Music and Politics have a long history. In the last century, they've managed to take cheap shots at each other, and in the last decade, it's become personal.
The latest craze, it seems, is for musicians to make stupid public comments against U.S. President George W. Bush. Many people seem to regard Bush-hating as some stupid hobby that pop-punk kids take up because somebody else does it. Somehow, your credibility is lost when you want to both make a political comment, and you can play guitar.
I'll first start off by saying that I consider myself a very "political" person - I read news stories and editorial writings daily, and consider myself to be very well versed about the ins and outs of music and politics, so I know what I'm talking about.
Music first joined hands with politics and religion in the Classical Age. Almost all classical composers you can think of would not exist were it not for the Roman Catholic Church. In those days, musicians needed a sponsor, a source of money, to be able to compose and distribute their music. Many times, the officials would exert great influence on a composer to write an opera about a certain subject, or to not write an opera about a certain subject - you can see this in the movie Amadeus, which is about Mozart's life.
Beethoven was the first "freelance" musician - he would write music independantly, and then have it performed for profit, without requiring a sponsor. This method didn't work very well, as he was never exceedingly wealthy.
It was not until the 1950's that music and politics began taking shots at each other. That crazy devil known as Rock & Roll started it all. Many areas in the United States attempted to place a ban on Rock & Roll, and the tight clothing and outrageous dancing it spawned. Parents were afraid of the music, and when Elvis Presley started playing it, visions of the apocalypse were seen by adult society.
Music began to strike back by the late 60's. The Vietnam war started the Anti-Vietnam War movement, and musicians were more than willing to help out. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and the Animal's "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" are some examples. It's also possible that mainstream artists making music against the war helped to solidify the movement outside of its core supporters, putting a firm mark on society since.
Music And Politics Today
In this day and age, it seems that politics is making a comeback in music. After all, a slew of punk and pop-punk bands are making stands (NoFX's "War On Errorism" and "Rock Against Bush"), and Chris Martin of Coldplay dedicated their Grammy award for John Kerry - at a time when Howard Dean was still leading in the Democratic Primaries.
But even so, it's hard to name even five bands or artists that are taking a political side in their music - in any direction. Even now, I can only think of Matthew Good (who you've all read about in my latest article), who manages to keep an entire blog about current events on his website.
It's easy to say that music should stay away from politics. In fact, it's a growing sentiment - "He's a musician! He doesn't know anyting about politics!". Frankly, that argument carries about as much weight as "You don't play soccer! Why are you watching soccer games on TV?"
I, personally, find it as a positive thing that artists would go on TV in front of millions of viewers, and let them know what they think about a number of issues - the war in Iraq, the United States election in November, the baby seal hunt, the plight of the Asian Longhorned Beetle... you get the idea.
What is not positive, however, is the knee-jerk reaction by mainstream media. The Dixie Chicks were banned from a wide number of radio stations across the United States after declaring they were ashamed that President Bush being from their home state, Texas.
Some musicians have conceded that after making a statement, they are audited by the IRS. Doesn't that sound like democracy to you? In a time when worldwide terrorism is at an alarming high rate, a country has been invaded illegally, and the United States is facing some of the worst leadership in recent memory (and you'll have to agree with me on that), why shouldn't people in the public eye be allowed to voice whatever opinions they have? I'm sure you've all heard the conspiracy theories about how mainstream media is pure propoganda to the government, so is it wrong for someone to want to speak out?
What's truly pathetic is how political musicians are regarded. When a person stands on a street corner with a megaphone denouncing the government for it's latest screw-up (any country will do), people will stand by and applaud the person for their bravery to make fools of themselves in public. But when someone that's famous decides to say the exact same thing in an interview on TV, the outfall would be comparable to people throwing rocks at the protestor in my comparison. Why be punished for excercising a Democratic right? Is it because politics is boring and "uncool"?
Like it or not, politics does affect you. Those boring pushovers in Congress (or House of Commons for the Brits and Canadians) hold an incredible amount of power over the country. Musicians who take action have it right. Far too many people are content to say, "Screw politics!" and pretend like nothing's going wrong. Taking action is the cure. Any artist who takes up a worthy cause, from human rights to animal rights to saving the trees is, invariably, contributing to something better.
Think about it. What would you say is better?
When Britney Spears made the comment in an interview that people "shouldn't question" and should "trust" the President in his decision to go to war, what was she doing? What was that? I would say it's apathy. Ms. Spears happens to hold a lot of influence. By telling millions of fans that people shouldn't question the government in a decision to go to war, was anything positive going on? Not at all. In a democracy, we all have the right to get up and say whatever we want about whatever we want. Telling people to lie down and accept what's coming isn't just wrong, it violates everything we believe in.
By comparison, when Chris Martin dedicated his Grammy award to John Kerry (which I thought was an unbelievably stupid comment), what do you think he was doing, aside from making an idiot of himself? I think he was contributing to discussion, albeit in a stupid way. In my opinion, he should have taken it upon himself to question those in power, rather than to support someone who may be elected in to power. But, you have to admit, he didn't say that John Kerry should be elected president - rather, he said that he wanted John Kerry to be president, which is far more humble than saying that John Kerry should be president.
Now, you might be thinking that I'm showing a liberal bias here, by denouncing a comment that supports President Bush, and supporting one that denounces him - so I'll make it clear. Saying that we should just trust the President does not contribute to anything. It only takes away from discussion. Had Britney Spears said something along the lines of, "Yes, I support the President and I support the War in Iraq, because it's the right thing to do.", it would have contributed to discussion on whether or not the war was right.
"But wait!" you're saying. "Chris Martin is English! He doesn't know anything about American politics!" Well, that's a rather narrow view. And I do find that people hold this sentiment. And the simple answer is this:
Just because you don't know anything about another country doesn't mean that they don't know anything about you. If Chris Martin took it upon himself to tell the world he supported John Kerry, you can be sure that he did his homework about the subject. It'd be like a student doing a project in school on World War II, and not reading anything about World War II - or at least reading very little. People that seriously hold the opinion that "foreigners" should have nothing to do with their country are just as bad as people that say musicians shouldn't be allowed to hold opinions.
Face it. Musicians are people (with or without their soul), and that's where their right to express an opinion comes from. Mediocre pop-punk bands are wildly popular expressing the opinion that girls are stupid after being dumped by their girlfriend, but when the same band contributes to a CD in support of a political movement, they become a stupid pop-punk band. Doesn't that sound great.
I am not trying to say that all musicians should be making political statements. But it's safe to say that in the state the world is in, more musicians should be making intelligent commentaries than there are now - and bands that do make smart statements should be respected for having the balls to denounce a politician of their choice. Of course, an exception applies to Britney Spears, or statements that don't contribute to something positive and democratic.