture that for a moment… Would A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album have been so impactful if they’d lyricised about holding hands on a sunny day? Would this month’s central record, Rage Against the Machine’s eponymously titled debut album, have been so powerful and hard-hitting without the very subject matter that stirred them? Nope.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: do we want our music to be devoid of opinion and subjectivity? If so, we risk being force fed clinical, dry and unaffecting songs that leave us feeling… meh. Like everything Coldplay has done since Parachutes. Nobody wants that. If you disagree, bring it on. That’s what makes democracy so great! And in turn, that’s what makes good music, great music.

This feature first appeared in November’s ‘F**k the system’ issue, a piece about music’s relationship to politics.

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